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Significant Scots
James Sibbald


SIBBALD, JAMES, an ingenious inquirer into Scottish literary antiquities, was the son of Mr John Sibbald, farmer at Whitlaw, in Roxburghshire, where he was born in the year 1747, or early in 1748. He was educated at the grammar school of Selkirk, from which Whitlaw is only a few miles distant. He commenced life, by leasing the farm of Newton from Sir Gilbert Elliot of Stobs. Here he pursued various studies, each of which, for the time, seemed to him the most important in the world; till another succeeded, and in its turn absorbed his whole attention. One of his favourite pursuits was botany, then little studied by any class of people in Scotland, and particularly by farmers. Owing to the depression which the American war produced in the value of farm stock, Mr Sibbald found his affairs by no means in a prosperous condition; and, accordingly, in May, 1779, he disposed of the whole by auction, and, giving up his lease to the landlord, repaired to Edinburgh, with about a hundred pounds in his pocket, in order to commence a new line of life. A taste for literature, and an acquaintance with Mr Charles Elliot, who was a native of the same district, induced him to enter as a kind of volunteer shopman into the employment of that eminent publisher, with whom he continued about a year. He then purchased the circulating library which had formerly belonged to Allan Ramsay, and, in 1780 or 1781, commenced business as a bookseller in the Parliament Square. It is not unworthy of notice, that Mr Sibbald conducted the library at the time when Sir Walter Scott, then a boy, devoured its contents with the ardour described in one of his autobiographical prefaces. Mr Sibbald carried on business with a degree of spirit and enterprise, beyond the most of his brethren. He was the first to introduce the better order of engravings into Edinburgh, in which department of trade he was for a considerable time eminently successful. Many of these prints were of the mezzotinto kind, and were coloured to resemble paintings. Being viewed in the Scottish capital as altogether the production of metropolitan genius, they were exceedingly well received, and extensively purchased. At length, Mr Sibbald was detected one day in the act of colouring some of them himself; and from that time his trade experienced an evident decline. He had not been long in business, when his talents and acquired knowledge sought an appropriate field of display, in a monthly literary miscellany, which he established, (1783,) under the name of the "Edinburgh Magazine." This was the first time that a rival to the ancient Scots Magazine met with decided success. The Edinburgh Magazine was of a somewhat more ambitious and attractive character than its predecessor; contained more original matter, and that of a livelier kind; and was ornamented by engraved frontispieces, representing mansions, castles, and other remarkable objects. Mr Sibbald was himself the editor and chief contributor; and it is said that his articles, though not marked by any signature, were generally distinguished as superior to the ordinary papers then admitted into magazines. His lucubrations on Scottish antiquities were of so much merit, as to secure to their author the friendship of lord Hailes, and other eminent literary characters, who became occasional contributors to his miscellany. Early in 1791, with the view of devoting himself more to literary pursuits, Mr Sibbald made an arrangement for giving up the management of his business to two young men, Messrs Laurie and Symington, the property of the stock and of the magazine continuing in his own hands, while those individuals paid him an allowance for both out of the profits. From this period, till late in 1792, the magazine professes, on the title-page, to be printed for him, but sold by Laurie and Symington. At the date last mentioned, his name disappears entirely from the work, which, however, was still carried on for his benefit, the sale being generally about six or seven hundred copies.

In 1792, Mr Sibbald conducted a newspaper, which was then started, under the name of the "Edinburgh Herald," and which did not continue long in existence. It is worth mentioning that, in this paper, he commenced the practice of giving an original leading article, similar to what was presented in the London prints, though it has only been in recent times that such a plan became general in Scotland. According to the notes of an agreement formed in July, 1793, between Mr Sibbald and Mr Laurie, the temporary direction and profits of the Edinburgh circulating library, were conveyed to the latter for ten years, from the ensuing January, in consideration of a rent of, it is believed, 200 per annum, to be paid quarterly to Mr Sibbald, but subject to a deduction for the purchase of new books, to be added to the library. Mr Sibbald now went to London, where he resided for some years, in the enjoyment of literary society, and the prosecution of various literary speculations, being supported by the small independency which he had thus secured for himself. Here he composed a work, entitled, "Record of the Public Ministry of Jesus Christ; comprehending all that is related by the Four Evangelists, in one regular narrative, without repetition or omission, arranged with strict attention to the Chronology, and to their own Words, according to the most esteemed translation; with Preliminary Observations." This work was published at Edinburgh in 1798, and was chiefly remarkable for the view which it took respecting the space of time occupied by the public ministrations of Christ, which former writers had supposed to be three or four years, but was represented by Mr Sibbald as comprehended within twelve months. While in London, his Scottish relations altogether lost sight of him; they neither knew where he lived, nor how he lived. At length his brother William, a merchant in Leith, made a particular inquiry into these circumstances, by a letter, which he sent through such a channel as to be sure of reaching him. The answer was comprised in the following words:—"My lodging is in Soho, and my business is so so." Having subsequently returned to Edinburgh, he there edited, in 1797, a work, entitled, "The Vocal Magazine, a Selection of the most esteemed English, Scots, and Irish Airs, ancient and modern, adapted for the Harpsichord or Violin." For such an employment he was qualified by a general acquaintance with music. In 1799, Mr Sibbald revised his agreement with Mr Laurie, who undertook to lease the business for twenty-one years, after January, 1800, at the rent of one hundred guineas, himself supplying the new books, which were to remain his own property. Finding, however, that, even at this low rental, he did not prosper in his undertaking, Laurie soon after gave up the business into the hands of Mr Sibbald, by whom it was carried on till his death. [The history of the Edinburgh circulating library may here be briefly narrated. Established by Allan Ramsay in 1725, it was conducted by that eminent person till near the period of his death, in 1757, when it was sold to a Mr Yair, whose widow carried it on till 1780, when it was sold to Mr Sibbald. A daughter of Mrs Yair was married to the late Dr Bell, author of the "Madras System of Education." By Mr Sibbald, who greatly increased the collection, it was conducted, under various circumstances, as above stated, till 1803, when his brother and executor, William Sibbald, merchant in Leith, endeavoured to carry it on, under the superintendence of a Mr Stevenson. Finding it by no means prosperous, and the latter gentleman having died, Mr Sibbald disposed of it, in 1806, to Mr Alexander Mackay, who conducted it until a recent period, when it was broken up, and sold off by auction. It does not appear to have thriven in any remarkable degree, till the accession of Mr Mackay, who retired from it with a competency.]

The latter years of this ingenious man were chiefly spent in the compilation of his well-known "Chronicle of Scottish Poetry, and Glossary of the Scottish Language," four volumes, 12mo; a work of taste and erudition, which will perpetuate his name among those who have illustrated our national literature. The three first volumes exhibit a regular chronological series of extracts from the writings of the Scottish poets to the reign of James VI.; illustrated by biographical, critical, and archaeological notices: the fourth contains a vocabulary of the language, only inferior in amplitude and general value to the more voluminous work of Dr Jamieson. The "Chronicle" appeared in 1802.

This ingenious writer died, in April, 1803, at his lodgings in Leith Walk. Two portraits of him have been given by Kay; one representing him as he daily walked up the centre of the High Street of Edinburgh, with his hand behind his back, and an umbrella under his arm; another places him amidst a group of connoisseurs, who are inspecting a picture. He was a man of eccentric, but benevolent and amiable character. The same exclusiveness which actuated his studies, governed him in domestic life: even in food, he used to give his whole favour for a time to one object, and then change it for some other, to which he was in turn as fondly devoted. He belonged to a great number of convivial clubs, and was so much beloved by many of his associates in those fraternities, that, for some years after his death, they celebrated his birth-day by a social meeting.


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