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Significant Scots
John Johnstone


JOHNSTON, JOHN, a Latin poet and classical scholar of considerable eminence in the earlier part of the 17th century. Though this individual is one of the ornaments of a very distinguished age of Scottish literature, the date of his birth is not accurately ascertained, but it must have been previous to the year 1570, as in 1587 he began to be known to the world. He styles himself "Abredonensis;" and as he was a member of the house of Crimond, he was probably born at the family seat near Aberdeen. Dr M’Crie, whose minute labours have thrown so much light on the literary history of this period, has, among other facts connected with Johnston, (which we shall here carefully recapitulate,) discovered the name of his master, from the last will of the poet, in which he affectionately leaves to that individual his white cup with the silver foot." [Item – I leave to Mr Robert Merser, Persoun of Banquhorie, (Canchory, near Aberdeen,) my auld kind maister, in talken of my thankful dewtie, my quhyit cupe with the silver fit." – M’Crie’s Melville, i. 351.] The same instrument appoints, as one of his executors, "Mr Robert Johnston of Creimond," probably his brother, a person who appears to have been in 1635 elected provost of Aberdeen. [History of the Family of Johnston, 29.]Johnston studied at King’s college in Aberdeen, whence, after the usual custom of the age, he made a studious peregrination among the continental universities, which he continued during a period of eight years. In 1587, we find him at the university of Helmstadt, whence he transmitted a manuscript copy of Buchanan’s Sphaera, to be re-edited by Pincier, along with two epigrams of his own. [M’Crie’s Melville, i. 331.]In 1587, he was at the university of Restock, where he enjoyed the intimacy and correspondence of the elegantly learned but fanciful Justus Lipsius. An epistle from this veteran in classical criticism to his younger associate, is preserved in the published correspondence of the former, and may interest from the paternal kindness of its spirit, and the acknowledgment it displays of the promising genius of the young Scottish poet.

"You love me, my dear Johnston, and you praise my constancy. I heartily second the former statement, but as to the latter, I am afraid I must receive it with some diffidence, for I fear I have not achieved the praiseworthy excellence in that quality which your affectionate feelings have chosen to assign to me. I am, however, not a little flattered by the circumstance that David Chytraenus (by the way, who is that man?) is, as you say, of the same opinion with yourself in this matter, whether by mistake or otherwise. Whatever may be in this, I love--indeed I do—that constancy which has secured me so many friends; in the number of which, my dear Johnston, I not only ask, but command you to consider yourself as henceforth enrolled. Should God again grant to me to stand on and behold the soil of Germany, (and such an event may perhaps happen sooner than we wish, as matters are now moving,) I shall see thee, and we shall shake hands as a token of truth and affection. For your verses I return you thanks, which shall be doubly increased, if you will frequently favour me with your letters, in which I perceive evident marks of your wonted elegance and erudition.—Leyden, the 20th March, 1588."

Johnston appears to have early embraced the doctrines of the presbyterian church of Scotland, and to have retained them with the characteristic firmness of the body. He was the intimate friend of its accomplished supporter Andrew Melville, whose influence probably procured him the appointment to the professorship of divinity in the new college of St Andrews, as successor to John Robertson,—an advancement which he obtained previously to the year 1594, as he is discovered, under the term "maister in the new college," to have been elected one of the elders of St Andrews, on the 28th November, 1593. Johnston was a useful assistant to his illustrious friend, in the opposition to the harassing efforts of king James to introduce episcopacy. He must have been included in the interdict of the visitation of the university commission, by which the professors of theology and philosophy, not being pastors of the church, were prohibited from sitting in church courts, except through an election regulated by the council of the visitation: and in the General Assembly which met at Dundee in 1598, whither both had resorted to oppose the too great tenderness of James for the church, in proposing to admit its representation in parliament, Melville and Johnston were charged to quit the city, with the usual formality of the pain of rebellion in case of refusal. In 1603, these friends again appear acting in concert, in a correspondence with Du Plessis, on the subject of the synod of Gap in France having censured certain peculiar opinions on the doctrine of justification. "They did not presume to judge of the justice of the synod of Gap, but begged leave to express their fears that strong measures would inflame the minds of the disputants, and that a farther agitation of the question might breed a dissension very injurious to the interests of the evangelical churches. It appeared to them that both parties held the protestant doctrine of justification, and only differed a little in their mode of explaining it. They, therefore, in the name of their brethren, entreated Du Plessis to employ the authority which his piety, prudence, learned writings, and illustrious services in the cause of Christianity had given him in the Gallican church, to bring about an amicable adjustment of the controversy." Without inquiring into the minutia of the controversy, the knowledge that it was a theological one is sufficient to make us appreciate the advice as exceedingly sound; and we have the satisfaction to know, as a rare instance, that it produced the desired effect. During the previous year Johnston had published at Amsterdam his first complete poetical work, entitled "Inscriptiones Historicae Regina Scotorum, continuata annorurn serie a Fergusio I. ad Jacobum VI. Praefixus est Gathelus, sive de gentis origine, Fragmentum Andrea Melvini. Additae sunt icones omnium regum nobilie Familiae Stuartorum," 4to; and in 1603, he published at Leyden, "Heroes ex omni Historia Scotica Lectissimi," 4to. Both these productions have been preserved in the Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum, by the author’s relative, Arthur Johnston. The former is a series of epigrammatic addresses to the Scottish monarchs, commencing with Fergus I, and duly passing through the extended list, to the reigning monarch James VI; regarding whom it is worthy of commendatory remark, that the author is more lavish of commendations on the good fortune which Providence had bestowed on him, than on his talents or kingly qualities. The "Heroes" is a tissue of similar epigrams, addressed to the heroes who distinguish the reigns of the same line of kings, commencing with Ferchard, the great commander-in-chief of king Reuther. Of course, both works laud the virtues of many men who never drew breath. The merits of Johnston as a poet cannot be said to rise beyond those of the mere epigrammatist: to the classical elegance of his Latinity, we believe few objections can be found, but he displays more of the neatness of illustration, and precise aptness of association, which may be taught, than of the inborn poetic fire; and his works are perhaps more pleasing in the restrictions of a classical tongue, than they might have been had he allowed himself to range in the freedom of his vernacular language. When treating of those who never existed, or of whom little is known, the absence of all interest from the subject adds to the coldness of the epigram, and leaves room for the mere conceit to stand alone; but in treating of interesting or remarkable events, Johnston could sometimes be lofty, and strike a chord of feeling. We might instance, as favourable specimens, the epigram to the family of the Frasers, massacred by the Clanranald in 1544, and that to Robert the Bruce. In 1609, Johnston. published at Leyden, "Consolatio Christiana sub Cruce, et Iambi de Felicitate Hominis Deo reconciliati, 8vo; in 1611, he published "Iambi Sacri;" and in 1612, "Tetrasticha et Lemmata Sacra_Item Cantica Sacra—Item Icones Regum Judeae et Israelis. Lugd. Bat. [Maidment’s Catalogues of Scots Writers, 14 – Sibbald’s Bibliotheca Scottica, MS, 49. There is some difference in the names, as recorded by these two writers, and never having seen the works themselves, we take what appear to be the more correct titles.]

Johnston died in the month of October, 1612; the last scene of his life is drawn by James Melville in a letter to his uncle, dated the 25th of November ensuing; of which we cannot avoid giving the terms, as translated by Dr M’Crie "Your colleague John Johnston closed his life last month. He sent for the members of the university and presbytery, before whom he made a confession of his faith, and professed his sincere attachment to the doctrine and discipline of our church, in which he desired to die. He did not conceal his dislike of the lately erected tyranny, and his detestation of the pride, temerity, fraud, and whole conduct of the bishops. He pronounced a grave and ample eulogium on your instructions, admonitions, and example; craving pardon of God and you, for having offended you in any instance, and for not having borne more meekly with your wholesome and friendly anger. As a memorial, he has left you a gilt velvet cap, a gold coin, and one of his best books. His death would have been a most mournful event to the church, university, and all good men, had it not been that he has for several years laboured under an incurable disease, and that the ruin of the church has swallowed up all lesser sorrows, and exhausted our tears." [M’Crie’s Melville, ii. 284.]

We learn that he had married Catharine Melville of the family of Carribee—but at what period seems not to be known—and he has left behind him epitaphs on her and their two children. It appears that in 1800, he had been solicited to become "second minister" of Haddington. Besides the works already mentioned, there exist, or did exist, by him in MS. in the Advocates’ Library, several other works. He wrote epigrams on the chief towns of Scotland, which have been appropriately inserted in Cambden’s Britannia; and some of his letters are to be found in the correspondence of that eminent antiquary. Andrew Melville says, "Mr Johne Davidsone left sum nots behind of our tyme, and so did Mr Johne Johnstoun:" what has become of these we know not.


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