Mr. Wright was the son of a poor cottar in
Argyleshire, who, by smuggling between that coast and the Isle of Man,
was enabled to maintain his family for many years in comparative
comfort; but, finding his "occupation gone," in consequence of the
strict prohibitory measures enforced by Government, a short time prior
to the transfer of the sovereignty of that island in 1765, he left the
Highlands and settled in Greenock. Here the future "lecturer on law,"
who had been bred to the humble occupation of a shoemaker, manifested an
uncommon desire for knowledge. Whilst employed at his laborious
avocation, his mind was generally engaged in study. It is told of him,
that to aid his memory in acquiring a knowledge of the Latin language,
and not having the command of writing materials, he used to conjugate
the verbs on the wall of his work-room with the point of his awl.
Having mastered the rudiments of the Latin tongue, he
removed to Glasgow, where, with no other assistance than the proceeds of
his labour, he entered a student at the University; and, notwithstanding
the manifest disadvantages under which he laboured, made rapid progress
in his studies. Indeed, so decided was his success, that he soon found
himself almost wholly relieved from the drudgery of shoe-making, by
giving private lessons to his less assiduous class-fellows— many of
whom, being the sons of noblemen and wealthy commoners, remunerated him
liberally for his instructions. The views of our scholastic aspirant
being directed towards the Church, he was in due course of time licensed
to preach; but finding himself destitute of patronage—and perhaps aware,
from a deficiency in oratorical powers, that he might never become
popular in the pulpit—he yielded to the advice of several of the
Professors, whose friendship his talents had secured, and set about
attaining a more thorough knowledge of the higher branches of
mathematics, which at that period were not considered so essential as
they now are to the student of divinity.
After having attained, if not the reality, but what
was in his case much better, the reputation of knowledge in this new
study, Mr. Wright removed to Edinburgh, where he commenced teaching
mathematics and the science of military architecture. This proved a very
lucrative speculation, a great number of young men about Edinburgh being
at the time preparing to go out to India.
With the view of ultimately pushing himself forward
to the bar, Mr. Wright now directed his attention to the Roman law; and,
after a short time spent in preparatory study, commenced giving lectures
on the subject. He subsequently gave lectures on Scots law. Both sets of
lectures were well attended.
In 1781, having qualified himself in the usual
manner, he applied o be admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates.
The following information as to the opposition offered by the faculty to
his entry, recorded in the minutes of the 8th December, 1781:—
"The vice-dean (John Swinton, afterwards Lord Swinton)
informed the faculty that Mr. John Wright, who for many years had
exercised the profession of a private teacher of the civil and municipal
law and mathematics, had called upon him, and acquainted him that he had
presented a petition to the Court of Session, praying a remit to the
Dean and Faculty of Advocates to take him on his trial. Upon this Mr.
Swinton observed, that he wished this step postponed—a proposition which
was assented to by Mr. Wright—till he had had an opportunity of
mentioning the intention to the faculty. He added—'that so far as ever
he could learn, Mr. Wright bore a fair and irreproachable character, and
he did not mean the slightest reflection against him ; but that the
circumstances which appeared peculiar in his case were, that at his
advanced time of life, it might be presumed he did not mean to take
himself entirely to the profession and practice of the law, but only
wished to add the character of advocate to his present employment.'
"The Hon. Henry Erskine acquainted the faculty that
Mr. Wright had conversed with him upon this subject, and had authorised
him to assure the faculty, that in case of his being admitted advocate,
he truly intended to follow the profession of the bar, and to lay aside
private teaching of mathematics, or any other science, except law; and
even to confine that teaching to private lectures to such as chose to
attend them in his own house."
A considerable difference of opinion appears to have
been entertained, but the good sense of the majority ultimately settled
that the Faculty should not interfere; and Mr. Wright was admitted an
advocate upon the 25th January, 1783.
It has been said that the real cause of the
opposition of Mr. Swinton, and his party, originated in their objections
to Mr. "Wright's humble birth; and that the Hon. Henry Erskine bantered
them so much, that they at last gave way. After listening to the
observations of the opposition—"Well, well," said Mr. Erskine, "they say
I am the son of the Earl of Buchan—and you (pointing
to------------) are the son of the Laird of ------------;" and
thus going over the whole opposition in a strain of inimitable
and biting sarcasm, he wound up the enumeration in his usual forcible
manner—"Therefore no thanks to us for being here; because the learning
we have got has been hammered into our brains!—whereas, all Mr. Wright's
has been acquired by himself; therefore he has more merit than us all.
However, if any of you can put a question to Mr. Wright that he cannot
answer, I will hold that to be a good objection. But, otherwise, it
would be disgraceful to our character as Scotsmen were such an act of
exclusion recorded in the books of this society. Were he the son of a
beggar—did his talents entitle him—he has a right to the highest
distinction in the land."
Mr. Wright never attained to great eminence as a
pleader. He spoke so very slow that his pleadings were far from being
effective. On one occasion he was engaged in conducting a case before
Lord Hailes. Mr.------------, the opposing counsel, who first addressed
the bench, spoke so thick, fast, and indistinct, that his lordship was
under the necessity of requesting him to speak slower, that he might
understand him; but the judge found himself in the adverse predicament
with Mr. Wright. "Get on a little faster," said his lordship, addressing
the advocate, "for I am tired following you." "If it were possible,"
observed Erskine, sotto voce, "to card the two together,
something good might be made of them both."
Mr. Wright was unquestionably more fitted for a
lecturer than an advocate ; and to his success in the former avocation
lie was chiefly indebted for a livelihood. He also derived no
inconsiderable income from his literary labours. For many years he wrote
all the Latin theses. One work on mathematics brought him a very
considerable sum. ("Elements of Trigonometry, Plane and Spherical; with
the Principles of Perspective and Projection of the Sphere." In 8vo.
Edinburgh, 1772.) This he entered in Stationers' Hall; but as the law
then only secured copyrights for seven years, at the end of that period
he had the mortification to find his treatise inserted in the
Encyclopaedia Britannica, without permission sought or obtained. Mr.
Wright was so much offended at this appropriation of his property that
he seriously contemplated bringing the case before the Court of Session;
but he was dissuaded from this step by his friend Mr. Erskine, who, in
his usual strain of pleasantry, told him "just to wait the expiry of
other seven years, and then to retaliate, by printing the whole of the
Eucyclopaedia along with his own work!"
A short time prior to his demise, Mr. Wright became
so much reduced in his circumstances as to be compelled to apply for
relief to the Faculty of Advocates, from whom he obtained an annuity of
^50 per annum. He died in 1813. He resided, about the year 1787, in
Gavinloch's Laud; and subsequently removed to the New Assembly Close,
now called the Commercial Bank Close. His lecture-room was at the head
of the Old Assembly Close. The late Sheriff Austruther met Henry Erskine
the day after Wright's demise—"Well, Harry, poor Johnny Wright is dead."
"Is he!" answered Henry. "He died very poor. They say he has left no
effects." "That is not surprising," was the rejoinder; "as he had no
causes, he could have no effects."