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The Earl of Buchan


The Earl of Buchan was born in 1742, and succeeded to the title and estates of the family in 1767. His course of education being completed at the University of Glasgow, he soon after entered the army, in which he rose to the rank of lieutenant; but, disliking the profession of arms, he did not continue long in the service. In 1766 he was appointed Secretary to the British Embassy in Spain; but, on the death of his father the year following, he returned to his native land, resolved to prosecute pursuits more congenial to his strong literary bias.

The first instance of the Earl's activity was the formation of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries in 1780. The want of such a Society had long been felt; yet it is strange his lordship experienced illiberal opposition from parties, who afterwards, with much inconsistency, established another, having similar objects in view, called the Koyal Society of Edinburgh. In 1792 the first volume of their transactions was published; and the following discourses by the Earl appear in it: —"Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Stuart Denham"—"Account of the Parish of Uphall"—"Account of the Island of Icolmkiln"—and "A Life of Mr. James Short, Optician." Besides various fugitive pieces, in prose and verse, he printed, in conjunction with Dr. Walter Minto, "An Account of the Life, Writings, and Inventions of Napier of Merchiston." 1787, 4to.

In addition to the other objects of this Society, it was resolved to establish a museum of natural history, for the better cultivation of that science, and of which museum Mr. Smellie was appointed curator. He was likewise permitted to deliver the projected course of lectures on the philosophy of natural history in the hall of the museum. The Society at the time having applied for a Royal Charter of incorporation, an unexpected opposition arose (already alluded to in our notice of Mr. Smellie) from Dr. Walker, Professor of Natural History in the Universit}, and also from the Senatus Academicus as a body, who memorialised the Lord Advocate (Mr. Henry Dundas, afterwards Lord Viscount Melville) against the proposed grant of a' charter, alleging that the Society would intercept the communication of many specimens and objects of natural history which would otherwise find their way to the College Musenm, as well as documents tending to illustrate the history, antiquities, and laws of Scotland, which ought to be deposited in the Advocates' Library. They likewise noticed that the possession of a museum of natural history might induce the Society to institute a lectureship on that science, in opposition to the professorship in the University. The Faculty of Advocates and other public bodies also joined in this opposition; but, after an elaborate reply on the part of the Antiquaries, the Lord Advocate signified his approval of their request; and, on the very next day, the Royal warrant passed the Privy Seal, in which his Majesty voluntarily declared himself patron of the Society.

Although engaged in literary and antiquarian research, the Earl of Buchan was far from being an indifferent spectator of passing events. He did not enter the political arena; but when invasion threatened common ruin, he not only with his pen endeavoured to create union among his countrymen, but, buckling on his sword, essayed to rouse them by example.

The Earl, however, was no adherent of the powers that were ; and when the interference of the Court had completely set aside all semblance of freedom in the election of the Scottish peers, he stood forward in defence of his order; and, although he long fought singly, he at last succeeded in asserting its independence.

The residence of Lord Buchan had lor many years been in Edinburgh; but, in 1787, he retired on account of his health to Dryburgh Abbey—a property he acquired by purchase. Here he instituted an annual festive commemoration of the author of "The Seasons," the first meeting of which was held at Ednam Hill, on the 22nd September 1791—on which occasion he crowned a copy of the first collected edition of the Seasons with a wreath of balls. The following may be taken as a sample of the eulogium of the noble Lord on the occasion: "And the immortal Prussian, standing like a herald in the procession of ages, to mark the beginning of that order of men who are to banish from the earth the delusions of priestcraft, and the monstrous prerogatives of despotic authority!" His lordship also took that opportunity of attacking the great English lexicographer, "by whose rude hands the memory of Thomson has been profanely touched." Burns wrote his beautiful lines to the shade of the bard of Ednam for the occasion ; and only five years afterwards, at the usual anniversary in 1796, Lord Buchan had the melancholy pleasure of placing an urn of Parian marble beside the bust of Thomson, in memory of the bard of Ayrshire. The copy of the Seasons alluded to, enclosed in a beautifully ornamented case, and enriched with some original autographs of the Poet, was subsequently presented by his lordship to the University of Edinburgh.

The political sentiments of the Earl of Buchan were generally known; but, in a work published in 1792, entitled "Essays on the Lives and Writings of Fletcher of Saltoun, and the Poet Thomson, Biographical and Political," he embraced the opportunity of enforcing his favourite doctrines.

In the same year, his lordship presented the President of the United States with an elegantly mounted snuff-box, made from the tree which sheltered Wallace. "This magnificent and truly characteristic present," says a Philadelphia Journal, of January 2, "is from the Earl of Buchan, by the hands of Mr. Archibald Robertson, a Scots gentleman, and portrait painter, who arrived in America some months ago." The box had been presented to Lord Buchan by the goldsmiths of Edinburgh in 1782, from whom he obtained leave to transfer it to "the only man in the world to whom he thought it justly due." The box was made by Mr. Robert Hay, wright, afterwards in the Edinburgh Vendue.

In prompting this compliment to the American General, vanity had probably no inconsiderable influence; for, perhaps, there never lived an individual who thought so much of himself, or one who, in whathe said or did, had his own glorification more in view. Some amusing anecdotes respecting him have recently appeared in Frasers Magazine; and iu the Town Eclogue the reverend author has thus satirised the foibles of the Earl:—

"His brain with ill-assorted fancies stor'd,
Like shreds and patches on a tailor's board;
Women, and Whigs, and poetry, and pelf,
And ev'ry corner stuff d with mighty self—
With scraps and puffs, and comments without end,
On prince and patriot, parasite and friend;
Vaunting his worth—how all the great caress'd;
How Hamilton dined, and how the Duchess dress'd;

And Ariosto sang the Buchan crest." Amongst other extraordinary exhibitions got up by his lordship, was a sort of assembly, upon Mount Parnassus, of Apollo and the nine Muses. The scene of action was his lordship's drawing-room, where he presided over the smoking tea-urn, crowned with a garland of bays—nine young ladies of the first rank in Edinburgh enacted the Muses. To complete the tableaux, the noble Lord thought that the presence of Cupid was indispensable; and the astonishment of the Muses and the company present may be conceived, when the door opened, and a blooming boy of ten or twelve years of age entered as the god of love, with his bow and quiver—but in puris naturalibus!! After all, vain as his lordship undoubtedly was, and mean as many of his actions may be characterised, still, as the Editor of the Percy Letters remarks, "he is entitled to more credit than is usually allowed him. By his laudable economy he retrieved the fortunes of the ancient family he represented—an example which it would not be unwise for many of our noblemen to follow; he paid off every farthing of debt left by his predecessor—a step equally worthy of imitation; he begrudged no labour which might advance the interests of science and literature, and he spared no pains to promote the success of those whom he deemed worthy of his patronage. With these merits his personal vanity may be overlooked, and even his parsimony be forgiven, for we all know how difficult it is to eradicate early habits— habits, too, engendered at a period when these acquisitions were a merit rather than a demerit; for never let it be forgotten, that besides gradually paying off debts for which he was not legally responsible, he for years submitted to the severest privation, to enable him suitably to maintain and bring up his brothers, Henry and Thomas."

Lord Buchan contributed largely to the periodical works of his time —particularly to the "Gentleman's Magazine," the "Scots Magazine," and still more particularly to the "Bee." In 1812, he collected these stray productions, of which he published one volume at Edinburgh, entitled "The Anonymous and Fugitive Pieces of the Earl of Buchan." The preface announced the succession of other volumes, but no more ever appeared. To Grose's "Antiquities of Scotland," his lordship furnished the "Description of Dryburgh."

Besides the voluminous correspondence which he almost constantly maintained with men of literature of all nations, and the incessant exertions into which his active mind betrayed hirn, the Earl was not insensible to the softer wooings of the muses, to whom his leisure moments were sometimes devoted. Only a very few of these productions, however, have been given to the public; but we have been informed that he excelled in a "light, elegant, extemporaneous style of poetry."

The Earl of Buchan married, on the 15th October, 1771, Margaret, eldest daughter of William Fraser, Esq. of Fraserfield, but had no issue. His lordship died in 1829, and was succeeded by his nephew, Henry David, eldest son of his brother, the Hon. Henry Erskine.

There are numerous portraits and busts of his lordship. An excellent painting (from Sir Joshua Reynolds') adorns the hall of the Scottish Autiquaries. Another, by Alexander Runciman, is in the museum of the Perth Antiquarian Society. He also presented to the Faculty of Advocates a portrait in crayons, with an inscription written by himself, and highly complimentary to the donor.


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