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Significant Scots
David Stewart Erskine

ERSKINE, DAVID STEWART, earl of Buchan, lord Cardross, was born on the 1st of June, 1742, O.S., and was the eldest surviving son of Henry David, the tenth earl, and Agnes, daughter of Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees, his majesty’s solicitor-general for Scotland. He was educated "in all manner of useful learning, and in the habits of rigid honour and virtue," under the care of James Buchanan, a relation of the poet and historian, and learned the elements of the mathematics, history, and politics from his father, who had been a scholar of the celebrated Colin Maclaurin. At the university of Glasgow he engaged ardently in "every ingenious and liberal study;" but what will be better remembered, was his connexion with the unfortunate academy of Foulis the printer, which he attended, and of his labours at which he has left us a specimen, in an etching of the abbey of Icolmkill, inserted in the first volume of the Transactions of the Scottish Antiquaries.

On the completion of his education, lord Cardross entered the army, but never rose higher than the rank of lieutenant. Forsaking the military life, he went to London, to pursue the study of diplomacy under lord Chatham; and, while there, was elected a fellow of the royal and antiquarian societies. In the following year, 1766, his lordship was appointed secretary to the British embassy in Spain; but his father having died thirteen months afterwards, he returned to his native country, determined to devote the remainder of his life to the cultivation of literature and the encouragement of literary men.

The education of his younger brothers, Thomas, afterwards the illustrious lord-chancellor, and Henry, no less celebrated for his wit, seems to have occupied a large portion of lord Buchan’s thoughts. To accomplish these objects, he for years submitted to considerable privations. The family-estate had been squandered by former lords, and it is no small credit to the earl that he paid off debts for which he was not legally responsible; a course of conduct which should lead us to overlook parsimonious habits acquired under very disadvantagcous circumstances.

Lord Buchan’s favourite study was the history, literature, and antiquities of his native country. It had long been regretted that no society had been formed in Scotland for the promotion of these pursuits; and with a view to supplying this desideratum, he called a meeting of the most eminent persons resident in Edinburgh, on the 14th of November, 1780. Fourteen assembled at his house in St Andrew square, and an essay, which will be found in Smellie’s Account of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries, p. 4—18, was read by his lordship. At a meeting, held at the same place, on the 28th, it was determined, that upon the 18th of December a society should be formed upon the proposed model; and, accordingly, on the day fixed, the earl of Bute was elected president, and the earl of Buchan first of five vice-presidents. In 1792 the first volume of their Transactions was published; and the following discourses, by the earl, appear in it:—"Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Stewart Denham;" "Account of the Parish of Uphall;" "Account of the Island of Icolmkill;" and a "Life of Mr James Short, optician." Besides these, he had printed, in conjunction with Dr Walter Minto, 1787, "An Account of the Life, Writings, and Inventions of Napier of Mercheston."

In the same year his lordship retired from Edinburgh to reside at Dryburgh abbey on account of his health. Here he pursued his favourite studies. He instituted an annual festive commemoration of Thomson, at that poet’s native place; and this occasion produced from the pen of Burns the beautiful Address to the shade of the bard of Ednam. The eulogy pronounced by the illustrious earl on the first of these meetings, in 1791, is remarkable. "I think myself happy to have this day the honour of endeavouring to do honour to the memory of Thomson, which has been profanely touched by the rude hand of Samuel Johnson, whose fame and reputation indicate the decline of taste in a country that, after having produced an Alfred, a Wallace, a Bacon, a Napier, a Newton, a Buchanan, a Milton, a Hampden, a Fletcher, and a Thomson, can submit to be bullied by an overbearing pedant!" In the following year his lordship published an "Essay on the Lives and Writings of Fletcher of Saltoun and the poet Thomson, Biographical, Critical, and Political; with some pieces of Thomson’s never before published," 8vo. [Biographical Notice of the Earl of Buchan in the New Scots Magazine, vol. ii. p. 49. From this article most of the facts here mentioned are extracted.]

Lord Buchan had contributed to several periodical publications. In 1784 he communicated to the Gentleman’s Magazine "Remarks on the Progress of the Roman Arms in Scotland during the sixth campaign of Agricola," afterwards printed, with plates and additions, by Dr Jamieson, in the Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica. To Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland he gave a description of Dryburgb, with views, taken in 1787 and 1789. But his most frequent assistance was given to "The Bee," generally under fictitious signatures. The last work which he meditated was the collection of these anonymous communications. Accordingly, in 1812, "the Anonymous and Fugitive Essays of the earl of Buchan, collected from various periodical works," appeared at Edinburgh in 12mo. It contains the following short preface: "The earl of Buchan, considering his advanced age, has thought proper to publish this volume, and meditate the publication of others, containing his anonymous writings, that no person may hereafter ascribe to him any others than are by him, in this manner, avowed, described, or enumerated." The volume is wholly filled with his contributions to "The Bee;" among which, in the department of Scottish history, are "Sketches of the Lives of Sir J. Stewart Denham, George Heriot, John earl of Marr (his ancestor), and Remarks on the Character and Writings of William Drummond of Hawthornden." The second volume did not appear.

His death did not, however, take place till seventeen years after this period; but he was for several years before it in a state of dotage. Few men have devoted themselves so long and so exclusively to literature; his correspondence, both with foreigners and his own countrymen, was very extensive, and comprehended a period of almost three generations. But his services were principally valuable, not as an author, but as a patron: his fortune did not warrant a very expensive exhibition of good offices; but in all cases where his own knowledge, which was by no means limited, or letters of recommendation, could avail, they were frankly and generously offered. One of the works proposed by him was, "a Commercium Epistolarum and Literary History of Scotland, during the period of last century," including the correspondence of "antiquaries, typographers, and bibliographists," in which he had the assistance of the late Dr Robert Anderson. It is exceedingly to be regretted that such a work, and referring to so remarkable a period, should not have been presented to the public. It might probably have had a considerable portion of the garrulity of age; but, from his lordship’s very extensive acquaintance with the period, it cannot be doubted that it would have contained many facts, which are now irretrievably lost. 

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