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Significant Scots
James Finlayson


FINLAYSON, JAMES, D.D.F.R.S.E., professor of logic and metaphysics in the university of Edinburgh, and one of the ministers of the high church of that city, was born on the 15th of February, 1758, at Nether Cambusnie, in the parish of Dumblane, a small farm which his ancestors had occupied for several centuries. His parents, who were persons of much worth and in comfortable circumstances, had the satisfaction of witnessing the eminence to which their son arrived, and of having their old age cheered by his dutiful attentions; but they had likewise the misfortune to survive his death, which took place at a comparatively early age. Having passed some years of his early childhood under the care of a maternal uncle at Lecropt, young Finlayson was sent to school at Kinbuck, in the neighbourhood of his father’s house; and at the age of ten was removed to that of Dumblane. At this early period, he was conspicuous among his playmates, not only for a gayety and energy of character, which placed him at the head of every plan of frolic or amusement, but at the same time for an uncommon degree of application to his juvenile studies, combined with an understanding naturally clear, and a memory so retentive, as to enable him to outstrip the greater number of his school-fellows. As it had been resolved, that he should devote himself to the clerical profession, he was sent at the early age of fourteen, to the university of Glasgow, where he commenced his preparatory course of study; there, his habits of industry were confirmed, his mind enlarged and invigorated, and his taste for literature and science acquired, under the instruction of the very eminent professors who then adorned that seminary.

In order to relieve his parents of the expense which necessarily attended his residence at college, he engaged in private teaching; and during the summer vacation, he employed himself in giving instruction to his younger brothers. During two years, he acted as tutor in the family of Mrs Campbell of Carie, and afterwards, with the intervention of a summer, which he devoted to private study, he was employed in the same capacity in the family of Mr Cooper of Glasgow. Professor Anderson, who had discovered his superior abilities and great steadiness, employed him for some time as his amanuensis; and in the year 1782, he had the good fortune to become domestic tutor to two sons of Sir William Murray of Ochtertyre. [The eldest son, Sir Patrick, one of the barons of exchequer in Scotland, and the younger Sir George, well known as a quarter-master-general for the army under the duke of Wellington, afterwards secretary of state for the colonies, and member of parliament for Perthshire.]

There were many circumstances which rendered this connexion desirable to Mr Finlayson. The greater number of young men who engage as tutors in Scotland, look forward to a pastoral charge as the ultimate object of their ambition. The interest of the Ochtertyre family was amply sufficient to accomplish that object. Sir William was a man of general information, of a liberal turn of mind, who derived much pleasure from the conversation of an ingenious and intelligent companion; and few persons were more suited to his taste than Mr Finlayson, whose manners were modest and unpresuming, and whose knowledge was accurate and extensive. Possessed of great natural acuteness and originality, his conversation was highly instructive, and rendered him a valuable addition in the retirement of a country residence. As the family spent the winter in Edinburgh, when his pupils attended the high school, Mr Finlayson, had many opportunities of improvement. At the same time that he assisted them in their tasks, he resumed his own studies with renewed vigour; he attended the divinity hall, and other of the university classes. About this time also, he became a member of the theological society, a body still in existence. Although he took an active part in the discussions which were introduced, and although the extent of his knowledge and the philosophical precision of his language placed him far above the majority of his companions; yet it cannot be denied that Mr Finlayson’s talents were by no means such as fitted him either to shine as an orator, or make a figure in extemporaneous debate.

Mr Finlayson was licensed to preach the gospel in the year 1785. We have the authority of an intimate friend for the style which characterized his earliest appearances in the pulpit. "The composition of his sermons gives evidence of the maturity and manliness of his understanding. They exhibited no juvenile splendour of language, no straining for original or unexpected remark; ambition of refined, or recondite ingenuity. The subjects were judiciously chosen, and the most instructive and intelligent treatment of them preferred. His reasoning was cogent and correct; his illustrations rational and just; and his style, which neither courted nor rejected ornament, was classically pure, and appropriate. His manner was still less florid than his duties. He carried to the pulpit the same unpretending simplicity, with which he appeared in society; and from his care to avoid affectation and all rhetorical attempts of doubtful success, he might, to the undiscerning have some appearance of coldness; but by those who felt such an interest in the matter, as was due to its excellence, no defect of energy or animation in the manner was observable. If it had no artificial decoration, it had no offensive meanness. As a preacher, Dr Finlayson was nearly what Cowper describes in the following lines:—

"Simple, grave, sincere,
In doctrine uncorrupt; In language plain:
And plain in manner. Decent, solemn, chaste,
And natural in gesture."

During the course of the year in which he obtained his license, the duke of Athole offered Mr Finlayson the living of Dunkeld. Of this offer he would have been exceedingly glad to accept, had he not received information from Sir William Murray, that a plan was in agitation to procure for him the chair of logic in the university of Edinburgh. This unlooked for prospect gave an entirely different direction to his ambition; and he was induced to decline the duke’s offer.

The negotiation, however, respecting the professorship, did not proceed so smoothly as was anticipated. Mr Bruce, who at that time held the chair, had accompanied the present lord Melville as travelling companion in his tour on the continent, and having gone off without giving in his resignation, or making final arrangements, many difficulties arose, which occupied more than a year before they were completely settled, and Mr Finlayson put in possession of the chair. In the meanwhile, Sir William Murray, by his influence with the family of Dundas of Arniston, obtained for him the living of Borthwick, which, while it was in such a near neighbourhood to Edinburgh as to admit of his holding both it and the professorship, secured him in the meantime an independence in the event of the failure of the negotiation for the chair. Mr Finlayson was ordained minister of Borthwick on the 6th of April, 1787. He had, however, at the commencement of the session of that year assumed the duties of the logic class, and it may therefore be easily believed, that the labour he had to undergo in preparing for his ordination, and at the same time being obliged to write his lecture for the following day’s delivery, required a very extraordinary degree of application, and great vigour of intellect; and the accuracy of his knowledge is rendered more remarkable from the fact, that many of the lectures thus hurriedly written off, served him without transcription to the end of his life.

During the succeeding summer, he added to his other labours a course of parochial visitation, which, although very common in Scotland, had in his parish been discontinued for upwards of thirty years. This practice he commenced at the suggestion of Dr Robertson, whose due appreciation of the duties of a clergyman was no less remarkable than his splendid abilities. But although he felt the faithful discharge of parochial duties to be strongly incumbent on him, the labour which he had thus to undergo was too great for his constitution, and his parents used to refer to the toils of this period of his life, as having sown the seeds of those organic diseases which ultimately proved fatal.

Abilities such as Mr Finlayson possessed, could not long remain unacknowledged. The stations which he occupied, his own qualifications, and the connexion which he had formed with the Arniston family, more particularly with the late lord Melville, opened up objects of ambition which were afterwards completely realized. His talents for business had been observed and justly appreciated by lord Melville; and it was therefore determined, that on the first vacancy, he should be removed to Edinburgh, where his practical talents would be of essential service in supporting that system of ecclesiastical polity which his lordship had long maintained, and which had for many years directed the measures of the general assembly. Accordingly, in 1790, he was presented by the magistrates of Edinburgh to lady Yester’s church: on the death of Dr Robertson in 1793, he was appointed to succeed that distinguished man in the collegiate church of the Old Grey-Friars; and on a vacancy taking place in the high church, in the year 1799, he was removed to that collegiate charge. This last was considered the most honourable appointment in the church of Scotland, and it was, at the time, rendered more desirable from the circumstance, that he had for his colleague the celebrated Dr Hugh Blair; whose funeral sermon, however, he was called upon to preach in little more than a year after he became his colleague. The university of Edinburgh conferred on him the honour of doctor of divinity: and in the year 1802, he was chosen moderator of the general assembly, being the highest mark of respect which his brethren of the church could confer on him.

Dr Finlayson had now obtained every honourable preferment which, as a clergyman of the church of Scotland, was attainable in the line of his profession. His influence in the church was now greatly extended, and nothing of any importance was transacted in the ecclesiastical courts without his advice and direction. Among his own party, his sway was unlimited; and even those who differed from him in church politics, freely acknowledged the honourable and straight forward honesty of his conduct. The means by which he raised himself to be the leader of his party were very different from those used by any of his predecessors, who had all been distinguished for the brilliancy of their oratorical powers. Dr Finlayson, well aware of the nature of his talents, established his ascendency on the wisdom of his councils, and his knowledge of the laws and constitution of the church.

Towards the beginning of 1805, Dr Finlayson’s constitution evidently became impaired. In order to try the effects of country air, he spent the greater part of the autumn of that year with his brother; but without deriving any permanent benefit. His health, however, was so far restored, that he was enabled to perform the duties of his class during the following winter; but in the course of the year 1807, he became considerably worse; yet the good effects of a tour which he took, accompanied by some of his friends, led him to hope that he might be able to undergo the fatigue of the following session; and, accordingly, he not only opened his class, but continued for some time to deliver his lectures. At length he was constrained to accept of the assistance of one of his earliest friends, his respected colleague, the very Rev. Principal Baird, who taught the class during the remainder of that session. Dr Finlayson’s disease increased with much rapidity, and on the 25th of January, 1808, while conversing with principal Baird, he was seized with a paralytic affection, which deprived him of the faculty of speech, and the power of moving one side. Among the few words he was able to articulate was the following impressive sentence:—"I am about to pass to a better habitation, where all who believe in Jesus shall enter." He died on the 28th of January, 1808, in the fiftieth year of his age; and was interred in the cathedral church of Dumblane.

Dr Finlayson was rather below the middle size. His appearance indicated nothing which was calculated to impress a stranger when first introduced to him. His manner, to those who did not know him, appeared formal, and even distant and shy, but was in truth simple and unpresuming ; characteristics which strongly marked his mind. With a just confidence in himself which he never affected to disguise, he was without that vanity which makes pretensions to those qualifications which he did not possess. His feelings were naturally keen; and he made no attempt to soften his reprehension of any conduct which was equivocal or base. His perfect sincerity and unconsciousness of any hostile impression which required to be concealed, gave his deportment towards his political opponents an appearance of bluntness. When his friends applied to him for advice, as they uniformly did in every difficulty, if he thought that they had acted amiss, he told them so with explicitness and brevity; for he avowed the utmost contempt of that squeamish sensibility which requires to be "swaddled and dandied" into a sense of duty. Such, however, was the persuasion of the excellence of his counsel, and the purity of his intentions, that, notwithstanding this primitive plainness of manner, even his political opponents, in points of business unconnected with party, are said to have been occasionally guided by his judgment. In conversation he preserved the same artless sincerity; and was perhaps too strict a reasoner to be very lively or amusing as the companion of a relaxing hour. But although little qualified himself to shine in lively conversation, he was pleased with it in others; and often, where he was on intimate habits, he led the way for the display of the talents of his friends, by provoking a harmless and inoffensive raillery. In the more serious offices of friendship, he was unwearied; for his kindness as well as his advice, his purse as well as his personal exertions, were ever at the command of those whom he esteemed.

Of his manner in the pulpit at his first appearance as a preacher, some account has already been given; and it never underwent any material change. But his sermons partook of that progressive improvement which his mind derived from the daily exercise of his powers, and the extension of his knowledge.

He was cautious of exhibiting himself as an author; his only publications being two occasional sermons, and a short account of Dr Blair. He likewise printed, but did not publish the "Heads of an Argument" on a question depending before the ecclesiastical courts. The last production furnished an excellent specimen of his practical powers in the art which it was his province to teach. He likewise consented, a few hours before his death, that a volume of his sermons should be published, and the profits of the sale given in aid of the widow’s fund of the church of Scotland.

As a teacher of logic, he acquitted himself in a manner such as might have been expected from his talents, industry, and integrity; restricting himself to inculcate the knowledge already acquired in the department of philosophy, rather than making any attempts at originality.


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