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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Sir James Hunter Blair, Bart., Lord Provost of Edinburgh


Is here represented with his robes on, and holding a plan of the South Bridge in his hand. From Kay's own authority we learn, that "he etched this Print by express commission, for which he received a guinea for the first impression, and at the rate of half-a-guinea for another dozen."

Sir James was the second son of Mr. John Hunter, merchant in Ayr, and was born in that town on the 21st day of February, 1741. His father acquired considerable property in land and money, and left his children, who were still young at his death, in easy circumstances. In the year 1756, Sir James was placed as an apprentice in the house of the brothers Coutts, bankers in Edinburgh. It was at this time that his friendship commenced with Sir William Forbes, who was then a fellow-clerk in the bank. Sir William, in a letter, written after the death of Sir James, observes, "our friendship terminated only with his life, after an intimacy which few brothers can boast of, during thirty-one years, in which long period we never had a difference, nor a separation of interest."

After the death of Mr. John Coutts, the principal partner of the house, Sir William and Mr. Hunter were admitted to a share of the business in 1768, and gradually rose to the head of the copartnery.

In December, 1770, he married Jane, eldest daughter of John Blair, Esq. of Dunskey, in the county of Wigton. This lady's father, at his death, left no fewer than six sons, four of whom were alive at the time of their sister's marriage, but all having died, she succeeded, in 1777, to the family estate. Sir James on this occasion assumed the name of Blair, and was afterwards, in the year 1786, created a Baronet of Great Britain.

On the estate which had thus unexpectedly devolved to him, he commenced a plan of most extensive and judicious improvements. He nearly rebuilt the town of Portpatrick; he repaired and greatly improved the harbour; established packet-boats of a larger size on the ranch-frequented passage to Donaghadee in Ireland; and lastly, while the farmers in that part of Scotland were not very well acquainted with the most approved modes of farming, he set before them a successful example of the best modes of agriculture, the greatest service, perhaps, which can be performed by a private man to his country.

In September, 1781, he was called, without any solicitation on his part, to represent the city of Edinburgh in Parliament; and at the general election in summer 1784, he received the same honour; but before the end of the first Session he resigned his seat, to the surprise of many, in favour of Sir Adam Fergusson, Bart., as he found his professional avocations required an attendance quite incompatible with his Parliamentary duties.

At Michaelmas, 1784, in compliance with the urgent request of the Town-Council, he was elected Lord Provost of Edinburgh; and he speedily evinced his public spirit by setting on foot various projects for the improvement of the city, among the not least important of which was the rebuilding the College. The access to Edinburgh from the south, on account of the narrowness and steepness of the lanes, was not only very incommodious but even hazardous; and, accordingly, it had been proposed to open a communication between the High Street and the southern parts of the city and suburbs by means of a bridge over the Cowgate. This scheme, although its great importance was abundantly obvious, appeared so expensive, and was attended with so mauy other difficulties, that every previous attempt had proved unsuccessful, and it required all the address and influence of the Lord Provost to carry it into execution.

In order to defray the great expense, Sir James devised means which, to men of less discernment or knowledge in business, appeared very inadequate to the purpose. His scheme was this : The property which lay in the line of the intended communication, and to a considerable distance on each side of that line, was to be purchased at its real value at the time; and after the communication was opened, such parts of the ground thus purchased as were not to be left vacant, were to be disposed of for the purpose of erecting buildings, according to a plan prepared for the purpose. Sir James conceived that the sale of these areas, in consequence of the great improvement of their situation, would raise money sufficient, not only to pay for the first purchase of the property, but also to defray the expense of building the bridge, and whatever else was necessary for completing the communication. But lest there should be any deficiency, and in order to afford security for borrowing the money which might be requisite, the trustees for carrying on the work were to be empowered to levy a sum not exceeding 10 per cent, of the valued rents of the houses in Edinburgh and the environs; and to remove all cause of complaint, lie proposed that if any of the owners of the property to be purchased should not agree with the trustees, the price of then- property should be fixed by the verdict of a jury, consisting of fifteen persons, to be chosen by lot: out of forty-five proprietors of houses or lands in the city or county, named by the Sheriff in each particular case.

These proposals were published in November, 1784, and met with the same reception which has often attended schemes of still greater importance, and more extensive utility. They were censured and vigorously opposed. A man of less ardour and public spirit would have yielded to the discouragements which Sir James experienced on this occasion. Fortunately he was of such a temper that they served only to stimulate his exertions, without rendering him less prudent in his measures. His perseverance surmounted every opposition. An Act of Parliament was obtained for carrying into execution not only the plan which has been mentioned, but likewise several others, of great importance to the city; and on the 1st day of August, 1785, the work was begun by laying the foundation-stone of the bridge which now connects, by an easy and spacious communication, the suburbs on the south with the rest of the city.

The foundation of the new bridge was laid with great solemnity by the Eight Hon. Lord Haddo, Grand-Master Mason of Scotland, iu presence of the Lord Provost and Magistrates, a number of the nobility and gentry, and the master, officers, and brethren of all the Lodges of Freemasons in the city and neighbourhood.

In the foundation-stone were cut five holes, wherein the Substitute Grand-Master put some coins of his Majesty George III., and covered them with a plate, on which was engraven an inscription in Latin, the translation of which is as follows :—

"By the blessing of Almighty God, in the reign of George III., the
"father of his country, the Eight Hon. George Lord Haddo, Grand-
"Master of the most ancient fraternity of Freemasons in Scotland,
"amidst the acclamations of a Grand Assembly of the Brethren, and
"of a vast concourse of people, laid the first stone of this bridge, in-
"tended to form a convenient communication between the city of
"Edinburgh and its suburbs, and an access not unworthy of such a
"city.

"This work, so useful to the inhabitants, so pleasing and convenient
"to strangers, so ornamental to the city, so creditable to the country,
"so long and much wanted and wished for, was at last begun with
"the sanction of the King and Parliament of Great Britain, and with
"universal approbation, in the Provostship of James Hunter Blair,
"the author and indefatigable promoter of the undertaking, August
"the first, iu the year of our Lord 1785, and of the era of Masonry
"1785, which may God prosper."

Sir James lived only to see the commencement of the great works which he had projected. In spring, 17S7, he went to Harrowgate for the recovery of his health, but without the appearance of any alarming complaint. The waters had not the success which he expected. In the month of June his indisposition was much increased, and terminated in a fever. He died on the 1st day of July, 1787, in the 47th year of his age. His remains were conveyed to Edinburgh, and deposited in the Greyfriars' churchyard.

In private life, Sir James was affable and cheerful, warmly attached to his friends, and anxious for their success. As a magistrate, he was upright, liberal, and disinterested. His talents were of the highest order—to an unwearied application, he united great knowledge of the world, sagacity in business, and soundness of understanding; and he died unusually respected.

Hunter Square and Blair Street were named after Sir James, whose estates and titles are inherited by Sir David Hunter Blair, Bart., who held the late Patent of Printer to her Majesty for Scotland.


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