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Lord Monboddo, of the Court of Session


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 1714.

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.

His lordship's 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!"

The work 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 contributor.

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 Edinburgh.
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 this."

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 still inclined,
A gen'rous friend, a father fond and kind."


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