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The Scottish Nation

BIRNIE, a surname derived from a parish of that name in the county of Elgin. About the beginning of the thirteenth century this parish was named Brenuth, “a name probably derived from Brae-nut, that is, ‘high land abounding in nuts;’ for many hazel trees once grew upon the sides of the hills and banks of the rivulets, and the general appearance of the parish is hilly. The natives pronounce it Burn-nigh – that is, ‘a village near the burn or river.’ This etymology is descriptive enough of the particular place now called Birnie.” [Old Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. ix. p. 155.]

      As a specimen of the absurd and oftentimes fabulous accounts given by genealogists of the origin of old families we find in Nisbet’s Heraldry, (Appendix, vol. ii. page 68,) the following Sennachy’s tradition of the origin of the family of Birnie, said to have been formerly in the possession of the Birnies of Brocmhill; – One Birnie (an Irish word signifying bright, a name bestowed upon him from his glittering armour), with his two sons, were in the army of Kenneth the Second, king of the Scots, raised to avenge the death of his father, Alpin, by the Picts in 838 or thereby, and when pressing furiously one evening into the thickest of the Pictish force, were all made prisoners, and chained by the leg to a stock of wood. To obtain their freedom, says the legend, they cut off their bound leg, and in the next battle were observed – upon their remaining leg – to behave themselves with extraordinary courage. In reward of their valour, a barony of lands near Elgin was bestowed upon the father by the victor, which still bears his name. And in confirmation of the fable, it is gravely added, that – (in anticipation, we suppose, of an institution and of terms not known in Scotland until centuries afterwards) – he gave them for their arms Gules, in resemblance of a bloody battle, a Fesse, the mark of honour, betwixt a bow and arrow in full draught, and three legs couped on the thigh. It might have been nearer the truth to have conjectured that as Byrne of Birnie is obviously derived from Biron (the origin of the modern English Byron) pronounced short as in France, Birnie may have been the usual diminutive of Birony, as Barry, from Bar, and that Birony, like Barry and others, may have been the name of some Anglo-Norman follower of Malcolm IV., who received a grant of lands in Moray (Elgin) on the occasion of the conquest and transportation thence of the native inhabitants.

      The estate of Birnie continued in the possession of the Birnies till about the end of the civil wars in the minority of King James the Sixth. The last proprietor of this family was William Birnie, who married Margaret, daughter of Frazer of Philorth; after her husband’s death she was by Queen Mary made Mistress of the Mint. Their only son, Mr. William Birnie, when he came of age, and after three years’ study abroad, entered the church, and on the 28th December 1597, he was presented by King James the Sixth, to the church of Lanark. He was also appointed by the king a member of both the courts of high commission. It is recorded of him that “because of the several quarrels and feuds amongst the gentlemen of his parish, he not only learnedly preached the gospel, but was obliged, many times, as he well could, to make use of his sword.” He was the author of an old and learned work published in Edinburgh in 1606, quarto, entitled ‘The Blame of Kirk-Buriall, tending to persuade to Cemeterial Civilitie,’ an interesting reprint of which was, a few years ago, made by William Turnbull, Esq., Advocate. In quaint but powerful language the author inveighs against the practice of burying in the area of churches, but delivers many admirable sentiments on the honour due to the resting-places of the dead. He married Elizabeth, a niece of Lindsay of Covington, and had issue, John, a merchant, who died without heirs male; James, a merchant in Poland, afterwards secretary to John Cassimir, king of Poland, who had no male issue; and Robert, who, by presentation from King Charles the First, of date 23d November 1643, was also, like his father, made minister at Lanark. Robert married Christian, the daughter of Dr. Patrick Melville, professor of the oriental languages at St. Andrews, of the family of Raith, a lady of so great proficiency in the Hebrew language, that she was able to English it in any part, even without the points. They had issue, a son and a daughter. The daughter, Janet, married John Irvine of Saphock, ancestor of the Irvines of Drum. The son, John Birnie, styled of Birnie, married Jean, daughter of James Hamilton of Broomhill, Bishop of Galloway, second son of Sir James Hamilton of Broomhill, baronet, a younger brother of Lord Belhaven, from whom the bishop seems to have acquired the lands of Broomhill. The bishop had two sons, both of whom died without issue, and the estate of Broomhill, came into possession of his daughter Jean above mentioned, through whose right it devolved upon the Birnies. She was succeeded by her eldest son, John Birnie of Broomhill.

      Sir Andrew Birnie of Saline, her second son, was admitted advocate 14th June 1661, elected dean of faculty 1st February 1675, and became a lord of session, under the title of Lord Saline, 28th November 1679. He retained his seat on the bench till the Revolution.

      Isabella Birnie, his only sister, married George Muirhead of Whitecastle.

      The estate of Broomhill, which is in the parish of Dalserf, Lanarkshire, remained in possession of the Birnies till about 1825, when, from the death of the last direct descendant, a lady, the estate was sold by her heirs to James Bruce, Esq., a native of the parish, who had returned from India, with a fortune.

BIRNIE, SIR RICHARD, chief magistrate of the public office, Bow-=street, London, was born in Banff, of comparatively humble but respectable parents, about the year 1760. He was bred to the trade of a saddler, and, after serving his apprenticeship, went to London, and obtained a situation as journeyman in the house of Macintosh and Co., then saddle and harness makers to the royal family, in the Haymarket. His application and industry soon recommended him to the favourable notice of his employers, but his subsequent advancement in life was in some degree the effect of accident. Upon one occasion, when both the foreman and the senior partner in the firm were absent on account of illness, a command was received from the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV., for some one to attend him, to take his orders to a considerable extent; and young Birnie was directed to wait upon his Royal Highness. The orders of the prince were executed so completely to his satisfaction, that he afterwards, on similar occasions, specially desired that “the young Scotchman” should be sent to him. At that period Sir Richard occupied a furnished apartment in Whitcomb Street, Haymarket. By his diligence, perseverance, and honesty, he at length became foreman of the establishment, and eventually a partner in the firm. Previous to the latter event, he had made the acquaintance of the lady to whom he was afterwards united. She was the daughter of an opulent baker in Oxendon Street, and on marrying her, he received in her right a considerable sum of money, a cottage and a piece of valuable land at Acton, Middlesex. He then took up house in St. Martin’s parish, and soon distinguished himself by his activity in parochial affairs. He served successively, as he has often been heard exultingly to state, every parochial office, except watchman and beadle. He was always a warm loyalist, and during the troublesome time of the latter part of the Pitt administration, he gave a proof of his devotion to the constitution, by enrolling himself as a private in the Royal Westminster Volunteers, in which corps, however, he soon obtained the rank of captain. After serving the offices of constable, overseer, auditor, &c. of the parish, he became, in 1805, church warden. In conjunction with his colleague in office, Mr. Elaim, a silversmith in the Strand, and Dr. Anthony Hamilton, then vicar of St. Martin’s parish, he founded the establishment of a number of almshouses, together with a chapel, called St. Martin’s chapel, for decayed parishioners, in Pratt’s Street, Camden Town, an extensive burying-ground being attached thereto. As St. Martin’s parish is governed by a local act of parliament, two magistrates require to be resident in the parish; and at the special request of the late duke of Northumberland, Mr. Birnie was placed in the commission of the peace. From this period he began to give frequent attendances at Bow Street office, and at the same time employed himself in studying the penal statutes and magisterial practice in general. He was in the habit of sitting in the absence of Sir Richard Ford, Mr. Graham, and other stipendiary magistrates of the day, and was considered an excellent assistant. He was at length appointed police magistrate at Union Hall. In February 1820 he headed the peace officers and military in the apprehension of the celebrated Cato Street gang of conspirators. Sir Nathaniel Conant, the chief magistrate at Bow Street, died shortly after, and Mr. Birnie was much disappointed at Sir Robert Baker, of Marlborough Street, being preferred to the vacant office, saying to a brother magistrate publicly on the bench, while the tears started from his eyes, “This is the reward a man gets for risking his life in the service of his country!” He soon afterwards, however, attained what might be fairly said to be the summit of his ambition. In August 1821, at the funeral of Queen Caroline, Sir Robert Baker having declined to read the riot act, which Mr. Birnie deemed necessary, in consequence of the riotous disposition of the mob, he took the responsibility upon himself, and read it amid great tumult. Sir Robert retired from the chair immediately afterwards, having given great offence to the ministry by his want of decision, and Mr. Birnie was appointed to the office of chief magistrate at Bow Street. On the 17th September following, he received the honour of knighthood. He died April 29, 1832, leaving a son and two daughters. Sir Richard was especial favourite with George the Fourth. He was ever ready to assist the needy, especially where he discovered a disposition to industry. As a magistrate his loss was severely felt. In all matters of importance connected with the peace and welfare of the metropolis, he was for years consulted by those who filled the highest offices in the state. He was remarkable for his close application to business.

Entries from the Dictionary of National Biography

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