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Significant Scots
George Heriot

HERIOT, GEORGE, founder of the excellent hospital in Edinburgh which bears his name, and jeweler to king James VI., was descended from the Heriots of Trabroun in East-Lothian. This respectable family was connected with some of the most distinguished names in Scottish history. The mother of the illustrious Buchanan was a daughter of the family, and it was through the patronage of James Heriot of Trabroun, his maternal uncle, that the future poet and statesman was sent to prosecute his studies at the university of Paris. Elizabeth, daughter of James Heriot of Trabroun, was the mother of Thomas Hamilton of Priestfield, first earl of Haddington, president of the court of session, and secretary and prime minister to James VI. But the family may, with more reason, boast of their connexion with the subject of this memoir, who, though filling only the unaristocratic rank of a tradesman, has been the means drawing forth from obscurity some persons of high talent, and many who have moved in the middle ranks with the greatest honour to themselves and benefit to society.

George Heriot, senior, was a goldsmith in Edinburgh and a person of wealth and consideration. He filled some of the most responsible civic situations in the Scottish metropolis: his name often occurs in the rolls of the Scottish parliament as a commissioner for Edinburgh, in the parliaments and conventions of estates, and he was frequently appointed a commissioner by parliament for the consideration of important questions.*

George, his eldest son (the subject of our inquiry) is supposed to have been born in June, 1563. He was destined to follow his father’s profession, at that time one of the most lucrative and honourable among the burgesses. The goldsmiths of Edinburgh were, in ancient times, classed with the hammermen; at what time they were separated seems uncertain. They received (in August, 1581) a charter of incorporation from the magistrates, in which many privileges, amounting in fact to a monopoly of their trade, were granted to them, and these were afterwards (1586) confirmed by a charter from James VI. They were, besides, for a long period, the only money lenders; and the high rate of interest, with their frequent command over the resources of the court and the nobility, rendered them persons at once of wealth and power.

At the age of twenty-three George Heriot entered into a contract of marriage with Christian Marjoribanks, daughter of Simon Marjoribanks, a substantial burgess of Edinburgh. On this occasion, his father presented him with 1000 merks "to be ane begyning and pak to him," and 500 more to purchase the implements of his trade and to fit out his shop. By his wife he received 1075 merks, which appear to have been lent out at ten per cent interest, the usual rate of that period. Their union does not appear to have been of long duration, although the date of this lady’s death is unknown; it is even doubtful if she had any children—if she had, none of them survived her.

Master Heriot was admitted a member of the incorporation of goldsmiths on the twenty-eighth of May, 1588. In 1597 he was appointed goldsmith to the queen by a charter from James VI., and this (to use the expression of a contemporary chronicler, Birrel,) "was intimat at the crosse be opin proclamations and sound of trumpet; and ane Clei, the French man, dischargit, quha was the queen’s goldsmithe befor." Heriot was soon after constituted goldsmith and jeweller to the king, with all the emoluments attached to that lucrative office. It would appear that he had already amassed a considerable fortune from his transactions with the court, but no notice of his work occurs in the treasurer’s books till September, 1599, when we have the following:

"Payit at his majesties special command, with advyiss of the lords of secret counsal, to George Heriot, younger, goldsmith, for a copburd propynit to Monsieur Vetonu, Frenche ambassadour, contening the peces following, viz.: twa basingis, twa laweris effeiring thairto, twa flaconis, twa chandilleris, sex couppis with coveris, twa couppis without coveris, ane lawer for water, ane saltfalt with ane cover; all chissellit wark, and dowbill owirgilt, weyand twa stane 14 pund and 5 unces at aucht mark the unce, £4160. Item, for graving of 28 almessis upon the said copburd £14," Scots money.

No other notice of him appears between this period and that of the removal of the court to England, whither he soon followed it.

Heriot was now possessed of large fortune, and determined upon forming a marriage connexion with a family of good rank.

The object of his choice was Alison Primrose, the eldest daughter of James Primrose, clerk to the Scottish privy council; a gentleman whose industry and talents had raised him to that honourable office, and who was the grandfather of the first earl of Roseberry. Heriot was also destined to survive this lady, who died, without leaving issue, on the 16th of April, 1612. "The loss of a young, beautiful, and amiable partner, at a period so interesting," Sir Walter Scott conjectures, "was the probable reason of her husband devoting his fortune to a charitable institution." She was interred in the south aisle of the choir of Saint Gregory’s church, where her sorrowing husband erected a handsome monument, bearing a Latin inscription, to her memory.

From the period of Heriot’s settlement at London little is known of his history. Many of the accounts of jewels furnished by him to the queen have been preserved, and several are printed by Mr Constable in his memoir of Heriot. These accounts, from 1605 to 1615, amount to many thousand pounds sterling, but there does not appear to have been the same liberality towards all the members of the royal family. We find the duke (then marquis) of Buckingham, writing to his "dere dad, gossip and steward," the king, from the Spanish court in the following manner relative to the prince: "Hitherto you have beine so sparing (of jewels) that whereas you thought to have sent him sufficiently for his one (own) wearing, to present to his mistris, who, I am sure shall shortlie now louse that title, and to lend me, that I to the contrarie have bene forsed to lend him." About the same period Charles writes the following letter from Madrid to his royal father:

"I confess that ye have sent mor jewells then (at my departure) I thought to had use of; but, since my cumming, seeing manie jewels worne here, and that my braverie can consist of nothing else, besydes that sume of them which ye have appointed me to give to the Infants, in Steenie’s oppinion and myne are not fitt to be given to her; therefore I have taken this bouldness to entreate your majesty to send more for my own wearing, and for giving to my mistris, in which I think your majesty shall not doe amiss to take Carlyle’s advice." ** It is said that Heriot furnished these jewels, and that they were never paid for by James, but that their price was deducted from the purchase-money of the barony of Broughton when bought by the trustees of the hospital. *** If this is the case, it is the last transaction in which we have found Heriot engaged. He died at London on the 12th of February, 1624, and was buried at St Martin’s in the Fields on the 20th of the same month.

Of Heriot’s private character little unfortunately is known. He seems to have possessed those strict business-like habits of accuracy for which he is so distinguished in the novel of the Fortunes of Nigel. With his relations he must have lived on amicable terms, for besides the munificent provision made in his will for the establishment of an hospital, he left considerable sums to many of his relations. Of these the nearest were two natural daughters.

By his will, (dated 20th January, 1623,) he left the whole of his fortune, after deducting the legacies to his relations, servants, &c. to "the provost, bailiffs, ministers, and ordinary council, for the time being, of the said town of Edinburgh, for and towards the founding and erecting of an hospital within the said town of Edinburgh, in perpetuity; and for and towards purchasing of certain lands in perpetuity to belong unto the said hospital, to be employed for the maintenance, relief, bringing up, and education of so many poor fatherless boys, freeman’s sons of the town of Edinburgh, as the means which I give, and the yearly value of the lands purchased by the provost, bailiffs, ministers, and council of the said town shall amount, or come to." The education of the boys is superintended by able masters, and they are not only taught to read, write, and cast accounts, (to which the statutes of the hospital originally confined the trustees,) but Latin, Greek, Mathematics, &c. If the boys choose a learned profession, they are sent to the university for four years, with an annual allowance of thirty pounds. The greater number are bound apprentices to tradesmen in the city, and are allowed the annual sum of ten pounds for five years; at the end of the apprenticeship they receive five pounds to purchase a suit of clothes, upon producing a certificate of good conduct from their master.

The foundation of the present magnificent structure (designed by the celebrated architect Inigo Jones,) was laid on the 1st of July, 1628, but from the disturbed state of the country continued unfinished till April, 1659. From the rise in the value of their property, the yearly revenue at the disposal of the trustees has very greatly increased, especially during the last half century. A body of statues by which the institution is governed was drawn up by Dr Balcanqual, dean of Rochester, the well known author of a "Declaration concerning the late tumults in Scotland," 1639, published in name of king Charles I.

* Acts of the Parliament of Scotland (folio edition), iv. 181, 379.

** Stark’s Picture of Edinburgh, p. 232.

*** Ellie’s Letters Illustrative of English history, (first series) iii 145, 6. Buckingham adds the following postscript in his usual style: "I your doge (dog) sayes you have manie jewels neyther fitt for your one (own), your sones, nor your daughters, wearing, but very fitt to bestow on those here who must necessarilie have presents; and this way will be least chargeable to your majesty in my poure opinion."

Memoirs of George Heriot
Jeweller to King James VI with an historical Account of the Hospital founded by him at Edinburgh (1822) (pdf)

George Herriot & Family
Author, Artist (pdf)

Travels through the Canadas
Containing a description of the picturesque scenery on some of the rivers and lakes; with an account of the productions, commerce, and inhabitants of those provinces. To which is subjoined a comparative view of the manners and customs of several of the Indian nations of North and South America by George Herriot (1807) (pdf)

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