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Significant Scots
Christopher Irvine


IRVINE, CHRISTOPHER, an antiquary, philologist, and physician, lived in the seventeenth century, and was a younger son of the family of Irvine of Bonshaw in Lanarkshire. Like his relation, who rendered himself infamous in the cause of royalty by seizing Donald Cargill, Christopher Irvine was a devoted adherent of the Stuarts and of episcopacy. He was turned out of the college of Edinburgh in 1638 or 1639, in consequence of his resisting the national covenant; and by some connexion, the nature of which is not known, with the Irish troubles, which happened not long after, he lost a plentiful patrimony. Of these circumstances he himself informs us, in the address appended to one of his works, as well as of the facts, that "after his travels, the cruel saints were pleased to mortify him seventeen nights with bread and water;" and even after having recalled an act of banishment which they had formerly passed against him, subjected him to the fate of absolute starvation, with only the dubious alternative of "teaching grammar." Having adopted the latter course, we have ascertained from another source [Sibbald’s Bibliotheca Scotica, MS. Adv. Lib.] that he was schoolmaster first at Leith, and afterwards at Preston. In the course of his exertions in this capacity, he was led to initiate his pupils in Scottish history; and it was out of the information collected for that purpose, along with some notes he received from Mr Alexander Home and Mr Thomas Crawford, formerly professors of humanity in Edinburgh university, that he compiled his Nomenclature of Scottish History, the work by which he is best known. Some time during the commonwealth, he appears to have resumed the profession to which he was bred, and practised first as a surgeon, and finally as a physician in Edinburgh, at the same time that he held a medical appointment in the army of general Monk, by which Scotland was then garrisoned.

We have not been able to discover any earlier publication of Christopher Irvine than a small and very rare volume, entitled Bellum Grammaticale, which appeared at Edinburgh in 1650, but of the nature of which, not having seen it, we cannot speak. His second performance was a small volume, now also very rare, having the following elaborate title: "Medicina Magnetica; or the rare and wonderful art of curing by sympathy, laid open in aphorisms, proved in conclusions, and digested into an easy method drawn from both; wherein the connexion of the causes and effects of these strange operations, are more fully discovered than heretofore. All cleared and confirmed, by pithy reasons, true experiments, and pleasant relations, preserved and published as a master-piece in this skill, by C. de Iryngio, chirurgo-medicine in the army. Printed in the year 1656." The dedication, which is dated from Edinburgh, June 3, 1656, and is signed "C. Irvine," is addressed to general Monk, as "chief captain of those forces among whom for diverse years I have served and prospered;" and speaking of the kindness of the commander toward his inferiors, he continues—"This is observed by all; this hath been my experience so oft as I had need of favour and protection." We may from these passages argue, that, at the period when he composed this book, Irvine himself was a man of respectable standing as to years, and had not found it inconsistent with his loyalist principles to take office under Cromwell. The work itself is a true literary curiosity. The monstrous and fanciful doctrines which crowd the pages of Paracelsus and Cardan, and which had begun at that period to sink before the demand for logical proof and practical experience, which more accurate minds had made are here revived, and even exaggerated; while the imagination of the writer seems to have laboured in all quarters of nature, to discover grotesque absurdities. The book, it will be remarked, is a treatise on animal magnetism. We would give his receipt for the method of manufacturing "an animal magnet," did we dare, but propriety compels us to retain our comments for the less original portion of the work. The principles of the author, de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis, are laid down in "an hundred aphorisms," which are of such a nature as following: "Neither souls, nor pure spirits, nor intelligencies can work upon bodies, but by means of the spirit; for two extremes cannot be joined together without a mean, therefore," it is justly and conclusively argued, "demons appear not but after sacrifices used."— "He that can join a spirit impregnat with the virtue of one bodie with another, that is now disposed to change, may produce many miracles and monsters."—"He that can by light draw light out of things, or multiply light with light, he knoweth how to adde the universal spirit of life to the particular spirit of life, and by this addition do wonders," &c. Nor is his method of supporting his aphorisms by proof less original and conclusive. The readers of Hudibras will recollect the story taken from Helemont, of the man who, having lost his nose, procured a new one to be cut from the limb of a porter, on whose death the unfortunate nose grew cold and fell off. The reasoning of Mr Christopher Irvine on this matter is peculiarly metaphysical, "is not," he says, "all our doctrine here confirmed clearer than the light? was not the insititious nose as animated at the first, so still informed with the soul of the porter? Neither had it any from the man whose nose now it was made, but only nourishment; the power of the assimilation which it hath from its proper form, it took it not from him but from the porter, of whom it was yet truly a part; and who dying, the nose became a dead nose, and did immediately tend to corruption. But who doth not here see, most openly and evidently, a concatenation? otherwise, how could the nose of one that was at Bolonia, enform the nose of one that was at Brussels, but by means of a concatenation?" The curiosity of the matter, presenting a specimen of the speculations in which several Scottish philosophers at that period indulged, may excuse these extracts.

The work to which Irvine’s name is most frequently attached, is the "Historiae Scoticae Nomenclatura Latino-Vernacula;" an explanatory dictionary of the Latin proper names made use of in Scottish history, published at Edinburgh in 1682, and re-published in 1819. The editor of the reprint observes, that he "intended, along with the present edition, to have given the public a short sketch of the life of the author; but this intention he has been obliged to relinquish from want of materials. To numerous enquiries, in many directions, no satisfactory answer was procured, and the editor mentions with regret, that he knows nothing more of this eminent literary character, and profound philologist, than can be collected from his address to the reader." The dedication is to the duke of York; and if we had not been furnished with vast specimens of the capacity of royal stomachs at that period for flattery, we might have suspected Mr Christopher of a little quizzing, when he enlarges on the moderation, the generosity, the kindness to friends, the forgiveness, to enemies, displayed by the prince, and especially on his having "so firmly on solid grounds established the protestant religion." Among the other eulogiums is one which may be interpreted as somewhat apologetical on the part of the author, in as far as respects his own conduct. "The neglected sufferer for loyalty is now taken into care and favour, and they that have recovered better principles, are not reproached nor passed by; their transgressions are forgot, and time allowed to take off their evil habit." The Nomenclature is a brief general biographical and topographical dictionary of Scotland. With a firm adherence to the fabulous early history, the author shows vast general reading; but, like most authors of the age, he seems to have considered Scotland the centre of greatness, and all other transactions in the world as naturally merging into a connexion with it. Thus in juxtaposition with Argyle, we find "Argivi, Argos, and Arii." And the Dee is discussed beside the Danube.

From the address attached to this volume, we learn that its publication was occasioned by his recent dismissal from the king’s service. "And now," he says, " being, as it seemeth by a cruel misrepresentation, turned out of my public employment and livelyhood, which the defender of the sincere will return, I have at the desire of the printer, in this interval, revised, &c." Taking the dedication in connexion with this circumstance, there can be little doubt as to the particular object of that composition; and from another document it would appear that he was not unsuccessful in his design. An act of parliament, dated three years later than the publication of the Nomenclature, and ratifying an act of privy council, which had reserved to Irvine the privilege of acting as a physician, independent of the College of Physicians of Edinburgh, just established, proceeds upon a statement by the learned man himself, that "he has been bred liberally in these arts and places that fit men for the practice of physick and chirurgery, and has received all the degrees of the schools that give ornament and authority in these professions, and has practised the same the space of thertie years in the eminentest places and among very considerable persons in this island, and has, by vertue of commissions from his royal master, exerced the dutie of cherurgeon of his guards of horse twenty-eight years together, and has had the charge of chief physician and chirurgeon of his armie." [Acts of the Scottish parliament, viii. 530-531.] He then states, that he wishes to practise his profession in peace, in the city of Edinburgh, of which he is a burgess, and hopes the council "would be pleased not to suffer him, by any new gift or patent to be stated under the partial humors or affronts of (a) new incorporation or college of physicians, composed of men that are altogether his juniors (save doctor Hay) in the studies of phylosophie and practise of physick."


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