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Significant Scots
Hugo Arnot


ARNOT, HUGO, a historical and antiquarian writer of the eighteenth century, was the son of a merchant and ship-proprietor at Leith, where he was born, December 8th, 1749. His name originally was Pollock, which he changed in early life for Arnot, on falling heir, through his mother, to the estate of Balcormo in Fife. As "Hugo Arnot of Balcormo, Esq.," he is entered as a member of the Faculty of Advocates, December 5, 1772, when just about to complete his twenty-third year. Previous to this period, he had had the misfortune to lose his father. Another evil which befell him in early life was a settled asthma, the result of a severe cold which he caught in his fifteenth year. As this disorder was always aggravated by exertion of any kind, it became a serious obstruction to his progress at the bar; some of his pleadings, nevertheless, were much admired, and obtained for him the applause of the bench. Perhaps it was this interruption of his professional career which caused him to turn his attention to literature. In 1779, appeared his "History of Edinburgh," 1 vol. 4to. a work of much research, and greatly superior to a literary point of view to the generality of local works. The style of the historical part is elegant and epigrammatic, with a vein of causticity highly characteristic of the author. From this elaborate work the author is said to have only realized a few pounds of profit; a piratical impression, at less than half the price, was published almost simultaneously at Dublin, and, being shipped over to Scotland in great quantities, completely threw the author’s edition out of the market. A bookseller’s second edition, as it is called, appeared after the author’s death, being simply the remainder of the former stock, embellished with plates, and enlarged by some additions from the pen of the publisher, Mr Creech. Another edition was published in 8vo, in 1817. Mr Arnot seems to have now lived on terms of literary equality with those distinguished literary and professional characters who were his fellow-townsmen and contemporaries. He did not, however, for some years publish any other considerable or acknowledged work. He devoted his mind chiefly to local subjects, and sent forth numerous pamphlets and newspaper essays, which had a considerable effect in accelerating or promoting the erection of various public works. 

The exertions of a man of his public spirit and enlarged mind, at a time when the capital of Scotland was undergoing such a thorough renovation and improvement, must have been of material service to the community, both of that and of all succeeding ages. Such they were acknowledged to be by the magistrates, who bestowed upon him the freedom of the city. We are told that Mr Arnot, by means of his influence in local matters, was able to retard the erection of the South Bridge of Edinburgh for ten years—not that he objected to such an obvious improvement on its own account, but only in so far as the magistrates could devise no other method for defraying the expense than by a tax upon carters; a mode of liquidating it, which Mr Arnot thought grossly oppressive, as it fell in the first place upon the poor. He also was the means of preventing for several years the formation of the present splendid road between Edinburgh and Leith, on account of the proposed plan (which was afterwards unhappily carried into effect,) of defraying the expense by a toll; being convinced, from what he knew of local authorities, that, if such an exaction were once established, it would always, on some pretext or other, be kept up. In 1785, Mr Arnot published "A Collection of Celebrated Criminal Trials in Scotland, with Historical and Critical Remarks," 1 vol. 4to.; a work of perhaps even greater research than his history of Edinburgh, and written in the same acutely metaphysical and epigrammatic style. In the front of this volume appears a large list of subscribers, embracing almost all the eminent and considerable persons in Scotland, with many of those in England, and testifying of course to the literary and personal respectability of Mr Arnot. This work appeared without a publisher’s name, probably for some reason connected with the following circumstance. Owing perhaps to the unwillingness of the author to allow a sufficient profit to the booksellers, the whole body of that trade in Edinburgh refused to let the subscription papers and prospectuses hang in their shops; for which reason the author announced, by means of an advertisement in the newspapers, that these articles might be seen in the coffee-houses. Mr Arnot received the sum of six hundred pounds for the copies sold of this work, from which he would have to pay the expenses of printing a thin quarto: it thus happened that what was rather the least laborious of his two works, was the most profitable. Mr Arnot only survived the publication of his Criminal Trials about a twelvemonth. The asthma had ever since his fifteenth year been making rapid advances upon him, and his person was now reduced almost to a shadow. While still young, he carried all the marks of age, and accordingly the traditionary recollections of the historian of Edinburgh always point to a man in the extreme of life. Perhaps nothing could indicate more expressively the miserable state to which Mr Arnot was reduced by this disease, than his own half-ludicrous, half-pathetic exclamation, on being annoyed by the bawling of a man selling sand on the streets: "The rascal!" cried the unfortunate invalid, "he spends as much breath in a minute as would serve me for a month!" 

Among the portraits and caricatures of the well known John Kay, may be found several faithful, though somewhat exaggerated, memorials of the emaciated person of Hugo Arnot. As a natural constitutional result of this disease he was exceedingly nervous and liable to be discomposed by the slightest annoyances: on the other hand, he possessed such ardour and intrepidity of mind, that in youth he once rode on a spirited horse to the end of the pier of Leith while the waves were dashing over it and every beholder expected to see him washed immediately into the sea! On another occasion having excited some hostility by a political pamphlet and being summoned by an anonymous foe to appear at a particular hour in a lonely part of the King’s Park, in order to fight, he went and waited four hours on the spot, thus perilling his life in what might have been the ambuscade of a deadly enemy. By means of the same fortitude of character, he beheld the gradual approach of death with all the calmness of a Stoic philosopher. The magistrates of Leith had acknowledged some of his public services, by the ominous compliment of a piece of ground in their church-yard; and it was the recreation of the last weeks of Mr Arnot’s life to go every day to observe the progress made by the workmen in preparing this place for his own reception. It is related that he even expressed considerable anxiety lest his demise should take place before the melancholy work should be completed. He died, November 20th, 1786, when on the point of completing his 37th year; that age so fatal to men of genius that it may almost be styled their climacteric. He was interred in the tomb fitted up by himself at South Leith. 

Besides his historical and local works, he had published, in 1777, a fanciful metaphysical treatise, entitled, "Nothing," which was originally a paper read before a well-known debating club styled the Speculative Society, being probably suggested to him by the poem of the Earl of Rochester on the equally impalpable subject of Silence. If any disagreeable reflection can rest on Mr Arnot’s memory for the free scope he has given to his mind in this little essay—a freedom sanctioned, if not excused, by the taste of the age—he must be held to have made all the amends in his power by the propriety of his deportment in later life; when he entered heartily and regularly into the observances of the Scottish episcopal communion, to which he originally belonged. If Mr Arnot was any thing decidedly in politica, he was a Jacobite, to which party he belonged by descent and by religion, and also perhaps by virtue of his own peculiar turn of mind. In modern politics he was quite independent judging all men and all measures by no other standard than their respective merits. In his professional character, he was animated by a chivalrous sentiment of honour worthy of all admiration. He was so little of a casuist, that he would never undertake a case, unless he were perfectly self-satisfied as to its justice and legality. He had often occasion to refuse employment which fell beneath his own standard of honesty, though it might have been profitable, and attended by not the slightest shade of disgrace. On a case being once brought before him, of the merits of which he had an exceedingly bad opinion he said to the intending litigant in a serious manner "Pray, what do you suppose me to be?" "Why," answered the client, "I understand you to be a lawyer." "I thought, Sir," said Arnot sternly, "you took me for a scoundrel." The litigant, though he perhaps thought that the major included the minor proposition, withdrew abashed. Mr Arnot left eight children, all very young; and the talent of the family appears to have revived in a new generation, viz., in the person of his grandson, Dr David Boswell Reid, whose "Elements of Chemistry" has taken its place amongst the most useful treatises on the science, and who was selected by Government, on account of his practical skill, to plan and superintend the ventilation of the new houses of parliament, in the prosecution of which object he has for several years been conducting the most costly and prolonged, if not the most successful, experiment of the kind ever made.


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