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Significant Scots
Thomas Thomson

THOMSON, THOMAS.—In few countries has the study of national antiquities been prosecuted so zealously or so successfully as in Scotland. It would be too much to assign this peculiarity either to the romantic character, or the importance of the early achievements of Scotland, for these were certainly of small account in the general history of Europe. The cause is rather to be found in the grievous calamities that befell our national archives in the times of Edward I. and Oliver Cromwell. By these, our written records, and even our national monuments, were so destroyed or obliterated, that nothing but the most devoted antiquarianism could have restored to us the semblance of a history. Hence, not only the necessity of diligent Scottish research among the relics of bygone ages, but the keenness with which it has been prosecuted, and the success that has attended it. Through these labours, Scotland now possesses a history that, in point both of accuracy and fulness, may compete with that of most countries of Europe. And among the foremost of those antiquaries who, for a century, have toiled in such a patriotic task, perhaps there is none entitled to take precedence of him whose name stands at the head of this notice.

Thomas Thomson was descended of a family that might well be characterized as a portion of the tribe of Levi; for not only his father, but also his grandfather and great-grandfather, had been successively ministers of the Kirk of Scotland. To this, also, it may be added, that his younger brother John was the late minister of Duddingston, although he is better known among the lovers of the fine arts as the Claude Lorraine of Scotland. Thomas, the future antiquary, was born in the manse of Dailly, Ayrshire, of which parish his father was minister, on the 10th of November, 1768. As it was nothing more than natural that his views, from an early period, should be directed towards the church, in which his ancestors had held the ministerial office since the close of the seventeenth century, he was sent in 1782 to prosecute the necessary studies in the university of Glasgow. He passed through what are called the "gown classes," with considerable distinction, took the degree of A.M. in 1789, and became, during the two following sessions, a student in theology. But at this time the lectures in the divinity hall, as well as the class-room of church history in the college of Glasgow, were of such a massive, not to say a heavy character, that none but a mind of congenial calibre could endure them to the end. Accordingly, in spite of every prospect of church advancement, which was now a sort of heirloom in the family, Mr. Thomson’s mercurial spirit broke impatiently from the restraint, and sought shelter in other pursuits. He resolved to study law, and devote himself to the bar; and for this purpose he exchanged the hall of theology for the law classes of Professor Millar, whose lectures were of a very different description from those he had hitherto attended. After this, he completed his course of legal study in the university of Edinburgh, and at the close of 1793 was admitted a member of the faculty of advocates.

It is not our purpose to follow out the course of Mr. Thomson at the bar, where, to gain a high name at this period, it was necessary to be wholly, as well as completely, a lawyer and orator. His own bias in a different direction was so distinctly indicated, as quickly to secure for him a high reputation in Scottish antiquarianism, and on this account he was selected, in 1800, to superintend a new edition of the works of Lord Hailes, which were to be collected and edited for publication, accompanied with a biographical memoir. This intention was not carried out, and Mr. Thomson’s aid was only available for an edition of his lordship’s "Annals" and "Historical Tracts," which were afterwards published in 1819. An office, however, of permanent character, as well as of the highest importance, was already being prepared for his occupation. The neglect that had hitherto been shown towards our national records began, although at a late hour, to be acknowledged, and after due consideration of the subject in the House of Commons, two royal commissions were issued, the one in 1800, and the other in 1806, for the preservation and due arrangement of our public archives. It was found, however, that "the superintendence of the matters arising within this office should be confided to a deputy of acknowledged skill and ability, being a resident advocate of the Scottish bar, of undoubted learning, tried merit, and considerable standing;" and to this effect Lord Frederick Campbell, the lord-clerk register, having memorialized his majesty (George III.), a royal warrant was issued in 1806, authorizing the appointment of the office. A fit Archivarius to fill it was not still to seek; and, to the satisfaction of all who felt an interest in this important department, Mr. Thomas Thomson was forthwith nominated deputy-clerk register. Among those who rejoiced in the appointment, no one could be more ardent than Sir Walter Scott. "Have you seen," he writes in a letter to George Ellis, "have you seen my friend, Tom Thomson, who is just now in London? He has, I believe, the advantage of knowing you, and I hope you will meet, as he understands more of old books, old laws, and old history, than any man in Scotland. He has lately received an appointment under the Lord Register of Scotland, which puts all our records under his immediate inspection and control; and I expect many valuable discoveries to be the consequence of his investigation, if he escapes being smothered in the cloud of dust which his researches will certainly raise about his ears." Speaking at a later period in conversation upon the subject of antiquarian studies in general, Scott observed—"It is common to laugh at such researches, but they pay the good brains that meddle with them; and had Thomson been as diligent in setting down his discoveries as he has been in making them, he might, long before this time of day, have placed himself on a level with Ducange or Camden."

The rest of his long literary life, which extended over nearly half a century, is best detailed by a list of the literary works which he published. And to begin with those which he prepared in his capacity of deputy-clerk register, and which were published under authority of the Commissioners in the Public Records of the Kingdom, they were the following:—

"Inquisitionum ad Capellum Domini Regis Retornaturum, quae in Publicis Archivis Scotia adhuc servantur, Abbreviatio." 1811-1816. 3 vols., folio.

"Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum in Archivis Publicis asservatum. MCCCVI—MCCCCXXIV." 1814. Folio.

"The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland. Vol. ii. to vol. xi. MCCCCXXIVMDCCVII." 1814 to 1824. 10 vols., folio. Of this series, the first volume, owing to many difficulties, chiefly arising from the remote and obscure period to which its "Acts" refer, remained unfinished so late as 1841, when Mr. Thomson’s connection with the register-office ceased. It was completed and published, however, in 1844, under the superintendence of Mr. Innes.

"The Acts of the Lords Auditors of Causes and Complaints. MCCCCLXVI--MCCCCXCIV." 1839. Folio.

"The Acts of the Lords of Council in Civil Causes. MCCCCLXXVIII—MCCCCXCV." 1839. Folio.

In addition to these, Mr. Thomson prepared the following abbreviates, of which only a limited number were published for the use of the register-office :—.

"A Continuation of the Retours of Services to the Chancery-Office, from the Union, A.D. 1707, to the present time."

"An Abbreviate or Digest of the Registers of Sasines, General and Particular, arranged in Counties, with Relative Indexes, from the 1st of January, 1781, to the present time."

"An Abbreviate of Adjudications from the same period to 1830."

"An Abbreviate of Inhibitions, General and Particular, arranged in Counties, from the same period to 1830."

Of an equally professional, and still more personal description, were the following:—

"The First Five Annual Reports of the Deputy-Clerk Register of Scotland," from 1808 to 1811. One vol., folio.

"Annual Reports, from the Sixth to the Fourteenth (from 1811 to 1822)." One vol., folio.

We now pass from the labours of the deputy-clerk register, to those of the member of the Bannatyne Club. This antiquarian institution, which was originated in 1823, unanimously elected Mr. Thomson to the honorary office of vice-president; and afterwards, in 1832, in consequence of the death of Sir Walter Scott, the distinguished president of the club, Mr. Thomson, with the same unanimity, was appointed to succeed him. His services in behalf of this important association were thus characterized by Lord Cockburn, its vice-president, in the funeral eulogium which he pronounced before the members, after the decease of Mr. Thomson:—"As one of our original founders, and deeply conversant with our objects and aims, he was, while absent from Edinburgh, unanimously chosen vice-president. After co-operating assiduously with Sir Walter Scott, our first president, in all the business of the institution, he became our second president on the death of that illustrious person; and throughout the whole of the succeeding twenty years, was our master and our guide. With several powerful associates or competitors, in detached fields, or subordinate walks, it was by his knowledge and sagacity that our general course was directed. The value of his superintendence is attested by its results. The publications of the Bannatyne Club form the greatest, the most difficult, the most important, and the most splendid disclosures that have ever been made of the latent historical treasures of our country. The merit of these works is certainly not due to him entirely; if it had at all been ascribed to him in his presence his candour would have at once disclaimed it, and given the proper part to its true owners. But those by whom the contributions, either of individuals or of the club, have been prepared, and who are best acquainted with the difficulties attending the execution of such undertakings, will acknowledge the aid which they uniformly derived from the president’s judgment and zeal. And never did any one apply to him for advice without feeling his accessibility, and his cordial disposition to assist. The hasty, and indeed sometimes even the patient, murmured occasionally at his slowness; and he had certainly no taste for vulgar rapidity; but this was the result of caution and fastidiousness—both good qualities; and though it sometimes wearied expectation, was generally rewarded by improved excellence in the end."

The literary exertions thus so highly and so justly commended, which Mr. Thomson performed in behalf of the Bannatyne Club, and which were published under its auspices, are comprised in the following list:--

"Alex. Myln, Vitae Dunkeldensis Ecclesiae Episcoporum." 4to, 1823.

"Discours particulier d’Escosse, escrit en 1559." 4to, 1824.

"The Historie and Life of King James the Sext." 4to, 1825.

"Memoirs of his own Life, by Sir James Melville, of Halhill." 4to, 1827.— Speaking of this work while in progress, Sir Walter Scott thus alludes to it in his diary—"Thomson is superintending a capital edition of Sir James Melville’s Memoirs. It is brave to see how he wags his Scots tongue, and what a difference there is in the form and firmness of the language, compared to the mincing English edition in which he has hitherto been alone known."

"Memoirs of his own Life and Times, by Sir James Turner." 4to, 1829.

"The History of Scotland, by John Lesley, Bishop of Ross." 4to, 1830.

"Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, in alliterative verse." 4to, 1833.

"Diurnal of Remarkable Occurrents, from the Pollok MS." 4to, 1833.

"The Ragman Rolls, 1291-1296." 4to, 1834.

"The Booke of the Universall Kirk of Scotland, 1560-1618." 3 vo1s. 4to, 1839, 1840, 1845.

"The Accounts of the Great Chamberlains of Scotland, &c., 1326-1406." In 2 vols. 4to, 1817.

A third volume of do. 4to, 1845.

"A Diary of the Public Correspondence of Sir Thomas Hope of Craighall." 4to, 1843.

"Munimenta Vetustiora Comitatus de Mortoun, and Original Letters and Papers in the Archives of the Earls of Morton." 4to, 1852.

In addition to the foregoing, Mr. Thomson edited the following works, which were chiefly printed for private circulation:—

"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," &c. 8vo, 1809.

"A Collection of Inventories, and other Records of the Royal Wardrobe and Jewelhouse; and of the Artillery and Munition in some of the Royal Castles, 1488-1606." 4to, 1815.

"The Chamberlain Rolls, 1306-1406." 4to, 1817.

"Inventory of Worke done for the State, by (Evan Tyler) his Majesties Printer in Scotland, December, 1642-October, 1647." 4to, 1815.

"Ane Addicioun of Scottis Cornikles and Deidis." Small 4to, 1819.

"Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland from the Restoration of King Charles II., A.D. 1660, by Sir George Mackenzie, of Rosehaugh, Knight. 4to, 1821.

"Memoirs of the Lives and Characters of the Right Honourable George Baillie of Jerviswood, and of Lady Grissell, by their daugher, Lady Murray."

"Menu de la Maison de la Royne faict par Mons. de Pinguillon. M.D.LXII" 4to, 1824.

This amount of antiquarian labour indicates an extent of reading, a patience of research, and a heroic pertinacity of purpose which it would be difficult fully to estimate. And this, too, be it remembered, was in a department of literature in which little fame is to be won, and the achievements of which are so often misprized and ridiculed. "No one," says Lord Cockburn, in his "Life of Lord Jeffrey"—when speaking of Thomas Thomson—"no one has done nearly so much to recover, to arrange, to explain, and to preserve our historical muniments. He found them almost a chaos, and after bringing them into order, has left them on a system, of which the value will be felt the more every day that they accumulate. His real merit, great as it may seem now, will seem still greater 500 years hence." Adverting to Mr. Thomson’s capacity for legal study, and the disinterestedness with which it was kept in abeyance, for the sake of that department in which he was so well qualified to excel, Lord Cockburn adds—"Had he not allowed his taste for antiquarian research to allure him from the common drudgery of his profession, he would have stood high in practice, as he always did in character, at the bar; and would now have been adorning the bench by his considerate wisdom and peculiar learning." In turning to Mr. Thomson’s course as a barrister, we find his lordship’s commendations fully borne out. His knowledge of ancient Scottish history and jurisprudence was so well known, even at the outset, that so early as 1805-7, he was employed in the famous Craigengillan case, in which a fair estate of about 12,000 per annum depended upon the old marriage laws of Scotland, and the kind of union that sufficed to establish a legal claim to legitimacy and inheritance. Another suit in which he was retained in 1816, was the case of Cranstoun versus Gibson, in which the principle of our northern elections had to be traced to its fountain-head, inasmuch as the franchise of Scotland, as connected with the valuation of old church lands, was involved in the result. While his brethren of the long robe were utterly in the dark upon such questions of medieval and monastic lore, Mr. Thomson, as may easily be supposed, felt himself upon his own proper ground; he accordingly produced in one of his memorials, such a lucid account of the origin of the taxation of land in Scotland, that Lord Glenlee, the presiding judge, could not help exclaiming, "It is just delightful! It is like reading a lost decade of Livy!" Mr. Thomson, indeed, did not secure a judge’s gown, for that, as we have seen, was never at any time the mark of his ambition; but an office, not greatly inferior in importance and emolument, was freely conceded to him in 1828, by his being appointed one of the principal clerks of Session—an office which Sir Walter Scott himself held, and beyond which he sought no higher.

Amidst the various qualifications which Mr. Thomson possessed, we would greatly err if we confined the literary part of his character to his undoubted superiority in antiquities and black letter. On the contrary, his general knowledge, as well as his talents and taste, were so fully recognized, that at the creation of the "Edinburgh Review" in 1802, he was one of that illustrious coterie who were wont to meet in solemn secrecy for the purpose of commencing it, and by whose joint labours that critical tribunal was silently built up, before whose dread awards the whole literary world was so soon compelled to bow and tremble. For this journal he also wrote several articles, and, during the occasional absences of Mr. Jeffrey, took charge of its editorship.

Mr. Thomson married Anne, daughter of Thomas Reed, Esq., formerly army agent in Dublin. He died at his residence at Shrubhill, between Edinburgh and Leith, on the 2d of October, 1852, and was interred in the Dean Cemetery. His character was thus appropriately summed up by Lord Murray at the ensuing Anniversary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland—"In the death of my old and valued friend, Mr. Thomas Thomson, the Society has to deplore the loss of one, whose contributions to our antiquarian literature, and to the facilities of the historical student of the Records of Scotland, have conferred a boon upon the country, such as it would be difficult to over-estimate in value. He was a man of great and varied learning, and a highly refined mind. His enthusiasm was undamped by the intricacy and forbidding aspects of one of the most perplexing and protracted labours which ever engrossed the life-labour of the legal antiquary; and yet, while devoting his fine mind to such labours in his study, he united to all the acquirements requisite for such pursuits, manners the most pleasing, and a warmth and geniality of feeling which have embalmed him in the memories of a numerous circle of friends and admirers."

Memoir of Thomas Thomson
Advocate, by Cosmo Innes (1854)

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