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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Thomas Elder, Esq., of Forneth, Lord Provost of Edinburgh


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 war.

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.

Mr. Elder was the eldest son of Mr. William Elder of Loaning, and married, in 1765, Emilia Husband, eldest daughter of Mr. Paul Husband of Logie, merchant in Edinburgh, by whom he left a son and four daughters. The eldest was married to the late Principal Baird; the second to the late John M'Ritchie, Esq. of Craigton. He carried on business as a wine merchant in the premises opposite the Tron Church, presently possessed by Mr. James Hill, grocer, where he realised a considerable fortune. For some time he resided in the house in Princes Street, afterwards occupied by Mr. Fortune, and long known as Fortune's Tontine, and subsequently at No. 85 Princes Street.


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