This gentleman held the office of Chief Magistrate of
Edinburgh at the following different periods:—First, from 1788 till
1790; again, from 1792 till 1794; and, lastly, from 1796 till 1798.
Great responsibility was attachable to the office
during the second period of his provostship, in consequence of the
disturbed state of the country and the measures of agitation resorted to
by the "Friends of the People." Provost Elder exerted himself vigorously
to check the inroad of democracy. Although the troops then scattered
over Scotland were under two thousand, he ventured, assisted by a few
only of the more respectable citizens of Edinburgh, to suppress the
meeting of the memorable British Convention, held on the 5th December,
1793, taking ten or twelve of the principal members prisoners; and, in a
similar manner, on the 12th of December, he dissolved another meeting,
held in the cock-pit at the Grassmarket.
On the 13th January, 1794, an immense crowd had
assembled, on occasion of the trial of Maurice Margaret, for the purpose
of accompanying him to the Court of Justiciary. In anticipation of this,
the Magistrates, city-guard, and constables, with a number of
respectable inhabitants, met at an early hour in the Merchants' Hall,
and sallying forth, with the Chief Magistrate at their head, about ten
o'clock, they met Margarot and a number of his friends walking in
procession, under an ornamental arch, on which the words "Liberty,
Justice," &c, were inscribed. The canopy was instantly seized and thrown
over the east side of the North Bridge, and, with the assistance of the
crew of a frigate lying in Leith Roads, the crowd was dispersed, and the
two arch-bearers captured.
At a meeting of the Town Couucil on the 9th
September, immediately previous to the annual change in that body, they
"unanimously returned their thanks, and voted a piece of plate to the
Right Hon. the Lord Provost for his spirited and prudent conduct while
in office, and especially during the late commotions."
On the formation of the Royal Edinburgh Volunteers,
in the summer of 1794, Mr. Elder intended, on retiring from the
provostship, to enter the ranks as a common volunteer; but this
resolution was rendered nugatory by a mark of distinction emanating from
the members of the association. For obvious reasons, the commission of
Colonel was to be invested in the Chief Magistrate for the time being;
and it was the wish of the volunteers that the commissions should, as
far as possible, be held by gentlemen who had served with reputation in
his Majesty's regular forces. An exception, however, which at once
testified their estimation of his character, was made in the case of
Provost Elder, for the volunteers unanimously recommended him to his
Majesty to be their First Lieut.-Colonel.
In 1797, the Principal and Professors of the
University requested him to sit for his portrait, to be preserved in the
University library. Mr. Elder accordingly sat to the late Sir Henry
Raeburn, who finished an excellent likeness in his best style—from which
a mezzotinto engraving was afterwards published. Provost Elder merited
this compliment, which had previously only been conferred on men eminent
for learning or science, by being, in addition to his general usefulness
as a magistrate and a citizen, prominently instrumental in maturing the
design of rebuilding the College, which probably would have been
finished during his lifetime, had it not been for the exigencies of the
In 1795, Mr. Elder was appointed Postmaster-General
for Scotland an honour which testified that his services had been highly
appreciated by his Majesty, and which was considered by his
fellow-citizens as no more than a proper reward.
Throughout the whole course of his life, both in
public and private business, Mr. Elder displayed "great and persevering
activity in all his undertakings, inflexible integrity in his conduct,
and perfect firmness in what he judged to be right. These talents and
virtues were exerted without pomp or affectation; on the contrary, with
the utmost openness and simplicity of manners; and it was often remarked
of him, that he could refuse with a better grace than many others could
confer a favour." Under his guidance, the political measures of the city
were regulated with much tact and propriety; and the interest of the
ruling party was never more firmly or honourably maintained.
Mr. Elder's acceptance of the Provostship the third
time, was looked upon with a degree of uneasiness by his friends. His
health had been visibly impaired by the harassing nature of his duties
while formerly in office; and they were afraid a renewal of the anxiety
and fatigue inseparable from the situation of Chief Magistrate, even in
the quietest times, would prove too much for his weakened constitution.
Mr. Elder was himself aware of the danger, but he could not " decline
the task consistently with his strict notions of public duty."
The fears of his friends were too well founded. His
strength continued gradually to decline; and, before the end of 1798,
his health was altogether in a hopeless state. He died at Forneth on the
29th May, 1799, aged sixty-two.