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From A Gallery ofEccentrics, by Morris Bishop, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1928; pp. 50-68.


Morris Bishop



SUNDRY profitable lessons may be drawn from the life and composition of that very prince and phenix of translators, Sir Thomas Urquhart. Nice judges have declared that his Gargantua and Pantagruel stands with the King James version of Holy Writ to make the noblest pair of translations in our idiom. Most of us who are no arbiters of such mighty matters have been at one time or another rapt by the boisterous gayety of the Urquhart Rabelais, and have been sweetly stunned by his caterwauling orchestra of sound. For most translators are, as Sir Thomas himself would have it, but sottish and doting fresh-water sophisters, gouty limpards, and a thousand worse things, for they turn the strong brews of their originals into thin vinegarish liquors. And certain others, witty rogues indeed, have made the books they take in hand render only a subject and a servant, which they have tricked out in new clothes of their own confectioning. But this did not Sir Thomas Urquhart, for he was in spirit the foster-brother of Rabelais, possessing all that bawdy curate’s love of strange learning, drinking, fantastical speech, and immoderate laughter. We but open his translation to the prologue to the First Book, and read: “Most noble and illustrious drinkers, and you thrice precious pockified blades —” We know straightway that the voice is the voice of Rabelais, granted a new transformation and metagrobolization into English speech.


Sir Thomas Urquhart merits the attention of the ingenious not alone as the inspired translator, who conferred upon his great original the gift of glossolalia. “Most fantastical of Scotsmen,” in the words of Charles Whibley,1 he arouses in the contemplative spirit many a rumination on the ends of man, on the employment of natural gifts, and on that unnoticeable watershed which divides the oceans of truth and of error. And in these days when the most petty trifles of past times are rescued out of oblivion to be again conned over, we are to be excused for examining once more his original pieces, and especially his ἘΚΣΚΤΥΒΑΛΑΥΡΟΝ, or Discovery of a most exquisite Jewel, more Precious than Diamonds inchased in Gold.

The Rev. John Willcock, A.M., B.D., in the leisure of his manse in the Shetland Islands, has assembled the materials that remain for the life of this doughty Scot.2 Sir Thomas himself made ample researches into his own ancestry, and wrote and published his ΠΑΝΤΟΧΡΟΝΑΝΟΝ, or Peculiar Promputary of Time, containing the true pedigree and lineal descent of the most ancient and honorable family of Urquhart. Disdaining the obscurities from which most genealogist are willing to initiate their families, he traces the ancient and honorable Urquharts back to good red earth. “God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, who were from all eternity, did, in time of nothing, create red earth; of red earth, framed Adam; and of a rib out of the side of Adam, fashioned Eve.” After which creation, plasmation, and formation, in the first year of the world and in the year 3948 B.C., Adam, surnamed the Protoplast, 55 married Eve, and on her begot Seth. Thence, through a line numbering such illustrious names as Mahalaleel and Noah, these proto-Urquharts came to Japhet, to whose inheritance, as the world knows, befell all the regions of Europe. We can signal only a few of the great names in this pedigree: Penuel (b. B.C. 2219) builder of the tower of Babel; Esormon (b. B.C. 2139) “for his fortune in the wars, and affability in conversation, surnamed ὠροχάρτος, that is to say, fortunate and well beloved. After which time, his posterity ever since hath acknowledged him the father of all that carry the name of Urquhart.” Later appeared Phrenedon (b. B.C. 1958), who was in the house of the Patriarch Abraham at the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Termuth (fl. ca. B.C. 1623), the daughter of Pharaoh Amenophis, which found Moses amongst the bulrushes; Nicolia (fl. ca. B.C. 1049), by many supposed to have been the Queen of Sheba; Proteusa (fl. ca. 1019), who was sister of Eborak, founder of the city of York. In his time, observes the chronologist, “Scotland was named Olbon; afterwards by an Aeolic dialect termed Albion: the castle of Edinburgh built (for that Ethus king of the Picts did built it, is fabulous) and the promontories at Cromarty called the σωτῆρες, vulgarly Soters.”3 Nomostor (b. B.C. 389) was the first to settle permanently in Cromarty. His son, Astioremon, killed the outlandish King Ethus the first of the Picts in duel, before the face of both armies, “and gained the great battle of Farnua, fought within a mile of Cromarty; the reliques of that stranger-king’s trenches, headquarters, 56 and castramentation of his whole army, being till this day conspicuous to any that passeth that way.’ We must not linger upon the vast deeds and virtues of other chieftains of the line; we may hardly note that all the Forbeses are but a mean branch of the Urquharts, and that Sir Jasper, agnamed Soldurio (b. A.D. 1041), had the dexterity, by a single touch of his hand, to cure the king’s evil. We shall pause not even a moment to consider Thomas (b. B.C. 1476) who had five and twenty sons and eleven daughters. Let us come immediately to our Sir Thomas, agnamed Parresiastes, or Free of Speech.

He was born in 1611 to Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, a stout Church-of-England man, and to Christian his wife, daughter of the fourth Lord Elphinstone. At the age of eleven he entered the University of Aberdeen, and there obtained a sound training in Greek and Latin, physiology, arithmetic, astrology, and other polite branches. The Rev. Mr. Willcock has reproduced some of the statutes of the University, to acquaint us with the rigor of education in that century of genius. The students were forbidden to converse in any tongue but Greek or Latin, and to carry arms. All holidays had been abolished, with Scottish intransigence.

While the boy was off at school, the laird his father in far Cromarty was wasting the family wealth. For this the son did not blame him. “By the unfaithfulness of some of his menial servants, . . . and falsehood of several chamberlains and bayliffs . . . and by the frequency of disadvantagious bargains, which the slieness of the subtil merchant did involve him in, his loss came unawares upon him, and irresistibly, like an armed man. . . . He thought it did derogate from the nobility 57 of his house and reputation of his person, to look to petty things in matter of his own affairs.” To restrain him from such lordliness, the sons confined him for the space of a week in an upper chamber, tanquam in privato carcere. The father brought a suit against his sons as a consequence of this laying on of violent hands. History has not recorded its outcome.

That our Thomas’s mind was early bent toward profitable subjects we may judge from his own testimony. “There happening a gentleman of very good worth to stay at my house, who, one day amongst many other, was pleased, in the deadst time of all the winter, with a gun upon his shoulder, to search for a shot of some wild-fowl; and after he had waded through many waters, taken excessive pains in quest of his game, and by means thereof had killed some five or six moor-fowls and partridges, which he brought along with him to my house, he was by some other gentlemen, who chanced to alight at my gate, as he entered in, very much commended for his love to sport; and as the fashion of most of our countrymen is, not to praise one without dispraising another, I was highly blamed for not giving my self in that kind to the same exercise, having before my eyes so commendable a pattern to imitate; I answered, though the gentleman deserved praise for the evident proof he had given that day of his inclination to thrift and laboriousness, that nevertheless I was not to blame, seeing whilst he was busied about that sport, I was employed in a diversion of another nature, such as optical secrets, mysteries of natural philosophie, reasons for the variety of colours, the finding out of the longitude, the squaring of a circle, and wayes to accomplish all trigonometrical calculations 58 by sines, without tangents, with the same compendiousness of computation, — which, in the estimation of learned men, would be accounted worth six hundred thousand partridges, and as many moor-fowles.” The advantage of study over breakneck sport was well proved in the event. “That worthy gentleman, being wet and weary after travel, was not able to eat of what he had so much toyled for, whilst my braine recreations so sharpened my appetite, that I supped to very good purpose. That night past, the next morning, I gave six pence to a footman of mine, to try his fortune with the gun, during the time I should disport myself in the breaking of a young horse; and it so fell out, that by [the time] I had given myself a good heat by riding, the boy returned with a dozen of wild fouls, half moor foule, half partridge, whereat being exceeding well pleased, I alighted, gave him my horse to care for, and forthwith entered in to see my gentlemen, the most especiall whereof was unable to rise out of his bed, by reason of the Gout and Sciatick, wherewith he was seized for his former daye’s toyle.”

During these young days he made his grand tour of the continent. He has left us little record of his deeds and reflections, less than we should like. We know that he disarmed in duel three calumnifiers of the name of Scotland, that he observed in Madrid a bald-pated fellow who believed himself to be Julius Caesar, and that he brought home a great store of books, “like to a complete nosegay of flowers, which, in my travels, I had gathered out of the gardens of above sixteen several kingdoms.”

The troubles of the Covenant summoned Sir Thomas back to Scotland in 1639. Charles of England was 59 seeking to dress the Church of Scotland in the prelatical robes of his English church. In 1638 the lords, the lairds, and the ministers established the Covenant, which was to make the country, like Israel, a covenanted people against Babylon and her fornications. In this document the duty of the subject to defend his faith with the sword against his king was broadly hinted. Many demurred at such rebellious doctrine. The Scot has always followed his conscience, though it lead him on solitary paths with his back to expediency. Ere long four armies were in the field, defending, each against the others, King and Covenant, No King and No Covenant, King but no Covenant, and Covenant but no King.

This wide choice open to the patriot warrior offered not a moment’s hesitation to the cavalier spirit of Sir Thomas Urquhart. He promptly plumped for the King his master against all foes, and joined the King-and-no-Covenant party, the Episcopalians, the Malignants. He led a troop against the Covenanters, winning the battle of the Trot of Turriff, in which three men were killed. Fortune later withholding her gifts from the Episcopal cause, Sir Thomas sailed with other of the faithful for London, and there he was knighted by King Charles, in Whitehall Gallery, in the year 1641, on the 7th of April.

He returned to Cromarty only in 1645. There he passed several years, harassed by diabolical creditors. His composition was not one that could accommodate pecuniary concerns, and his soul was made subject to worldly circumstance. The fruits of the spirit were blasted by the cold winds puffed from usurers’ mouths. “Above ten thousand severall times I have by these flagitators been interrupted for money . . . any one 60 time whereof I was busied about speculations of greater consequence than all that they were worth in the world; from which, had I not been violently pluck’d away by their importunity, I would have emitted to publick view about five hundred several treatises on inventions never hitherto thought upon by any.”

Again and again in his works he returns to the villainies of these usurers, “quomodocunquizing cluster-fists and rapacious varlets.” In that poetical inscription set upon the great gate of the Abbey of Thélème, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the first book of Rabelais, he has translated, with almost inspired felicity:

Here enter not base pinching Usurers,

Pelf-lickers, everlasting gatherers,

Gold-graspers, coine-gripers, gulpers of mists:

Niggish deformed sots, who, though your chests

Vast summes of money should to you afford,

Would ne’erthelesse adde more unto that hoard,

And yet not be content, you cluntchfist dastards,

Insatiable fiends, and Plutoes bastards.

Greedie devourers, chichie sneakbill rogues,

Hell-mastiffs gnaw your bones, you rav’nous dogs.

You beastly-looking fellowes,

Reason doth plainly tell us

That we should not

To you allot

Roome here, but at the Gallowes,

You beastly-looking fellows.

The martyring of King Charles on January 30, 1649, summoned all the leal-hearted once more to do battle. Thomas Mackenzie of Pluscardine, a younger brother of the Earl of Seaforth, sounded a martial call upon his pibroch, proclaiming that he would seat Charles the Second upon his father’s throne. Sir Thomas Urquhart 61 heard the call and became Mackenzie’s second. The cavaliers, with the Clan Mackenzie for troops, took Inverness and razed its walls. The situation was considerably embroiled; the General Assembly, though it had permitted the sale of Charles I to Parliament for £200,000, was still royalist, and proclaimed Charles II king on condition that he would sign two Covenants. However, the Assembly could not permit Mackenzie to lay waste Scotland through a mere misapprehension of the Assembly’s stand. He and his band were proclaimed rebels and traitors and an expedition sent against them. A composition was offered and effected by the Assembly, and in June of the next year Sir Thomas presented a supplication for pardon for his part in the insurrection. Evidently he was obliged to stand as a penitent before the congregation of the parish church of Inverness, and there confess his errors before the pinch-lipped Presbyterians whose “implacable obduredness and unreclaimability of nature” he had so often reviled.

Soon thereafter Charles the Second landed in Scotland; he signed the Covenants, and even those documents set before him which discredited his father and mother. Thus the suspicions were allayed of those who had opposed the too outright royalism of Sir Thomas Urquhart and the Clan Mackenzie. Scotland threw in its lot for King Charlie, and he was crowned at Scone on January 1, 1651. Yet even in the midst of this effusion of loyalty, Sir Thomas and the old Malignants were not permitted to fight for their sovereign at Dunbar. Only after this defeat was he admitted to David Lesley’s army, which he accompanied on its great invasion of the heart of England.


Macaulay’s schoolboy would resent a summary of this campaign of 1651. Out of deference to that convenient brat I will then only record that Lesley, hotly pursued by Cromwell, advanced swiftly southward through Biggar, to Worcester, and there they were overtaken by Cromwell, and there a great and bloody battle was joined, issuing in the triumph of the Roundheads. Six thousand Scots were slain, and ten thousand made prisoner; Charles escaped to the Continent only after many perils.

In this battle Sir Thomas Urquhart bore an honorable part, and was, in its course, taken prisoner. He had made the long forced marches with the army, carrying, in lieu of rations, three large portmantles filled with folio manuscripts, amounting in all to six hundred forty and two quinternions, or, by another reckoning, above three thousand sheets, valued by the author at above three thousand pounds sterling. These were deposited in the house of Mr. Spilsbury, a royalist sympathizer in Worcester. Into that house broke a pillaging band of Presbyterians, “a string or two of exquisite snaps, and clean shavers, if ever there were any.” They pounced upon these papers, and “to every one of those their comerads, whom they met in the streets, they gave as much thereof, for packeting up of raisins, figs, dates, almonds, caraways, and other such like dry confections, and other ware, as was requisite: who doing the same themselves, did, together with others, kindle pipes of tobacco with a great part thereof, and threw out all the remainder upon the streets, save so much as they deemed necessary for inferior employments . . . Of these dispersedly rejected bundles of paper, some were gathered up by grocers, druggists, 63 chandlers, pie-makers, or such as stood in need of any cartapaciatory utensil, and put in present service, to the utter undoing of all the writing thereof, both in its matter and order.” These papers given over to “the inexorable rage of Vulcan, to whom by a file of musqueteers it was consecrated, to afford smoak to their pipes of tobacco,” comprised a complete Grammar and Lexicon of a Universal Language, of which only skeletal fragments remain.

With other Scottish gentlemen, he was confined in the Tower of London; ere long he was removed to Windsor Castle, and shortly after, at the solicitation of Roger Williams of Providence, in New England, was released on parole. During 1652 and 1653 his pen was busy; in these years he gave to the press his ἘΚΣΚΤΥΒΑΛΑΥΡΟΝ, his ΠΑΝΤΟΧΡΟΝΑΝΟΝ, and his Logopandecteision, or an Introduction to the Universal Language, and as well his great translation of the first two books of Rabelais’ pentateuch.4

He made a vain journey to Cromartie in an effort to express some monies from his knavish creditors, who had foreclosed upon Cromarty castle. These unnatural boobies, having heard that he had been killed in the battle of Worcester, “for gladness of the tidings had madified their nolls to some purpose with the liquor of the grape.”

And now I can tell you no more of his life. The dates of his literary fury bring him to 1653. And then we find the single note in the continuation of his Pedigree and Lineal Descent of the Family of Urquhart: “He went beyond seas, where he died suddenly in a fit of excessive laughter, on being informed by his servant 64 that the king was restored.” Oh, what a noble ending was this for Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, agnamed Parresiastes!

Nor shall I speak of his mighty Rabelais. Of this the rare Charles Whibley, admirabilis Scotus, has so lauded the virtues in his introduction to the book5 that he has preconvicted all successors of supererogation. And I shall pass without notice Sir Thomas Urquhart’s Epigrams: Divine and Moral, and even his Trissotetras, “or, A most Exquisite Table for Resolving all manner of Triangles . . . with greater facility, then ever hitherto hath been practised.” A just appraisal of this work is beyond our compass, for Trigonometricians who have examined it will have it that the wits of our day cannot understand, nor even read, its subtleties. No more shall be said of his Logopandecteision, or Introduction to the Universal Language. Unlike modern efforts in the same direction, Sir Thomas’s idiom was to be incomparably rich, not bare, skimped, and pitiful. It would possess twelve parts of speech, ten synonyms for every word; eleven cases, eleven genders, and four numbers, to each noun; and four voices, seven moods, and eleven tenses, to each happy verb. “Every word in this language signifieth as well backward as forward, and however you invert the letters still shall you fall upon significant words, whereby a wonderful facility is obtained in making of anagrams.”

In his Most Exquisite Jewel, Found in the Kennel of Worcester Streets, the Day after the Fight, his ἘΚΣΚΤΥΒΑΛΑΥΡΟΝ, are his excellencies most relucent. It is, in brief, a vindication of the honor of Scotland, a celebration of a great number of glorious Scotsmen 65 who had illustrated themselves in arms, wit, and learning, from Spain to Muscovy. Among them all the Admiral Crichtoun of Cluny receives the most sounding of praises and the largest portion of space. And in what a matchless and hitherto unthought-of style is the whole recounted! Read, only read how Crichtoun, duelling with an Italian bravo, did posit his blade in geometrical flourishes that would rejoice the mind of any mathematician, and did finally so spit his adversary in three places that the joining of the wounds would make a perfect isoceles triangle. “And all he spoke was this, That seeing he could not live, his comfort in dying was, that he could not dye by the hand of a braver man: after the uttering of which words he expiring, with the shrill clareens of trumpets, bouncing thunder of artillery, bethwacked beating of drums, universal clapping of hands, and loud acclamations of joy for so glorious a victory, the aire above them was so rarefied, by the extremity of the noise and vehement sound, dispelling the thickest and most condensed parts thereof, that the very sparrows and other flying fowls were said to fall to the ground for want of aire enough to uphold them in their flight.”

This is his strutting martial tone, wherewith he celebrates great deeds of might. Would you hear him in anger? Would you read such diatribes as Juvenal might have conned with profit, of which we have no sample in these soft-spoken days? I shall copy out his character of Master Gilbert Anderson, minister of the kirk of Cromarty, who, “for no other cause but that the said Sir Thomas would not authorize the standing of a certain pew in the church of Cromarty . . . did so rail against him and his family in the pulpit at 66 several times, both before his face, and in his absence, and with such opprobrious terms, more like a scolding tripe-seller’s wife, than good minister, squirting the poyson of detraction and abominable falsehood (unfit for the chaire of verity) in the ears of his tenantry, who were the only auditors, did most ingratefully and despightfully so calumniate and revile their master, his own patron and benefactor, that the scandalous and reproachful words striving which of them should first discharge against him its steel-pointed dart, did, oftentimes, like clusters of hemlock, or wormwood dipt in vinegar, stick in his throat; he being almost ready to choak with the aconital bitterness and venom thereof, till the razor of extream passion, by cutting them into articulate sounds, and very rage itself, in the highest degree, by procuring a vomit had made him spue them out of his mouth, into rude indigested lumps, like so many loads and vipers that had burst their gall.”

Not these clarion blasts alone could this Timotheus sound. Soft Lydian airs upon the breathing flute were as well within his power. Now I shall set down a part of his portrait of a certain proper young lady of whom the admirable Crichtoun was enamoured. “The eyes of the prince’s thoughts . . . pryed into, spyed, and surveyed from the top of that sublimely framed head, which culminated her accomplishments, down along the wonderful symmetry of her divinely-proportioned countenance; from the glorious light of two luminaries, Apollo might have borrowed rayes to court his Daphne, and Diana her Endymion: even to the rubies of those lips, where two Cupids still were kissing one another for joy of being so near to the enjoyment of her two rows of pearles inclosed within them; and from thence 67 through the most graceful objects of all her intermediate parts, to the heaven-like polished prominences of her mellifluent and heroinal breast, whose porphyr streaks (like arches of the ecliptick and coloures, or azimuch and almicantar-circles intersecting each other) expansed in pretty veinelets (through whose sweet conduits run the delicious streams of Nectar, wherewith were cherished the pretty sucklings of the Cyprian goddesse) smiled on one another to see their courses regulated by the two nipple-poles above them elevated, in each their own hemisphere; whose magnetick vertue, by attracting hearts, and sympathy in their refocillation, had a more impowering ascendent over poetick lovers, for furnishing their braines with choise of fancy, than ever had the two tops of Parnassus-hill, when animated or assisted by all the wits of the Pierian Muses: then . . . ”

Does one say that this style is high-puffed and intorticulate? Sir Thomas can leave his sublimities for the most engaging of familiarities. Speaking of a Scottish colonel who declined from Presbyterianism and became an obstinate and rigid Papist, he interjects, “It is strange my memory should so faile me that I cannot remember his title: he was a lord I know, nay more, he was an earl, ay that he was, and one of the first of them: Ho now! pescods on it, Crawford Lodi Linday puts me in minde of him; it was the old Earl of Argyle, this Marquis of Argyle’s father: that was he, that was the man.”

So you have Sir Thomas Urquhart; a valiant warrior for doomed causes, a searcher-out of unwanted learning, a conceiver of fantastic inventions, the Scottish incarnation of Rabelais, and over and above all the greatest word-maker and word-lover in the records of our 68 tongue. He was indeed a little mad; but he may be excused in the terms of Aristotle: Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae. He was too an honorable gentleman and a lover of virtue, as we can prove (thereby concluding this panegyric) with a snippet from his own description of himself. “To be masked with the vail of hypocrisy, he reputes abominable, and gross dissimulation to contrast the ingenuity of a free-born spirit. All flattering, smoothing and flinching for by-ends, he utterly disliketh, and thinks no better of adulatory assentations, than of a gnatonick sycophantizing, or a parasitical cogging: he loves to be open-hearted, and of an explicite discourse, chusing rather by such means to speak what is true, to the advantage of the good, than to conceal wickedness under a counterfeit garb of devotion.”


 1  Studies in Frankness. London, 1898.

 2  Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, Edinburgh, 1899.

 3  In proof of Sir Thomas’s exactness, one may not that these are still today called the Suters.

 4  The third book, found among his papers, was not published until 1693.

 5  Rabelais. (The Tudor Translations), 1900.






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