John Pinkerton (1758-1826), Scottish antiquary and historian, born at Edinburgh on 17 Feb. 1758, claimed descent from an old family originally settled at Pinkerton, near Dunbar, but no complete account of the steps of the descent is given. His grandfather Walter was a yeoman or small farmer at Dalserf, Lanarkshire; and his father James, after following with some success the trade of a dealer in hair in Somerset, settled in Edinburgh, where he married a widow, Mrs. Bowie, whose maiden name was Heron, and who was the daughter of an Edinburgh merchant.
he antiquary, their third son, received his early education at a small school in the suburbs of Edinburgh, and from 1704 to 1710 attended the grammar school of Lanark, then taught by Mr. Thomson, brother of the author of 'The Seasons.' On his return to Edinburgh he expressed a strong desire to enter the university there, but to this his father objected; and after devoting some time to private study, especially of French and mathematics, he was articled to William Ayton, a writer to the signet in Edinburgh, with whom he remained for five years. While still an apprentice with Ayton he published anonymously, in 1776, a small poem of no great merit, entitled 'Craigmillar Castle: an Elegy,' which he dedicated to Dr. Beattie.
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Pinkerton completed his apprenticeship in 1780, but his father's death in the same year led to his abandonment of the profession of law; and, in order to obtain access to books of reference, he removed, towards the close of 1781, to London. The same year he published a volume of miscellaneous poetry which he entitled 'Rimes,' and which consisted of four varieties: 'melodies, symphonies, odes, and sonnets;' in 1782, 'Two Dithyrambic Odes: (1) On Enthusiasm; (2) On Laughter;' and in the same year 'Tales in Verse.' Although his verses indicate a facile command of a variety of metres, they possess no distinct poetic qualities. In 1783 he published 'Select Scotish Ballads' with the sub-title 'Hardy Knute: an Heroic Ballad, now first published complete; with other nine approved Scotish Ballads and some not hitherto made public, in the Tragic style. To which are prefixed two 'Dissertations: (1) on the Oral Tradition of Poetry; (2) on the Tragic Ballad.' Under the pseudonym of 'Anti-Scot,' Ritson, in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' for November 1784 (pp. 812-14), demonstrated that the second part of 'Hardy Kanute,' and a considerable number of the other so-called ancient ballads of Pinkerton were modern; and in the preface to his 'Ancient Scotish Poems' (pp. cxxviii-cxxxi) Pinkerton confessed himself the author of the second part of 'Hardy Kanute,' and also gave a list of other ballads which were in great part his own composition, affirming at the same time that he had never directly asserted their antiquity, but had purposely expressed himself with ambiguity. He seems to have been influenced chiefly by exaggerated notions of his own literary abilities; but it is perhaps worth noting that, while himself a literary forger, he expressed his belief in the authenticity of the Shakespeare papers forged by Ireland (cf. Nichols, Illustr. of Lit. iii. 779).
In 1784 Pinkerton published anonymously an 'Essay on Medals,' in two volumes: a valuable work, which originated in a manual and tables originally made for his own use, and gradually enlarged. In the final preparation of the work for publication he had the assistance of Francis Douce [q. v.] and Mr. Southgate of the British Museum. A third edition appeared in 1808. Under the name of Robert Heron (the surname of his mother), Pinkerton published, in 1785, a somewhat eccentric volume, entitled 'Letters of Literature,' in which, besides recommending a new method of orthography, he expressed very depreciatory opinions of the classical authors of Greece and Rome. The work has been ascribed to Robert Heron [q. v.], miscellaneous writer; but the coincidence of the name was mere accident, and the statement that it injuriously affected Heron's prospects can scarce be accepted, as Heron was then quite unknown. The book led to an acquaintance with Horace Walpole, who introduced Pinkerton to Gibbon the historian. Gibbon is said to have formed a high estimate of Pinkerton's learning and historical abilities, and to have recommended him as translator and editor of a proposed series of 'English Monkish Historians;' the project which then came to nothing was attempted by Henry Petrie [q. v.] After the death of Walpole, Pinkerton sold a collection of his remarks and letters to the proprietors of the 'Monthly Magazine,' and in 1799 they were published in two small volumes under the title 'Walpoliana.'
In 1786 Pinkerton rendered an important service to Scottish literature by bringing out two volumes of 'Ancient Scotish Poems never before in print. But now published from the MS. Collections of Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington, Knight, and Lord Privy Seal of Scotland, and a Senator of the College of Justice, comprising pieces written from about 1420 till 1586, with large Notes and a Glossary.' Prefixed to the volumes were an 'Essay on the Origin of Scotish Poetry' and a 'List of all the Scotch Poets, with Brief Remarks;' and an appendix was added, 'containing among other articles an account of the Maitland and Bannatyne MSS.' Nichols (Illustr. of Lit. v. 670) and, following him, Robert Chambers (Eminent Scotsmen) affirm this work to have been also practically a forgery; and describe the manuscripts as 'feigned to have been discovered in the Pepysian Library, Cambridge.' They of course were then, and still are, in the Pepysian Library [see Maitland, Sir Richard, Lord Lethington]. In 1787, under the name of H. Bennet, M.A., Pinkerton published 'The Treasury of Wit,' being a methodical selection of about 'Twelve Hundred of the Best Apophthegms and Jests from Books in several Languages,' with a 'Discourse on Wit and Humour.' The same year appeared his 'Dissertation on the Origin and Progress of the Scythians or Goths, being an Introduction to the Ancient and Modern History of Europe.' The value of the work is by no means commensurate with its grandiloquent title. Its chief purpose was to expound his peculiar hypothesis as to the inveterate inferiority of the Celtic race. He affirms that the 'Irish, the Scottish highlanders, the Welsh, the Bretons, and the Spanish Biscayans' are the only surviving aborigines of Europe, and that their features, history, actions, and manners indicate a fatal moral and intellectual weakness, rendering them incapable of susceptibility to the higher influences of civilisation. Throughout the work facts are subordinated to preconceived theories. In 1788 he contributed to the 'Gentleman's Magazine' a series of twelve letters on the 'Cultivation of Our National History.' In 1789 he published a collection of 'Ancient Lives of the Scottish Saints,' a new edition of his work on 'Medals,' and a new edition of Barbour's poem of 'The Bruce.' In 1790 appeared his 'Medallic History of England till the Revolution,' and an 'Inquiry into the History of Scotland preceding the Reign of Malcolm III, or 1056, including the authentic History of that Period,' a work of considerable original research. In 1792 he edited in three volumes 'Scotish Poems reprinted from Scarce Editions.' In 1797 he delivered 'to the public candour' what he termed the 'greatest labour of his life:' 'The History of Scotland from the Accession of the House of Stuart to that of Mary, with Appendices of Original Documents,' in two volumes, with portraits of the author. Notwithstanding the combined tameness and pomposity of its style, the work is still of considerable value as an historical authority, and indicates very thorough and painstaking research. The majority, but not all, of the original documents in the appendix are now included in one or other of the later historical collections. In connection with the preparation of the work, Pinkerton, on the recommendation of Archibald Constable the publisher (cf. Constable, Correspondence, i. 22), employed William Anderson, an Edinburgh lawyer, to make transcripts from the Advocates' Library and the public records. In Appendix No. xxiii. to the 'History' Pinkerton published a 'Paper on the Present State of the Public Records,' which he said was written by Anderson, and some of the statements in which he professed to corroborate by affirming that the expense of examining these records was 'enormous, to judge from the attorney's bill, which exceeded twelve pounds for a trifling labour, which in England would have been richly recompensed by three or four guineas.' This called forth a pamphlet by Anderson, entitled 'An Answer to an Attack made by John Pinkerton, Esqr., of Hampstead, in his “History of Scotland,” lately published, upon William Anderson, writer in Edinburgh, containing an account of the Records of Scotland, and many Strange Letters of Mr. Pinkerton, accompanied with suitable Comments,' Edinburgh, 1797. Anderson also commenced a suit against Pinkerton to obtain payment of his fees, arrested some of his rents to compel payment in Scotland, and compelled payment of the costs of the suit.
In 1797 Pinkerton published 'Iconographia Scotica, or Portraits of Illustrious Persons of Scotland;' and in 1799 'The Scotish Gallery; or Portraits of Eminent Persons, with their Characters.' These are entirely distinct works, the former being mainly concerned with royal personages. They are chiefly of value for the portraits, many of them engraved for the first time from those in private collections. His subsequent works were somewhat miscellaneous in character: 'Modern Geography digested on a New Plan,' 2 vols. 1802, 2nd edit. 3 vols. 1807; 'Recollections of Paris,' 2 vols. 1806; 'General Collection of Voyages and Travels,' 17 vols. 4to, 1807-14; 'New Modern Atlas,' in parts, 1808-9; and 'Petrology, or a Treatise on the Rocks,' 1811. The 'Collection of Voyages and Travels' was a useful compilation in its day, being the most voluminous that had hitherto appeared, with the exception of the French 'Histoire Générale des Voyages' (Paris, 1785), which had occupied twenty-four bulky quarto volumes. A large number of very rare volumes of travels were incorporated, and the average merit of the plates was considerable.
Pinkerton was for some time editor of the 'Critical Review.' In 1814 he republished, in two volumes, his 'Inquiry into the History of Scotland,' including with it his 'Dissertation on the Scythians or Goths.' Sir Walter Scott mentions, in March 1813, that Pinkerton had a play coming out at Edinburgh, and that it was 'by no means bad poetry, but not likely to be popular' (LOCKHART, Life of Scott, ed. 1847, p. 236). During the latter period of his life Pinkerton resided in Paris, where he died on 10 March 1826. He is described as 'a very little and very thin old man, with a very small, sharp, yellow face, thickly pitted by the small-pox, and decked with a pair of green spectacles' (Nichols, Illustr. v. 673). His literary talents were scarcely commensurate with his powers of research; and his judgment was not unfrequently warped by peculiar prejudices and eccentricities. Certain infirmities of temper and character created also many breaches in his friendships; and in several instances he showed himself a somewhat spiteful enemy. He married in 1793 Miss Burgess of Odiham, Hampshire, sister of Thomas Burgess (1756-1837) [q. v.], bishop of Salisbury; but they separated, and left no family.
Portraits of Pinkerton are prefixed to his 'History of Scotland' and his 'Literary Correspondence,' 1830.
[Nichols's Illustrations, v. 665-73 and passim; Gent. Mag. 1826, pp. 469-72; Pinkerton's Literary Correspondence; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen; Life of Archibald Constable; Lockhart's Life of Scott.]
Thomas Finlayson Henderson, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 45. pgs. 316-318.