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Significant Scots
James Elphinstone


ELPHINSTONE, JAMES, a miscellaneous writer, was born at Edinburgh, November 25th, O. S., 1721. He appears to have descended from a race of non-jurant episcopalians, and to have had some distinguished connections among that body. His father was the Rev. William Elphinstone, an episcopal minister. His mother was daughter to the Rev. Mr Honeyman, minister of Kineff and niece to Honeyman, bishop of Orkney, a prelate very obnoxious to the presbyterian party in the reign of Charles II., and who died in consequence of a pistol-wound which he received while entering archbishop’s Sharpe’s coach, and which was intended for the primate. Mr Elphinstone was educated at the high school and university of Edinburgh; and before the age of seventeen, was deemed fit to act as tutor to the son of lord Blantyre. When about twenty-one years of age, he became acquainted at London with the Jacobite historian, Thomas Carte, whom he accompanied on a tour through Holland, the Netherlands, and France. In Paris the two travellers spent a considerable time; and here Mr Elphinstone perfected his acquaintance with the French language. After the death of Carte, Mr Elphinstone returned to his native country, and became tutor in the family of Mr Moray of Abercairney, also a keen jacobite. In 1750, he is found resident at Edinburgh, where he superintended an edition of the Rambler. The law of copyright at that time permitted the Scottish and Irish booksellers to reprint whatever works appeared in England, without compensation; and this was taken advantage of in the case of Dr Johnson’s celebrated paper, each number of which appeared at Edinburgh as soon as it could be obtained from London. To this reprint, the subject of the present memoir supplied English translations of the classical mottoes, and with these Dr Johnson was so much pleased, as to extend his friendship to their author, and to adopt them in all the subsequent editions of his work. In a letter to Mr Elphinstone, published in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the author of the Rambler begs of his friend, to "write soon, to write often, and to write long letters;" a compliment of which any man existing at that time might well have been proud. During the progress of the Rambler, Mr Elphinstone lost his mother, of whose death he gave a very affecting account, in a letter to his sister, Mrs Strahan, wife of Mr William Strahan, the celebrated printer. This being shown to Dr Johnson, affected him so much, with a reflection upon his own mother, then in extreme old age, that he shed tears. He also sent a consolatory letter to Mr Elphinstone, which is printed by Boswell, and is full of warm and benignant feeling. The Scottish edition of the Rambler was ultimately completed, in eight duodecimo volumes, of most elegant appearance, and, as the impression was limited, it is now very scarce.

In 1751, Mr Elphinstone married Miss Gordon, daughter of a brother of General Gordon of Auchintool, and grand-daughter of lord Auchintool, one of the judges of the court of session before the revolution. Two years afterwards, he removed to London, and established a seminary upon an extensive scale, first at Brompton, and afterwards at Kensington. As a teacher, he was zealous and intelligent, and never failed to fix the affections and retain the friendship of his pupils. In 1753, he published a poetical version of the younger Racine’s poem of "Religion," which, we are told, obtained the approbation of Dr Young, author of the "Night Thoughts." About the same time, finding no grammar of the English language which he altogether approved of, he composed one for the use of his pupils, and published it in two duodecimo volumes. This was the most useful, and also the most successful of all his works, though it is now antiquated; it received the warm approbation of Mr John Walker, author of the Pronouncing Dictionary. In 1763, Mr Elphinstone published a poem, entitled "Education," which met with no success.

In the year 1776, Mr Elphinstone retired from his school with a competency, and seemed destined to spend the remainder of a useful life in tranquillity and happiness. In consequence, however, of certain peculiarities of his own mind, his peace was greatly disturbed, and his name covered with a ridicule which would not otherwise have belonged to it. It was the impression of everybody but Mr Elphinstone himself, that he possessed no particular talent for poetry, but simply resembled many other men of good education, who possess the art of constructing verse, without the power of inspiring it with ideas. Tempted, perhaps, by the compliments he had received on account of his mottoes to the Rambler, he resolved to execute a poetical translation of Martial. As he had a most extensive acquaintance, his contemplated work was honoured with a large subscription-list; and the work appeared in 1782, in one volume quarto, but was met on all hands with ridicule and contempt "Elphinstone’s Martial," says Dr Beattie, in a letter to Sir William Forbes, "is just come to hand. It is truly a unique. The specimens formerly published did very well to laugh at; but a whole quarto of nonsense and gibberish is too much. It is strange that a man not wholly illiterate should have lived so long in England without learning the language." The work, in fact, both in the poetry and the notes, displayed a total absence of judgment; and, accordingly, it has sunk into utter neglect.

In 1778, Elphinstone lost his wife, an event which is supposed to have somewhat unhinged his mind. To beguile his grief, he travelled into Scotland, where he was received with great civility by the most distinguished men of the day. It was even purposed to erect a new chair—one for English literature—in the university of Edinburgh, in order that he might fill it. Though this design misgave, he delivered a series of lectures on the English language, first at Edinburgh, and then in the public hall of the university of Glasgow. In the autumn of 1779, he returned to Edinburgh.

In his translation of Martial, Mr Elphinstone had given some specimens of a new plan of orthography, projected by himself, and of which the principal feature was the spelling of the words according to their sounds. In church and in state, he was a high tory; but he was the most determined jacobin in language. The whole system of derivation he set at defiance; analogy was his solvent; and he wished to create a complete revolution in favour of pronunciation. In 1786, he published a full explanation of his system, in two volumes quarto, under the extraordinary title of "Propriety ascertained in her Picture." Though the work produced not a single convert, he persisted in his desperate attempt, and followed up his first work by two others, entitled "English Orthograhy Epitomized," and" Propriety’s Pocket Dictionary." In order, further to give the world an example of an ordinary book printed according to his ideas, he published, in 1794, a selection of his letters to his friends, with their answers, entirely spelt in the new way; the appearance of which was so unnatural, and the reading so difficult and tiresome, that it never was sold to any extent, and produced a heavy loss to the editor. If Mr Elphinstone had applied his political principles to this subject, he would have soon convinced himself that there is more mischief, generally, in the change than good in the result. His pupil, Mr R. C. Dallas, thus accounts for his obstinacy in error. "He was," says this gentleman, "a Quixote in whatever he judged right; in religion, in virtue, in benevolent interferences; the force of custom or a host of foes made no impression upon him; the only question with him was, should it be, or should it not be? Such a man might be foiled in an attempt, but was not likely to be diverted from one in which he thought right was to be supported against wrong. The worst that can be said of his perseverance in so hopeless a pursuit is, that it was a foible by which he injured no one but himself."

Having seriously impaired his fortune by these publications, the latter days of this worthy man would have probably been spent in poverty, if he had not been rescued from that state by his brother-in-law and sister, Mr and Mrs Strahan. the former of these individuals, at his death, in 1785, left him an annuity of a hundred a-year, a hundred pounds in ready money, and twenty pounds for mournings. Mrs Strahan, who only survived her husband a month, left him two hundred pounds a-year more, and thus secured his permanent comfort. In the same year, he married, for his second wife, Miss Falconer, a niece of bishop Falconer of the Scottish episcopal church, who proved to him a most faithful and attentive partner till the close of his life. Mr Elphinstone lived on his humble competency, in the enjoyment of good health, till October 8th, 1809, when he suddenly expired, in the eighty-eighth year of his age. He was buried at Kensington, where, upon the east wall of the church, there is a marble slab, with an inscription setting forth his virtues.

Though, as a follower of literature, Elphinstone did little to secure the approbation of mankind, he was, nevertheless, a man of considerable mental abilities; and it is even said that he possessed the power of writing with force and simplicity, if it had not been obscured by his eccentricities. "After all," says Mr. Dallas, "it is as a man and a christian that he excelled; as a son, a brother, a husband, and a father to many, though be never had any children of his own, as a friend, an enlightened patriot, and a loyal subject. His manners were simple, his rectitude undeviating. His piety, though exemplary, was devoid of show; the sincerity of it was self-evident; but, though unobtrusive, it became impatient on the least attempt at profaneness; and an oath he could not endure. On such occasions he never failed boldly to correct the vice, whencesoever it proceeded. Mr Elphinstone was middle-sized, and slender in his person; he had a peculiar countenance, which, perhaps, would have been considered an ordinary one, but for the spirit and intellectual emanation which it possessed. He never complied with fashion in the alteration of his clothes. In a letter to a friend in 1782, he says: ‘time has no more changed my heart than my dress;’ and he might have said it again in 1809. The colour of his suit of clothes was invariably, except when in mourning, what is called a drab; his coat was made in the fashion that reigned when he returned from France, in the beginning of the last century, with flaps and buttons to the pockets and sleeves, and without a cape: he always wore a powdered bag-wig, with a high toupee, and walked with a cocked-hat and an amber-beaded cane; his shoe-buckles had seldom been changed, and were always of the same size; and he never put on boots. It must be observed, that he latterly, more than once, offered to make any change Mrs Elphinstone might deem proper; but in her eyes his virtues and worth had so sanctified his appearance, that she would have thought the alteration a sacrilege."


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