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Significant Scots
James Tytler


TYTLER, JAMES, a laborious miscellaneous writer, was the son of the minister of Fern, in the county of Forfar, where he was born about the middle of the last century. After receiving a good education, he was apprenticed to a Mr Ogilvie, a surgeon in Forfar, for whom he probably prepared the drugs which almost invariably form a part of the business of such provincial practitioners. He afterwards commenced a regular medical education at the university of Edinburgh, for which the necessary finances were partly supplied by two voyages which he made in the capacity of surgeon on board a Greenland whaler. From his earliest years, and during the whole course of his professional studies, he read with avidity every book that fell in his way; and, having a retentive memory, he thus acquired an immense fund of knowledge, more particularly, it is said, in the department of history. If reared in easy circumstances, and with a proper supervision over his moral nature, it is probable that Tytler would have turned his singular aptitude for learning, and his prompt and lively turn of mind, to some account, either in the higher walks of literature, or in some professional pursuit. He appears, however, to have never known anything but the most abject poverty, and to have never been inspired with a taste for anything superior: talent and information were in him unaccompanied by any development of the higher sentiments: and he contentedly settled at an early period of life into an humble matrimonial alliance, which obliged him to dissipate, upon paltry objects, the abilities that ought to have been concentrated upon some considerable effort. Whether from the pressing nature of the responsibilities thus entailed upon him, or from a natural want of the power of application, Tytler was never able to fix himself steadily in any kind of employment. He first attempted to obtain practice as a surgeon in Edinburgh; but finding the profits of that business inadequate to the support of his family, and being destitute of that capital which might have enabled him to overcome the first difficulties, he was soon induced to remove to Leith, in order to open a shop for the sale of chemical preparations. For this department he was certainly qualified, so far as a skill in chemistry, extraordinary in that age, could be supposed to qualify him. But either from the want of a proper market for his commodities, or because, as formerly, he could not afford to wait till time should establish one, he failed in this line also. In the mean time, some literary efforts of Tytler had introduced him to the notice of the booksellers of Edinburgh, and he was employed by Messrs Bell and Macfarquhar, as a contributor to the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which began to be published in 1776. As noticed in the life of Mr William Smellie, the first edition of the Encyclopaedia was chiefly compiled by that gentleman, and was comprised in three volumes quarto. Mr Smellie having declined both a commercial and literary share in the second impression, on account of its including a biographical department, the proprietors appear to have engaged the pen of Mr Tytler as the next most eligible person that was at their command as a compiler; and accordingly, a large proportion of that additional matter, by which the work was expanded from three to ten volumes, was the production of the subject of this memoir. The payment for this labour is said to have been very small, insomuch that the poor author could not support his family in a style superior to that of a common labourer. At one time, during the progress of the work, he lived in the village of Duddingston, in the house of a washerwoman, whose tub, inverted, formed the only desk he could command; and the editor of this dictionary has heard one of his children relate, that she was frequently despatched to town with a small parcel of copy, upon the proceeds of which depended the next meal of the family. It is curious to reflect that the proceeds of the work which included so much of this poor man’s labours, were, in the next ensuing edition, no less than forty-two thousand pounds. It is proper, however, to mention that the poverty of Tytler was chiefly attributable to his own imprudence and

Intemperate habits. A highly characteristic anecdote, related by an anonymous biographer, [See "a Biographical Sketch of the Life of James Tytler:" Edinburgh, printed by and for Denovan, Lawnmarket, 1805.] will make this sufficiently clear. "As a proof," says this writer, "of the extraordinary stock of general knowledge which Mr Tytler possessed, and with what ease he could write on any subject almost extempore, a gentleman in the city of Edinburgh once told me that he had occasion to apply to this extraordinary man for as much matter as would form a junction between a certain history and its continuation to a later period. He found him lodged in one of those elevated apartments called garrets, and was informed by the old woman with whom he resided, that he could not see him, as he had gone to bed rather the worse of liquor. Determined, however, not to depart without his errand, he was shown into Mr Tytler’s apartment by the light of a lamp, where he found him in the situation described by the landlady. The gentleman having acquainted him with the nature of the business which brought him at so late an hour, Mr Tytler called for pen and ink, and in a short time produced about a page and a half of letter-press, which answered the end as completely as if it had been the result of the most mature deliberation, previous notice, and a mind undisturbed by any liquid capable of deranging its ideas." A man who has so little sense of natural dignity as to besot his senses by liquor, and who can so readily make his intellect subservient to the purposes of all who may choose to employ its powers, can hardly expect to be otherwise than poor; while his very poverty tends, by inducing dependence, to prevent him from gaining the proper reward for his labours. Tytler, moreover, had that contentment with poverty, if not pride in it, which is so apt to make it permanent. "It is said," proceeds his biographer, after relating the above anecdote, " that Mr Tytler was perfectly regardless about poverty, so far as to feel no desire to conceal it from the world. A certain gentleman who had occasion to wait upon him on some particular business, found him eating a cold potatoe, which he continued to devour with as much composure, as if it had been the most sumptuous repast upon earth." It is mentioned elsewhere by the same writer that poor Tytler never thought of any but present necessities, and was as happy in the possession of a few shillings as a miser could be with all the treasures of India.

Besides his labours in the Encyclopedia Britannica, to the third edition of which he is said to have also contributed, (particularly the article "Electricity," which was allowed to be excellent,) he was employed in the compilation of many miscellaneous books of an useful character, and also in abridgments. At one time, while confined within the precincts of the sanctuary of Holyrood, he had a press of his own, from which he threw off various productions, generally without the intermediate use of manuscript. In a small mean room, amidst the squalling and squalor of a number of children, this singular genius stood at a printer’s case, composing pages of types, either altogether from his own ideas, or perhaps with a volume before him, the language of which he was condensing by a mental process little less difficult. He is said to have, in this manner, fairly commenced an abridgment of that colossal work, the Universal History: it was only carried, however, through a single volume. To increase the surprise which all must feel regarding these circumstances, it may be mentioned, that his press was one of his own manufacture, described by his biographer, as being "wrought in the direction of a smith’s bellows;" and probably, therefore, not unlike that subsequently brought into use by the ingenious John Ruthven. This machine, however, is allowed to have been "but an indifferent one:" and thus it was with almost everything in which Tytler was concerned. Everything was wonderful, considering the circumstances under which it was produced; but yet nothing was in itself very good.

Tytler was at one period concerned in a manufactory of magnesia, which, however, did no good as long as he was connected with it; though it is said to have realized much money afterwards to his partner and successors. Such was constantly his fate: his ingenuity and information, useless to himself, were perpetually taken advantage of by meaner, but more steady minds. On the commencement of the balloon mania, after the experiments of Montgolfier, Tytler would try his hand also at an aeronautic voyage. Accordingly, having constructed a huge dingy bag, and filled it with the best hydrogen he could procure, he collected the inhabitants of Edinburgh to the spot, and prepared to make his ascent. The experiment took place in a garden within the Sanctuary; and the wonder is, that he did not fear being carried beyond it, as in that event, he would have been liable to the gripe of his creditors. There was no real danger, however; the balloon only moved so high, and so far, as to carry him over the garden wall, and deposit him softly on an adjoining dunghill. The crowd departed, laughing at the disappointed aeronaut, who ever after went by the name, appropriate on more accounts than one, of "Balloon Tytler."

During his residence in the Sanctuary, Tytler commenced a small periodical work, entitled the "Weekly Review," which was soon discontinued. Afterwards, in 1780, a similar work was undertaken by a printer, named Mennons, and Tytler was employed in the capacity of chief contributor. This was a cheap miscellany, in octavo; and the present writer, who once possessed a volume of it, is inclined, on recollection, to say, that it displayed considerable talent. Tytler also tried poetry, and was the author of at least one popular song—"I canna come ilka day to woo;" if not also of another, styled "The bonnie brucket Lassie." Burns, in his notes on Scottish Song, alludes with surprise to the fact, that such clever ballads should have been the composition of a poor devil, with a sky-light hat, and hardly a shoe to his feet. One of the principal works compiled by Tytler, was the "Edinburgh Geographical Grammar," published by Mr Kincaid, as an improvement upon the work bearing the name of Guthrie, which had gone through numerous editions, without any revisal to keep it abreast of the march of information. In the year 1792, Mr Tytler was conducting a periodical work, entitled "The Historical Register, or Edinburgh Monthly Intelligencer," and putting the last hand to a "System of Surgery," in three volumes, which he had undertaken for a surgeon in Edinburgh, who wished to have the nominal credit of such a work, when he was suddenly obliged to leave his native country. Having espoused the cause of parliamentary reform, and joined the society entitled "Friends of the People," he published, at the close of the year 1792, a political placard, which, in that excited time, was deemed by the authorities to be of a seditious tendency. Learning that the emissaries of the law had been sent forth in quest of him, he sought refuge in the house of a friend in a solitary situation on the northern skirts of Salisbury Crags; whence, after a short concealment, he withdrew to Ireland; and thence, after finishing his "System of Surgery," to the United States of America. Having been cited before the High Court of Justiciary, and failed to appear, he was outlawed by that tribunal, January 7, 1793. His family which he necessarily left behind him, was for some time in great distress; nor did they ever rejoin him in the land of his adoption, poverty on both sides, perhaps, refusing the necessary expenses. In America, Tytler resumed the course of life which had been interrupted by political persecution. He was conducting a newspaper at Salem, when he died of a severe cold, in the latter part of the year 1803.

This extraordinary genius was, perhaps, a fair specimen of a class of literary men who lived in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and were characterized by many of the general peculiarities of that bad era, in a form only exaggerated perhaps by their abilities. They were generally open scoffers at what their fellow creatures held sacred; decency in private life, they esteemed a mean and unworthy virtue; to desire a fair share of worldly advantages, was, with them, the mark of an ignoble nature. They professed boundless benevolence, and a devotion to the spirit of sociality, and thought that talent not only excused all kinds of frailities, but was only to be effectually proved by such. The persons "content to dwell in decencies for ever," were the chief objects of their aversion; while, if a man would only neglect his affairs, and keep himself and his family in a sufficient degree of poverty, they would applaud him as a paragon of self-denial. Fortunately, this class of infatuated beings is now nearly extinct; but their delusion had not been exploded, till it had been the cause of much intellectual ruin, and the vitiation of a large share of our literature.


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