Keith, George Skene (DNB00)

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KEITH, GEORGE SKENE (1752–1823), miscellaneous writer, the eldest son of James Keith, was born in the Old House of Aquhorsk in Mar, near Aberdeen, on 6 Nov. 1752, and was the lineal representative of the Keiths of Aquhorsk, descendants of Alexander Keith, third son of the second Earl Marischal. He took his degree from the Marischal College and university of Aberdeen in 1770, was licensed by the presbytery of Aberdeen on 14 July 1774, and presented by the commissioners for George Keith, tenth earl Marischal [q. v.], 9 May 1776, to the living of Keith-Hall and Kinkell, Aberdeen. The following day the Earl Marischal himself, then resident in Potsdam, gave a presentation to Thomas Tait, minister of Old Machar. After legal proceedings before the church courts and the court of session, the case was finally decided in Keith's favour by the House of Lords in April 1778 (Connell, Parish Law, pp. 521–2; Robertson, Report of the Lethendy Case, p. 137), and he was ordained to the living on 14 May 1778. He received the degree of D.D. from Marischal College in May 1803. He was translated from Keith-Hall to Tulliallan, Perthshire, by George Keith Elphinstone, viscount Keith [q. v.], and admitted on 18 July 1822.

For over thirty years he investigated methods for equalising weights and measures, and strongly supported the adoption of the seconds pendulum as a standard. His plan was laid before a committee of parliament in January 1790 by Sir John Riggs Miller, M.P., who intended to bring in a bill on the subject; but the dissolution of parliament put an end to the proceedings. Sir Joseph Banks expressed a high opinion of Keith's pamphlet, ‘Synopsis of a System of Equalization of Weights and Measures of Great Britain,’ 1791 (Whitehurst, Works, London, 1792, Appendix by C. Hutton, pp. 4, 5; Monthly Review, 1791 pp. 95–7, 1793 p. 93; Miller, Speeches, London, 1790, Preface, p. vii). In 1817 Keith published ‘Different Methods of establishing an Uniformity of Weights and Measures,’ London.

Keith took an active interest in agricultural questions. In 1798 he gave evidence before the Scottish distillery committee of the House of Commons upon the malt tax. In 1799, at the request of the committee and of the Scotch board of excise, he made a series of experiments in distillation. His results were printed in the appendix to the committee's report, 1798–9. He made further experiments in 1802–3 for the commissioners of excise in Scotland. In 1803 he again gave evidence before a committee of the House of Commons upon the proportion of the malt tax levied in England and Scotland, and in 1804 he took part in a discussion upon distilling experiments which had been made for the Scottish commissioners. (See his papers on the malt tax in Farmers' Magazine, Edinburgh, 1804 pp. 49–73, and 1807 pp. 360–6, 476–500; Parliamentary Papers, 1806, ii. 3 seq.). The House of Commons voted Keith 500l. for his experiments. In 1800 he drew up the heads of a new corn bill, which was handed to the corn committee of the House of Peers by Sir W. Pulteney (Farmers' Magazine, 1802 pp. 277–94, 1815 pp. 1–8, 1816 pp. 133 seq.).

Keith's living of Keith-Hall was only worth 80l. a year, but his skilful cultivation of a good-sized glebe helped to keep his family. He was an ‘active and bustling minister’ (Scott, Fasti, ii. 744), a well-known figure in the church courts of the time, and though not great as a preacher, was popular for his knowledge, pleasant conversation, and hospitality. He died at Tulliallan House on 7 March 1823, aged 70, and was buried in the churchyard of Keith-Hall, his old parish. A large tablet of white marble was erected to his memory by ‘some gentlemen of the county of Aberdeenshire’ (Jervise, Inscriptions of the North of Scotland, vol. i.) A miniature portrait of him is in the possession of his descendants.

He married, on 26 Aug. 1783, Helen, daughter of James Simpson, merchant, of Old Meldrum. She died on 8 Jan. 1798. By her Keith had four sons and three daughters. His eldest son, James, born on 18 Jan. 1788, became colonel in the British army, and died during the retreat from Cabul on 19 Oct. 1839. Alexander [q. v.], born on 30 Nov. 1791, is separately noticed, and John, born on 7 May 1797, was ordained assistant and successor at Keith-Hall on 3 May 1821, and succeeded to the charge on his father's translation. He wrote the account of the parish for the new ‘Statistical Account of Scotland’ (xii. 1845, pp. 742–7).

Keith's principal published work is a ‘General View of the Agriculture of Aberdeenshire,’ London, 1811, drawn up under the direction of the Board of Agriculture. In an appendix are some excellent ‘Observations on British Grasses,’ and a ‘Short Account of Two Journeys undertaken with a View to ascertain the Elevation of the principal Mountains in the Division of Marr’ (cf. Donaldson, Agricultural Biography; Farmers' Magazine, 1812, p. 83). Other publications are: 1. ‘Sermons and Discourses on several Occasions,’ London, 1785. 2. ‘Tracts on Weights, Measures, and Coins,’ London, 1791. 3. ‘Tracts on the Reform of the British Constitution,’ Edinburgh, 1793. 4. ‘An Impartial and Comprehensive View of the Present State of Great Britain,’ London, 1797. A humorous appendix gives an allegorical representation of the principal parts of the inquiry, entitled ‘Sketches of the History of John Bull, Farmer and Manufacturer’ (cf. Monthly Review, 1793, p. 338). 5. ‘Observations on the Sale of Corn by Weight,’ Aberdeen, 1797. 6. ‘Address … respecting Chapels of Ease,’ n.p. 1797 (anon.) 7. ‘Dissertation on the Excellence of the British Constitution’ (Blackwell prize dissertation), Aberdeen, 1800. 8. ‘Particular Examination of the new French Constitution,’ Aberdeen, 1801. 9. ‘Embarrassments affecting the Interests of Agriculture,’ Aberdeen, 1823.

Keith communicated the account of the united parishes of Keith-Hall and Kinkell to Sir John Sinclair's ‘Statistical Account of Scotland,’ Edinburgh, 1791, &c. (ii. 527–46), edited the ‘Lectures on Ecclesiastical History,’ by his friend Principal George Campbell [q. v.], with a memoir (1800), and published several single sermons and addresses. In 1797 he was engaged in arranging and composing a ‘System of Political Philosophy,’ which was never completed.

[Information from George Skene Keith, esq., M.D.; Davidson's Inverurie and the Earldom of the Garioch, 1878, p. 438; Hew Scott's Fasti Ecclesiæ Scoticanæ, ii. 744, iii. 585; Douglas's Peerage of Scotland, 1813, ed. Wood, ii. 190–6; Smith's Aberdeenshire, p. 776; Scots Mag. 1823, p. 647; Monthly Review, 1793 p. 191, 1801 p. 262; Parliamentary Papers, 1798–9 (Report of Scotch Distillery Committee) pp. 360–2, Appendix, pp. 458–80, 1803–4 (Report respecting Duty payable on Malt) pp. 16–29; Excerpts from Report on Malt Tax are in Farmers' Mag., 1804, pp. 342–52; Halkett and Laing's Dict. of Anon. and Pseud. Literature; notes kindly supplied by the Rev. James Donald of Keith-Hall.]

B. P.