THOMSON, THOMAS.—In few
countries has the study of national antiquities been prosecuted so zealously
or so successfully as in Scotland. It would be too much to assign this
peculiarity either to the romantic character, or the importance of the early
achievements of Scotland, for these were certainly of small account in the
general history of Europe. The cause is rather to be found in the grievous
calamities that befell our national archives in the times of Edward I. and
Oliver Cromwell. By these, our written records, and even our national
monuments, were so destroyed or obliterated, that nothing but the most
devoted antiquarianism could have restored to us the semblance of a history.
Hence, not only the necessity of diligent Scottish research among the relics
of bygone ages, but the keenness with which it has been prosecuted, and the
success that has attended it. Through these labours, Scotland now possesses
a history that, in point both of accuracy and fulness, may compete with that
of most countries of Europe. And among the foremost of those antiquaries
who, for a century, have toiled in such a patriotic task, perhaps there is
none entitled to take precedence of him whose name stands at the head of
Thomas Thomson was descended
of a family that might well be characterized as a portion of the tribe of
Levi; for not only his father, but also his grandfather and
great-grandfather, had been successively ministers of the Kirk of Scotland.
To this, also, it may be added, that his younger brother John was the late
minister of Duddingston, although he is better known among the lovers of the
fine arts as the Claude Lorraine of Scotland. Thomas, the future antiquary,
was born in the manse of Dailly, Ayrshire, of which parish his father was
minister, on the 10th of November, 1768. As it was nothing more than natural
that his views, from an early period, should be directed towards the church,
in which his ancestors had held the ministerial office since the close of
the seventeenth century, he was sent in 1782 to prosecute the necessary
studies in the university of Glasgow. He passed through what are called the
"gown classes," with considerable distinction, took the degree of A.M. in
1789, and became, during the two following sessions, a student in theology.
But at this time the lectures in the divinity hall, as well as the
class-room of church history in the college of Glasgow, were of such a
massive, not to say a heavy character, that none but a mind of congenial
calibre could endure them to the end. Accordingly, in spite of every
prospect of church advancement, which was now a sort of heirloom in the
family, Mr. Thomson’s mercurial spirit broke impatiently from the restraint,
and sought shelter in other pursuits. He resolved to study law, and devote
himself to the bar; and for this purpose he exchanged the hall of theology
for the law classes of Professor Millar, whose lectures were of a very
different description from those he had hitherto attended. After this, he
completed his course of legal study in the university of Edinburgh, and at
the close of 1793 was admitted a member of the faculty of advocates.
It is not our purpose to
follow out the course of Mr. Thomson at the bar, where, to gain a high name
at this period, it was necessary to be wholly, as well as completely, a
lawyer and orator. His own bias in a different direction was so distinctly
indicated, as quickly to secure for him a high reputation in Scottish
antiquarianism, and on this account he was selected, in 1800, to superintend
a new edition of the works of Lord Hailes, which were to be collected and
edited for publication, accompanied with a biographical memoir. This
intention was not carried out, and Mr. Thomson’s aid was only available for
an edition of his lordship’s "Annals" and "Historical Tracts," which were
afterwards published in 1819. An office, however, of permanent character, as
well as of the highest importance, was already being prepared for his
occupation. The neglect that had hitherto been shown towards our national
records began, although at a late hour, to be acknowledged, and after due
consideration of the subject in the House of Commons, two royal commissions
were issued, the one in 1800, and the other in 1806, for the preservation
and due arrangement of our public archives. It was found, however, that "the
superintendence of the matters arising within this office should be confided
to a deputy of acknowledged skill and ability, being a resident advocate of
the Scottish bar, of undoubted learning, tried merit, and considerable
standing;" and to this effect Lord Frederick Campbell, the lord-clerk
register, having memorialized his majesty (George III.), a royal
warrant was issued in 1806, authorizing the appointment of the office. A fit
Archivarius to fill it was not still to seek; and, to the satisfaction of
all who felt an interest in this important department, Mr. Thomas Thomson
was forthwith nominated deputy-clerk register. Among those who rejoiced in
the appointment, no one could be more ardent than Sir Walter Scott. "Have
you seen," he writes in a letter to George Ellis, "have you seen my friend,
Tom Thomson, who is just now in London? He has, I believe, the advantage of
knowing you, and I hope you will meet, as he understands more of old books,
old laws, and old history, than any man in Scotland. He has lately received
an appointment under the Lord Register of Scotland, which puts all our
records under his immediate inspection and control; and I expect many
valuable discoveries to be the consequence of his investigation, if he
escapes being smothered in the cloud of dust which his researches will
certainly raise about his ears." Speaking at a later period in conversation
upon the subject of antiquarian studies in general, Scott observed—"It is
common to laugh at such researches, but they pay the good brains that meddle
with them; and had Thomson been as diligent in setting down his discoveries
as he has been in making them, he might, long before this time of day, have
placed himself on a level with Ducange or Camden."
The rest of his long literary
life, which extended over nearly half a century, is best detailed by a list
of the literary works which he published. And to begin with those which he
prepared in his capacity of deputy-clerk register, and which were published
under authority of the Commissioners in the Public Records of the Kingdom,
they were the following:—
"Inquisitionum ad Capellum
Domini Regis Retornaturum, quae in Publicis Archivis Scotia adhuc servantur,
Abbreviatio." 1811-1816. 3 vols., folio.
"Registrum Magni Sigilli
Regum Scotorum in Archivis Publicis asservatum. MCCCVI—MCCCCXXIV." 1814.
"The Acts of the Parliaments
of Scotland. Vol. ii. to vol. xi. MCCCCXXIV—MDCCVII." 1814 to 1824.
10 vols., folio. Of this series, the first volume, owing to many
difficulties, chiefly arising from the remote and obscure period to which
its "Acts" refer, remained unfinished so late as 1841, when Mr. Thomson’s
connection with the register-office ceased. It was completed and published,
however, in 1844, under the superintendence of Mr. Innes.
"The Acts of the Lords
Auditors of Causes and Complaints. MCCCCLXVI--MCCCCXCIV." 1839.
"The Acts of the Lords of
Council in Civil Causes. MCCCCLXXVIII—MCCCCXCV." 1839. Folio.
In addition to these, Mr.
Thomson prepared the following abbreviates, of which only a limited number
were published for the use of the register-office :—.
"A Continuation of the
Retours of Services to the Chancery-Office, from the Union, A.D. 1707, to
the present time."
"An Abbreviate or Digest of
the Registers of Sasines, General and Particular, arranged in Counties, with
Relative Indexes, from the 1st of January, 1781, to the present time."
"An Abbreviate of
Adjudications from the same period to 1830."
"An Abbreviate of
Inhibitions, General and Particular, arranged in Counties, from the same
period to 1830."
Of an equally professional,
and still more personal description, were the following:—
"The First Five Annual
Reports of the Deputy-Clerk Register of Scotland," from 1808 to 1811. One
"Annual Reports, from the
Sixth to the Fourteenth (from 1811 to 1822)." One vol., folio.
We now pass from the labours of the deputy-clerk
register, to those of the member of the Bannatyne Club. This antiquarian
institution, which was originated in 1823, unanimously elected Mr. Thomson
to the honorary office of vice-president; and afterwards, in 1832, in
consequence of the death of Sir Walter Scott, the distinguished president of
the club, Mr. Thomson, with the same unanimity, was appointed to succeed
him. His services in behalf of this important association were thus
characterized by Lord Cockburn, its vice-president, in the funeral eulogium
which he pronounced before the members, after the decease of Mr.
Thomson:—"As one of our original founders, and deeply conversant with our
objects and aims, he was, while absent from Edinburgh, unanimously chosen
vice-president. After co-operating assiduously with Sir Walter Scott, our
first president, in all the business of the institution, he became our
second president on the death of that illustrious person; and throughout the
whole of the succeeding twenty years, was our master and our guide. With
several powerful associates or competitors, in detached fields, or
subordinate walks, it was by his knowledge and sagacity that our general
course was directed. The value of his superintendence is attested by its
results. The publications of the Bannatyne Club form the greatest, the most
difficult, the most important, and the most splendid disclosures that have
ever been made of the latent historical treasures of our country. The merit
of these works is certainly not due to him entirely; if it had at all been
ascribed to him in his presence his candour would have at once disclaimed
it, and given the proper part to its true owners. But those by whom the
contributions, either of individuals or of the club, have been prepared, and
who are best acquainted with the difficulties attending the execution of
such undertakings, will acknowledge the aid which they uniformly derived
from the president’s judgment and zeal. And never did any one apply to him
for advice without feeling his accessibility, and his cordial disposition to
assist. The hasty, and indeed sometimes even the patient, murmured
occasionally at his slowness; and he had certainly no taste for vulgar
rapidity; but this was the result of caution and fastidiousness—both good
qualities; and though it sometimes wearied expectation, was generally
rewarded by improved excellence in the end."
The literary exertions thus
so highly and so justly commended, which Mr. Thomson performed in behalf of
the Bannatyne Club, and which were published under its auspices, are
comprised in the following list:--
"Alex. Myln, Vitae
Dunkeldensis Ecclesiae Episcoporum." 4to, 1823.
d’Escosse, escrit en 1559." 4to, 1824.
"The Historie and Life of
King James the Sext." 4to, 1825.
"Memoirs of his own Life, by
Sir James Melville, of Halhill." 4to, 1827.— Speaking of this work while in
progress, Sir Walter Scott thus alludes to it in his diary—"Thomson is
superintending a capital edition of Sir James Melville’s Memoirs. It is
brave to see how he wags his Scots tongue, and what a difference there is in
the form and firmness of the language, compared to the mincing English
edition in which he has hitherto been alone known."
"Memoirs of his own Life and
Times, by Sir James Turner." 4to, 1829.
"The History of Scotland, by
John Lesley, Bishop of Ross." 4to, 1830.
"Collection of Ancient
Scottish Prophecies, in alliterative verse." 4to, 1833.
"Diurnal of Remarkable
Occurrents, from the Pollok MS." 4to, 1833.
"The Ragman Rolls,
1291-1296." 4to, 1834.
"The Booke of the Universall
Kirk of Scotland, 1560-1618." 3 vo1s. 4to, 1839, 1840, 1845.
"The Accounts of the Great
Chamberlains of Scotland, &c., 1326-1406." In 2 vols. 4to, 1817.
A third volume of do. 4to,
"A Diary of the Public
Correspondence of Sir Thomas Hope of Craighall." 4to, 1843.
Comitatus de Mortoun, and Original Letters and Papers in the Archives of the
Earls of Morton." 4to, 1852.
In addition to the foregoing,
Mr. Thomson edited the following works, which were chiefly printed for
"A Compilation of the Forms
of Process in the Court of Session, during the earlier periods after its
establishment, with the Variations which they have since undergone," &c.
"A Collection of Inventories,
and other Records of the Royal Wardrobe and Jewelhouse; and of the Artillery
and Munition in some of the Royal Castles, 1488-1606." 4to, 1815.
"The Chamberlain Rolls,
1306-1406." 4to, 1817.
"Inventory of Worke done for
the State, by (Evan Tyler) his Majesties Printer in Scotland, December,
1642-October, 1647." 4to, 1815.
"Ane Addicioun of Scottis
Cornikles and Deidis." Small 4to, 1819.
"Memoirs of the Affairs of
Scotland from the Restoration of King Charles II., A.D. 1660, by Sir
George Mackenzie, of Rosehaugh, Knight. 4to, 1821.
"Memoirs of the Lives and
Characters of the Right Honourable George Baillie of Jerviswood, and of Lady
Grissell, by their daugher, Lady Murray."
"Menu de la Maison de la
Royne faict par Mons. de Pinguillon. M.D.LXII" 4to, 1824.
This amount of antiquarian
labour indicates an extent of reading, a patience of research, and a heroic
pertinacity of purpose which it would be difficult fully to estimate. And
this, too, be it remembered, was in a department of literature in which
little fame is to be won, and the achievements of which are so often
misprized and ridiculed. "No one," says Lord Cockburn, in his "Life of Lord
Jeffrey"—when speaking of Thomas Thomson—"no one has done nearly so much to
recover, to arrange, to explain, and to preserve our historical muniments.
He found them almost a chaos, and after bringing them into order, has left
them on a system, of which the value will be felt the more every day that
they accumulate. His real merit, great as it may seem now, will seem still
greater 500 years hence." Adverting to Mr. Thomson’s capacity for legal
study, and the disinterestedness with which it was kept in abeyance, for the
sake of that department in which he was so well qualified to excel, Lord
Cockburn adds—"Had he not allowed his taste for antiquarian research to
allure him from the common drudgery of his profession, he would have stood
high in practice, as he always did in character, at the bar; and would now
have been adorning the bench by his considerate wisdom and peculiar
learning." In turning to Mr. Thomson’s course as a barrister, we find his
lordship’s commendations fully borne out. His knowledge of ancient Scottish
history and jurisprudence was so well known, even at the outset, that so
early as 1805-7, he was employed in the famous Craigengillan case, in which
a fair estate of about £12,000 per annum depended upon the old marriage laws
of Scotland, and the kind of union that sufficed to establish a legal claim
to legitimacy and inheritance. Another suit in which he was retained in
1816, was the case of Cranstoun versus Gibson, in which the principle
of our northern elections had to be traced to its fountain-head, inasmuch as
the franchise of Scotland, as connected with the valuation of old church
lands, was involved in the result. While his brethren of the long robe were
utterly in the dark upon such questions of medieval and monastic lore, Mr.
Thomson, as may easily be supposed, felt himself upon his own proper ground;
he accordingly produced in one of his memorials, such a lucid account of the
origin of the taxation of land in Scotland, that Lord Glenlee, the presiding
judge, could not help exclaiming, "It is just delightful! It is like reading
a lost decade of Livy!" Mr. Thomson, indeed, did not secure a judge’s gown,
for that, as we have seen, was never at any time the mark of his ambition;
but an office, not greatly inferior in importance and emolument, was freely
conceded to him in 1828, by his being appointed one of the principal clerks
of Session—an office which Sir Walter Scott himself held, and beyond which
he sought no higher.
Amidst the various
qualifications which Mr. Thomson possessed, we would greatly err if we
confined the literary part of his character to his undoubted superiority in
antiquities and black letter. On the contrary, his general knowledge, as
well as his talents and taste, were so fully recognized, that at the
creation of the "Edinburgh Review" in 1802, he was one of that illustrious
coterie who were wont to meet in solemn secrecy for the purpose of
commencing it, and by whose joint labours that critical tribunal was
silently built up, before whose dread awards the whole literary world was so
soon compelled to bow and tremble. For this journal he also wrote several
articles, and, during the occasional absences of Mr. Jeffrey, took charge of
Mr. Thomson married Anne,
daughter of Thomas Reed, Esq., formerly army agent in Dublin. He died at his
residence at Shrubhill, between Edinburgh and Leith, on the 2d of October,
1852, and was interred in the Dean Cemetery. His character was thus
appropriately summed up by Lord Murray at the ensuing Anniversary of the
Society of Antiquaries of Scotland—"In the death of my old and valued
friend, Mr. Thomas Thomson, the Society has to deplore the loss of one,
whose contributions to our antiquarian literature, and to the facilities of
the historical student of the Records of Scotland, have conferred a boon
upon the country, such as it would be difficult to over-estimate in value.
He was a man of great and varied learning, and a highly refined mind. His
enthusiasm was undamped by the intricacy and forbidding aspects of one of
the most perplexing and protracted labours which ever engrossed the
life-labour of the legal antiquary; and yet, while devoting his fine mind to
such labours in his study, he united to all the acquirements requisite for
such pursuits, manners the most pleasing, and a warmth and geniality of
feeling which have embalmed him in the memories of a numerous circle of
friends and admirers."
Memoir of Thomas Thomson
Advocate, by Cosmo Innes (1854)