Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

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Literary Chronicle
New Monthly Magazine
Monthly Review
Notes and Queries
Gibson and Laing
Halkett and Laing
Scottish Notes & Queries

Part I. (Volume I.)
James the First
Thomas the Rhymer
John Barbour
Andrew Wyntoun
Gavin Douglas
Allan Ramsay
William Meston
John Home
James Beattie
Robert Burns

Part II. (Volume I.)
James the Fifth
William Dunbar
Sir James Inglis
Henry the Minstrel
Sir David Lyndsay
Alexander Barclay
Alexander Montgomerie
William Alexander
William Drummond
James Thomson
John Oswald

Part III. (Volume II.)
James the Sixth
Sir Richard Maitland
Arthur Johnston
Hamilton of Bangour
Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Samuel Colvil
Alexander Ross
John Armstrong
John Ogilvie
James Macpherson
Charles Salmon

Part IV. (Volume II.)
Alexander Hume
John Bellenden
Mark Alexander Boyd
Ninian Paterson
William Wilkie
Robert Fergusson
William Julius Mickle
Alexander Geddes
James Grahame

Part V. (Volume III.)
Robert Henryson
Alexander Scott
Walter Kennedy
John Ogilby
Alexander Pennecuik
Alexander Cunningham
David Mallet
William Falconer
Francis Garden
Robert Blair
James Moor
James Graeme
Caleb Whitefoord
James Grainger
Hector Macneill
John Wilson

Part VI. (Volume III.)
Robert Kerr
Richard Lord Maitland
Thomas Hamilton
Charles Hamilton
Michael Bruce
Thomas Blacklock
John Logan
Andrew Macdonald
James Mercer

Appendix. (Volume III.)
James I
Allan Ramsay
John Home
Robert Burns
William Drummond
Robert Fergusson
Alexander Scott
John Wilson



James Mercer, [note] the friend and companion of Beattie, was born on the 27th February, 1734. He was the eldest of two sons of Thomas Mercer, Esq., a gentleman of private fortune in Aberdeenshire. He received, at the Grammar School, and Marischal College of Aberdeen, an education of the most liberal description; but evinced no inclination for any of those professions to which letters are most essential. On the breaking out of the Rebellion of 1745, his father took arms in behalf of the Pretender, and with other adherents of that unfortunate Prince, was afterwards forced to fly for refuge to France. James joined his father at Paris, and resided with him there for several years, following no particular pursuit, but improving his mind by literary studies, and by intercourse with the best society which the French metropolis afforded.


At the commencement of the Seven Years' War, Mr. Mercer crossed over to Britain with the hope of bring able to avail himself of this opportunity of embracing the profession of arms, for which he had always evinced a strong predilection. Whatever share he ought have inherited of his father's prejudices against the House of Hanover, it was not such as to tempt him to enlist under any other banner than that of his country. On his arrival in England, he found preparations making for the expedition against Cherbourg, and he immediately joined it as a volunteer.
After the failure of that ill-concerted attack, Mr. Mercer proceeded to Germany, and placed himself under the command of Lord George Sackville,
[note] still as a volunteer. In a short time he was promoted to an Ensigncy in one of the English regiments serving with the allied army; and afterwards obtained what was more gratifying to his national pride, a Lieutenancy, in a battalion of Highlanders which had been newly raised by Lieut. Col. Campbell.


Mr. Mercer pursued his military career with more than ordinary enthusiasm. He was unceasing in his application to the study of the most celebrated authors on the Art of War; and during several years' arduous service in the field, distinguished himself by his bravery and skill. At the battle of Minden, his regiment was one of the six British corps, whose gallantry saved on that occasion the reputation of the allied arms.


Shortly before the peace of 1763, General Græme, a relation of Mr. Mercer, having undertaken to raise a regiment, (afterwards called the Queen's,) presented his young friend with a company in it. Mr. M. accordingly returned to Great Britain, and while the regiment was organizing, took up his residence at Aberdeen, the place of his birth and education. Here he enjoyed the society of several persons of understandings more cultivated, and of a better style and taste in conversation than are often to be met with in places at a distance from the metropolis. Among those, whose friendship he prized most, were Dr. Beattie, Dr. Reid, [note] Dr. Campbell, [note] all illustrious names, and Mr. Douglas of Fechil, [note] the father of his future wife, a gentleman little known to the republic of let-
ters, but commemorated by his son, Lord Glenbervie, [note] as “remarkable for a strong understanding, a genuine of humour, a great memory, and a familiar acquaintance with Roman and almost all modern literature.


The peace of 1763 arrived without Mr. M. being again called into active service. The “Queen's,” with other new corps, was reduced, and Mr. M. returned once more to Aberdeen.


His friend, Mr. Douglas, was by this time no more; and the loss of one whom he so highly esteemed made him renew, with the greater fondness, his intimacy with the surviving branches of that gentleman's family. He now openly avowed an attachment for Miss Douglas, which had been gaining ground ever since their first acquaintance, and which proved to be reciprocal. In the summer of 1763, they were married by Dr. Reid, [note] who had not yet removed to Glasgow.


Mr. Mercer now purchased a Company in the 49th regiment, and removed with it to Ireland, where he passed the chief part of nine or ten years. The Majority of the regiment becoming vacant, he succeeded to it by purchase; and having held that commission for some time, he concluded, in 1772, a treaty with Sir Henry Calder, [note] the Lieut. Colonel, for becoming his successor, and the treaty was confirmed in the usual manner by Lord Townshend, [note] then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In consequence, however, of some more powerful influence at Court, the recommendation of the Lord Lieutenant was disregarded, notwithstanding repeated and angry remonstrances from his lordship, and the commission, belonging by every principle of equity to Mr. Mercer, was given to another.


Major Mercer, justly incensed at this treatment, took the sudden resolution of selling out of the army; and on quitting it retired with his family, consisting of Mrs. M. and two daughters, to a small cottage in the vicinity of Aberdeen.


In the spring of 1774, the air of the south of France having been recommended to Mrs. Mercer, who had been almost constantly an invalid since the first year of their marriage, they repaired to that country and took up their residence in the province of Saintonge, at or near the town of Pons. After remaining here nearly two years, during which Mrs. M.'s health was somewhat improved, they returned to Scotland.


In 1776-77, the Duke of Gordon [note] raised, on his estates, a regiment of Fencibles for government, and on the invitation of his Grace, Mr. Mercer accepted of a Majority in the corps, which he retained daring the American war. On the return of peace, the Major again settled with his family in the neighbourhood of Aberdeen; first in a very retired cottage, which he rented, and afterwards at a pleasant villa, which by an accession of fortune, on the death of his brother, he was enabled to build and surround with shrubberies and plantations in a very tasteful manner; to this villa, from its warm southern aspect, he gave the name of Sunny Bank.


The closing days of Major Mercer's life were far, however, from being days of sunshine or repose. His own health was now much impaired, and Mrs. Mercer was a perpetual invalid. He was, from these circumstances, compelled to lead nearly the life of a recluse; and ere long, the irreparable losses to which those who approach the verge of old age are by the
laws of our existence necessarily exposed, took away from seclusion all cause of regret. One revered friend after another sunk into the tomb; and at last he was doomed to suffer the worst blow which death could inflict, in the sudden and unexpected dissolution of Mrs. Mercer, who expired on the 3rd of January, 1802. The shock of her death so deeply affected her husband, that not only his health became worse, but his mind sunk into a fixed melancholy, which no efforts of his own, no affectionate attention of those who still remained with him, could remove. His mind, constantly preyed upon by thoughts of former and irrecoverable happiness, became at length totally alienated and gone; and on the 18th of November, in the year after Mrs. Mercer's death, he followed her to the grave.


The character of Major Mercer has been thus briefly but strikingly pourtrayed by Dr. Beattie, in a letter to the Duchess of Gordon, dated 10th January, 1779: “Major Mercer, with more learning than any other man of my acquaintance, has all the playfulness of a school-boy, and unites the wit and wisdom of Montesquieu [note] with the sensibility of Rousseau [note] and the generosity of Tom Jones.” His acquaintance with books, especially of poetry and belles lettres, was not only very extensive, but he himself possessed a rich and genuine poetical vein. He was unwilling, however, that even his most intimate friends should know that he was guilty of the sin of rhyming; even Dr. Beattie had for a long time no suspicion of the fact. His brother-in-law, Lord Glenbervie, [note] was almost the only male friend whom he entrusted with the secret, and it was with the greatest difficulty that amiable and
accomplished scholar could prevail on him to permit a small collection of his pieces to be published, anonymously, in 1797. A second edition, including seven new pieces, appeared early in 1804, with the title “Lyric Poems, by James Mercer, Esq.;”—“yet still,” says Lord Glenbervie, “almost against his will.” After his death, a third edition was called for, to which his Lordship prefixed “An Account of the Life of the Author,” from which most of the particulars of the present Sketch have been derived.


The whole of Mercer's poetical pieces appear to have been effusions of the moment, prompted by circumstances of real occurrence, which operated strongly on the sensibility of the writer; and though they may therefore want that completeness of design which belongs to well meditated compositions, they possess a degree of spirit and vivacity which but too often eludes the grasp of study. His style is of a classical correctness and purity; and if his sentiments have sometimes the fault of triteness, they show, at least, a mind laudably bent on just and benevolent views of human life.