This blog regularly features profiles of the people who lived in Edinburgh in the late eighteenth century and who contributed to the remarkable flowering of intellectual thought generally referred to as the Scottish Enlightenment. James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, was perhaps one of the most eccentric of these men.
Monboddo was born in 1714 in Kincardineshire and attended a local primary school before studying in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He was admitted to the Edinburgh Faculty of Advocates in 1737 and in time became an eminent judge. Yet he was more than just a lawyer, and it is his other interests that he is best remembered for today. He was for many years proprietor of the Canongate Theatre at a time when the kirk and the city's authorities thought theatre a shameful business and the acting profession thoroughly disrespectable, despite warnings that his involvement would have an adverse affect on his legal career. The philosopher David Hume was one of the leading actors there, and he and Monboddo were firm friends. Hume and other eminent intellectuals and artists attended Monboddo's 'learned suppers' at his home in St John Street, including Robert Burns, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. At these feasts the assembled diners would debate and discuss each others' ideas, thus creating a productive cross-fertilisation of ideas. Burns was an admirer of Elizabeth Burnett, Monboddo's younger daughter and a famous beauty. Her tragic death at the age of twenty-five drew an elegy from the poet.
Monboddo was an eager student of linguistics, and besides the Latin and Greek taught at universities at that time he took it upon himself to learn a great many others of a less familiar nature, including Carib, Eskimo, Huron, Algonquian, Quechuan and Tahitian. In 1773 he published a work which brought much scorn and ridicule from his contemporaries, entitled 'Of the Origin and Progress of Language'. In this Monboddo theorised that all languages had evolved from a single origin, a completely new idea. He also claimed that humans had evolved from apes, again a new notion, and one that seems to have anticipated Darwinian evolutionary theory. Unfortunately, the world was not ready for such radical concepts and the book was thoroughly lampooned. It did not help his cause that he had also asserted within its pages that orang-utans were human and capable of speech, and that a race of people who had tails lived in India.
There are many instances of his eccentricity that have been recorded. Monboddo was a great admirer of the ancient Greeks, and he refused to have anything to do with technology that had been developed since that time; he would not get into a coach or a sedan-chair for that reason and when he went to London (King George III was an admirer of his) he rode there on horseback. It was while visiting the King on one occasion that part of the courtroom ceiling began collapsing; there was a panicked rush to get out, but Monboddo sat on placidly in the room. When asked later why he had not joined the exodus he explained that he presumed he was witnessing some obscure local ceremony, of which he as a stranger could take no part. It is also claimed that upon leaving his courtroom one day to find that it was raining heavily, he sent his wig to his house in a sedan-chair but walked home himself.