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Significant Scots
Sir John Graham Dalyell


DALYELL, SIR JOHN GRAHAM, Bart.—This accomplished student and expositor of Scottish antiquarianism, like many who are devoted to that science, was the descendant of an ancient family of historical note, being the second son of Sir Robert, the fourth baronet of Binns, Linlithgowshire, while his mother, Elizabeth Graham, was of the family of Gartmore, and consequently a descentant of the "great marquis." He was born in 1777. Being devoted to more peaceful pursuits than his renowned ancestors, he studied for the Scottish bar, and was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates in 1797. His favourite occupation, however, instead of inclining to that of a barrister on the boards of the Parliament House, was to keep aloof from the din of wordy war, and take refuge among the crypts of the Advocate’s Library, absorbed in the study of that valuable collection of MSS. connected with Scottish history and antiquities, for which the library is so distinguished. The fruit of this was soon apparent; for two years had not elapsed after his enrolment as an advocated, when he produced his first work in quarto, entitled, "Fragments of Scottish History," containing, among other valuable matter, the "Diary of Robert Birrell, burgess of Edinburgh, from 1532 to 1608." Little more than two years afterwards (in 1801), he published, in two volumes octavo, a "Collection of Scottish Poems of the Sixteenth Century." Of the labour he underwent in the task, and the diligence with which he discharged it, an estimate may be formed from the fact, that in preparing this collection he had examined about seven hundred volumes of manuscripts. None, however, but those who are conversant with this kind of literature, can be fully aware of its difficulties, owing to the loose manner in which the Scottish poems of this period were transcribed, and the variety of readings, as well as amount of interpolated nonsense, with which they are disfigured. For these two works he found a fitting publisher in Mr. Archibald Constable, at that time an antiquarian, and the friend of antiquarians, whose old-book shop at the Cross was the favourite haunt of those distinguished men, by whose publications he afterwards became a prince in the realms of literature.

The next work of Mr. Graham Dalyell, was a "Tract chiefly relative to Monastic Antiquities, with some account of a recent search for the Remains of the Scottish Kings interred in the Abbey of Dunfermline." This work, which appeared in 1809, was the first of a series of four or five thin octavos, illustrative of our Scottish ecclesiastical records, which he issued at various intervals; and the chartularies which he severally illustrated were those of the bishoprics of Aberdeen and Murray, the Abbey of Cambuskenneth, the Chapel Royal of Stirling, and the Preceptory of St. Anthony at Leith—the series having been carried on till 1828. But this was not his only occupation, as during the long interval he published an edition of the "Journal of Richard Bannatyne," the secretary and amanuensis of John Knox; and another, of the "Scottish Chronicle of Lindsay of Pitscottie." By way of literary divertisement amidst these labours in our national antiquities, Mr Dalyell also published, in 1811, "Some Account of an Ancient Manuscript of Martial’s Epigrams," which was illustrated by an engraving, and anecdotes explanatory of the manners and customs of the Romans. Of these only thirty copies were printed, six of them being on vellum.

A more important work than any of the preceding, and requiring a larger amount of original thought as well as wider research, was published by Mr. Dalyell in 1834, under the title of "An Essay on the Darker Superstitions of Scotland." Such a title sufficiently intimates not only the extent of reading it required among books the most trying to the patience of a diligent investigator, but also those depths of time into which he was compelled to grope, in the midst of darkness and doubt, while he traced our national superstitions to their primitive homes in the forests of Germany, upon the shores of Norway, or even the more dismal and unknown wilds of Scythia. The last work which he published was the "Musical Memoirs of Scotland." This appeared in 1850, when he was now in his seventy-third year; but the vivacity of style in which it is written, and the sprightly character of the anecdotes with which the subject is illustrated, give no indications either of the feebleness or the apathy of old age. The work possesses also the additional recommendation of a splendid quarto form and many excellent engravings, for he was not only an ardent lover of music, but a thorough judge of it as a science, and through life he had always affectionately turned to it as a relief from his more severe occupations.

Besides those literary productions we have mentioned, comprising an authorship of fifty years’ duration, Mr. Graham Dalyell published "Observations on some Interesting Phenomena in Animal Physiology, exhibited by several Species of Planariae," 8vo, 1814. Another work, which he published in 1847, in two splendid quartos, enriched with more than a hundred coloured plates, drawn from the living subjects, was entitled, "Rare and Remarkable Animals of Scotland, represented from Living Subjects, with Practical Observations on their Nature." He was also the author of several articles in the "Encyclopedia Britannica."

From the foregoing brief notice, some estimate may be formed of the literary character of Mr. Dalyell. An antiquary at a time when Scottish antiquarianism was little cultivated, his labours as well as his example gave a powerful impulse to that study, which soon became so widely diffused, and has been productive of such happy results. It is owing, indeed, to this spirit of inquiry, that few histories of nations have been more effectually cleared from darkness, and purified from error, than that of Scotland, although few have undergone such a cruel process as that which was devised to annihilate it. But Mr. Dalyell was something more than an antiquary, although he stood in the front rank of the order; he was also an accomplished classical scholar, and well acquainted with mechanical science and natural history, of which his writings are an abundant proof. Although as an author he was so prolific, his diligence and perseverance are the more to be admired, when we remember that such was his fastidiousness in composition, that he would seldom commit his manuscript to the press until it had been re-written four or five times over.

Sir John Graham Dalyell received the honour of knighthood by patent in 1836, and succeeded to the baronetcy of Binns, by the death of his elder brother, in 1841. His own death occurred on the 7th of June, 1851. As he was never married, he was succeeded in his title and estates by his brother, Sir William Cunningham Cavendish Dalyell, commander in the royal navy.


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