AEneas James George Mackay
was born in Edinburgh on the 3rd of November 1839. His grandfather, Captain
AEneas Mackay of Scotston, who was a younger brother of George Mackay, Esq.
of Bighouse, was an officer in the service of the Honourable East India
Company, and had been a fellow-prisoner of Sir David Baird’s at Seringapatam.
The Captain’s second wife, Helen Mylne, bore him five sons, of whom Mr
Mackay’s father, Thomas George, was the second. He in due course became a
Writer to the Signet, and married Mary Kirkaldy, by whom he had two
children,—one the subject of the present notice, the other a daughter,
Emilie, who married S. Swinton Melville, Esq., and died in 1910.
AEneas was educated at the Edinburgh Academy, in the same class as the late
Lord President Kinross. The school prize-lists indicate that the industry
which distinguished him in after life was no new-born habit, and at King’s
College, London, and University College, Oxford, he went on as he had begun.
At Oxford, however, he missed his “first,” being placed only in the second
class in the Final School of Law and History (as it was then) in 1862. He
completed his preparation for the Bar at Heidelberg and Edinburgh.
Mr Mackay was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates in 1864, and
from the very start appears to have had his share of employment. But he did
not abandon his first love, and the publication of his admirable memoir of
the great Lord Stair in 1873 was an auspicious intimation that the
traditional alliance between Scots law and Scots historical research would
be continued in his person. On Mr Cosmo Innes’s death in 1874, he was
appointed to the Chair of History (now represented by the Chair of
Constitutional Law and Constitutional History) in the University of
Edinburgh. He made an enthusiastic and acceptable professor, but resigned
the office to become one of Lord Advocate Balfour’s deputes in 1881. He was
created Sheriff of Fife and Kinross in 1886, and there can be no doubt that,
had his health not failed him, he would have worthily closed his career as a
Senator of the College of Justice.
Of this SOCIETY Mr Mackay was one of the original founders, and he took a
prominent part in the proceedings of the meeting at which it was
constituted. He was a member of its Council from the very first, and he
served two terms of office as Vice-President—from 1890 to 1895, and again
from 1898. It is scarcely necessary to remind those who knew him that in
these capacities he would not rest satisfied with being simply a figurehead.
He was deeply interested in the Society’s aims, and was of the greatest
service to those responsible for its direction both on the business and on
the literary side. Apart from sagacious counsel, constantly sought and
freely bestowed, his chief contributions to the Society were his
Introduction to the Poems of Dunbar and his edition of Pitscottie. Both are
works of profound erudition and unmistakable authority. His learning did not
sit lightly upon him, but the amount of toil and anxiety which they cost him
are not to be guessed at from their pages. For he was essentially a
“painful” student, distrustful of his powers of intuition, and his methods
of working were calculated to aggravate rather than to save labour and
worry. Let it be remembered that while these tasks were on the anvil he was
acting as “judge ordinary” of two counties, and conducting a considerable
forensic practice; that he was contributing to the ‘Dictionary of National
Biography’ a long series of articles on eminent Scotsmen, involving
laborious research and minute investigation; and that latterly he was
further charged with the congenial but exacting duty (into which he threw
himself with characteristic ardour) of “revising” the Acts of the Parliament
of Scotland. The tale of his performances is not yet complete. There was the
monumental ‘Practice of the Court of Session,’ with its subsidiary ‘Manual’;
there was the remarkable sketch of Scottish history which appeared in the
ninth edition of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica.’ Compared with these, the
County History of his Sheriffdom, or the essay on John Major (among the most
pleasing of his works), written for the Scottish History Society, appears a
mere “parergon.” We may be certain that upon those as upon all his writings
he lavished the same conscientious and scrupulous care. The wonder perhaps
is that payment of the inevitable penalty was not sooner demanded by nature
from the sensitive and overwrought brain.
About eleven years ago Mr Mackay, with but few premonitory symptoms, was
completely laid aside from active life, and he never recovered his health.
He died on 10th June 1911. The news of his death must have recalled to the
minds of many who had been privileged to know him the image of a singularly
guileless and kindly man, incapable of meanness or deceit, generous as well
as just, no respecter of persons, but approachable by all, one to whom
nobody appealed for help in any kind of difficulty and appealed in vain. It
has been thought not unfitting that this sketch of his life, brief and
imperfect though it necessarily is, should be included in this volume, which
brings to a close one of his most important and cherished undertakings. J.