Burnett, James (DNB00)

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BURNETT, JAMES, Lord Monboddo (1714–1799), Scotch judge, was the eldest surviving son of James Burnett of Monboddo, Kincardineshire, by Elizabeth his wife, the only daughter of Sir William Forbes of Craigievar, bart. He was born in October or November 1714 at Monboddo, and was at first educated at home under the guidance of Dr. Francis Skene. Upon the appointment of his tutor to the chair of philosophy at the Marischal College, Aberdeen, Burnett accompanied him thither. Here he zealously prosecuted the study of Greek philosophy, for which he retained a passionate attachment during the whole of his life. From Aberdeen he went to Edinburgh University. Having determined to adopt the bar as his profession, he afterwards went to the university of Gröningen and remained there for three years, studying the civil law. He then returned to Edinburgh, and, after passing his civil law examination on 12 Feb. 1737, was five days afterwards admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates. During the temporary cessation of business owing to the rebellion of 1745, Burnett paid a visit to London, where he made the acquaintance of many of the literary characters of the day, including Thomson the poet, Lord Lyttelton, Dr. Armstrong, and Mallet. The share which he took in conducting the celebrated Douglas cause brought him into prominent notice at the bar. Thrice he went to France in the prosecution of this case; the pleadings before the court of sessions lasted thirty-one days. In 1764 he was made sheriff of Kincardineshire. After a brilliant and successful career as an advocate, on 12 Feb. 1767 he succeeded Andrew Fletcher, Lord Milton, as an ordinary lord of session, and thereupon assumed the title of Lord Monboddo. It is said that he refused a seat in the court of justiciary, on the ground that the further work which it would have entailed would have prevented him pursuing his favourite studies in the vacation. In his judicial capacity he showed himself to be both a profound lawyer and an upright judge, and his decisions were free from those paradoxes which so frequently appeared in his writings as well as in his conversation. He was not, however, without peculiarities, even in the court of sessions, for instead of sitting on the bench with his fellow-judges, he always took his seat underneath with the clerks. Nor was he as a rule inclined to agree with his colleagues in their decisions, but was generally in the minority and sometimes alone. Burnett is, however, best known to the world as a man of letters. ‘Of the Origin and Progress of Language’ was the first work which he published. It consisted of six volumes, the first of which appeared in 1773, the second in 1774, the third in 1776, the fourth in 1787, the fifth in 1789, and the last in 1792. In this book he vindicated the honour of Greek literature, and among other curious and interesting opinions which abound in these volumes, he maintained that the ourang-outang was a class of the human species, and that its want of speech was merely accidental. The subject of his other work was ‘Antient Metaphysics.’ This also consisted of six volumes, which appeared respectively in 1779, 1782, 1784, 1795, 1797, and 1799. It was written in defence of Greek philosophy, and like his first work was published anonymously. In both these books Burnett showed a most enthusiastic veneration for the learning and philosophy of the Greeks, and a contempt for everything that was of modern date. Many of his opinions, however, appear less eccentric to us than they did to his contemporaries, most of whom received them with the utmost derision. It has been well remarked by a writer in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ (9th edition) that ‘his views about the origin of society and language and the faculties by which man is distinguished from the brutes, afforded endless matter for jest by the wags of his day; but readers of this generation are more likely to be surprised by the scientific character of his method and acuteness of his conclusions, than amused by his eccentricity. These conclusions have many curious points of contact with Darwinism and Neo-Kantism. His idea of studying man as one of the animals, and of collecting facts about savage tribes to throw light on the problems of civilisation, bring him into contact with the one, and his intimate knowledge of Greek philosophy with the other.’ Burnett also collected the ‘Decisions of the Lords of Council and Session’ from 25 Nov. 1738 to 7 March 1768. They were never published in his lifetime, but will be found in the fifth volume of Brown's ‘Supplement to the Dictionary of Decisions of the Court of Session’ (1826), pp. 651–941.

In private life Burnett was an amiable, generous, and kind-hearted man. Though in his habits he was exceedingly temperate and lived much according to rule, yet he greatly delighted in the convivial society of his friends. It was his custom to entertain them at what he called his ‘learned suppers.’ These suppers used to take place once a fortnight, during the sitting of the court, and among the usual guests were Drs. Black, Hutton, and Hope, Mr. William Smellie, and other scientific men of the day. A brilliant controversialist, Burnett was one of the keenest debaters at the meetings of the Select Society, which met weekly during session time at the Advocates' Library. This society was founded by Allan Ramsay, the painter, in 1754, and numbered among its members most of the eminent men of letters in Edinburgh, including Hume, Adam Smith, Robertson, Lord Kames, and Wedderburn (afterwards Lord Loughborough).

Burnett's patrimonial estate at Monboddo was so small that it did not produce, during the greater part of his life, more than 300l. a year. He would not, however, either raise the rents or eject a poor tenant, but boasted that his lands were more numerously peopled than any portion of equal extent in the neighbourhood. Hither he used to retire in the vacation, living as a plain farmer among his tenants, and treating them all with kindness and familiarity. Boswell relates the interesting visit which Dr. Johnson, during his tour to the Hebrides, paid Burnett at Monboddo (Croker's Boswell, ii. 311–17). It was much to the credit of the latter's hospitality that the meeting between two men of such fixed and determined opinions should have taken place without a single angry discussion. About 1780 Burnett commenced making his annual visits to London. As a carriage was not in common use among the ancients, he considered it to be an engine of effeminacy and idleness. He therefore always rode from Edinburgh to London on horseback, attended by a single servant. This practice he continued until he was upwards of eighty years of age. On the last of these equestrian journeys he was taken ill on the way, and it was with difficulty that a friend who had overtaken him on the road persuaded him to get into his carriage. The next day, however, Burnett continued his journey on horseback, and about eight days afterwards arrived safely at Edinburgh. While in London on these occasions he frequently attended the court, where George III always received him with especial favour.

After more than thirty-two years of judicial work Burnett died at his house in Edinburgh from the effects of a paralytic stroke on 26 May 1799, aged 85. Two sketches of him by Kay will be found in the first volume of his ‘Etchings,’ Nos. 5 and 6. An engraving by Charles Sherwin of a striking half-length portrait of Burnett by J. Brown was published in 1787. About 1760 Burnett married Miss Farquharson, a relative of Marischal Keith, by whom he had one son and two daughters. His domestic life was unfortunate. His wife, a beautiful and accomplished woman, died in childbed. His only son Arthur, in whose education he took the greatest delight, and who, as Boswell tells us, was examined in Latin by Dr. Johnson when on his visit to Monboddo, died at an early age. His second daughter, whose beauty was celebrated by Burns in his ‘Address to Edinburgh’ and in an elegy on her death (Works of Robert Burns, 1843, i. 83, 125), was carried off by consumption at the age of twenty-five on 17 June 1790. His only surviving child married Kirkpatrick Williamson, an eminent Greek scholar and the keeper of the Outer House rolls.

[Tytler's Memoirs of Lord Kames (1814), i. 243–50; Kerr's Memoirs of William Smellie (1811), i. 409–27, ii. 418; Kay's Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings (1877), i. 18–21, 350, ii. 20, 368, 436, 438; Boswell's Life of Johnson (Croker's edit., 1831), ii. 311–17 et passim; Scots Mag. 1799, lxi. 352, 727–31; Encyclopædia Britannica (9th edit.), xvi. 179; Brunton and Haig's Senators of the College of Justice (1833), pp. 531–3; Chambers's Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen (1868), i. 248–50; Chalmers's Biographical Dict. (1813), vii. 389–93.]

G. F. R. B.