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Significant Scots
James Bell


BELL, JAMES.—This indefatigable geographer was born in 1769, in Jedburgh. His father, the Rev. Thomas Bell, minister of a Relief congregation in that town, and afterwards of Dovehill chapel, in Glasgow, was a man of great worth and considerable learning, and the author of a "Treatise on the Covenants," and several other pieces of a theological kind. In his childhood and youth the subject of our memoir suffered much sickness, and gave little promise either of bodily or mental vigour; but, as he grew up, his constitution improved, and he began to evince that irresistible propensity to reading, or rather devouring all books that came in his way, which ever afterwards marked his character. It was fortunate for him that he was not bereft of his natural guardian until he was considerably advanced in life, for he was quite unfit to push his own way in the world, the uncommon simplicity of his character rendering him the easy dupe of the designing and knavish. He indeed entered into business for a short time as a manufacturer with his characteristic ardour, but finding himself unsuccessful, he betook himself to another and more laborious mode of making a livelihood, but one for which he was far better qualified, namely, the private teaching of Greek and Latin to advanced students. But as his father, with parental prudence, had settled a small annuity upon him, he was enabled to devote a considerable portion of his time to those studies and researches to which his natural inclination early led him, and which he only ceased to prosecute with his life. Mr. Bell used to advert with feelings of peculiar satisfaction to the meetings of a little weekly society which, during this period of his history, were held at his house and under his auspices, and at which the members read essays and debated questions for their mutual entertainment and improvement. On all these occasions, Mr. Bell never failed to contribute his full share to the evening’s proceedings, and, when fairly excited, would astonish and delight his associates, particularly the younger part of them, with the extent and variety of his learning, and the astonishing volubility with which he poured forth the treasures of his capacious and well-furnished mind on almost every possible topic of speculation or debate.

Mr. Bell’s first appearance as an author was made about the year 1815, when he contributed several valuable chapters to the "Glasgow Geography"—a work which had an extensive circulation, published in five volumes 8vo, by the house of Khull, Blackie, & Co., and which became the foundation of Mr. Bell’s "System of Popular and Scientific Geography." In 1824 he published—in conjunction with a young Glasgow linguist of great promise, named John Bell, who died January 1, 1826, but no relative of the subject of this memoir— a thin 8vo volume, entitled, "Critical Researches in Philology and Geography." The philologist contributed two articles to the volume, the one a "Review of Jones’s Persian Grammar," and the other a "Review of an Arabic Vocabulary and Index to Richardson’s Arabic Grammar, by James Noble, Teacher of Languages, in Edinburgh," both of which are characterized by a minute acquaintance with the subjects under discussion. The geographer’s contribution consisted of a very elaborate "Examination of the Various Opinions that in Modern Times have been held respecting the Sources of the Ganges, and the Correctness of the Lamas’ Map of Thibet," which elicited high encomiums from some of the leading periodicals of the day.

Geography was the science around which as a nucleus all his sympathies gathered, as if by an involuntary and irresistible tendency. To it he consecrated the labour of his life; it was the favourite study of his earlier years, and his old age continued to be cheered by it. In every thing belonging to this science there was a marvellous quickness and accuracy of perception—an extreme justness of observation and inference about him. When the conversation turned upon any geographical subject, his ideas assumed a kind of poetical inspiration, and flowed on in such unbroken and close succession, as to leave no opportunity to his auditors of interposing a question or pursuing a discussion. Once engaged, there was no recalling him from his wild excursive range—on he went, revelling in the intensity of his own enjoyment, and bearing his hearers along with him over chains of mountains and lines of rivers, until they became utterly bewildered by the rapidity with which the physical features of every region of the globe were made to pass in panoramic succession before them.

From his childhood Mr. Bell had been subject to severe attacks of asthma. These gradually assumed a more alarming character, and ultimately compelled him to leave Glasgow for a residence in the country. The place which he selected for his retirement was a humble cottage in the neighbourhood of the village of Campsie, about twelve miles north of Glasgow. Here he spent the last ten or twelve years of his life in much domestic comfort and tranquillity.

He was abstemious in his general habits; and his only earthly regret—at least the only one which he deemed of sufficient consequence to make matter of conversation—was the smallness of his library, and his want of access to books. Yet it is astonishing how little in the republic either of letters or of science he allowed to escape him. His memory was so retentive, that nothing which he had once read was ever forgotten by him. This extraordinary faculty enabled him to execute his literary commissions with a much more limited apparatus of books, than to others less gifted would have been an indispensable requisite.

The closing scene of Mr. Bell’s life was calm and peaceful. He had, as already mentioned, long suffered violently from asthma. This painful disease gradually gained upon his constitution, and became more severe in its periodical attacks, and the exhausted powers of nature finally sunk in the struggle. He expired on the 3d of May, 1833, in the sixty-fourth year of his age, and was buried, at his own express desire, in the old churchyard of Campsie—a beautiful and sequestered spot.

In forming an estimate of Mr. Bell’s literary character, we must always keep in view the difficulties with which he had to struggle in his unwearied pursuit of knowledge. He was without fortune, without powerful friends, and destitute, to a great extent, of even the common apparatus of a scholar. He laboured also under defects of physical organization which would have chilled and utterly repressed any mind less ardent and enthusiastic than his own in the pursuit of knowledge: yet he surmounted every obstacle, and gained for himself a distinguished place among British geographers, in despite both of his hard fortune and infirm health. Many men have made a more brilliant display with inferior talents and fewer accomplishments; but none ever possessed a more complete mastery over their favourite science, and could bring to any related task a greater amount of accurate and varied knowledge. That he was an accomplished classical scholar is apparent from the immense mass of erudite allusions which his writings present; but he was not an exact scholar. He knew little of the niceties of language; his compositions are often inelegant and incorrect; he had no idea of elaborating the expression of his thoughts, but wrote altogether without attention to effect, and as if there were no such things as order in thinking and method in composition. It would be doing him injustice, however, while on this point, not to allow that his later writings exhibit a closer connection of ideas, and greater succinctness of mental habits than his earlier productions.

Besides the earlier publications already adverted to, Mr. Bell edited an edition of "Rollin’s Ancient History," including the volume on the "Arts and Sciences of the Ancients." This work, published in Glasgow, in three closely printed octavo volumes, bears ample evidence to the industry, research, and sagacity of the editor. The notes are of great extent, and many of them on the geography of the ancients, on the bearing of history, on prophecy, more particularly the prophecies of Daniel, or such as those on the retreat of the Ten Thousand Greeks, the march of Hannibal across the Alps, and the ruins of Babylon, amount to discussions of considerable length.

His other great work was his "System of Geography," of which it is sufficient to say, that it has been pronounced decidedly superior as a popular work to that of Malte Brun, and on this account was subsequently republished in America. In this country it obtained a very extensive circulation. The preparation of these works, and of materials left incomplete for a "General Gazetteer," occupied a great many years of Mr. Bell’s life. He also took a lively interest in the success of several scientific periodicals, and aided their progress by numerous valuable contributions from his own pen. In all his writings, from the causes already assigned, there is too little effort at analysis and compression. Much might with advantage have been abridged, and much pared off. In his "System of Geography" he occasionally borrowed the correcting pen of a friend, hence its composition is more regulated and chastened.

Mr. Bell’s moral character was unimpeachable. He was remarkable for plain, undissembling honesty, and the strictest regard to truth. In all that constituted practical independence of character, he was well furnished; he could neither brook dependence nor stoop to complaint. He was in the strictest sense of the word a pious man. He was a humble and sincere Christian, and his impressions of a religious nature appear to have been acquired in early life. He had a deep sense of the corruption of human nature, and saw the necessity of man’s justification by faith alone. He concurred with his whole heart in that interpretation of the doctrines of the Bible commonly called the Calvinistic; but in no sense of the word was he sectarian in spirit; he had no bigotry or intolerance of opinion on religious points, although few could wield the massive weapons of theological controversy with greater vigour and effect.


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