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George Paton, Bibliographer and Antiquary


Mr. George Paton was a keen bibliographer and antiquary. His father, Mr. John Paton, a respectable bookseller in the Old Parliament Square, was one of the committee of philanthropic citizens, who, in conjunction with the worthy Provost Drummond, originated that invaluable institution the Royal Infirmary. The facts and circumstances in the history of Mr. Paton, the younger, are scanty. He received a liberal education, but without any professional design, having been bred by his father to his own business. This, however, he relinquished, on obtaining a clerkship in the Custom-House, at a salary for many years of only £60. In this humble situation, the emoluments of which were subsequently augmented to .£80, he continued during the remainder of his long life, apparently without the smallest desire of attaining either to higher honour or greater wealth.

The chief aim of his ambition seemed to be the acquisition of such monuments of antiquity as might tend to elucidate the literature, history, and topography of his native country. His father had been an antiquary of some research, and at his death left a valuable collection, which the subject of our sketch took care, by every means within the compass of his narrow income, to augment. As illustrative of the strong bibliomania both in father and son, it is told of them, that whenever they happened to meet with any curious publication, instead of exposing it in the shop for sale, they immediately placed it in their private library. By singular regularity in the arrangement of his time, and strict frugality, Mr. Paton not only discharged his duties in the Custom-House with fidelity, but found leisure to acquire a degree of antiquarian lore, and was enabled to increase his curious collections to an extent seldom attained by a single individual.

He was well known to almost all the literary characters of his own country, and to many English antiquaries and men of letters. Apparently unambitious of figuring in the world as an author himself, Mr. Paton was by no means chary of assisting others. His services—his knowledge—his time—as well as his library, were at the command of all his friends. It is said the late Archibald Constable derived much of his knowledge of the rarity of books from his acquaintance with Mr. Paton. These ultimately became a sort of common, where our antiquarian writers of last century were wont to luxuriate, and whence they v/ould return, like bees, each to his own peculiar locality, laden with the spoil obtained from the stores of this singularly obliging and single-hearted individual.

Mr. Paton was thus led into a very extended circle of literary acquaintance, with whom he maintained a constant and very voluminous correspondence. Amongst others, we may instance Lord Hailes, Dr. Robertson, Gough, Percy, Ritson, Pennant, George Chalmers (author of Caledonia), Captain Grose, Callander of Craig-forth, Riddel of Glenriddel, Law (author of the "Fauna Orcadensis"), Herd (the Collector of Scottish Ballads), &c.

Of the "Paton Correspondence," preserved in the Advocates' Library, two small volumes have been published; the one in 1829, the other in 1830. The former is entitled "Letters from Joseph Ritson, Esq., to George Paton;" the latter, "Letters from Thomas Percy, D.D. (afterwards Bishop of Droniore), John Callander of Craigforth, David Herd, and others, to George Paton." These volumes, not generally known, from the limited impression thrown off, are enriched by many interesting editorial notes, and are highty entertaining and curious. They also bear unquestionable testimony to the status in which Mr. Paton was held as a literary antiquary, and to the alacrity with which he laboured to supply the desiderata of his friends.

It is a curious fact, however, that, with the exception of Gough, few or none of those who were so materially indebted to him for information and assistance had the candour to acknowledge the source from whence they were aided; and many of them afterwards seemed desirous of suppressing all knowledge of the fact. The correspondence between Gough and Paton at once show the extent and importance of the information furnished by the latter; and, indeed, this is acknowledged in handsome terms by Gough, in the preface to his new edition of the British Topography. Alluding to the article upon Scottish topography, he says—"by the indefatigable attention of his very ingenious and communicative friend, Mr. George Paton, of the Custom-House, Edinburgh,"' he had been enabled nearly to double the space which the article occupied in the first volume.

In the collection and arrangement of his ancient "Scottish Ballads," David Herd received material assistance from Mr. Paton; and there are even strong reasons for believing that he "partly, if not wholly, edited the first edition."

Mr. Paton remained all his life a bachelor; but, although naturally of a retiring disposition—solitary in his domestic habits—and by no means voluble in general conversation, he was neither selfish in his disposition, nor unsocial in the circle of those friends with whom kindred pursuits and sentiments brought him into association. The best proof of this is the fact of his having regularly frequented "Johnie Dowie's tavern"—the well-known rendezvous of the Scottish literati during the latter part of the last century. In a humorous description of this "howff," ascribed to the muse of Mr. Hunter of Blackness, the subject of this sketch is alluded to in one of the verses:—

"O, Geordie Robertson, dreigh loun,
And antiquarian Paton sonn',
Wi' mony itbers i' the toun,
What will come o'er ye,
Gif Johnie Dowie should stap doun
To the grave before ye?"

A farther illustration of the social habits, as well as a glimpse of the peculiar domestic economy of "antiquarian Paton," is given in a pleasant editorial note affixed to one of David Herd's Letters to Mr. Paton, which letter is dated "Johnie Dorvie's, Tuesday Evening," 23rd December, 1788.—"For many years of his life our friend (the antiquary) invariably adjourned to take his bottle of ale and gude 'buff'd herring,' or 'roasted skate and ingans,' to this far-famed tavern. which was divided into cells, each sufficient, with good packing, to hold six persons; and there, with Herd, Cumming of the Lyon Office, and other friends of the same kidney, the evenings pleasantly passed away. These meetings were not infrequently enlivened by the presence, at one period, of Fergusson the poet, and more recently of Burns. Let it not be supposed that honest George indulged in habits of intemperance. Such was not his custom; one bottle of ale would suffice for him, certainly not more; and when his usual privation is considered, it is surprising how moderate his desires were. He rose early in the morning, and went to the Custom-House without tasting anything. Between four and five (afternoon) he uniformly called at the shop of a well known bibliopolist of those times (Bailie Creech), from whom he was in the habit of picking up rarities, and refreshed himself with a drink of cold water. He would then say, 'Well, I'll go home and take breakfast.' This breakfast consisted of one cup of coffee and a slice of bread. Between seven and eight he adjourned to the place of meeting; and some of the dainties enumerated in the poem (already alluded to), and a bottle of 'strong ale,' formed the remaining refreshment of the day. The moment eleven 'chappit' on St. Giles, he rose and retreated to his domicile in Lady Stair's Close. His signal for admittance was the sound of his cane upon the pavement as he descended. In this way this primitive and excellent person spent the best part of his days. Upon a salary of £80 per annum he lived contented, happy, and universally respected."

No man within the walls of Edinburgh, it has been said, ever passed a more inoffensive life than did "honest George Paton;" yet, by the literary services which he rendered to others, he did not escape the displeasure of one or two individuals, whom his critical strictures had offended. The article formerly mentioned—on Scottish topography— gave mighty offence to Martyn John Armstrong, who, in company with his son, had published, in 1774-5, surveys of several counties in Scotland. Armstiong addressed two very ill-natured letters—one to Paton and the other to Gough—on the subject. This philippic appears to have roused the temper of the antiquary. In writing to Gough, ignorant of the counterpart which that gentleman had received, he thus gives vent to his indignation:—"While writing this, the enclosed impertinent, ignorant, scurrilous rhapsody was brought before me; forgive my transmitting it for perusal, which be kind enough to return at pleasure. I am diffident of resolution whether such a blundering blockhead of an impostor shall have any answer made him; horsewhipping would serve him better than a reply.....He is below notice, and despise him, as he is generally so here. The joint tricks of father and son being so well known in this place, they could remain no longer with us." From this specimen of "hard words," it may be inferred, that however quiet and inoffensive he might be, "honest George" by no means lacked spirit to resent injury or insult. From a similar cause he also incurred the displeasure of his irritable countryman and fellow-antiquary, John Pinkerton, from whom he had the honour of a very violent epistle. These petty ebullitions of offended authorship, however, which threatened to disturb the wonted quiet current of the antiquary's life, evaporated without mischief.

The personal appearance of Mr. Paton was somewhat peculiar. His dress was plain and neat; and he always wore a black wig.

The death of Mr. Paton occurred on the 5th of March, 1807, having attained the great age of eighty-seven.

His valuable library was sold by auction in 1809; and his manuscripts, prints, coins, etc., were disposed of in a similar manner in 1811. The first sale occupied a month; the latter about ten days.


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