A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen/Bell, John, of Antermony

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BELL, John, of Antermony, a traveller of the eighteenth century, was the son of Patrick Bell, the representative of that old and respectable family, and of Anabel Stirling, daughter of Mungo Stirling of Craigbarnet. He was born in 1691, and, after receiving a classical education, turned his attention to the study of medicine. On passing as physician, he determined to visit foreign countries, but we shall insert this part of his history in Mr Bell's own words. "In my youth," says he, "I had a strong desire of seeing foreign parts; to satisfy which inclination, after having obtained, from some persons of worth, recommendatory letters to Dr Areskine, chief physician and privy counsellor to the Czar Peter the First, I embarked at London, in the month of July, 1714, on board the Prosperity of Ramsgate, Captain Emerson, for St Petersburg. On my arrival there, I was received by Dr Areskine in a very friendly manner, to whom I communicated my intentions of seeking an opportunity of visiting some parts of Asia, at least those parts which border on Russia. Such an opportunity soon presented itself, on occasion of an embassy then preparing, from his Czarish Majesty to the Sophy of Persia."—Preface to his Travels. The ambassador fortunately applied to Dr Areskine to recommend some one skilled in physic and surgery to go in his suite, and Mr Bell was soon afterwards engaged in the service of the Russian Emperor. He accordingly left St Petersburg on the 15th of July, 1715, and proceeded to Moscow, from thence to Cazan, and down the Volga to Astracan. The embassy then sailed down the Caspian Sea to Derbend, and journeyed by Mougan, Tauris, and Saba, to Ispahan, where they arrived on the 14th of March, 1717. They left that city on the 1st of September, and returned to St Peters burgh on the 30th of December, 1718, after having travelled across the country from Saratoff. On his arrival in the capital, Mr Bell found that his friend and patron Dr Areskine had died about six weeks before, but he had now secured the friendship of the ambassador, and upon hearing that an embassy to China was preparing- he easily obtained an appointment in it through his influence. The account of his journey to Cazan, and through Siberia to China, is by far the most complete and interesting part of his travels. His description of the man ners, customs, and superstitions of the inhabitants, and of the Delay-lama and Chinese wall, deserve particularly to be noticed. They arrived at Pekin "after a tedious journey of exactly sixteen months." Mr Bell has left a very full account of occurrences during his residence in the capital of China. The embassy left that city on the 2nd of March, 1721, and arrived at Moscow on the 5th of January, 1722.

The war between Russia and Sweden was now concluded, and the Czar had determined to undertake an expedition into Persia, at the request of the Sophy, to assist that prince against; the Affghans, his subjects, who had seized upon Kandahar, and possessed themselves of several provinces on the frontiers towards India. Mr Bell's former journey to Persia gave him peculiar advantages, and he was accordingly engaged to accompany the army to Derbent, from which he returned in December, 1722. Soon afterwards he revisited his native country, .and returned to St Petersburgh in 1734. In 1737, he was sent to Constantinople by the Russian Chancellor, and Mr Rondeau the British minister at the Russian court.[1] He seems now to have abandoned the public service, and to have settled at Constantinople as a merchant. About 1746, he married Mary Peters, a Russian lady, and determined to return to Scotland. He spent the latter part of his life on his estate, and in the enjoyment of the society of his friends. At length, after a long life spent in active beneficence, and exertions for the good of mankind, he died at Antermony on the 1st of July, 1780, at the advanced age of 89.

The only work written by Mr Bell is his "Travels from St Petersburgh in Russia, to various parts of Asia," to which reference has already been made. It was printed in 2 volumes quarto by Robert and Andrew Foulis, in 1763, and published by subscription. "The history of this book," says the Quarterly Review, "is somewhat curious, and not generally known. For many years after Mr Bell returned from his travels, he used to amuse his friends with accounts of what he had seen, refreshing his recollection from a simple diary of occurrences and observations. The Earl Granville, then president of the council, on hearing some of his adventures, prevailed on him to throw his notes together into the form of a narrative, which, when done, pleased him so much that he sent the manuscript to Dr Robertson, with a particular request that he would revise and put it into a fit state for the press. The literary avocations of the Scottish historian at that time not allowing him to undertake the task, he recommended Mr Barren, a professor in the University of Aberdeen, and on this gentleman consisting Dr Robertson as to the style and the book of travels which he would recommend him to adopt for his guide, the historian replied, 'Take Gulliver's Travels for your model, and you cannot go wrong.' He did so, and 'Bell's Travels' have all the simplicity of Gulliver, with the advantage which truth always carries over fiction.[2]

  1. M'Ure's History of Glasgow, new edition, p. 115.
  2. Quarterly Review on M'Leod's Voyage in the Alceste, 1817, pp. 464-5.