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The Rev. John Jamieson, D.D., Author of "The Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language,"


Dr. Jamieson, the distinguished compiler of the "Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language," [Electric Scotland Note: You can download this publication here (76Mb) and the Supplement here (38Mb)] was by birth a native of Glasgow, at the University of which city his classical and theological studies were prosecuted with much success. After qualifying himself as a preacher, in connection with the Secession, he was ordained pastor of a small congregation in Forfar. His father was pastor of a dissenting congregation there. By the mother's side he was descended from the Bruces of Kennet, Clackmannanshire, who claim to be representatives of that family who gave Robert Bruce to the throne of Scotland.

Possessing a strong literary bias, and a keen taste for antiquarian research, Dr. Jamieson became a corresponding member of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries so early as 1783; and, during his residence in Angusshire, contributed to their Transactions several papers illustrative of the antiquities of that district. In 1789, he appeared as an author by the publication of two volumes 8vo., entitled "Sermons on the Heart," which were well received. About the same time, the subject of the African slave trade having been brought prominently forward in the House of Commons, by the discussion of "a bill to regulate the slave trade," and much excitement prevailing in the public mind, Dr. Jamieson gave his aid in the cause of humanity, by a pamphlet entitled "The Sorrows of Slavery." This poetical exposure of the horrors of the slave trade was welcomed "as not the least valuable among the many publications lately written on the same subject."

The Poem is very scarce, and we believe the library of the venerable advocate of slave-emancipation himself, was, before his death, without a perfect copy. The Poem was divided into three parts; the first, "A Description of the Methods used to procure Slaves on the Guinea Coast;" the second, "Of their Treatment on the Middle Passage;" and the third, "Of their Situation in the West Indies." It began appropriately with an address to the "British fair:"—

------------ "In that warm clime alone
Does love's electric fire shoot through no vein.
Rapid, resistless, hurrying on the blood,
As its elastic channels it would burst?
Of cruel absence finds no lover there
The sadd'ning influence? Can he, in his heart.
That void insufferable never feel,
Thou oft, fair maid, has felt; a void so great,
A world, without the object loved, to fill,
Is far too little? He hath felt it too.
To him his dusky mistress is as fair
As thou art to thy lover."

The description of Zelia displays considerable poetical talent:—

"Behold that maid, possess'd of every charm
That Nature boasts, if regular lineaments
And faultless symmetry contribute aught
To beauty's form; if in the various eye
lt beams or languishes, commands or pleads,
With rhetoric resistless; in the mouth
If e'er it smiles, or spreads the toils of love
In playful dimples; if at once it awes
And captivates the heart in every look
And motion; if its subtle essence lies
In framing to the comparative eye
Th' external image of a lovely soul,
Pure, noble, piteous, and benevolent,
Harmonious with itself and human kind.
Yes—notwithstanding her dark hue, she's fair;
If beauty floats not lightly on the skin,
Nature's mean rhind, her garment outermost
(To fence the finer teguments designed.)"

While resident at Forfar, the name of Dr. Jamieson was distinguished by the publication of several other works, of which the most important were a "Reply to Dr. Priestley's History of Early Opinions," 2 vols. 8vo.; and the "Use of Sacred History," also in 2 vols. 8vo.

On the death of the Rev. Adam Gib, of the Associate Congregation, Nicolson Street, in 1788, Dr. Jamieson was invited to the charge; but it was not till 1797, when the church again became vacant, that he was induced to leave his affectionate congregation in Angusshire. To a man of his tastes and acquirements, much as he might regret the breaking up of old ties, his translation to Edinburgh must have opened up to him many new sources of gratification. Among the extended circle of literary acquaintance, to whom his learning and talents were a ready passport, it is probably worth mentioning that he was on terms of intimacy with the late Sir Walter Scott. To the "Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border," he contributed the "Water Kelpie"—a poem descriptive of the superstitions prevalent in the county of Angus, and intended, in the words of the editor of the Minstrelsy, as a specimen of "Scottish writing more nearly approaching to the classical compositions of our bards than that which has been generally followed for 70 or 80 years past." The same paragraph announces to the literary world, "that Dr. Jamieson is about to publish a complete Dictionary of the Scottish Dialect."

This great work—for certainly so it is worthy of being called, and one for which every lover of his country must ever be grateful—appeared in two volumes, quarto, in 1810. (Two supplementary volumes were published in 1825.) Though not at first with a view to publication, the author, as he mentions in his preface, had begun his researches into the Scottish language thirty years previous. Several of his other works bear ample testimony to his learning and profound inquiry, but the Etymological Dictionary, as a national work, will ever be prized as his chief performance. Whether for its utility, as furnishing a key to old authors and ancient records, or for the light which it throws on the manners and customs of days long gone by, it is equally entitled to the highest commendations. It has been stated that the "Dictionary of the Scottish Language cannot have cost less labour than Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language." We conceive it must have cost a great deal more. The one is the compilation of a living and well-cultivated language; the other, of one comparatively obsolete, and involving, on the part of the lexicographer, not only the classical acquirements of the former, but the knowledge and research of an antiquary.

In the " Dissertation on the Origin of the Scottish Language," prefixed to the Dictionary, Dr. Jamieson contends, with much force of argument, against the prevailing opinion, that the Scottish is merely a dialect of the English, acquired in consequence of our intercourse with the south. He claims for it the dignity of a language, on the ground that it is not more allied to the English " than the Belgic is to the German, the Danish to the Swedish, or the Portuguese to the Spanish." Like the Anglo-Saxon, the Scottish has a Gothic origin; and he argues, with much historical acumen, for the Teutonic origin of the Picts, by whom the Lowlands of Scotland were peopled at an early period.

Though long a corresponding member of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries, Dr. Jamieson did not become an ordinary one till 1815, when he was appointed Secretary conjointly with Mr. A. Smellie, printer, who had held the office alone for twenty years previously. This office he held till 1820. In that year, edited by the Doctor, appeared "The Bruce and Wallace; published from two ancient manuscripts preserved in the Library of the Faculty of Advocates;" the former by Barbour, the latter by Henry, or "Blind Harry." This work, in two vols. 4to, printed at the Ballantyne press, and got up in a style of superior elegance, was dedicated "to the most noble the Marchioness of Hastings, Countess of Loudon, etc., amongst whose paternal honours it is not least that she is the representative of the ancient family of Crawfurd of Loudon, one of whom gave birth to the renowned and immortal Wallace." In the introductory sketches of the lives of Barbour and Henry, if the author has failed in adding any previously unknown facts, he has been happy enough to expose several gross inaccuracies of former biographers ; and while the text is revised with the utmost care, many doubtful passages are explained and illustrated in copious notes by the editor. Two notable events in the life of Wallace—the "burning of the barns, or barracks of Ayr," and his betrayal by "the false Menteith," as related by Henry—he effectually vindicates from the scepticism of the learned author of the "Annals of Scotland." Were it not for the length to which they extend, we could willingly quote Dr. Jamieson's remarks on these popular incidents, not only because the work itself is scarce, but as a specimen of the writer's felicity of argument in matters of controversy.

In 1821, Dr. Jamieson published his "Historical Account of the Ancient Culdees of Iona"—a work characterised by the author's usual depth of research. Though somewhat heavy, and probably defective in style, the antiquarian reader is amply repaid for his perusal, by the erudition and ingenuity with which the author contends for the apostolic mode of church government which prevailed while Christianity flourished in this country under the propagation of the monastics of Icolmkill. (In Lockhart's "Life of Scott," it is mentioned that the publishers lost considerably by the limited sale of this work.)

In 1827, Dr. Jamieson was admitted a member of the Bannatyne Club, which was founded by Sir Walter Scott. This literary society is strictly limited in number; and it is almost as difficult to procure admission as it is to obtain a seat in Parliament. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh ; of the American Antiquarian Society ; of the Society of Northern Literature of Copenhagen; and an Associate of the First Class of Royal Associates of the Royal Society of Literature of London.

The "Views of the Royal Palaces of Scotland," which appeared in 1828, we believe, was the last acknowledged publication by the venerable author. In 1880, in consequence of old age and increasing infirmities, Dr. Jamieson resigned the charge of the congregation over whom he had so long presided, and in whose affections his learning, piety, and benevolence secured for him a lasting hold. It is gratifying to think that his literary labours, directed as they were chiefly to subjects of antiquity, and less likely to prove remunerative than the works of more popular authors, have not been entirely overlooked by Government. The small pension he enjoyed, was no more than a just appreciation of his arduous historical researches and laborious philological investigations.

Dr. Jamieson married, in 1781, Charlotte, daughter of Robert Watson, Esq., of Easter Rkind, Perthshire. Out of a family of seventeen children, only one daughter and one son now survive. One of his sons, the late Robert Jamieson, Esq., Advocate, was a distinguished member of the Scottish bar, and whose premature demise alone prevented his being raised to the bench; another, Mr. Alexander, bookseller in Edinburgh, who died a few years ago, was the reputed author of a well-known little work, entitled, "A Trip to London in a Berwick Smack."

The following, we believe, is a pretty accurate list of Dr. Jamieson's works:—

Sermons on the Heart. 2 vols. 8vo. 17S9.

Sorrows of Slavery; a Poem, containing a faithful statement of facts respecting the Slave Trade. Lond. 1789. 12mo.

Socinianism Unmasked, occasioned by Dr. Macgill's Practical Essay on the Death of Christ. 8vo.

An Ordination Sermon. 8vo.

A Dialogue between the Devil and a Socinian Divine on the confines of the other world. 9vo.

An Alarm to Great Britain ; or, an Inquiry into the Rapid Progress of Infidelity in the present age. Lond. 1795. 12vo.

Vindication of the Doctrine of Scripture, and of the Primitive Faith, concerning the Divinity of Christ, in reply to Dr. Priestley's History of Early Opinions, &c. 2 vols. 8vo. 1795.

Cougal and Feuella, a Tale. 8vo.

Eternity; a Poem, addressed to Freethinkers and Philosophical Christians. 8vo. Lond. 1798.

Remarks on Rowland Hill's Journal. 8vo. Lond. 1799.

The Use of Sacred History, especially as Illustrating and Confirming the Great Doctrines of Revelation. To which are prefixed Two Dissertations, the first on the authenticity of the History contained in the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua ; the second, proving that the Books ascribed to Moses were actually written by him, and that he wrote them by Divine Inspiration. 2 vols. 8vo. Lond. 1802.

Important Trial in the Court of Conscience. 8vo. Loud. 1806.

An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language; illustrating the words in their different significations by examples from ancient and modern writers; showing their affinity to those of other languages, and especially the Northern: explaining many terms, which, though now obsolete in England, were formerly common to both countries ; and elucidating National Rites, Customs, and Institutions, in analogy to those of other Nations. To which is prefixed a Dissertation on the Origin of the Scottish Language. 2 vols. 4to. Edin. 1809-10. Two supplemental volumes were added in 1825").

The same Abridged, and published under the title of An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, in which the words are explained in their different senses, authorized by the names of the writers by whom they are used, or the titles of the works in which they occur, and deduced from their originals. 8vo. Edin. 1814.

The Beneficent Woman, a Sermon. 8vo. 1S11.

Hermes Scythicus, or the Radical Affinities of the Greek and Latin Languages to the Gothic, illustrated from the Moeso-Gothic, Anglo-Saxon, French, Alemannic, Suio-Gothic, Islandic, &c. To which is prefixed a Dissertation on the Historical Proofs of the Scythian Origin of the Greeks. 8vo. Loud. 1S14.

On the Origin of Cremation, or the Burning of the Dead. Trans. Soc. Edin. viii. S3. 1817.

The Hopes of an Empire Reversed ; or, the Night of Pleasure turned into Fear : a Sermon on the Death of the Princess Charlotte. 1818.

The Duty, Excellency, and Pleasantness of Brotherly Unity, in Three Sermons. 8vo. 1819.

Historical Account of the Ancient Culdees of lona, and of their Settlement in Scotland, England, and Ireland. 4to. Edin. 1821.

Sletzer's Theatrum Scotia?, with Illustrations, &c. Folio.

Views of the Royal Palaces of Scotland, with Historical and Topographical Illustrations. Royal 4to. 1828.

Remarks on the Progress of the Roman Army in Scotland during the Sixth Campaign of Agricola, and an Account of the Roman Camps of Battle-dylcea and HaerfaucU with the Via Militarh extending between them, in the County of Forfar; forming part of Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica, No. 36, 4to.

The Water Kelpie, or Spirit of the Waters, with a Glossary, published in the third volume of Scott's Minstrelsy of the Border.

Besides the above acknowledged publications, Dr. Jamieson contributed occasionally to the periodical works of the day. In particular, he was the writer of an article in the Westminster Review upon the Origin of the Scottish Nation, which attracted considerable notice. Nor, amid the cares of advancing years, and the duties of more grave avocations, did he entirely lose sight of the muse. About twenty-six years ago, at the request of several fellow-members, he wrote an appropriate song for an anniversary meeting of the Society of Antiquaries, which was sung on the occasion by Mr. Peter Hill, jun., to the air of Auld Lang Syne. He died on the 12th of July, 1838.

In 1831, the poem on "Eternity" was reprinted along with "The Grave," "The Last Day," &c, forming a little work entitled "The Christian Shade," edited by the late James Brownlee, Esq., Advocate.


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