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Significant Scots
William Tytler


TYTLER, WILLIAM, of Woodhouselee, an eminent antiquarian writer, was born in Edinburgh on the 12th October, 1711. His father, Alexander Tytler, was a writer by profession in the same city. His mother was daughter of Mr William Leslie, merchant in Aberdeen, and grand-daughter of Sir Patrick Leslie of Iden.

The subject of this memoir received his education at the High School and university of his native city, and in both distinguished himself by assiduity in his studies, and by an early and more than ordinary proficiency in classical learning. Having added to his other acquirements a competent knowledge of municipal law, which he studied under Sir Alexander Bryce, professor of that science in the university of Edinburgh, he was, in 1744, admitted into the Society of Writers to his majesty’s Signet, in which capacity he practised with increasing success till his death.

Mr Tytler’s first appearance as an author took place in 1759, when he published an "Inquiry, historical and critical, into the Evidence against Mary, Queen of Scots, and an Examination of the Histories of Dr Robertson and Mr Hume with respect to that Evidence." In this work Mr Tytler warmly espoused the cause of the unfortunate princess, and brought a force of argument, and an acuteness and precision of reasoning to the discussion of the interesting question of her innocence or guilt, which had never been employed on it before. It was the first appeal in behalf of the Scottish queen which made any impression on the public mind, or which excited any feeling of particular interest in the charges which had been brought against her moral character. A similar attempt with this of Mr Tytler’s, had been made some years previously by Walter Goodal, one of the under keepers of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh, but it was so indifferently written, and its matter so unskilfully arranged, that it entirely failed to attract any share of the public attention. Mr Tytler, however, found it a useful assistant. He adopted many of Goodal’s arguments, but he arranged them anew, and gave them that consistency and force which is so essential to efficiency. The first edition of the Inquiry was published in a single octavo volume; another, considerably enlarged, particularly in the historical part, soon afterwards appeared, and in 1790, a fourth edition was published in two volumes.

The ability displayed by this work acquired for Mr Tytler a very high reputation in the world of letters. It was eagerly read throughout Britain, and was scarcely less popular in France, into the language of which country it was pretty ably translated. The interest which the Inquiry excited was also very great. There were a novelty and chivalry in the attempt eminently calculated to attract attention, and to excite sympathy, and it obtained a large share of both. It was reviewed in many of the different periodicals of the day by some of the most eminent literary men then living; amongst these were Johnson, Smollett, and Douglas, bishop of Salisbury. To the favourable testimony to the merits of the work borne by these competent judges, was added that of lord chancellor Hardwicke, who said it was the most conclusive arrangement of circumstantiate proofs he had ever seen.

Mr Tytler’s next literary production was, "The Poetical Remains of the James the First, king of Scotland," in one volume, 8vo, Edinburgh, 1783. In this publication Mr Tytler, on very strong grounds, ascribes to that monarch the celebrated poems of "The King’s Quair," and "Christ’s Kirk on the Green." His reasoning here, as in the defence of Mary, is remarkable for cogency and conciseness, and if it is not always convincing, it is, at least, always plausible. To the Poetical Remains there is added a Dissertation on the Life and Writings of James, remarkable at once for profound antiquarian research, and the lucid arrangement of its facts.

Mr Tytler was an ardent lover of music, especially of the music of his native country. He was himself a good performer, and his theoretical knowledge of the science was fully equal to his practical proficiency. This devotion to music, together with a fine sensibility, which subjected him in a peculiar manner to the influence of the pathetic strains of the national melodies of Scotland, led him to write a highly interesting, though in some respects fanciful, essay on Scottish music, which is appended to Arnot’s History of Edinburgh.

The ability which these various publications displayed rapidly increased Mr Tytler’s reputation, and procured him the respect and esteem of men of taste and learning, especially of those of his native country, who felt and acknowledged the good service he was doing towards completing their national history by his industry, diligence, and patient research in the peculiar walk of literature he had chosen: a feeling which was yet further increased by his subsequent publications. The next of these, of the character alluded to, was a Dissertation on the marriage of Queen Mary to the earl of Bothwell, published in the first volume of the Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries in 1791. In this Dissertation, which is distinguished by all the merits displayed by Mr Tytler’s other productions, he defends, with much ingenuity, that unhappy step which united Mary to Bothwell; but it is to be feared, that, with all its ingenuity and judicious remark, it can never be otherwise considered than as an attempt, generous and chivalrous indeed, but unavailing, to defend a thing in itself indefensible.

In the year following, viz., 1792, Mr Tytler published, through the same channel with that by which the Dissertation had been given to the world, "Observations on the Vision, a poem," first published in Ramsay’s Evergreen. The object of these observations was the generous one, of vindicating Ramsay’s title to the merit of being the author of the poem in question, of which some doubts had been entertained.

The "Observations," &c., were soon after followed by a production of singular interest. This was "An Account of the Fashionable Amusements and Entertainments of Edinburgh in the last (seventeenth) century, with the plan of a grand Concert of Music performed there on St Cecilia’s day, 1695."

Mr Tytler was also the author of a paper in the Lounger, No. 16, entitled the "Defects of Modern Female education in teaching the Duties of a Wife;" and with this terminates the catalogue of his published literary achievements, so far as these are known or acknowledged.

To Mr Tytler’s talents and acquirements his works will always bear evidence, but there are other merits which he possessed in an eminent degree, which it requires the pen of the biographer to perpetuate. His works sufficiently inform us of his profound and intimate acquaintance with Scottish history and antiquarian lore; of his zealous patriotism, and eminent knowledge of the science of music; but they do not inform us of his generous and benevolent disposition, nor of that delightful and enviable buoyancy of spirit, which enabled him, at the latest period of a life protracted beyond the usual limit of human existence, to join, with the utmost glee, in all the pranks and follies of the young persons, his friends and relatives, who came to visit him, and whom he was always rejoiced to see. Mr Tytler not only attained and enjoyed himself a healthy and happy old age, but had a prescription ready for his friends which would confer the same blessing. This prescription was "short, but cheerful meals, music, and a good conscience."

Mr Tytler was one of the original members of the Musical Society of Edinburgh, and continued his connexion with that body for nearly sixty years. He usually spent a portion of the summer at his beautiful country seat of Woodhouselee. Here in a private and shady walk he had erected an urn with the following inscription:—

Hune lucum
Caris mortuis amicis,
Sacrum dicat
W. T.

Some time before his death, Mr Tytler was seized with a slight paralytic affection, but it did not much debilitate his frame, nor did it in the least degree affect his faculties, all of which remained unimpaired till the hour of his death, an event which happened on the 12th of September, 1792, in the eighty-first year of his age.

Mr Tytler was married in 1745, to Miss Anne Craig, daughter of James Craig, Esq. of Costerton, in the county of Mid Lothian, one of the writers to his majesty’s Signet, by whom he left two sons, Alexander Fraser Tytler, afterwards lord Woodhouselee, and major Patrick Tytler, fort-major of the castle of Stirling. He left also one daughter, Miss Christina Tytler. It only remains to be added to this sketch, and the addition though short, comprises one of the strongest eulogiums which was ever bestowed on human virtue: it is recorded of Mr Tytler, that no one ever spoke ill of him.


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