Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, Thomas (1768-1852)

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THOMSON, THOMAS (1768–1852), jurist and legal antiquary, eldest son of Thomas Thomson, minister of Dailly, Ayrshire, by his second wife, Mary, daughter of Francis Hay ‘in Lochside,’ Ayrshire, was born on 10 Nov. 1768. He was an elder brother of the painter, John Thomson (1778–1840) [q. v.] of Duddingston. After attending the parish school of Dailly, he in his fourteenth year entered the university of Glasgow, where he specially distinguished himself in the Greek and other classes, and graduated M.A. on 27 April 1789. He then for two years attended classes both in theology and law; and, having finally decided upon the legal profession, he went to Edinburgh, where he was admitted advocate on 10 Dec. 1793. From this time, according to Lockhart, he was one of the closest intimates of Sir Walter Scott during the whole of Scott's continuance at the bar; and there is evidence in Scott's ‘Journal,’ as well as in his letters, that the friendship continued during the remainder of Scott's life.

Thomson soon acquired an important practice at the bar, particularly in cases demanding special legal learning. ‘His speaking,’ says Cosmo Innes, ‘was not impressive. He could not condense his matter, his argument was unstudied; neither his voice nor his action was pleasing, and it seemed as if he despised the art and touch of oratory. Yet he spoke easily and always pertinently: rather as a man of education and legal accomplishment conversing about the case than like an advocate arguing for a side.’ He was constitutionally more fitted to excel as a legal student than as a barrister; and gradually his course of life turned more and more in this direction. Legal and historical antiquities, which had engrossed much of his leisure, soon absorbed his whole attention. In 1800 he was selected to edit an edition of Lord Hailes's ‘Works,’ with memoir and correspondence; other matters occupying his time, the edition never appeared; but the edition of Hailes's ‘Annals’ and ‘Historical Tracts,’ 1819, acknowledged the guidance of Thomson's advice.

Although a close associate of Jeffrey and other projectors of the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ Thomson contributed but three papers to that periodical: on Darwin's ‘Temple of Nature,’ 1803; Miss Seward's ‘Memories of the Past,’ 1804; and Good's ‘Life of Geddes,’ 1804. Occasionally, however, he undertook the editorship of the ‘Review’ in Jeffrey's absence.

The main service rendered by Thomson to legal and historical learning was the work undertaken by him as deputy clerk-register of Scotland, to which he was appointed on 30 June 1806, the office having been created but eleven days previously. That work mainly consisted in reforming the system of public registries and the method of the custody of records, in rendering these records accessible to research, in rescuing and repairing old records, and in editing the acts of the Scottish parliament and other governmental records under the authority of the record commission.

In February 1828 Thomson was chosen one of the principal clerks of the court of session. On the institution of the Bannatyne Club in 1823 he had been chosen vice-president, and on the death of Scott in 1832 he was unanimously chosen to succeed him as president. Devoted as he was to legal and antiquarian research, Thomson was remarkably neglectful in regard to matters of finance, and careless in the expenditure of money. After an inquiry into the accounts of the register office in 1839, they were found so unsatisfactory that he was removed from the office of deputy clerk-register. He died at Shrub Hill, Leith Walk, near Edinburgh, on 2 Oct. 1852. A portrait of Thomson by Lauder and a bust by Sir John Steell [q. v.] are in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

For facilitating research in the register office Thomson prepared the following manuals: ‘A Continuation of the Retours of Service to the Chancery Office from the Union, A.D. 1707;’ ‘An Abbreviate or Digest of the Registers of Sasines, General and Particular, arranged in Counties with relative Indexes, from the 1st of January 1781;’ ‘An Abbreviate of Adjudications from 1st January 1781 to 1830;’ ‘An Abbreviate of Inhibitions, General and Particular, arranged in Counties, from 1st January 1781 to 1830.’ His various ‘Reports’ from 1807, with index of contents, are also of value. Of works published by him under the authority of the record commission, by much the most important was ‘The Acts of the Parliament of Scotland,’ vol. ii. to vol. xi. mccccxxivmdccvii, 1814 to 1824, 10 vols. folio. Vol. i., containing the ‘Regiam Majestatem,’ with the most ancient recorded proceedings and acts of parliament, was reserved to be published last, and, although almost completed before 1841, when Thomson's connection with the record office ceased, did not appear until 1844, when it was edited, with additions, by Cosmo Innes. The immense labour involved in the publication of these acts of parliament cannot be realised at a glance. ‘Taking as complete,’ says Mr. Innes, ‘the preliminary education, the thorough appreciation of the objects of the work, there was still to find the authenticity of each statute and code of laws, and to test its value by all the canons of charter learning. Next came the settling of the texts by a search and collation of innumerable manuscripts always in subjection to sense.’ Other works published under the authority of the record commission were: ‘Inquisitionum ad Capellam Domini Regis Retornatarum, quæ in Publicis Archivis Scotiæ adhuc servantur, Abbreviatio, 1811, 1816,’ 3 vols.; ‘Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum in Archivis Publicis asservatum, mcccvimccccxxiv,’ 1814; ‘The Acts of the Lords Auditors of Causes and Complaints, mcccclxvimccccxciv,’ 1839; and the ‘Acts of the Lords of Council in Civil Causes, mcccclxxviiimccccxcv,’ 1839. Other not ‘strictly official works,’ but of the same class as the foregoing, and mainly derived from the same sources, were: ‘A Compilation of the Forms of Process in the Court of Session during the earlier periods after its establishment, with the Variations which they have since undergone,’ Edinburgh, 1839; ‘A Collection of Inventories and other Records of the Royal Wardrobe and Jewel House, and of the Artillery and Munition in some of the Royal Castles, 1488–1606,’ Edinburgh, 1815; and the ‘Chamberlain Rolls,’ vols. i.–ii. 1326–1406 (1817), vol. iii. 1406–1459–(1845, in the Bannatyne Club).

Thomson also edited the ‘Memoirs’ of Sir George Mackenzie, Edinburgh, 1821; and ‘Memoirs of the Lives and Characters of the Right Honourable George Baillie of Jerviswood, and of Lady Grissell, by their Daughter, Lady Murray,’ Edinburgh, 1822; and further he published ‘Inventory of Work done for the State by [Evan Tyler] his Majesty's Printer in Scotland, December 1642–October 1647,’ Edinburgh, 1815; ‘Ane Addicioun of Scottis Cronikles and Deidis. A Short Chronicle of the Reign of James the Second, King of Scots. From Asloan's Manuscript in the Auchinleck Library,’ Edinburgh, 1819; and ‘Menu de la Maison de la Royne faict par Mons. de Pinguillon, MDLXII,’ Edinburgh, 1824. For the Bannatyne Club he edited, in addition to the ‘Chamberlain Rolls’ above mentioned, the following: ‘Alexander Myln. Vitæ Dunkeldensis Ecclesiæ Episcoporum,’ 1823; ‘Discours particulier d'Escosse, escrit en 1559,’ 1824; ‘The History and Life of King James the Sext,’ 1825; ‘Memoirs of his own Life by Sir James Melville of Halhill,’ 1827; ‘Memoirs of his own Life and Times by Sir James Turner,’ 1829; ‘The History of Scotland,’ by John Lesley, bishop of Ross, 1830; ‘Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies in Alliterative Verse,’ 1833; ‘Diurnal of Remarkable Occurrents from the Pollok MS.,’ 1833; ‘The Ragman Rolls, 1291–1296,’ 1834; ‘The Book of the Universal Kirk of Scotland, 1560–1618,’ 3 vols. 1839, 1840, 1845; ‘A Diary of the Public Correspondence of Sir Thomas Hope of Craighall,’ 1843; and ‘Munimenta Vetustiora Comitatus de Mortoun,’ and ‘Original Letters and Papers in the Archives of the Earls of Morton,’ 1852.

[Lockhart's Life of Scott; Sir Walter Scott's Journal; Memoir by Cosmo Innes, 1854.]

T. F. H.