Pillans, James (DNB00)
|←Pilkington, William||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 45
PILLANS, JAMES, LL.D. (1778–1864), Scottish educational reformer, son of James Pillans, was born at Edinburgh in April 1778. His father was a printer, an elder in the ‘antiburgher’ secession church of Adam Gib [q. v.], and a stalwart liberal in politics. Pillans was educated at the Edinburgh High School, under Alexander Adam, LL.D. [q. v.], of whom he subsequently contributed a biography to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica.’ He was second in the rector's class, the ‘dux’ being his close friend, Francis Horner [q. v.]; another classmate was Sir John Archibald Murray [q. v.] His father wished to apprentice him to a paper-stainer, but he had no taste for a business life. Proceeding to the Edinburgh University, where he graduated M.A. on 30 Jan. 1801, he became a favourite pupil of Andrew Dalzel [q. v.], professor of Greek, and enjoyed the stimulating influence of Dugald Stewart. He attended also the chemistry lectures of Joseph Black, M.D. [q. v.] He was a member of the ‘dialectic society’ founded by ‘burgher’ divinity students at the Edinburgh University. After graduation he acted as tutor, first to Thomas Francis Kennedy [q. v.] at Dunure, Ayrshire, next in a family in Northumberland, where he had the opportunity of speaking French. He then removed to Eton, as a private tutor. His connection with the conductors of the ‘Edinburgh Review’ was known to Byron, who in his ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ inserted the taunt (line 360 of the original anonymous edition, March 1809):
And paltry Pillans shall traduce his friend.
The line was never withdrawn, though Moore, in a note to his edition of 1832, states that ‘there was not, it is believed, the slightest foundation for the charge in the text.’
On the death of Adam (13 Dec. 1809), Pillans offered himself, with some misgiving, for he did not feel attracted to ‘the profession of a public teacher,’ as a candidate for the rectorship of the Edinburgh High School, his chief opponent being Luke Fraser, one of the masters. Adam had recommended Pillans as his successor; his whig politics stood against him with the tory town council, with whom the appointment lay; but the influence of Robert Blair [q. v.] of Avontoun, the lord president of the court of session, secured his election. In January 1810 Pillans entered on his duties in the old high school, Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, with a class of 144 boys. At the outset he found it necessary to assert his authority in presence of insubordination, and for the first year he made effective use of the tawse. But he held that to rely on such aid was a sign of the teacher's incompetence, and, being a strict disciplinarian, he was soon able to dispense with it altogether. He introduced a monitorial system, then unknown in the classical schools of Scotland, and so efficient was his method, both for order and teaching, that, though his class doubled its numbers, he declined the town council's offer to provide him with an assistant. His reputation attracted pupils from all parts of the world. He developed the teaching of Greek, which had been begun by Christison in Adam's time; and encouraged the study of classical geography, always a favourite subject with him. His experience at Eton led him to cultivate Latin verse composition, which in Scotland was a lost art. A small volume of the compositions of his class, ‘Ex Tentaminibus Metricis … in Schola Regia Edinensi … electa,’ Edinburgh, 1812, 8vo (dedicated to Joseph Goodall [q. v.], provost of Eton), was favourably noticed in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (November 1812) and severely criticised by Southey in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (December 1812). Pillans admitted that the publication was premature, took the criticism in good part, and turned out better verse in after years. His favourite pupil was John Brown Patterson [q. v.]
In 1820 the chair of ‘humanity and laws’ (practically Latin) in the Edinburgh university was vacated by the death of Alexander Christison, father of Sir Robert Christison, M.D. [q. v.] Pillans was elected his successor, the patronage being then vested in the lords of session, the town council, the faculty of advocates, and the society of writers to the signet. He held the chair till within a year of his death, thus occupying for over fifty-three years a prominent position, first in the scholastic, then in the academic life of Edinburgh. Robert Chambers humorously divided mankind into two sections, those who had been pupils of Pillans, and those who had not. In the conduct of his chair he adopted some of the plans of which he had proved the efficiency at the high school; but he dignified his monitors with the name of ‘inspectors.’ He was not freed from the task of teaching elementary Latin, for the frequenters of his junior class at the university were, as a rule, below the standard of the rector's class at the high school. He was of opinion that universities should supply elementary teaching in classics, and hence opposed, with Philip Kelland [q. v.] and others, the institution (May 1855) of an entrance examination to the junior Greek class, though he was in favour of an examination for admission to higher classes. Precision and refinement of scholarship, rather than wealth of erudition, characterised his prelections; he excelled in exact and luminous translation, and especially cultivated this power in his pupils; of comment he was sparing, but his illustrative matter was always terse, compact, and full of point. His success lay in his power of imbuing successive generations of students with a living interest in Latin literature, and an appreciative taste for its beauties. He enlarged the conventional range of authors proposed for study. Admiration for the Roman literary genius inspired his lectures and his prefaces; he preferred Cicero as an orator to Demosthenes and, as an exponent of Plato, to Plato himself; ranked Livy above Thucydides, Curtius above Xenophon, while for Horace, his favourite author, he was an enthusiast. His lectures on ‘universal grammar’ were valuable in their day; the secondary title of his chair suggested his instructive course on ‘the laws of the twelve tables.’ A feature of his work was the encouragement of English recitation, for which a prize was awarded by the votes of the class; among those who gained it was Fox Maule (afterwards earl of Dalhousie) [q. v.], who joined the class when he was quartered with his regiment in Edinburgh Castle. Pillans was one of the first to teach the revised pronunciation of Latin now in some vogue, though in practice he conformed to the usual Scottish mode. He formed a class library at an expense to himself of nearly 300l. It was due to his influence that the society of writers to the signet gave annually from 1824 to 1860 a gold medal for competition in his senior class.
During his summer vacations he devoted much time to the work of making himself practically acquainted with the state of education in Scotland, and comparing it with that of other countries. At the examinations of both public and private schools, from infant schools to high schools, he was a familiar presence. He made tours for the purpose of inspecting the systems of Prussia, France, Switzerland, and Ireland. Before the committee of the House of Commons on education in 1834 he gave evidence which was minute and valuable. He was an early advocate for compulsory education. Though he wrote in defence of the just claims of classical training, his views on popular education were enlightened and broad. As president of the Watt Institution and School of Art, he inaugurated in 1854 the statue of James Watt in Adam Square (since removed to the Heriot Watt College, Chambers Street), Edinburgh.
In his later years, hints of the expediency of his retirement (which was generally expected after the passing of the Universities of Scotland Act of 1858) were met by increased labours in connection with his chair. His physique was remarkably hale. His manner, habitually measured and dignified, became slower with age; he read his lectures with the aid of a huge magnifying-glass, for he disdained spectacles. Both for facts and persons he had a wonderful memory. In the after career of his students he took a kindly and helpful interest.
He resigned at the close of his eighty-fifth year, and took formal leave of the university on 11 April 1863. The degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him on 22 April. He died at his residence, 43 Inverleith Row, on 27 March 1864. He was buried on 1 April in the graveyard of St. Cuthbert's Church, Edinburgh.
The best likeness of him in old age is a photograph (1860) by Tunny of Edinburgh, taken in his tartan dressing-gown. He was rather under middle height, well built and spare, with a fine head. His ordinary costume was not academic; he often wore a white beaver hat, and always on state occasions a blue coat with brass buttons. Pillans married Helen, second daughter of Thomas Thomson, minister of Dailly, Ayrshire, sister of Thomas Thomson (1768–1852) [q. v.], the antiquary, and of John Thomson (1778–1840) [q. v.], the landscape-painter, but was early left a widower without issue.
Besides the volume of Latin verse noted above, he published: 1. ‘Letters on the Principles of Elementary Teaching,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1827, 8vo; 1828, 8vo; 1855, 8vo (addressed to Kennedy of Dunure). 2. ‘Three Lectures on the Proper Objects and Methods of Instruction,’ &c., 1836, 8vo; Edinburgh, 1854, 8vo. 3. ‘Eclogæ Ciceronianæ,’ &c., 1845, 12mo (includes selections from Pliny's letters). 4. ‘A Discourse on the Latin Authors read … in the earlier Stages of Classical Discipline,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1847, 12mo. 5. ‘Outlines of Geography,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1847, 12mo. 6. ‘Excerpta ex Taciti Annalibus,’ &c., 1848, 16mo. 7. ‘A Word for the Universities of Scotland,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1848, 8vo. 8. ‘The Five Latter Books of the First Decade of Livy,’ &c., 1849, 12mo; 1857, 8vo. 9. ‘The Rationale of Discipline,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1852, 8vo (written in 1823). 10. ‘First Steps in the Physical and Classical Geography of the Ancient World,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1853, 12mo; 10th ed. 1873, 8vo (edited by T. Fawcett); 13th ed. 1882, 8vo. 11. ‘Elements of Physical and Classical Geography,’ &c., 1854, 8vo. 12. ‘Contributions to the Cause of Education,’ &c., 1856, 8vo (dedicated to Lord John Russell; it includes reprints of Nos. 1, 2, 4, 7, and 9 above, and of articles in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ minutes of evidence, &c.). 13. ‘Educational Papers,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1862, 12mo.[Obituary notice in Scotsman, 29 March 1864 (ascribed to Simon S. Laurie); Memoir by an Old Student (Alexander Richardson), 1869; Catalogue of Edinburgh Graduates, 1858, p. 215; Edinburgh University Calendar, 1863, p. 132; Grant's Story of the University of Edinburgh, 1884, ii. 80, 84, 320 sq.; inscriptions from tombstones at St. Cuthbert's, Edin- burgh; information from Andrew Clark, esq., S.S.C., Leith; from the late Professor Goodhart; and from T. Gilbert, esq., registrar of Edinburgh University; personal recollection.]