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Significant Scots
John Pinkerton


PINKERTON, JOHN, a voluminous historian and critic, was born at Edinburgh on the 11th February, 1758. [Nichol’s Lit. Illustrations, v. 666.]He wasthe youngest of three sons of James Pinkerton, who had, in Somersetshire, acquired an independence as a dealer in hair, and returned to his native country, Scotland, where he married a widow whose maiden name was Heron. The opening of young Pinkerton’s intellect fell to the charge of an old woman acting as schoolmistress of a village near Edinburgh, and he was afterwards removed to the grammar school of Lanark. At school he is said to have shown, in apathy and abstinence from the usual boyish gratifications, the acidity of disposition for which he was afterward more particularly distinguished. Hypochondria, inherited from his father, isbelieved to have been the primary cause of the characteristic. He is said tohave publicly distinguished himself at school by his early classical acquirements having, as an exercise, translated a portion of Livy, which his preceptor, on comparison, decided to be superior to the same passage as translated in Hooker’s Roman History. After having remained at school for six years, he returned to Edinburgh. The dislike of his father to a university education seems to ban for some time afterthis period subjected him to a sort of half literary imprisonment, in which, by alternate fits, he devoted his whole time to French, the classics, and mathematics. Intended for the legal profession, he was apprenticed to Mr Aytoun, an eminent writer to the signet, under whose direction he remained for the usual period of five years. Apparently during his apprenticeship, in1776, he published an "Ode to Craigmillar Castle," dedicated to DrBeattie The professor seems to have given the young poet as little encouragement as a dedicatee could in politeness restrict himself to. "There are many good lines," he says, "in your poem; but when you have kept it by you a week or two, fancy you will not think it correct enough as yet to appear in public." [Pinkerton’s Correspondence, i. 2.]But Pinkerton had a mind too roughly cast for poetry, and it was only when his imitations were mistaken for the rudeness of antiquity that his verses were at all admired. After 1780, when his father died, he visited London, and having previously contracted a slight bibliomania, the extent and variety of the booksellers’ catalogues are said to have proved a motive for his taking up his residence in the metropolis as a literary man, and eschewing Scotch law. In1781, he published in octavo some trifles, which it pleased him in his independence of orthography to term "Rimes." This work contained a second part to Hardyknute, which he represented as "now first published complete." If Pinkerton thought that his imposition was to get currency by being added to a ballad really ancient, the circumstance would show the extreme ignorance of the period as to the literature of our ancestors; for it is now needless to remark how unlike this composition is to the genuine productions of the elder muse. The imposition in this case was not entirely successful. "I read over again," says Mr Porden the architect, "the second part of Hardyknute; and Imust inform you that I have made up my mind with respect to the author of it. I know not whether you will value a compliment paid to your genius at the expense of your imitative art, but certainly that genius sheds a splendour on some passages which betrays you." [Pinkerton’s Correspondence, i. 25.] In 1782 appeared a second edition of the "Rimes," and at the same time he published two separate volumes of poetry which have dropped into oblivion. In the ensuing year he published in two volumes his "Select Scottish Ballads," a work rather more esteemed. At this period he turned the current of his laborious intellect to numismatics. Early in life a latent passion for the collection of antiquities had been accidentally (as is generally the case with antiquaries,) called into action. He drew up a manual and table of coins for his own use, which afterwards expanded itself into the celebrated "Essay on Medals," published in two volumes, 8vo, in 1784; and published a third time in 1808. These volumes form a manual which is continually in the hands of numismatists. In 1785, he published, under the assumed name of Robert Heron, a work termed "Letters of Literature;" the singularity of this work suggests that its author was guilty of affecting strangeness, for the purpose of attracting notice. Among the most prominent subjects, was a new system of orthography, or, more properly, of grammar, which, by various transmutations, such as classical terminations, (e. g. the use of a instead of s in forming plurals,) was to reduce the harshness of the English language. The attempt on the public sense was not in all respects effective, but the odium occasioned very naturally fell on poor Robert Heron, who was just then struggling into being as a literary man. The work, however, procured to Pinkerton an introduction to Horace Walpole, who made him acquainted with Gibbon. The proud spirit of that great historian seems to have found something congenial in the restless and acrid Pinkerton. He recommended him to the booksellers as a person fit to translate the "English Monkish Historians." In an address which Gibbon had intended to prefix to the work, his protege was almost extravagantly lauded: but the plan as then designed was never put in practice. The friendship of Walpole continued till his death; and, light and versatile in his own acquirements, he seems to have looked on the dogged perseverance, and continually accumulating knowledge of Pinkerton with some respect. After Walpole’s death, Pinkerton sold a collection of his "Ana" to the proprietors of the Monthly Magazine, and they were afterwards published under the title "Walpoliana." In 1786, Pinkerton published "Ancient Scottish Poems, never before in print, but now published from the manuscript collections of Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington, Knight, Lord Privy Seal of Scotland; comprising pieces written from about 1420 till 1586: with large Notes and a Glossary." Pinkerton maintained that he had found the manuscript in the Pepysian library at Cambridge, and in his correspondence he sometimes alludes to the circumstances with very admirable coolness. The forgery was one of the most audacious recorded in the annals of transcribing. Time, place, and circumstances were all minutely stated—there was no mystery. Among Pinkerton’s opinions as to character, that of literary impostor was of the most degraded order. The whole force of his nature and power over the language were employed to describe his loathing and contempt. On Macpherson, who executed the task with more genius, but certainly much less historical knowledge than himself, he poured the choice of his denunciations. In 1787, he published "The Treasury of Wit; being a Methodical Selection of about Twelve Hundred of the best Apothegms and Jests, from books in several languages." This work is not one of those which may be presumed to have been consonant with Pinkerton’s pursuits, and it probably owed its existence to a favourable engagement with a bookseller; but even in a book of anecdotes this author could not withstand the desire of being distinct from other men, and took the opportunity of making four divisions of wit and humour, viz., "serious wit, comic wit; serious humour, and comic humour." During the same year, he produced "A Dissertation on the Origin and Progress of the Scythians or Goths, being an Introduction to the Ancient and Modern History of Europe." In the compilation of this small treatise, he boasts of having employed himself eight hours per day for one year in the examination of classical authors: the period occupied in consulting those of the Gothic period, which he found to be "a mass of superfluity and error," he does not venture to limit. This production was suggested by his reading for his celebrated account of the early "History of Scotland," and was devised for the laudable purpose of proving that the Celtic race was more degraded than the Gothic, as a preparatory position to the arguments maintained in that work. He accordingly shows the Greeks to have been a Gothic race, in as far as they were descended from the Pelasgi, who were Scythians or Goths—a theory which, by the way, in the secondary application, has received the sanction of late etymologists and ethnologists of eminence—and, by a similar progress, he showed the Gothic origin of the Romans. Distinct from the general account of the progress of the Goths, which is certainly full of information and acuteness, he had a particular object to gain, in fixing on an island formed by the influx of the Danube in the Euxine sea, fortunately termed by the ancient geographers "Peuke," and inhabited by Peukini. From this little island, of the importance of which he produces many highly respectable certificates, he brings the Peukini along the Danube, whence, passing to the Baltic, they afterwards appear in Scotland as the Picts or Pechts. At this period Pinkerton appears to have been an unsuccessful candidate for a situation in the British museum. Horace Walpole says to him in a letter of the 11th February, 1788, "I wrote a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, soliciting his interest for you, should there be a vacancy at the museum. He answers, (and I will show you his answer when I see you,) that he is positively engaged to Mr Thorkelin, should Mr Planta resign; but that, the chancellor having refused to sign the permission for the latter, who will not go abroad without that indulgence, no vacancy is likely to happen from that event." [Correspondence, i. 180. Ib., 177] In 1789, he edited from early works, printed and manuscript, "Vitae Antiquae Sanctorum Scotorum." This work, of which only one hundred copies were printed, is now scarce and expensive; but at its appearance it seems to have met little encouragement from the author’s countrymen. "Mr Cardonnel," he says in a letter to the earl of Buchan, "some months since informed me that, upon calling at Creech’s shop, he learned there were about a dozen subscribers to the ‘Vitae Sanctorum Scotiae.’ Upon desiring my factor, Mr Buchan, since to call on Mr Creech, and learn the names, Creech informed him ‘there were about two or three; and the subscription paper was lost, so he could not tell the names." During the same year, Pinkerton published his edition of "Barbour’s Bruce." Although the most correct edition up to the period of Dr Jamieson’s publication, it was far from accurate, and gave the editor ample opportunity of vituperating those friends who incautiously undertook to point out its mistakes. In 1790, appeared "The Medallic History of England to the Revolution," in 4to, with forty plates; and, at the same time, the "Inquiry into the History of Scotland, preceding the reign of Malcolm III., or 1056: including the authentic history of that period." This work contained a sort of concentration of all his peculiarities. It may be said to have been the first work which thoroughly sifted the great "Pictish question;" the question whether the Picts were Goths or Celts. In pursuance of his line of argument in the progress of the Goths, he takes up the latter position; and in the minds of those who have no opinions of their own, and have consulted no other authorities, by means of his confidence and his hard terms, he may be said to have taken the point by storm. But he went farther in his proofs. It was an undoubted fact that the Scots were Celts, and all old authorities bore that the Scots had subdued the Picts. This was something which Pinkerton could not patiently contemplate; but he found no readier means of overcoming it than by proving that the Picts conquered the Scots; a doctrine founded chiefly on the natural falsehood of the Celtic race, which prompted a man of sense, whenever he heard anything asserted by a Celt, to believe that the converse was the truth. He amused himself with picking out terms of vituperation for the Macphersons; "of the doctor," he said, "his etymological nonsense he assists with gross falsehoods, and pretends to skill in the Celtic without quoting a single MS.; in short he deals wholly in assertion and opinion; and it is clear that he had not even an idea what learning and science are:" [Inquiry, Introd., 63.] of the translator he not less politely observes, "He seems resolved to set every law of common science and common understanding at defiance." [Ib., 64.]

His numberless observations on the Celts, are thus pithily brought to a focus: "Being mere savages, but one degree above brutes, they remain still in much the same state of society as in the days of Julius Caesar; and he who travels among the Scottish Highlanders, the old Welch, or wild Irish, may see at once the ancient and modern state of women among the Celts, when he beholds these savages stretched in their huts, and their poor women toiling like beasts of burden for their unmanly husbands." [Ib. i. 268.]And he thus draws up a comparison betwixt these unfortunates and his favourite Goths. "The Lowlanders are acute, industrious, sensible, erect, free: the Highlanders, indolent, slavish, strangers to industry. The former, in short, have every attribute of a civilized people: the latter are absolute savages; and, like indians and negroes, will ever continue to * * * * All we can do is to plant colonies among them, and, by this and encouraging their emigration, try to get rid of the breed." [Ib. i. 340.]Pinkerton proved, indeed, a sore visitation to the Celts. Moderate men had no objections to a conflict which might, at least, bring amusement, and might serve to humble the pride, by displaying the ignorance of a people, who seemed to take an unfortunate pride in the continuance of barbarism. Few took their side; and Pinkerton had many triumphs over their native champions, in the recurrence of that ignorance of their own history, which he maintained to be their characteristic. His knowledge of history effectually foiled any claim put in for Celtic merit. He would call on the company to name a Celt of eminence. "If one mentioned Burke," observes a late writer "What," said he, "a descendant of De Bourg? Class that high Norman chivalry with the rif-raf of O’s and Mac’s? Show me a great O’, and I am done." He delighted to prove that the Scottish Highlanders had never had but a few great captains, such as Montrose, Dundee, the first duke of Argyle,—and these were all Goths,—the two first Lowlanders; the last a Norman, a De Campo Bello." [Nichol’s Illustrations, v. 669.]

In 1792, Pinkerton edited "Scottish Poems, reprinted from scarce editions," in three volumes octavo. In 1796, appeared his "History of Scotland, during the Reign of the Stuarts," in two volumes quarto, one of the most unexceptionable of his historical works, and still the most laboured and accurate complete history of the period. In 1798, he married Miss Burgess of Odiham, Hants, sister to Thomas, bishop of Salisbury. The union was unhappy, and the parties separated. In 1795 and 1797, he bestowed some pains in preparing lives of Scotsmen, for the "Iconographia Scotica," two volumes octavo; but the information in the work is very meagre, and the plates are wretchedly engraved. In 1802, he published, in two volumes quarto, "Modern Geography, digested on a new Plan;" a work somewhat hastily got up, and deficient in some of its parts, but still one of the most compendious and useful geographical works of the period. A second edition was published in 1806, in three volumes, and an abridgment, in one octavo, is well known. At the commencement of the century, he visited Paris; and, in 1806, published "Recollections of Paris in the Years 1802-3-4 and 5," two volumes octavo. For some years after this period, he found employment in editing "A General Collection of Voyages and Travels," extending to nineteen volumes quarto, and a "New Modern Atlas," in parts. For a short period, he also edited the "Critical Review." His last work was on a subject foreign to his previous studies, but which appears from his correspondence to have occupied much of his attention during his old age: it was entitled, "Petralogy, or a Treatise on Rocks," two volumes octavo, 1811. In his latter years, he resided in Paris, where he died, in indigent circumstances, on the 10th March, 1825, at the age of sixty-seven. He is described to have been "a very little and very thin old man, with a very small, sharp, yellow face, thickly pitted by the smallpox, and decked with a pair of green spectacles." [Ib. 671.]


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