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Significant Scots
Captain Basil Hall


HALL, CAPTAIN BASIL, R.N.—Sir James Hall, Bart., of Dunglass, in the county of Haddington, and M.P. for the borough of St. Michael’s, Cornwall, who was father of the subject of the present biographical notice, obtained a distinguished name in the scientific world by his successful researches, as well as his writings. A part of his education was acquired at a university, where he had for one of his fellow-students no less a personage than Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Of this the fallen emperor, who never forgot anything, whether for good or evil, had a most distinct recollection; and when his son was introduced to him, more than thirty years afterwards, at St. Helena, he exclaimed, on hearing his name, "Ah! Hall; I knew your father when I was at the military college of Brienne—I remember him perfectly—he was fond of mathematics—he did not associate much with the younger part of the scholars, but rather with the priests and professors, in another part of the town from that in which we lived." In 1818 Sir James published a learned and elaborate "Essay on the Origin, Principles, and History of Gothic Architecture;" and was author of several justly-admired papers in the "Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh," of which he was president. He tried experiments on the fusion of stony substances, and thereby established the fact of the identity of the composition of whinstone and lava. He also ascertained that carbonate of lime (as common marble) might be fused without decomposition, if subjected to a degree of pressure equal to that which would be caused by the sea at the depth of about a mile and a half from its surface. The result of these inquiries tended to establish the truth of the Plutonian or Igneous theory of the origin of minerals, and to vindicate the authority of Hutton against that of Werner and his followers. Such was the father of Captain Basil Hall, whom, in some important points of intellectual character, the son closely resembled; his mother was a daughter of the fourth Earl of Douglas. Basil was born at Edinburgh, in 1788. His education, which was chiefly conducted at the High School of his native city, appears to have given little promise of future literary distinction; its monotony he felt to be a very weariness; and, instead of seeking a high place among his fellows, he preferred the middle of the class, because it was nearest to the comfortable fire. Still, however, his character was marked by considerable originality and independence; a startling proof of which he once gave to the master, by desiring to have the hours for study and recreation left to his own disposal, instead of his being tied down to the regulations of the school. As might be expected, this disregard of the laws of the Medes and Persians fared as it deserved, and he continued to doze by the fireside. Happily, however, his aim of life had been early chosen, so that he could think of something else than Latin conjugations. He had resolved to be a sailor, and every holiday that released him from the class-room was spent by the sea-shore, and in frequent cruises with the fishermen of the coast on which his father’s estate was situated.

This early predilection of Basil Hall was soon gratified; for in 1802, when he had only reached his fourteenth year, he was entered into the royal navy. On leaving home, "Now," said his father, putting a blank book into one hand of the stripling, and a pen into the other, "you are fairly afloat in the world; you must begin to write a journal." Little did Sir James know how zealously this judicious advice would be followed out, and what fruits would germinate from such a small beginning. The education that was fitted for such a mind as his had now fairly commenced. As his biographer has justly observed, "The opportunities which the naval profession affords, both for scientific pursuits and the study of men and manners in various climes, happened, in Captain Hall’s case, to lead him into scenes of more than usual interest; or perhaps it would be more correct to state, that his eager and indefatigable pursuit of knowledge induced him to seek every means of extending the sphere of his observations." After having been six years at sea, during which long period he had been only twelve days at home, he received a lieutenant’s commission in 1808; and being desirous of active service, he procured his transference from a ship of the line to the frigate Endymion, employed at that time in transporting troops for Sir John Moore’s army in Spain. There Lieutenant Hall witnessed many heart stirring events, not the least of which was that of the heroic Moore borne dying from the battle of Corunna. Of the whole of this conflict, in which he was a spectator, he has given an interesting account in his "Fragments of Voyages and Travels."

The rest of Basil Hall’s naval career is so well known from his numerous works, that nothing more is necessary than merely to advert to its leading points. In 1814 he was promoted to the rank of commander, and in 1817 to that of post-captain. Pending the period of advance from a lieutenancy, he was acting commander of the Theban on the East India station, in 1813, when he accompanied its admiral, Sir Samuel Hood, in a journey over the greater part of the island of Java. On his return home he was appointed to the command of the Lyra, a small gun brig that, in 1816, formed part of the armament in the embassy of Lord Amherst to China. On the landing of the suite, and while his lordship was prosecuting his inland journey to Pekin, Captain Hall used the opportunity by exploring those wonders of the adjacent seas, which as yet were little, if at all, known to the "barbarians" of the "outer circle." During this cruise his visit to the Great Loo-Choo island will continue to be memorable, from the Eden-like scenery and primitive innocent race which it presented to the eyes of its astonished visitors. Even Napoleon himself was justified in doubting whether such a community existed, when he was informed by Captain Hall that they not only used no money, but possessed also no lethal weapon, not even a poniard or an arrow. The ex-emperor indeed was in the right, for subsequent accounts have shown that the Loo-Chooans must have cunningly imposed both upon Hall and Captain Maxwell, by whom the Alceste was commanded in the expedition, and that these gentle islanders used not only weapons and money, but were among the most merciless pirates in the Yellow Sea. On his return to England in 1817, Captain Hall published "A Voyage of Discovery to the Western Coast of Corea and the Great Loo-Choo Island in the Japan Sea," a work so novel and interesting in its materials, as well as so attractive in style, that it rapidly secured a wide popularity. In this first edition there was an appendix containing charts and various hydrographical and scientific notices, which were omitted in the second, published in 1820. In 1827 the work appeared in a still more popular form, being the first volume of "Constable’s Miscellany," while it was enriched with the highly interesting account of his interview with Napoleon at St. Helena, when the Lyra was on its return from the Chinese Sea.

In 1820 Captain Hall, in the ship Conway, under his command, proceeded to Valparaiso, being charged to that effect by the British government. It was a period of intense interest to the Spanish colonies of South America, engaged as they were in that eventful warfare with the mother country, by which their independence was secured, and in such a contest Britain could not look on as an unconcerned spectator. After having touched at Teneriffe, Rio-de-Janeiro, and the River Plate, and remained at anchor in the principal seaport of the Chilian coast, according to orders, he was next sent, in 1821, from Valparaiso towards Lima, being commanded to call by the way at the intermediate ports on the coast of Chili and Peru. The object of this cruise was to inquire into the British interests at these places; to assist and protect any of his Britannic Majesty’s trading subjects; and, in a general way, to ascertain the commercial resources of the district. Having discharged these pacific but important duties to the full satisfaction of government, he returned to England early in 1823, and published the result of his observations under the title of "Extracts from a Journal written on the Coasts of Chili, Peru, and Mexico, in the years 1820, 1821, and 1822." This work, which afterwards constituted the second and third volumes of "Constable’s Miscellany," contained not only a highly interesting account of the people of these countries, and the events of the war of South American independence, but a memoir on the navigation of the South American station, a valuable collection of scientific observations, and an article "On the Duties of Naval Commanders-in-chief on the South American Station, before the appointment of Consuls."

Captain Hall had now established for himself a higher reputation than that of a brave sailor, skilful navigator, and rising man in his profession; his scientific acquirements, which he made by close study and careful observation during the course of his professional service in every quarter of the world, had insured him the favourable notice of the most eminent in the several departments of physics, while the literary excellence of the works he had already published had given him an honoured place among the most popular writers of the day. On this account, while he was on shore, it was as an author, and in the society of authors; and in this respect his journal affords such a mass of information that we wonder how a sailor could have written it. But every phase of intellectual society, every movement, every utterance, was as carefully noted by him as if he had been on the look-out upon the mast-head amidst a new ocean studded with rocks, shoals, and sunny islands. In this way, amongst other information, he has given us one of the most minute, and at the same time most graphic and interesting, accounts which we possess of the domestic life of Sir Walter Scott. As he was living on shore at the time, he spent the Christmas of 1824 at Abbotsford, with the "Great Unknown," while the mansion itself, which was newly finished and now to be inaugurated, had a greater concourse of distinguished guests than it could well contain. "Had I a hundred pens," exclaims Hall on this occasion, "each of which at the same time should separately write down an anecdote, I could not hope to record one-half of those which our host, to use Spenser’s expression, ‘welled out alway." But what man could do he did on this occasion; and during these ten or twelve happy days, every hour found him on the alert, and every evening occupied in bringing up his log. In this way his "Abbotsford Journal " alone would form a delightful volume. "Certainly Sir Walter Scott," observes his son-in-law and biographer, "was never subjected to sharper observation than that of his ingenious friend, Captain Basil Hall." But while thus observant, Hall could also be as frolicsome a Jack-ashore as ever landed after a two years’ cruise, and this he showed when Hogmany-night came; that night often so destructive of merriment, because people are then, as it were, enjoined by proclamation, like those of Cyprus, to "put themselves in triumph." "It is true enough," says Hall, when philosophizing upon this perverse tendency, "that it is to moralize too deeply to take things in this way, and to conjure up, with an ingenuity of self-annoyance, these blighting images. So it is, and so I acted; and as my heart was light and unloaded with any care, I exerted myself to carry through the ponderous evening; ponderous only because it was one set apart to be light and gay. I danced reels like a wild man, snapped my fingers, and hallooed with the best of them; flirted with the young ladies at all hazards; and with the elder ones—of which there was a store—I talked and laughed finely." One part of this journal, and not the least interesting part of it, is a solution of one of the great literary problems of the day; viz., how Sir Walter Scott could write so much, and yet be apparently so little in his study. Did he labour while all the world was asleep, that he might mingle in its daily intercourse? Captain Hall’s solution gives us an insight into his own literary character, and shows us how he was himself able to write so many volumes:—"I have taken the trouble," he says, "to make a computation, which I think fair to give, whichever way it may be thought to make in the argument. In each page of ‘Kenilworth’ there are, upon an average, 864 letters; in each page of this journal 777 letters. Now I find that in ten days I have written 120 pages, which would make about 108 pages of Kenilworth; and as there are 320 pages in a volume, it would, at my rate of writing this journal, cost about 29 1/2 days for each volume, or say three months for the composition of the whole of that work. No mortal in Abbotsford House ever learned that I kept a journal. I was in company all day, and all the evening till a late hour, apparently the least occupied of the party; and, I will venture to say, not absent from the drawing-room one-quarter of the time that the Unknown was. I was always down to breakfast before any one else, and often three-quarters of an hour before the author of ‘Kenilworth;’ always among the very last to go to bed; in short, I would have set the acutest observer at defiance to have discovered when I wrote this journal; and yet it is written, honestly and fairly, day by day. I don’t say it has cost me much labour, but it is surely not too much to suppose that its composition has cost me, an unpractised writer, as much study as ‘Kenilworth’ has cost the glorious Unknown. I have not had the motive of 5500 to spur me on for my set of volumes; but if I had had such a bribe, in addition to the feelings of good will for those at home, for whose sole perusal I write this, and if I had had in view, over and above, the literary glory of contributing to the happiness of two thirds of the globe, do you think I would not have written ten times as much, and yet no one should have been able to discover when it was that I had put pen to paper?" All this is well; but alas for the man, however talented and however active, who tasks his mind like a machine or a steam-engine, and calculates that, according to the ratio of a few days or weeks, it may be made to go onward, without interval, for months, for years, for a whole lifetime! Both Scott and Hall tried the experiment, and we know how mournfully it ended. While mentioning these two in connection, it may be as well to state that the acquaintanceship which they enjoyed during these bright but brief festal meetings at Abbotsford, was not interrupted, but rather drawn more closely, by the distressing wents that clouded the latter years of Sir Walter. Such was the case especially in 1826, when, after making a visit to Scott’s now humble residence in North St. David Street (Edinburgh), with the veneration of a pilgrim, Hall thus prefaced his account of the interview in his journal upon his returning home:—"A hundred and fifty years hence, when his works have become old classical authorities, it may interest some fervent lover of his writings to know what this great genius was about on Saturday, the 10th of June, 1826, five months after the total ruin of his pecuniary fortunes, and twenty-six days after the death of his wife." When Scott’s health was so utterly broken down that a voyage to Naples, and a winter’s residence there, were prescribed as a last resource, Captain Hall, unknown to his friend, and prompted by his own kind heart, applied on this occasion to Sir James Graham, first Lord of the Admiralty, and suggested how fit and graceful an act it would be on the part of government to place a frigate at Scott’s disposal for his voyage to the Mediterranean. The application was successful; and Sir Walter, amidst the pleasure he felt at such a distinction, could not help exclaiming of Hall, "That curious fellow, who takes charge of every one’s business without neglecting his own, has done a great deal for me in this matter." Here Captain Hall’s good offices did not terminate, for he preceded Sir Walter to Portsmouth, to make preparations for his arrival and comfortable embarkation. Of the few days which Sir Walter Scott spent at Portsmouth on this occasion, the captain has given a full account in the third volume of his "Third Series of Voyages and Travels."

In the interview which Hall was privileged to enjoy with Napoleon Bonaparte at St. Helena, and amidst the abrupt transitions that occurred in the manifold dialogue, where he was catechized more closely than ever he had been before, he records the following part of it, so closely connected with his own personal history:—"Bonaparte then said, ‘Are you married?’ and upon my replying in the negative, continued, ‘Why not? What is the reason you don’t marry?’ I was somewhat at a loss for a good answer, and remained silent. He repeated his question, however, in such a way that I was forced to say something, and told him I had been too busy all my life; besides which, I was not in circumstances to marry. He did not seem to understand me, and again wished to know why I was a bachelor. I told him I was too poor a man to marry. ‘Aha!’ he cried, ‘I now see—want of money—no money—yes, yes!’ and laughed heartily, in which I joined, of course, though, to say the truth, I did not altogether see the humorous point of the joke." We do not wonder at Hall’s blindness, for it was no joke at all to have been compelled to remain so long in celibacy (he was now in his thirtieth year), without a definite prospect of emancipation. Thus matters continued for eight years longer, when, in 1825, he married Margaret, youngest daughter of the late Sir John Hunter, consul-general for Spain.

Hitherto the career of Captain Hall had been a mixed one, being spent partly on sea and partly on shore, while the duties of his profession were alternated with the study of the sciences and the acquirement of languages; and whatever land he visited in the course of his many voyages, called forth from him a descriptive work, such as few literary landsmen could have written. And yet, with all this incessant mental action, and overflow of intellectual labour, the details of his profession had been so carefully studied, and its manifold requirements so well attended to, that he had attained a naval rank and reputation only accorded to those who have devoted themselves exclusively to the sea service. Now, however, we must briefly trace the rest of his life on shore, when, as a married man, he had settled down, and, in the words of Bacon, given hostages to fortune. By settling down, however, we are to understand nothing else than his abandonment of the sea, for his active inquiring spirit would have carried him into every corner of the earth, had time and opportunity permitted. In 1827, he repaired with his wife and child to the United States, in which they spent above a year, and where he travelled during that time nearly nine thousand miles by land and water. The fruits of his observations were given soon after his return, in his "Travels in North America," in three vols. 8vo, which he published in 1829. His next work was "Fragments of Voyages and Travels," which formed three serial publications, each consisting of 8 vols. 12mo. In 1834, he was travelling in Italy, and at Rome he formed the acquaintanceship of the distinguished Countess of Purgstall, who had been an early friend of his father. This lady, originally Miss Cranstoun, a native of Scotland, and sister of George Cranstoun, advocate, afterwards Lord Corehouse, was so famed for her eccentric liveliness, beauty, wit, and accomplishments, as to have been supposed by many to have been the original Diana Vernon, who so fascinated the novel-reading world in the pages of Rob Roy. Although this identity is denied by the biographer of Sir Walter Scott, it is certain that she was the early friend of the great novelist, and bore a strong family resemblance to the subsequent heroine of his creation. In 1797 she was married to Godfrey Wenceslaus, count of Purgstall, an Austrian nobleman, possessing large establishments in Styria. But although surrounded with almost regal splendour, the latter part of the life of this once happy creature was a mournful one; for first her husband died in 1811, and finally, a few years afterwards, her only son, a youth of high promise and attainments, at the early age of nineteen, by which death the illustrious race of Purgstall was extinct; and the forlorn wife and mother, who had vowed to her son upon his death-bed that her dust should finally be mingled with his, resisted every solicitation of her early friends to return to her native Scotland, and preferred a residence for the rest of her days in her now lonely and deserted Styria. Captain Hall gladly accepted an invitation to visit her, at her schloss or castle of Heinfeld, near Gratz; and from the journal which he kept there, he afterwards published his work of "Schloss Heinfeld, or a Winter in Lower Styria." The lady had now reached the advanced age of seventy-eight, but her recollections of early days were still so fresh and vivid, that they formed the chief theme of her conversation, while she found in Captain Hall a delighted listener. "The Countess’s anecdotes," he says, "relating to this period (of her intimacy with Sir Walter Scott), were without number; and I bitterly regretted, when it was too late, that I had not commenced at once making memoranda of what she told us. It was, indeed, quite clear to us, that this accomplished and highly gifted lady was the first person who not merely encouraged him to persevere, but actually directed and chastised those incipient efforts which, when duly matured, and rendered confident by independent exercise, and repeated though cautious trials, burst forth at last from all control, and gave undisputed law to the whole world of letters." It was at this huge Styrian castle, also, that Captain Hall spent his forty-sixth birthday, upon which occasion he gives us the following retrospect of his past existence:—"I have enjoyed to the full each successive period of my life, as it has rolled over me; and just as I began to feel that I had had nearly enough of any one period, new circumstances, more or less fortunate and agreeable, began to start up, and to give me fresher, and, generally speaking, more lively interest in the coming period than in that which had just elapsed. As a middy, I was happy—as a lieutenant, happier—as a captain, happiest! I remember thinking that the period from 1815 to 1823, during which I commanded different ships of war, could not by any possibility be exceeded in enjoyment; and yet I have found the dozen years which succeeded greatly happier, though in a very different way. It is upon this that the whole matter turns. Different seasons of life, like different seasons of the year, require different dresses; and if these be misplaced, there is no comfort. Were I asked to review my happy life, and to say what stage of it I enjoyed most, I think I should pitch upon that during which I passed my days in the scientific, literary, and political society of London, and my nights in dancing and flirting till sunrise, in the delicious paradise of Almacks, or the still more bewitching ball-rooms of Edinburgh! Perhaps next best was the quiet half-year spent in the Schloss Heinfeld. What the future is to produce is a secret in the keeping of that close fellow, Time; but I await the decision with cheerfulness and humble confidence, sure that whatever is sent will be for the best, be it what it may."—How blessed a boon is our ignorance of futurity! Through this ignorance, years of happiness were yet in store for Captain Hall, and at their close, "sufficient for the day were the evils thereof."

Hitherto we have noticed the carefulness with which he had been accustomed, wherever he went, to keep a daily journal. The advantage of this plan is obvious in all his writings. Every object he describes as if he had just left it, and every event as if its last echo had not yet died away. Thus, his "Schloss Heinfeld," which is such a lively fascinating work, was but an episode in one of three trips to the Continent, and out of these visits he purposed to make a whole series of similar writings from the copious memorials he had taken of his every-day movements. This, however, he did not accomplish, and his last production, entitled "Patchwork," in three volumes, was published in 1841. It is a light sketchy collection of tales, recollections of his travel in foreign countries, and essays, and evinces that his intellect was still as vigorous and his heart as buoyant as ever. But here the memoir of Captain Hall must be abruptly closed. Mental aberration, perhaps the result of so much activity and toil, supervened, after which his existence was but a blank; and being necessarily placed in confinement, he died in the Royal Hospital, Haslar, Portsmouth, on the 11th of September, 1844, at the age of fifty-six.

In the preceding notice, instead of enumerating the whole of Basil Hall’s numerous writings, we have confined ourselves to those that were connected with his personal history. Allusion has already been made to his scientific researches, which he commenced as a young midshipman, and continued to the end of his career. Besides the interspersion of these researches among his popular works, he produced several detached papers, of which the following list has been given:—

"An Account of the Geology of the Table Mountain."

"Details of Experiments made with an Invariable Pendulum in South America and other places, for determining the Figure of the Earth."

"Observations made on a Comet at Valparaiso."

Besides these three papers, which were published in the Transactions of the Royal Society, Captain Hall produced—

"A Sketch of the Professional and Scientific Objects which might be aimed at in a Voyage of Research."

"A Letter on the Trade-Winds, in the Appendix to Daniell’s Meteorology." Several scientific papers in Brewster’s Journal, Jamieson’s Journal, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.

It is only necessary to add to this account, that Captain Hall was a fellow of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh, and a member of the Astronomical Society of London.


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