Keith-Falconer, Ion Grant Neville (DNB00)

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KEITH-FALCONER, ION GRANT NEVILLE (1856–1887), Arabic scholar, third son of Francis Alexander Keith-Falconer, ninth earl of Kintore, was born at Edinburgh on 5 July 1856. His family were the representatives of the Keiths, earls Marischal of Scotland [see under Keith, John, first Earl of Kintore]. Ion was educated first at home, and afterwards at Cheam, under the Rev. R. S. Tabor, whence he passed to Harrow at the age of thirteen, obtaining an entrance scholarship. He left Harrow in 1873 to read mathematics with the Rev. L. Hensley, vicar of Hitchin, and in the October term of 1874 he commenced residence at Trinity College, Cambridge. After his first year he gave up mathematics, and entered for theological honours, graduating B.A. as first class man and Hebrew prizeman in January 1878. From his schooldays he had taken an interest in evangelistic efforts. At Barnwell, a poor suburb of Cambridge, he worked among the neglected poor. He spent much time and money in similar work in London, especially in connection with Mr. F. N. Charrington at the Great Assembly Hall in the Mile End Road.

Keith-Falconer was specially attracted by the biblical, and pre-eminently the Hebrew, part of his studies. After taking his degree he turned his attention to oriental languages, Hebrew and Syriac, and ultimately Arabic. At these he worked hard, first at Cambridge, where he won the Tyrwhitt University Hebrew scholarship, and obtained a first class in the newly founded Semitic Language Tripos, and afterwards at Leipzig, where he spent the winter of 1880–1. During the spring of 1881 he made the acquaintance of Charles George Gordon [q. v.] in London, a congenial hero, whom he had already learnt to admire. He spent the winter of 1881–2 at Assiout on the Nile, gaining familiarity with modern spoken Arabic. From his undergraduate days Keith-Falconer was an enthusiastic bicyclist. He was elected vice-president of the Cambridge University Bicycle Club before he commenced residence (June 1874), and was president of the London Bicycle Club from May 1877 until he left England. His bicycling successes, from 1874 to 1882, were very numerous. At the two-mile race of 11 May 1878 at Cambridge he defeated the well-known professional champion, John Keen, by five yards, and in the fifty-mile bicycle union amateur championship race at the Crystal Palace, on 9 July 1882, accomplished in 2h 43߱ 583/5″, he beat all previous records. In June 1882 he made a then unprecedented bicycle ride, from Land's End to John o' Groat's House, a journey of 994 miles, in thirteen days less forty-five minutes.

On 4 March 1884 Keith-Falconer was married, at Trinity Church, Cannes, to Gwendolen, daughter of Mr. R. C. L. Bevan of Trent Park, Hertfordshire, and after his wedding trip settled down at Cambridge to work chiefly at Arabic. He was already Hebrew lecturer at Clare College, Cambridge, and had been since 1881 engaged upon a translation from the Syriac version, discovered by Dr. Wright in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, of the ‘Kalilah and Dimnah,’ otherwise known as the ‘Fables of Bidpai.’ This was published early in 1885, with a long introduction on the literary history of the document, and the bibliography of the versions. Its learning and critical acumen were recognised by Professor Nöldeke and other leading oriental scholars. Keith-Falconer wrote a very full article on ‘Shorthand’ for the ninth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica.’ He had taught himself Pitman's system at school.

Keith-Falconer acted as university examiner in 1883 and 1884. He was, however, becoming engrossed with the idea of mission-work in a field where his knowledge of Arabic might be directly utilised; and early in 1885 he was led on reading a paper by Major-general Haig, R.E., to fix upon Aden as presenting many advantages for communication with the interior of Africa. He made a preliminary visit of four months at the end of 1885 to test the climate, and acquired some medical knowledge with a view to founding a hospital, which formed part of his scheme. He decided to station himself at Shaikh Othman, nine miles and a half inland from Aden, but just inside British territory, where schools and a hospital could be built. He made some lengthy excursions inland, and began to study the language of the Somalis, an African race, of whom thousands had settled in and about Aden.

In April 1886 Keith-Falconer returned to England, and on 26 May was formally recognised as a missionary by the general assembly of the free church of Scotland, in which his father had been an elder, and in which he himself had been brought up. Early in the following summer he accepted the post of lord almoner's professor of Arabic in the university of Cambridge, which required the delivery of one lecture annually. He gave a course of three lectures in November on the ‘Pilgrimage to Mecca.’ These lectures have not been published. On the day after the last lecture he left England, arriving at Aden on 8 Dec. 1886. He went out at his own expense, and took with him, also at his own cost, Dr. Stewart Cowen, of the Western Infirmary, Glasgow, who proved most efficient and helpful. He had obtained a grant of land at Shaikh Othman, on which he at once began to build a permanent home for the mission. A rude hut was erected as a temporary hospital, and at the beginning of January 1887 he settled with his wife and the doctor in a temporary house, consisting of a roof on four pillars, with walls of iron lattice covered with matting, and wooden partitions inside. Early in February Keith-Falconer had an attack of Aden fever. His temporary house afforded insufficient shelter. The attack was often repeated, for the last time on 6 May. He died on 11 May following, and was buried in the Aden cemetery. His rare combination of qualities might have given great results if he had been spared to carry on his work.

[Personal knowledge and information derived from relations and friends; the present writer's Memorials of the Hon. Ion Keith-Falconer, late Lord Almoner's Professor of Arabic in the University of Cambridge, and Missionary to the Mohammedans of Southern Arabia, London, 1888, cr. 8vo, 2nd edit.]

R. S.