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Significant Scots
Dr William Thomson


THOMSON, (DR) WILLIAM, an ingenious, versatile, and multifarious writer, was born in 1746, in the parish of Forteviot, in Perthshire. His father, though in humble, was in decent circumstances, earning a livelihood by uniting the businesses of carpenter, builder, and farmer. Young Thomson was instructed in the first rudiments of education by his mother, and was then sent to the parochial school. He afterwards attended the grammar-school of Perth, and on leaving it proceeded to St Andrews, where his abilities attracted the notice and procured him the patronage of the Earl of Kinnoul, then chancellor of the university. This munificent nobleman, after satisfying himself, by personal examination, that young Thomson’s high reputation as a classical scholar was not exaggerated, admitted him into his family in the capacity of librarian, and shortly after directed his views to the church, with the intention of presenting him to one of the livings in his gift.

Mr Thomson prosecuted his theological studies, first at St Andrews, and then at Edinburgh, and, having obtained a license to preach, was appointed assistant to the minister of Monivaird. Unfortunately neither his tastes nor habits accorded with the clerical calling. His temper was irascible, and he delighted more in field sports and jovial companionship than in the discharge of his professional duties. The complaints of the parishioners induced him to resign his office, and he resolved to try his fortune in London as a man of letters. In this he was at first far from successful. At length, through the influence of his distinguished friends, Drs Robertson and Blair, he was chosen to continue the History of Philip III. of Spain, a work begun by Dr Robert Watson, principal of the United Colleges of St Andrews, but which that gentleman left unfinished at his death, which happened in 1780. This work Dr Thomson completed in a manner highly creditable to his talents, and so much to the satisfaction of the public, that he soon found himself surrounded with friends, and his hands filled with employment. The former procured him about this period, wholly unsolicited on his part, the degree of LL.D. from the university of Glasgow. Dr Thomson now became a regular London author, being ready to write on any subject, and for any one who should employ his versatile talents. Business increased apace upon him, and from this period till near the close of his life, extending to upwards of five and thirty years, he continued in close connection with the press, and with the exception of poetry, went, in that time, creditably through every department of English literature. Nothing came amiss to him; history, biography, voyages, travels and memoirs, novels and romances, pamphlets and periodicals. In all of these he wrote largely, and wrote well. In his literary labours he was indefatigable. Night and day he wrought with unwearying perseverance, and, by dint of this industry, associated with a remarkable facility in composition, he accomplished, in the course of his life, a greater amount of literary work, and of a greater variety of character, than perhaps any English writer who preceded him. Amongst the most important of his avowed works are, "The Man in the Moon," a novel; "Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa," a compilation from other works, published in 1782; a translation of "A History of Great Britain from the Revolution in 1688, to the Accession of George I. in 1714," from the Latin of Cunningham, 2 volumes 4to, 1787; "Memoirs of War in Asia," 1788; "Mammoth, or Human Nature displayed on a Grand Scale," a novel, 1789; "Travels in the Western Hebrides, from 1782 to 1790," from notes by the Rev. John Lane Buchanan, A. M., missionary minister to the Isles from the church of Scotland, 1793. Dr Thomson also largely assisted in a work which appeared about this period, entitled, "Travels into Norway, Denmark, and Russia," by A. Smith, Esq.

Numerous as this list is, it comprises but a very small portion of our author’s literary achievements, and gives but a faint idea of the extent and variety of his labours. He contributed largely, besides, to various newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals of the day. He also frequently acted as a reporter, and is said to have greatly excelled in this department of literary labour. For many years he published a weekly abridgment of politics in the Whitehall Evening Post, but lost this employment in 1798, in consequence of some political transgressions. In the latter years of his life, he was engaged in bringing up the arrears of Dodsley’s Annual Register, of which he compiled the historical part from 1790 to 1800 inclusive. Amongst the last of his literary performances, (and it is a remarkable proof of the variety of his attainments,) was a work entitled "Memoirs relative to Military Tactics," dedicated to his royal highness, the duke of York, commander-in-chief of the forces. This work, which was begun in 1805, and finished in the ensuing year, was reckoned no inconsiderable addition to that department of literature to which it belongs, and is said to have been looked upon with favour by those competent to judge of its merits. Towards the close of his life, Dr Thomson wholly resigned his literary labours, and retired to Kensington, where he died, in decent, but not by any means affluent circumstances, on the 16th of March, 1817, in the 71st year of his age, leaving behind him a reputation very far from being proportioned, either to the extent of his labours, or to the amount of his abilities and acquirements.


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