James Burnett (Lord Monboddo). This learned,
ingenious, and amiable, but eccentric man, was one of the judges of the
Court of Session. He was the eldest surviving son of James Burnett, Esq.
of Monboddo, in the County of Kincardine, where he was born in the year
His lordship received his
initiatory education chiefly at the school of Laurencekirk, and
afterwards was sent to King's College, Aberdeen, where he distinguished
himself by his proficiency in ancient literature, the study of which, in
after life, became his ruling passion, and engrossed his attention to
the entire exclusion of the productions of modern talent.
Having been early destined for the bar, he
proceeded, after completing his literary education at Aberdeen, to
Groningen, where he studied Civil Law for three years. At the end of
this period he came to Edinburgh, where he happened to arrive on the
forenoon of the day which concluded with the public murder, as it might
be called, of Captain Porteous. When about to retire to rest, his
lordship's curiosity was excited by a noise and tumult in the streets,
and, in place of going to bed, he slipped to the door half undressed,
and with his nightcap on his head. He speedily got entangled in the
crowd of passers-by, a,nd was hurried along with them to the Grassmarket,
where he became an involuntary witness of the last act of the tragedy.
This scene made so deep an impression on his lordship, that it not only
deprived him of sleep during the remainder of the night, but induced him
to think of leaving the city altogether, as a place unfit for a
civilized being to live in. From this resolution, however, he was
subsequent^ diverted, on hearing an explanation of the whole
circumstances connected with the proceeding. His lordship frequently
related this incident in after life, and on these occasions described
with much force the effect which it had upon him.
Lord Monboddo passed his Civil Law examinations
upon the 12th of February, 1737, and being found duly qualified, was
admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates. In 1767 he was appointed
a Lord of Session, and assumed the judicial designation by which he is
now best known. It is a remarkable circumstance, that the seat on the
bench occupied by his lordship was enjoyed by only three persons
(himself being one) during the long period of one hundred and ten years.
Lord Monboddo's patrimonial estate was small, not
producing during the greater part of his life more than ,£300 a-year;
yet of so generous and benevolent a disposition was he, that he would
not raise his rents, nor dismiss a poor tenant for the sake of
augmentation. It was his boast to have his lands more numerously peopled
than any portion of equal extent in his neighbourhood.
When in the country, during the vacation of the
Court of Session, he wore the dress of a plain farmer, and lived on a
footing of familiarity and kindness with his tenantry that greatly
endeared him to them.
private life was spent in the enjoyment of domestic felicity and in the
practice of all the social virtues. Though his habits were rigidly
temperate, there were few things he so much delighted in as the
convivial society of his friends. He was a zealous patron of merit, and
amongst those who experienced his friendship was the poet Burns.
Notwithstanding the amiable character of Lord
Monboddo, and his many excellent qualities, he was not a little
remarkable for his eccentricities, and for the strangeness and oddity of
some of his opinions and sentiments. The most remarkable of these, as
recorded by himself in his celebrated work on the Origin and Progress of
Language, is the assertion that "the human race were originally gifted
with tails!" It was in allusion to this extraordinary discovery, that
Lord Karnes, to whom he would on a certain occasion have conceded
precedency, declined it saying, "By no means, my lord, you must walk
first that I may see your tail!"
of his lordship above alluded to was severely handled in the Edinburgh
Magazine and Review, by Dr. Gilbert Stuart, its editor, a severity which
is said to have occasioned the downfall of that publication by the
general offence which it gave. To this work Hume, the historian, was a
Many peculiarities also
marked his lordship's conduct in his official capacity, for he brought
them even into court with him. Amongst these was his never sitting on
the bench with his brethren, but underneath with the clerks, a
proceeding which is said to have been owing to the circumstance of their
lordships having on one occasion decerned against him in a case when he
was pursuer for the value of a horse, and in which he pleaded his own
cause at the bar. This statement relative to the cause which induced his
lordship to take his seat at the clerk's table, is somewhat doubtful;
the deafness under which he laboured affords a much more satisfactory
reason. The first time he sat there was upon occasion of the decision of
the Douglas cause, when having been originally the leading counsel on
behalf of Archibald Douglas (afterwards Lord Douglas), he felt a
delicacy in giving his opinion from the bench, and preferred delivering
it at the clerk's table. His speech in favour of the paternity is
admitted to have been the most able one on that side of the question.
Generally speaking, he was not inclined to assent to the decisions of
his colleagues. On the contrary, he was often in the minority, and not
unfrequently stood alone. He was nevertheless an eminent lawyer, and a
most upright judge, and had more than once the gratification of having
his decision confirmed in the House of Peers, when it was directly
opposed to the unanimous opinion of his brethren.
It has been already mentioned that an exclusive
admiration of classic literature, which extended to everything connected
with it, formed a prominent feature in his lordship's character. This
admiration he carried so far as to get up suppers in imitation of the
ancients. These he called his learned suppers. He gave them once a-week,
and his guests generally were Drs. Black, Hutton, and Hope, and Mr.
William, Smellie, printer, including occasionally tbe son of tbe
gentleman last mentioned, the present Mr. Alexander Smellie.
His lordship was in the habit for many years,
during the vacations, of making a journey to London, where be enjoyed
the society of some of the most eminent men of the period, then residing
there, and frequently had the honour of personal interviews with the
king, who took much pleasure in conversing with him. During one of his
visits to London (May, 1785), he was present in the King's Bench, when,
owing to a false rumour that the court-room was falling, the judges, and
lawyers, and visitors, made a rush to get out, his lordship took it very
coolly, as the following anecdote, extracted from one of the journals of
the day, evinces:—"In the curious route of the lawyers corps, it is
singular that the only person who kept his seat was a venerable
stranger. Old Lord Monboddo, one of the Scots judges, was in the Court
of King's Bench, and being short-sighted, and rather dull in his
hearing, he sat still during the tumult, and did not move from his
place. Afterwards being asked why he did not bestir himself to avoid the
ruin, he coolly answered—' that be thought it was an annual ceremony,
with which, as an alien to our laws, he had nothing to do!'"
These journeys his lordship always performed on
horseback, as be would on no account even enter a carriage, against the
use of which be bad two objections : First, that it was degrading to the
dignity of human nature to be dragged at the tails of horses, instead of
being mounted on their backs; and second, that such effeminate
conveyances were not in common use amongst the ancients.
He continued these annual equestrian journeys to
London till be was upwards of eighty years of age. On his last visit,
which he made on purpose to take leave of all his friends in the
metropolis, he was seized with a severe illness on the road, and would
probably have perished on tbe way-side, had be not been overtaken
accidentally by his friend Sir John Pringle, who prevailed upon him to
travel the remainder of the stage in one of these vehicles for which he
entertained so profound a contempt. Next day, however, he again mounted
his horse, and finally arrived in safety and in good spirits at
His lordship was very partial to a boiled egg, and often
used to say, "Show me any of your French cooks who can make a dish like
Lord Monboddo died on the 27th
May, 1799, at the advanced age of eighty-five.
His character is thus summed up in tbe first four
lines of an epitaph written on him by James Tytler, an unfortunate son
of genius who had experienced his benevolence :—
"If wisdom, learning, worth, demand a tear,
Weep o'er the dust of great Monboddo here;
A judge upright, to mercy
A gen'rous friend, a father fond and kind."