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Significant Scots
Robert Hepburn


HEPBURN, ROBERT, of Bearford, a fugitive writer, who at a very early age distinguished himself by the exhibition of strong talents, and an original genius, which the briefness of his life did not permit to rise to maturity, was born about 1690 or 1691. He studied civil law in Holland, with the intention of becoming a member of the legal profession in his native country. He returned home in 1711, and in his twenty-first year attempted to imitate in Scotland the fugitive literature which the Tatler had introduced in England. Hepburn’s work was an avowed imitation of that periodical. He named it "The Tatler, by Donald Macstaff of the North." This work was carried through thirty weekly numbers; it is, we believe, extremely rare, and we have been unable to obtain a perusal of it. Lord Woodhouselee, who appears to have been acquainted with it, says, in his Life of Kames, "These papers are evidently the production of a man of vigorous native powers, and of a mind not meanly stored with ancient learning, and familiar with the best writings of the moderns. The author might have shone in the treatment of general topics of moral discussion, or of criticism; but from a propensity not unnatural, where talents are combined with an ardent temperament, and sarcastic turn of mind, his compositions were fitted to give much offence, by the description of known characters, and by the personal satire which he employed, with no gentle or delicate hand, on some men of note, both in the ecclesiastical and civil departments, among his countrymen. " In 1712, Mr Hepburn became a member of the faculty of advocates, but death quenched his fiery and ambitious spirit, before he had an opportunity of exercising his professional talents. He left behind him two opuscula, "Demonstratio quod Deus sit," published at Edinburgh in 1714, and "Dissertatio De Scriptis Pitcarnianis," 1715. In the concluding number of the Tatler, he announced for publication a translation of Sir George M’Kenzie’s curious tract, "Idea Elquentiae Forensis;" a project he appears to have been prevented from fulfilling. There is extant a curious pamphlet, "A Discourse concerning the character of a Man of Genius, by Mr Hepburn," Edinburgh, 1715. We have no doubt that this is from the hand of Mr Hepburn of Bearford; it is the production of no ordinary mind. This small work is divided into sections, each of which contains a condensed moral precept, or aphorism: the quotation of one or two of these will give the best idea of the author’s talents, which can be now furnished. The reader will be surprised to find in our extracts, reflections which have now become common-place, but which strikingly resemble many of those on which some of the moral and polite philosophers of the last century raised their renown.

Sec. 7. "I don’t know by what fate it happens, that some men have the fortune to be counted wits, only for jesting a little out of the common road, and for endeavouring, in opposition to all the reason and sense of mankind, to turn into ridicule those things which are, in their own nature, the most sacred and venerable. But as a man is not infamous for being defamed, so it is no disparagement to any person or thing, to be laughed at, but to deserve to be so. It was a wise answer of Diogenes, which we find mentioned by Plutarch, when some of his friends told him that his enemies were laughing at him; ‘but I,’ replied he, ‘am not derided.’"

Sec. 9. "A man of genius ought not, in my opinion, to think even his dress below his notice; as the world is but too apt to judge by appearance."

Sec. 15. "A man discovers the extent of his genius, if, upon all occasions, he handsomely sets his part, and behaves with a good grace in every scene and circumstance of human life. The care of doing nothing unbecoming has accompanied the greatest minds to their last moments: they avoided an indecent posture, even in the very article of death."


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