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Sir John Sinclair


Sir John Sinclair SINCLAIR, SIR JOHN, BART., OF ULBSTER.—Among the many benefactors of Scotland, whose labours were devoted to its agricultural improvement, we know of none who has surpassed, or even equalled, the subject of our present notice.

Sir John was born at Thurso Castle, in the county of Caithness, on the 10th of May, 1754. He was the eldest son of George Sinclair, of Ulbster, by his wife, Lady Janet Sutherland, daughter of William, Lord Strathnaven. George, the father, having died suddenly at Edinburgh, in 1770, John Sinclair, then in his sixteenth year, succeeded to the family property, which, until he was of age, was superintended by his mother. Having received his early education at the High School of Edinburgh, and under the direction of Logan, his tutor, afterwards author of "Runnymede," he studied successively at the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Oxford. At Glasgow he was so fortunate as to be a pupil of Adam Smith, at that time professor of moral philosophy in the university, with whose acquaintanceship he was also honoured at this early period—and it may be that the bias of the future father of Scottish agriculture received its first impulses from his conversations with the author of the "Wealth of Nations." The intellectual ambition of the young student’s mind was also manifested at the age of fifteen, among the printed columns of our periodicals. After he had completed his studies at Oxford, he turned his attention to law, not, however, to follow it as a profession, but to be aided by the light it threw on our national institutions. In 1775 he became a member of the faculty of advocates, and was afterwards called to the English bar. In the following year he married Sarah, only daughter and heiress of Alexander Maitland, Esq., of Stoke-Newington, Middlesex, by whom he had two daughters, one of them being Miss Hannah Sinclair, authoress of the excellent letters "On the Principles of the Christian Faith;" the other, Janet, who was married to Sir James Colquhoun, of Luss, Bart. In 1780 Mr. Sinclair was elected member of parliament for the county of Caithness, an honour which was repeated in the years 1790, 1802, and 1807. But as this county enjoyed the privilege of only an alternate representation, he was elected during the intervals for the boroughs of Lostwithiel in Cornwall, and Petersfield in Hampshire.

Mr. Sinclair had not been long in parliament when he began to take an active part in the important questions of the day. It was not, however, by mere forensic eloquence, for his strength did not lie in oratory; his reflective mind and profound calculations were better suited for the silence of the press than the arena of parliamentary debate. Accordingly, in 1782, he published a tract, entitled "Lucubrations during a Short Recess; with some Thoughts on the Means of Improving the Representation of the People." This work, upon a theme at that time so dreaded, excited great attention, and called forth not a few replies, among which especially was one from Lord Camelford. In the same year he published another pamphlet, entitled "Thoughts on the Naval Strength of the British Empire, in answer to the late Lord Mulgrave, one of the Lords of the Admiralty." At this time our warfare by sea was carried on with such timid caution, and our naval victories were so few, that the national faith in our "wooden walls" was sorely depressed; while Lord Mulgrave had predicted that, in the event of a continental peace, the united navies of France and Spain would be more than a match for that of Britain. Mr. Sinclair endeavoured to prove the superiority of our fleets above those of the enemy, and to explain the causes of that superiority; while the subsequent victories of Nelson showed that the argument was a sound one. Another tract, which he published about the same period, bore the title of "Considerations on Militias and Standing Armies," and was the substance of those considerations upon the subject which he had brought before the ministers of the day. His suggestions were favourably received, and some of the more important adopted. His last published production, during this stage of his authorship, was "The Propriety of Retaining Gibraltar, Impartially Considered." This, like the foregoing tracts, was published without the author’s name, and had the honour of being attributed to the first Lord Camelford.

It was not, however, with political authorship alone that Mr. Sinclair was wholly occupied at this season; for, in 1782, a public emergency occurred that called forth the utmost of his philanthropic care. This was a season of famine in Scotland, on account of the lateness of the summer, so that, at the close of September, the oats and barley were still green, while, at the commencement of next month, the winter began with such sudden intensity, that both field and garden produce was blighted as in an instant; one night often sufficed to annihilate the subsistence of whole districts. In some parishes the oats were reaped, or rather excavated from ice and snow in the middle of November, and in others, so late as the following February. The consequence was, that many were obliged to kill their cattle, and eat the flesh without bread; many who had no such resource, lived on soup made of nettles, and snails, which were salted for winter sustenance; while the poor along the coasts, were reduced to the insufficient diet of whelks, limpets, and other such shell-fish. This calamity, which bore hardest upon the north of Scotland, extended over several counties, and included a population of 110,000 souls. It was here that Mr. Sinclair bestirred himself; and not content with appeals to private philanthropy, he brought the subject before the House of Commons, by whom it was referred to a committee. No precedent as yet existed in the annals of the House for a parliamentary grant made upon such an occasion, but the emergency was unprecedented also. Accordingly, forms were waived, and a grant of money decreed in favour of the sufferers, by which their present wants were supplied, and the pestilential diseases attendant upon famine arrested. The obtaining of such relief for his suffering countrymen, constituted a happy era in the public life of Mr. Sinclair; and he was often afterwards heard to declare, that no part of his parliamentary career had ever afforded him such intense satisfaction.

Having distinguished himself as an author upon miscellaneous questions of public interest, Mr. Sinclair was now to obtain reputation as a writer on the difficult subject of finance. The close of our war with America had been followed in Britain, as is usual at the close of all our wars, with a fit of economical calculation. The nation sat down to count the cost, and found itself, of course, on the brink of bankruptcy; and the murmur that rose was all the louder, as neither glory nor success was an offset to the expenditure. It was now demonstrated for the one hundred and fiftieth time, that Britain was ruined beyond recovery, and not a few of these gloomy reasoners were something better than mere political grumblers. While the public despondency was at the height, Mr. Sinclair’s "Hints on the State of our Finances," appeared in 1783. The accurate calculations and masterly reasoning of this production, convinced the reflective and cheered the despondent at home; while abroad, it disabused both friend and enemy of the conclusions they had formed upon the coming national insolvency. But it did more than this; it established his character so completely as a sound financier, that his advice was taken upon those measures by which the real evils of the present crisis were to be effectually averted. Such was especially the case, when the extension of the banking system in England was the subject of consideration. On this occasion he was consulted by Sir James Eisdale, the eminent London banker, to whom he recommended the system of the Scottish country banks, the nature and principles of which he fully and clearly explained. Sir James, on finding these so completely accordant with his own views, adopted them into his plan, and the result was, the establishment of twenty branch banks in the country in connection with his own house. The example was speedily multiplied, and banks were established in every part of England. But still, one important part of the Scottish system was omitted; this was the security which country banks are obliged to give for the paper money they issue—a wholesome check, by which dishonest speculation is cut short, and the risk of bankruptcy avoided. This part, so essential to public confidence in banking, was strangely dispensed with in the English system, notwithstanding Sinclair’s earnest remonstrances with Mr. Pitt upon the subject; and hence the difference in the stability and efficacy of these English banks as contrasted with those of Scotland. An application which he soon after made on his own account to Mr. Pitt was better attended to; this was for the rank of baronet, to which he had a hereditary claim, as heir and representative of Sir George Sinclair, of Clyth. The application was made in 1784, and in 1786 it was gratified more largely than he had expected; for not only was the title of baronet conferred upon him, but a reservation made of it in favour of the heirs-male of the daughters of his first wife, in the event of his dying without a direct representative.

The inquiries of Sir John Sinclair upon the subject of political economy, which he had hitherto turned to such useful account, were still continued, and in 1785 he published an essay "On the Public Revenue of the British Empire." This was but the first and second parts of a series, of which a third appeared in 1790. But during the same year in which the first portion of the work was published, he sustained a heavy domestic affliction by the death of his wife, to whom he had been married eight years. So intense was his sorrow at this bereavement, that he had serious thoughts of resigning his seat in the House of Commons for Lostwithiel, and retiring into private life. Fortunately for his country he was persuaded to try the effects of travel, and, accordingly, he went over to Paris during the Christmas recess, where the society of this gay and intellectual capital not only tended to console his sorrow, but to animate him for fresh public exertion. It was no ordinary good fortune that led him to a city where a mind like his could associate in daily intercourse with such distinguished characters as Necker, Madame de Stael, and Madame de Genlis, of Joseph Montgolfier, Argand, and Reveillon, While he thus associated with the master-spirits of the practical and useful, he never lost sight of the welfare of his own country. In this way, having studied the machines for coinage invented by M. Droz, and used by the French government, he suggested their adoption to Mr. Bolton, of Birmingham, by whom they were introduced into the British mint. Having learned from M. Clouet, the superintendent of the gunpowder manufactory of France, the mode of distilling that article in cylinders, by which a superior commodity was produced at less expense than the gunpowder in common use, he communicated the improvement to our own government, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing it adopted by the Board of Ordnance.

From France Sir John continued his route through Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Poland, Austria, and Prussia, where he had personal interviews with the crowned heads of an age that has departed, but whose influence we still experience. Among these the most distinguished were the emperor Joseph, the most hasty of reformers; Catherine, the Semiramis of the north; Stanislaus, the unfortunate minion-king of Poland; and the chivalrous but evil-destined Gustavus III. of Sweden. But the men of those several dominions who most promoted the improvement of their respective countries were the chief objects of his solicitude; and with several of these he established a permanent correspondence, the chief subject of which was the improvement of European agriculture and commerce, and the extension of the comforts of life. In Germany his attention was especially directed to the manufactures of that country, and the causes of their success, by which he was enabled, at his return, to impart very valuable suggestions to the heads of our manufacturing departments. This long tour, comprising nearly 8000 miles, and accomplished without the aid of steam, was terminated in 1787. The fruits of his observations during these travels were afterwards fully communicated to the public in 1830, when, during his old days, he published, in two volumes, the interesting correspondence that had originated in his northern tour.

On his return to Britain, the first object of Sir John was the improvement of our national agriculture. It was not, however, by propounding theories and publishing books that this work in the first instance was to be accomplished. Instead of this, the barren waste must be reclaimed, the hard soil overturned with the ploughshare, and an expenditure of time, labour, and capital patiently endured, until the obstinacy of nature as well as the indolence of man was compelled into full activity, and the sterile surface covered with a profitable harvest. No one knew this better than Sir John Sinclair, and, accordingly, he had turned himself in good earnest, even at the early age of eighteen, to the self denying labour of a practical teacher, by showing what could be done upon his own property. And, verily, this was no easy or hopeful task! His estate, consisting of 100,000 acres, comprised about a sixth of the county of Caithness. On these, besides a few large farms, there were about 800 or 900 small ones, cultivated according to the most unproductive modes of the Scottish husbandry of the day, and yielding a miserable rent, of which but a small part was money, while the rest was in grain, lamb, poultry, and other such produce. An English holder of Scottish acres thus surrounded on his first rent-day, would have fled across the Tweed, and made no halt until he had reached the shelter of Middlesex. This fashion of rent payment, which had prevailed for ages among a people the most tenacious of ancient usages, must be torn up root and branch before a step in advance could be won. Here, then, Sir John commenced with the improvement of agriculture in Caithness—and, not only in Caithness, but Scotland at large, and finally in England also. Large farms were established, to which skill and capital were attracted by the prospect of a profitable return; and to set the example to their occupants, he took one of them, originally consisting of eight small farms, into his own hands. This, when brought into cultivation, he let at a moderate rent, after having allotted it into cottage farms, where the tenants were induced to build comfortable houses, and carry out the improvements that had been already commenced. In this way the example was begun that soon gathered a population together, while villages and hamlets gradually rose up in those cultivated localities, where subsistence and comfort were thus provided as the reward of industry. Every tenant was bound down to a regular rotation of crops, to a certain annual amount of marling and liming, and to a certain amount as well as mode of occupation in the improvement of his farm. Every facility was also afforded to industry, by furnishing the small farmers with marl and lime at the cheapest rate, and the best seeds, especially of turnip, clover, and rye-grass, while instructions upon farming were readily communicated, and a spirit of active competition excited by the distribution of small premiums. Thus the old established drawbacks in our agriculture were one by one removed. Each farmer was required to start with a capital, however small, instead of commencing on credit; to confine his cultivation to the extent he could manage, and do it well; to economize his labour so as to produce results with the least expenditure; and to aim continually at raising the best grain, and keeping the best stock. The old system of thirlage, also, or restriction to particular mills, as well as the other feudal services was abolished, and the buying and casting of peats for fuel, which diverted the attention of farmers from their work, was superseded by the general introduction of coal. Such are but a few of those important principles which Sir John introduced into his system of land-cultivation; and such an improvement of his Caithness property ensued, as was enough to awaken the attention of the whole country. One specimen of this was afforded in the estate of Langwell, which he purchased for 8000, and improved so greatly, that he afterwards sold it for 40,000. But far beyond the benefit of a doubled or trebled rental, was that of active industry, and honourable enterprise, and intellectual and moral improvement, which were introduced among his numerous tenantry, who, though at first they went doggedly to work, were gradually animated with the conviction that work is the greatest of pleasure when something worth working for is to be gained. Produce being thus created, roads were needed for its conveyance as an article of traffic; but to make these in Caithuess was a task of peculiar difficulty, as the soil chiefly consisted of peat or clay, while the materials for road-making were of too soft a quality. As no private fortune could have sustained the necessary outlay, and as the undertaking was a public benefit, Sir John invoked the aid of government, which was readily granted, and to such an extent, that in one day six miles of road were laid down along the side of Ben-nichiel hill. In this manner highways were constructed for the heaviest waggons, in places where hitherto every article, down to manure itself, had been conveyed upon the backs of horses.

It was not enough, however, that agriculture alone should be encouraged. Even the most active and industrious, if they find no outlet for their surplus produce, will labour for nothing more than the mere necessaries of life, and thus speedily relapse into laziness. This Sir John knew well, and therefore the commercial as well as the agricultural prosperity of Caithness was the subject of his solicitude. The seas that begirt two-thirds of the promontory which is formed by the county, had hitherto hemmed in the people, and made the adjacent land rocky and sterile; but they abounded in fish for home or foreign consumption, and thus the water might be made as profitable as the land. Here, then, was another standing-place for his philanthropy. He obtained the re-establishment of the cod-fishery, which for many years had been almost abandoned. He supplied capital for the commencement of a herring-fishery upon the east coast of Caithness. He applied to government for aid in harbour extension, through which the harbour of Wick was completed, and that of Thurso commenced. In this way the commerce of Caithness, hitherto unnoticed, now rose into distinction, and sent the produce of its agriculture and fisheries to the shores of the Baltic and the West Indies. A nucleus was needed for all this enterprise—a strong heart to concentrate and send forth this new circulation of vitality—and therefore a town adequate to such a task was forthwith in demand. For this purpose Sir John Sinclair selected the old town of Thurso as the germ of a new. In point of population it was little better than a third-rate English village, while its wretched houses were so irregular, and so huddled together, as to be too often mere receptacles for filth, discomfort, and sickness. But the locality was not only excellent for the fisheries, but for commerce, being within a few hours’ sail of the German and Atlantic Oceans, with the communication of an excellent river. Sir John drew out the plan of the new town of Thurso. And there it stands, with its churches and schools, its market-places and warehouses, its shops and houses, and throngs of living beings—a something better far as a monument of departed worth, than the silent mausoleum, however stately its construction, or however flattering its epitaph.

In the agricultural improvements which Sir John Sinclair commenced in Caithness, the subject of sheep-farming occupied much of his thoughts. The greater part of his property was unfitted for the plough; but he had traversed too many mountainous countries not to know that mere surface can always be turned to some account. "Of all the means," he said, "of bringing a mountainous district to a profitable state, none is so peculiarly well calculated for that purpose as the rearing of a valuable breed of sheep. A small proportion alone," he added, "of such a description of country can be fit for grain; and in regard to cattle, for every pound of beef that can be produced in a hilly district, three pounds of mutton can be obtained, and there is the wool into the bargain." This plan he therefore introduced into his cottage farms, to which only two acres of arable land could be allotted, and with such success, that the spinning-wheel soon set those arms in motion that had hitherto rested a-kimbo; while good store of warm clothing in every cottage, superseded the rags or the threadbare garments in which indolence had hitherto been fain to ensconce itself. But still, it was not enough for Sir John that the sheep naturalized among his people should possess the usual weight of fleece and nothing more, as long as one kind of wool was better than another. Could not the Cheviot sheep be made to live and thrive even in the hyperborean climate of Caithness? He propounded the idea, and was laughed at for his pains. But of most men he was the least liable to be convinced or refuted by laughing, and therefore he commenced the experiment, and commenced it, as was necessary, on an ample scale. He sent a flock of 500 Cheviots to Caithness, under the care of experienced shepherds; and, although the winter that followed was a severe one, they throve even better than upon their native hills, so that his flock at length increased to 6000 sheep. After such success, Sir John turned his attention to the improvement of British wool in general. He saw that the wool of Britain had been gradually deteriorating, and that the importation of foreign sheep had yearly become more necessary, so that our national manufactures laboured under serious detriment. But why should the Shetland Islands the while produce fleeces of such soft and delicate texture? Surely this tempest-beaten Colchos of the north was not more highly favoured in soil or climate than the hills of Lothian or the downs of Lancashire. Was not the evil we endured to be traced to our injudicious modes of feeding sheep upon turnips and other coarse articles of food, which had lately obtained among us? He must study, and obtain information at every point. So earnest was he, that he carried his inquiries into the General Assembly itself, to which he went as a lay member in 1791, and where he found a Shetland minister thoroughly conversant with the whole theory and practice of the growing of wool, by whom his conjectures were confirmed, and his views enlightened. He had previously laid his proposals before the Highland Society; but finding that they could not second his views from want of funds, he had resolved to institute a new society, that should have the improvement of British wool for its object. This was done accordingly at the beginning of the year; and to announce the purposes of the institution, and enlist the interest of the public in its behalf, a great inaugural meeting, called the Sheep-Shearing Festival, was held at New Hall Inn, near Queensferry, on the 1st of July, 1791, at which seventy gentlemen and fifty ladies were present, attired in rich and gay costume, of which wool formed the principal ornament, while the grass plot of a neighbouring garden was covered with fleeces from different breeds and sheep of various countries; and to wind up the business of the day, this national gala was terminated with a due amount of eating, drinking, firing of guns, and dancing. It was a grand patriarchal festival of the primitive ages, with the usages and costume of the eighteenth century ingrafted upon it; and, as such, it was well calculated to pass off with eclat, and be long remembered with pleasure by all who had shared in it or witnessed it. [The following characteristic incident is related by Miss Catherine Sinclair:--"In subsequent years, Sir John, always desirous of exemplifying what energy can achieve in accelerating labour, caused one of his own sheep to be publicly shorn at a cattle show, after which the wool was spun, dyed, woven, and made into a coat, which he wore the same evening at a rural fete, which he gave to the assembled farmers and their families."] And most diligently had the infant society already worked to deserve such a holiday; for, besides sending out inquiries into every district of the island respecting its woollen produce, and ascertaining the qualities of the different breeds of sheep, it had distributed throughout Scotland the choicest specimens of the Cheviot, and imported valuable additions from England, from France, and Italy, and even from Iceland, the East Indies, and Abyssinia.

The important objects of such an institution, and its results, suggested another, for a different but still more important department. This was the well-known Board of Agriculture. No one who has witnessed the relics of agricultural barbarism that still survive in Scotland, and more especially in England, can fail to be struck with the clamant necessity of its reform; in the one country an excess, and in the other a deficiency of means, was used to produce the same effect, from the slim wooden Scottish plough, drawn by a shelty, and held by a woman, to the huge earth-crusher of the fat fields of England, managed by a whole string of elephantine horses, superintended by two or more farm-servants. It was full time that a bold innovator should step forward; and from his past labours, no one had a better right to assume such a dangerous office, or was better qualified to carry it into effect, than Sir John Sinclair. After much thought, he published and circulated his plan, and on the 15th of May, 1793, he brought it, in the form of a motion, before the British parliament. The advantages to be derived from an agricultural board, were the following:—It would form a reservoir of agricultural intelligence, to which every inquirer might have access. By its surveys, it would collect every fact or observation connected with the improvement of soil and live-stock. By its foreign correspondence, it would gather and diffuse over the country a knowledge of those foreign improvements to which our untravelled yeomen and peasantry had no access. And, finally, it would be the means of obtaining a full statistical account of England, a work that had hitherto been attended with insuperable difficulties. These advantages he stated in bringing forward the measure before the House, and he suggested that the experiment should at least be tried for five years, with a grant from parliament of only 3000 per annum to defray its necessary expenditure, while the members of the board should give their services gratuitously. It was well that such a plan, which many stigmatized as utopian, was backed by all the influence of Mr. Pitt, without which it would probably have been unsuccessful. Perhaps it was equally fortunate that George III. was on the throne, that most agricultural of sovereigns, than whom, the poet tells us,

"A better farmer ne’er brush’d dew from lawn."

The proposal for the establishment of the Agricultural Society was passed in the House by a majority of 75, and the board was appointed and chartered by his majesty, Sir John himself being nominated its first president. As the society was composed of the highest in rank, wealth, talent, and enterprise, it commenced its operations with spirit and success. In a twelvemonth the agricultural survey of the country was completed. The waste lands and common fields were reported and marked out, an immense circulation of papers on the subject of agriculture effected, and a general interest kindled upon the subject, manifested by a new demand for every published work connected with farm and field operations. The results of this important movement constitute an essential chapter in the modern history of Britain. Such had been the zeal for manufactures and commerce, that the agricultural interests of the country, without which the former would soon lose half their value, had gradually been falling into neglect. But now, the one as well as the other was made the subject of parliamentary legislation and national interest. And, even independently of the vast improvement effected upon every kind of husbandry, and increase of the means of subsistence, under the agency of this new institution, the survey of the country alone, which it had accomplished, would have been a national boon, well worth a greater amount of labour and expenditure. This estimate, upon the correctness of which the welfare and progress of a country so greatly depend, but which has always been attended with such difficulties as to make it in former times incorrect and unsatisfactory, even when persevered in to the close, was made by the society, under the directions of Sir John, so thoroughly, that at last the survey of the whole of Great Britain had been twice gone over, and was published in seventy octavo volumes.

We must now turn to a similar department in the labours of Sir John Sinclair, with which his and our own country of Scotland is more exclusively connected. It will at once be seen that we advert to his "Statistical Account of Scotland." It was in May, 1790, the year previous to the establishment of the society for the improvement of British wool, that he contemplated this great work. He was then a lay member of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland. Such an account as he desired—so often attempted in other kingdoms, but hitherto so imperfectly—he saw could only be accomplished by hundreds of learned and talented men united in one aim, and working under the direction of one presiding mind. And where in Scotland could he find these so readily and so fully as in the General Assembly? Each of these men, too, was located in a particular district, with which he had better opportunities of being acquainted than any other resident; and thus the precise state of every parish throughout the length and breadth of Scotland could be obtained from its own minister. After having carefully deliberated his plan, Sir John, as was his wont, began the work in earnest. He drew up, in the form of a circular, a long list of queries upon the geography, natural history, productions, and population of the parish. These were followed by a copious addenda, in which every minute particular that a parish could possess was specified, and everything connected with its changes, history, and present condition. The towns were queried with the same minuteness, while the questions were adapted to the civic character and condition of each. These he transmitted to the ministers, and awaited their replies. The answers dropped in according to the readiness of the writers, and some of these were so regular and so full, that out of them he extracted and published a specimen volume, containing the account of four parishes, a copy of which he sent to the other clergymen, by way of directing and stimulating them in the work. This was in the beginning of 1791, and by the middle of the year his materials had so much increased, that he was enabled, although with great personal study and exertion, to publish, by the middle of the year, the first volume of the "Statistical Account of Scotland." Even this, though but a commencement, was a great achievement. When he first proposed his plan, men were astonished that he should undertake, and that, too, with the hope of success, a work which the wealth of kings, the decrees of senates, and even the authority of despots, had hitherto failed to effect; and prophecies of utter discomfiture, mingled with ridicule of the attempt, were loud and frequent from every quarter. But the volume which now appeared, so superior to every former undertaking of the kind, quickly drowned their murmur in universal approbation; and the appearance of the second, which soon followed, increased the public feeling, on account of the greater interest of the materials with which it was filled.

But let no man say that in every case the beginning is more than the half: in those bold and generous undertakings that transcend the spirit of the age, the undertaker often finds that the beginning is less than nothing, from the failure and disappointment that follow. With this Sir John was soon threatened, in consequence of the shortcomings of his assistants. The most enthusiastic had been first in the field, and had already tendered their contributions; but these were few compared with the hundreds that still hung back. Many of the clergymen having, in the first instance, predicted that such a work could never go on, were unwilling to falsify their vaticinations. Many were but new intrants into their parishes, while not a few were old men, ready to leave them, and willing to spend the remainder of their days in quiet. Besides, the task of collecting information was not always pleasant in districts where such queries were suspected as the prelude of a rise of rent from their landlords, or a fresh tax from government. Where an unpleasant work is extended over a whole class of men, and where the performance is wholly voluntary, we know with what adroitness each individual can find an excuse for withholding his expected quota. This Sir John experienced when, after waiting a twelvemonth in expectation, he found, by the middle of 1792, that he was still 413 parishes short of the mark. But "despair" was not a word in his vocabulary. About the period of commencement, a plan had been formed in Scotland to establish the Society for the "Benefit of the Sons of the Clergy," and Sir John had arranged that the profits of the Statistical Account should be devoted to that purpose, while his application through Lord Melville in behalf of the society, obtained for it a royal grant of 2000, by which it was enabled to commence its operations much sooner than had been anticipated. He also obtained a recommendation of his undertaking from the General Assembly at large, while its most eminent leaders, Principal Robertson, Sir Henry Moncreiff Wellwood, Dr. Blair, and Dr. Hardie, bestirred themselves personally with their brethren in its behalf. And yet it flagged—for it was now the residue that had to be spurred into action, after the bold and brave had done their duty. Finding at last that better might not be, he appointed five statistical missionaries over as many of the more remiss districts, including the Western and Orkney Islands, and by these means twenty-five parishes were added to the list. And now all his material was in readiness; the whole of Scotland lay piled up in his study in the form of a mountain of manuscript, upon which he commenced his beloved work of arranging, classifying, and editing. But, lo! twelve whole parishes had disappeared! He had received them, as he thought, but now they were nowhere to be found. The omission of twelve such links reduced the whole chain to as many fragments. After he recovered from his consternation—and it was such as he had never experienced during the whole of this Hercules labour—he set to work anew, and gave himself no rest till the deficiency was repaired. The task was finished on the 1st of January, 1798, seven years and a half from the period of its commencement, and was comprised in twenty thick volumes octavo, to which another was subsequently added. Had he done nothing more, the toil he endured and the difficulties he had surmounted in such an undertaking, would have insured him the testimony of a well-spent life, both from contemporaries and posterity.

It would be difficult to describe the wonder and delight with which the "Statistical Account of Scotland" was hailed at its completion. How one man—and he a private individual—should have achieved such a task, and achieved it so thoroughly, appeared a miracle. His simple but admirable plan of engaging the whole national clergy in the work, the happy adaptation they had shown for it, and his untiring energy as well as skill in procuring, arranging, and adapting the materials, were each made the subject of congratulation and applause. It was not alone to Britain that these feelings were confined; it was regarded as a MODEL BOOK OF THE NATION for every country in Europe, and as such it was lauded by their most distinguished statesmen and rulers. The 900 ministers, also, by whom, with but a few exceptions, the labours of Sir John Sinclair had been so ably seconded, were not neglected; for besides the honour which this great national production reflected upon them as a body, not only in England but throughout Europe, and the royal grant by which the Society for the Sons of the Clergy had been so highly benefited, it went far, also, to procure for them that parliamentary assistance by which the many miserably small livings in the church were raised into charges of comfort and respectability. Attention was also called by the "Statistical Account" to the scanty salaries of schoolmasters, which in many cases were improved, and to several oppressive feudal rights, which were speedily abolished.

The year 1793 will always be remembered in the mercantile history of Great Britain as a season of panic. Failures were frequent, public confidence was at a pause, and national bankruptcy apprehended even by the least despondent. To avert this emergency by the restoration of mercantile credit, Sir John Sinclair suggested to Mr. Pitt the issue of exchequer bills—and in a happy moment the suggestion was adopted. By this remedy the panic was stilled, and our great mercantile institutions restored to full activity. In the transmission of this government relief for Scotland, it was of great importance to Glasgow that its share should reach the city before a certain day; and aware of this important fact, Sir John plied the exchequer agents so urgently, that, contrary to all expectation, the money was sent within the critical period. On the same evening he repaired to the House of Commons, and meeting with Pitt, he intended to explain to him how it had been accomplished; but the premier mistaking his drift, interrupted him with "No, no, you are too late for Glasgow; the money cannot go for two days." "It is gone already," was Sir John’s laughing reply; "it went by the mail this afternoon." Glasgow can well comprehend the mercantile value of time in such a case, and the debt of gratitude it owes to the memory of Sir John Sinclair. But he was not contented with suggesting a relief merely for the crisis; his wish was to prevent a reaction, by compelling bankers to find security for their notes, and thus to limit the issue within the power of payment. To this, however, the minister would not, or perhaps we might say more correctly, could not accede, as he had the whole banking interest against the measure. Matters went on as before, and thus the calamity, which Sir John foresaw, and had striven to prevent, returned in 1797, when the country was compelled to impose restrictions on cash payments. Sir John once more interposed to establish the system of licensing country bankers, but was again defeated, through the selfishness of those whose interests were bound up in the old system of unlimited banking.

In looking back upon the preceding events of Sir John Sinclair’s life, it is impossible not to be struck with the energy that could plan, and activity that could execute such a variety of important undertakings. He was the Napoleon of peace—if such an epithet may be permitted—incessantly daring, doing, and succeeding, and always advancing in his career, but leaving at every step a token of his progress in the amelioration of some general evil, or the extension of a public benefit. The welfare of his numerous tenantry in Caithness, the improvement of British wool, the improvement of agriculture, the drawing up of the "Statistical Account of Scotland," all these labours pressing upon him at one and the same time, and each sufficient to bear most men to the earth, he confronted, controlled, and carried onward to a prosperous issue. And with all these duties, his senatorial avocations were never remitted, so that his attendance upon the House of Commons was punctual, and his support of no little weight to the great leading statesmen of the day. He had to add to his many avocations that of a soldIer also. In 1794, when the wars of the French revolution were shaking Europe with a universal earthquake, and when Britain was summoned to rally against the menaces of invasion, it was necessary that every one who could raise a recruit should bring him to the muster. Sir John’s influence in this way as a Highland landlord was justly calculated, and accordingly it was proposed to him, by Mr. Pitt, to raise a regiment of fencibles among his tenantry, for the defence of Scotland. Sir John acceded at once, and agreed to raise, not a regiment, but a battalion, and that, too, not for service in Scotland only, but in England also. He accordingly raised, in the first instance, a regiment of 600 strong, consisting of the tall and powerful peasantry of Caithness, clothed in the full Highland costume, and headed by officers, nineteen of whom were above six feet high, and, therefore, called among their countrymen the Thier-nan-more, or "Great Chiefs," with himself for their colonel. This was the first regiment of the kind that served in England, such services having hitherto been confined to Scotland alone. In the spring of the following year, he raised a still larger regiment, consisting of 1000 men, equally well appointed, who were destined for service in Ireland. Sir John’s post was Aberdeen, in command of the encampment raised there in 1791, for the purpose of defending the town against the threatened invasion from Holland. A camp life is idle work at the best; but Sir John contrived to find in it the materials of activity, by the care which he took of the health, comfort, and efficiency of his soldiers. After studying the modes of living in his own encampment, and making these the data of his arguments, he also drew up a tract suggesting improvements in the mode of camp-living in general. The alarm of invasion passed away, but owing to the dearth by the failure of the crops in 1795, the services of Sir John and his agricultural board, in their proper capacity, were called into full exercise in the following year. He recommended in parliament the cultivation of waste and unimproved lands, and procured the passing of a bill by which linseed or oil cake, and rape cakes, were allowed to be imported in British vessels free of duty. This last appeared but a paltry permission at the time, the articles in question being little known in our husbandry; but a far different opinion now prevails, from their extensive use in British agriculture.

After this period we find Sir John fully occupied with the commercial, financial, and agricultural interests of the country, and always upon the alert for their improvement. One of his proposals was such as no mere hunter after political popularity would have ventured. From the surveys of the Board of Agriculture, he had found that nearly 7,000,000 of acres lay as yet uncultivated in England; and he brought before parliament a "General Bill of Inclosure," by which these lands, held in common, should be inclosed for cultivation. But against this measure there was such an opposition among all classes, from the tourist to the tinker, that although the bill passed through the House of Commons, it was thrown out by the Lords. Still, the discussion had awakened general attention, and prepared the way for private enterprise. Another subject that again occupied his attention was our national finance, upon which he had already written a work in two separate parts, to which a third was added in 1790. The whole, with many additions and improvements, was finally published in three octavo volumes, under the title of a "History of the Public Revenue of the British Empire, containing an account of the Public Income and Expenditure, from the remotest periods recorded in history, to Michaelmas 1802." In two years this work passed through three editions, and was regarded as an authority and text-book in both houses of parliament. The income tax, and the redemption of the land tax, two questions at this period under discussion, also occupied Sir John’s attention; and in parliament he strongly advocated the necessity of a paper instead of a metal currency. He was also opposed to free trade, already a great popular question; and he held—as many still do with all the advantages of practical experience—that "no country can be happy at home, or powerful abroad, unless it be independent of other countries for circulation and sustenance."

After so much labour, it is not to be wondered at that, toward the close of the century, Sir John’s health began to decay. Already he had only reached the prime of manhood, and was distinguished by temperate and active habits; but he felt as if the shadows of a premature old age were coming upon him while his sun had scarcely passed the hour of noon. Most people in such cases resign themselves as to a dire necessity, and forsake the bustle of public life for the charms of an easy chair and home enjoyment. But Sir John had no idea of such selfish resignation; and though he knew as well as any man that he "owed heaven a death," still, he also felt that "it was not due yet," and that he was bound to work on until his Master called him home. The subject therefore of health, in relation to longevity, occupied his researches; and the result, in the first instance, was a pamphlet, which he published in 1803, entitled "Hints on Longevity." His strict attention to the rules which he recommended in this production, seems to have renewed his lease of life, so that he started upon a fresh occupancy of more than thirty years. At the close of this century, also, his reputation was so completely European, that the fellowships of societies and diplomas of universities had been sent to him from almost every country, while the general sense entertained of him abroad was thus aptly stated by Bottinger, in the Jena Universal Literary Gazette of June, 1801: "To whom is Scotland indebted for the attempt to purify her language? Who has exhibited the English finances in the clearest manner and on the surest basis? Who has erected for Europe a model of statistical information, and carried it the length of twenty volumes, in the face of all difficulties? Who has created a centre for Great Britain’s best and dearest interests, her agricultural produce? Who has provided the means of improvement for a chief staple of Eng1and, her wool? Who has toiled most earnestly for converting waste land into fertile fields, and inclosing dreary commons? And who has essentially opposed the inveteracy of bad habits, and the indolence of traditionary customs, even among our farmers? To whom do we owe this, and more? All this, we must own, we owe to Sir John Sinclair, and almost to him alone."

The investigations of Sir John on the suhject of health, with reference, in the first case, to himself, had been so beneficial to others, by the publication of his pamphlet on "Longevity," as sufficed to interest his benevolence; and he resolved to continue his inquiries into the subject. The result was his "Code of Health and Longevity"—a work in four volumes octavo, which was published at Edinburgh in 1807. It comprised an enormous amount of reading, subjected to his favourite processes of analysis and arrangement. His friends were alarmed at this new adventure, and thought that after obtaining such distinction in other departments, he should have left the physicians in possession of their own field. The latter also were wroth at his entrance, and rose in a body to drive the intruder from their premises. It is a grievous offence in their eyes that one even of their own order should betray the sacred mysteries of healing to the uninitiated; but that it should be done by a knight, statesman, financier, and agriculturist, who ought therefore to know little or nothing of the matter, was a monstrous trespass, for which no punishment could be too great. The faculty therefore took up their pens, and few medical prescriptions could be more bitter than the criticisms they emitted as an antidote to the "Code." But it was an excellent code notwithstanding, and the rules of health which he had gathered from every quarter were founded upon the principles of temperance and active exertion, and tested by common sense and long-confirmed experience. Not only individuals but communities were considered, and not one, but every class, could find in it directions, not merely for the recovery, but the preservation of a sound healthy temperament. To sedentary persons of every kind, to students, and to hypochondriacs, this work was especially useful; and such, by attending to his simple directions, could not only hold despondency and dyspepsia in defiance, but retain that mens sana in corpore sane which is so often sacrificed as the price of their occupation.

The "Code of Longevity" was followed by another of a different description: this was the "Code of Agriculture," which Sir John published in 1819. For this, in truth, there was much need. The Agricultural Society had done much, in multiplying, to an almost indefinite extent, the results of their inquiries and discoveries in the cultivation of the soil and improvement of live stock; but these were scattered over such a vast extent of publication as to be inaccessible to those who most needed such instruction. Few farmers, few even of our country gentlemen "who live at home at ease," could be expected to pursue their researches in agricultural improvements through forty-seven octavo volumes, in which the English County Reports, were comprised, and the thirty which contained those of Scotland, besides seven volumes more of communications from correspondents. It was necessary that the pith of this huge mass should be so concentrated as to be both accessible and intelligible to general readers. This was suggested by Sir Joseph Banks, who, in writing to Sir John Sinclair upon the subject, stated "that an account of the systems of husbandry adopted in the more improved districts of Scotland would be of the greatest advantage to the agricultural interests of the United Kingdom; and that it was incumbent upon a native of Scotland, while presiding at the Board of Agriculture, and possessing all the means of information which that situation afforded, to undertake the task." All this was true—but what a task! This was fully explained by Sir John in his excuse for declining the attempt: but Sir Joseph Banks would not be thus satisfied; and he returned to the charge, declaring "that agriculture has derived, is deriving, and will derive more benefit from Scottish industry and skill, than has been accumulated since the days when Adam first wielded the spade." Having allowed himself to be persuaded, Sir John Sinclair went to work, and not content with the voluminous materials already on hand, he visited every district noted for the cultivation both of heavy and light soils, and scattered queries in all directions among the farmers respecting their best processes of cultivation. It was no wonder that this labour occupied as long a period as the siege of Troy; so that, although it commenced in 1809, it was not finished until 1819. Three editions of the "Code of Agriculture" have since appeared; it was also published in America, and translated into the French, German, and Danish languages. One of these translatoins, M. Mathieu Dombasle, of Loraine, the most distinguished agriculturist of his nation, thus correctly characterized the work in a letter to Sir John:—"I have been for some time occupied in translating your excellent ‘Code of Agriculture.’ If anything can contribute to raise agriculture in France to the rank of a science, which we could not till now pretend to do, it will certainly be the publication of this work in France, being the most systematic, the most concise, and, in my opinion, the most perfect which has hitherto been written in any language."

From the foregoing account, in which we have endeavoured to present the beneficent and most valuable exertions of Sir John Sinclair in an unbroken series, it must not be thought that his career was without interruption. Had he escaped, indeed, the obloquy and opposition that have ever requited the great benefactors of mankind, he would have formed a singular exception to that universal rule which has prevailed from the days of Tresmegistus to our own. His first annoyance was from Pitt himself, once his attached friend, but finally alienated from him upon certain great political questions of the day. It was strange that this should react upon him as president of the Agricultural Board, from which all political resentments ought to have been excluded. But his sentiments upon such questions as the Warren Hastings trial, the government of Ireland, and the Westminster scrutiny, were destined to unseat him from a chair which he had so nobly filled, and that, too, of a society that owed its very existence to himself. And where was another to be found that could occupy his room? But upon such a question political resentment seldom condescends to pause; and after he had been for five years chairman of the Board of Agriculture, another was proposed, and chosen by a majority of one. This new election was made in favour of Lord Sommerville, who assumed the appointment with reluctance, while the public were indignant at the movement. Thus matters continued for eight years, when Sir John was restored to his proper office—an unsalaried office, that not only involved much labour, but personal expense to boot. This Sir John felt in weary days of anxiety and toil, and such a diminution of his private fortune, that in 1813 he was obliged to resign it. Two years before this took place, he was appointed cashier of excise for Scotland, in consequence of which he resigned his seat in parliament. He had previously, in 1810, been raised to the rank of a privy councillor. On his resignation of the presidentship of the Board of Agriculture, an event justly deemed of the highest national importance, in consequence of his great public services during forty years, many a grateful survey of his past life was made, and the worth by which it had been distinguished was affectionately commemorated.

Although the remainder of Sir John Sinclair’s life was equally distinguished by active enterprising usefulness, our limits permit nothing more than a hasty summary of its chief events. In 1814 he made an excursion to the Netherlands, being his fourth visit to the Continent, and on this occasion his object was to examine the comparative prices of grain in Great Britain and the continental countries, and ascertain the best means of putting a stop to inequality of price for the future. He then passed over to Holland, to investigate the management of the Dutch dairies, so superior in their produce to those of other countries. The escape of Napoleon from Elba interrupted his farther progress, and on returning to England, he published his "Hints on the Agricultural State of the Netherlands compared with that of Great Britain;" in which he explained at full the improvements of foreign agriculture, for the imitation of British farmers. After the battle of Waterloo Sir John revisited Holland and the Netherlands, and afterwards France, where he made a close agricultural inspection of its provinces; but the minute subdivision of landed property in that country gave him little hope of the improvement of French agriculture. On his return to England he saw, with much anxiety, the sudden recoil which peace had produced in our trade, commerce, and agriculture, and carefully sought for a remedy. The result of his speculations was a pamphlet, which he published in October, 1815, entitled "Thoughts on the Agricultural and Financial State of the Country, and on the means of rescuing the Landed Farming Interests from their present depressed state." These evils he traced to the return of peace prices of produce, while war taxes were continued; and the remedy he proposed was, an increase in the currency, a bounty on exportation, and public loans for the benefit of landlord and tenant.

In passing on to 1819, we find Sir John Sinclair as busy as ever, and employed in the way most congenial to his intellectual character. This was the task of code-making, which he was anxious to apply to matters still more important than those that had, hitherto been subjected to his industry. He contemplated a great work, to be entitled "A Code or Digest of Religion," in which the mind of the reader was to be led, step by step, from the first simple principles of natural religion, to the last and most profound of revelation. This plan, of which he sketched the first portion, and printed for private distribution among his friends, he was obliged to lay aside, in consequence of the more secular public questions that were daily growing, and pressing upon his notice. His theory, however, was afterwards realized in part by other agencies, in the "Bridgewater Treatises." Another printed paper which he circulated among his friends, was "On the Superior Advantages of the Codean System of Knowledge." It was his wish that every department of learning, science, and literature, hitherto spread over such a boundless field, and so much beyond the reach of common minds, should be collected, condensed, and simplified for the purposes of general instruction—and for this purpose, to associate the learned and talented of every country "for the collection and diffusion of useful knowledge." We know how ably this plan was afterwards taken up, and realized by a mind well fitted for such a task. From these theories for the elevation of human character, Sir John again turned to the improvement of sheep and oxen, of which he had never lost sight since his great sheep shearing festival of 1792; and in 1821 he proposed the plan of sheep and cattle shows to the Highland Society. This time the proposal was favourably received, and forthwith put into practice, so that the first annual show of this society was held in Edinburgh at the close of 1822, while the prizes, appointed according to his suggestion, for the best specimens of sheep, cattle, breeding stocks, seeds, and agricultural implements, excited a spirit of ardent industrious competition over the whole kingdom. So great a machinery having thus received such an impetus as secured the easy continuance of its motion, Sir John returned to the other manifold subjects of his solicitude, and with such diligence, that after the year 1821, thirty pamphlets and tracts issued from his pen, besides many others whose authorship has not been traced. These, as might be expected, were chiefly connected with finance and agriculture. The proof-sheet of the last of these tracts, bearing the date of 1835, contains additions and corrections written in his own hand, but so tremulous and indistinct as to be almost illegible. The brain that had never rested, the hand that never was folded in idleness, the heart that had never been weary of well-doing, were all alike to be stilled: and these were the tokens of the final effort; the last throb, after which all was to be the wondrous change of moveless silence and repose.

The last illness of Sir John occurred on the 15th of December, 1835, when he was in the eighty-second year of his age. Its approach was sudden, as only the day previous he had taken a long drive, and conversed cheerfully with his friends. It was the rapid collapse of a healthy old age, in which our patriarchs are frequently removed from the world without sickness or suffering, rather than a regularly formed disease; and in this way Sir John lingered for a few days, and expired on the 21st.

Sir John Sinclair was twice married. By his first wife, as has been already mentioned, he had two daughters. By his second marriage, in 1788, to Diana, daughter of Alexander Lord Macdonald, he had thirteen children, of whom seven were sons, and six daughters. He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his eldest son, Sir George Sinclair, the present member for the shire of Caithness.

There is a two volume Memorial to him in pdf format which you can download below...

Volume 1  |  Volume 2


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