A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen/Adam, Alexander
ADAM, Alexander, an eminent grammarian and writer on Roman antiquities, was born at Coats of Burgie, in the parish of Rafford, and county of Moray, about the month of June, 1741. His father, John Adam, rented one of those small farms which were formerly so common in the north of Scotland. In his earlier years, like many children of his own class, and even of a class higher removed above poverty, he occasionally tended his father's cattle. Being destined by his parents, poor as they were, for a learned profession, he was kept at the parish school till he was thought fit to come forward as a bursar, at the university of Aberdeen. He made this attempt, but failed, and was requested by the judges to go back and study for another year at school. This incident only stimulated him to fresh exertions. He was prevented, however, from renewing his attempt at Aberdeen, by the representations of the Rev. Mr Watson, a minister at Edinburgh, and a relation of his mother, who induced him to try his fortune in the metropolis. He removed thither early in the year 1758; but, it appears, without any assured means of supporting himself during the progress of his studies. For a considerable time, while attending the classes at the college, the only means of subsistence he enjoyed, consisted of the small sum of one guinea per quarter, which he derived from Mr Alan Macconochie, (afterwards Lord Meadowbank), for assisting him in the capacity of a tutor. The details of his system of life at this period, as given by his biographer Mr Henderson, are painfully interesting. "He lodged in a small room at Restalrig, in the north-eastern suburbs ; and for this accommodation he paid fourpence a-week. All his meals, except dinner, uniformly consisted of oat-meal made into porridge, together with small beer, of which he only allowed himself half a bottle at a time. When he wished to dine, he purchased a penny loaf at the nearest baker's shop ; and, if the day was fair, he would despatch his meal in a walk to the Meadows or Hope Park, which is adjoining to the southern part of the city ; but if the weather was foul, he had recourse to some long and lonely stair, which he would climb, eating his dinner at every step. By this means all expense for cookery was avoided, and he wasted neither coal nor candles ; for, when he was chill, he used to run till his blood began to glow, and his evening studies were always prosecuted under the roof of some one or other of his companions." There are many instances, we believe, among Scottish students, of the most rigid self-denial, crowned at length by splendid success ; but there is certainly no case known in which the self-denial was so chastened, and the triumph so grand, as that of Dr Adam. In 1761, when he was exactly twenty, he stood a trial for the situation of head teacher in George Watson's Hospital, Edinburgh, and was successful. In this place he is said to have continued about three years ; during which, he was anxiously engaged in cultivating an intimacy with the classics reading, with great care, and in a critical manner, the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Cicero, and Livy. His views were now directed towards the church, and he was on the eve of being licensed as a preacher of the gospel, when suddenly a prospect opened before him of becoming assistant, with the hope of being eventually the successor, of Mr Matheson, rector of the High School. This appointment he obtained, and in 1771 the increased infirmities of Mr Matheson threw the whole of this charge into the hands of Mr Adam.
The time when he assumed this respectable office was very fortunate. Every department of knowledge in Scotland was at this period adorned by higher names than had ever before graced it ; and hence the office of Master in the principal elementary school of the country presented to a man of superior qualifications a fair opportunity of distinguishing himself. This opportunity was not lost upon Mr Adam. He devoted himself with singular assiduity to his duties ; and, under his auspices, the school gradually increased in numbers and reputation. Soon after his appointment, he began to compose a series of works to facilitate the study of the Latin language. His Rudiments of Latin and English Grammar were published in 1772, and, though composed in a style which appeared to the generality of teachers as a dreadful schism and heresy, met with the approbation of a discerning few, whose praise was sufficient to overbalance the censure of the multitude. His offence consisted in the novel attempt to teach the grammatical rules of Latin in English prose, instead of Latin prose or verse, which latter had been the time-honoured fashion of the schools both of England and Scotland, since the days of the Reformation. The daring innovator was assailed with a storm of abuse by numerous individuals, more especially by those of his own profession.
Among those who took an active part in condemning his work, Dr Gilbert Stuart was very conspicuous. This extraordinary litterateur was a relation of Ruddiman; and, as an additional incentive to his hostility, conceived that Adam had gained the rectorship of the High School more by interest than by merit. He accordingly filled the periodical works of the day with ridicule and abuse directed against the unfortunate grammar. Amongst other pasquinades, appeared an account, in Latin, of a Roman funeral, in which that work was personified as the dead body, while the chief mourner was meant to represent Mr Adam, sorrowing for the untimely fate of his best-beloved child. The other persons officiating are introduced under the technical terms in use among the ancient Romans ; and, to heighten the ridicule, and give it aid from local circumstances, the ingenious satirist placed in front of the mourners, a poor lunatic of the name of Duff, well known in Edinburgh at the time for his punctual attendance at the head of all funeral processions. While his work was still the subject of censure, the ingenious author was partly compensated for all his sufferings by a degree of LL.D., which was conferred upon him by the College of Edinburgh, in 1780. Some years after, the grammar began gradually to make its way in schools, and finally he had the satisfaction of seeing it adopted in his own seminary. Among the great names which at an early period had sanctioned it with their approbation, are those of Lord Kames, Bishop Lowth, and Dr Vincent, Master of St Paul's school.
The next work of Dr Adam is entitled, A Summary of Geography and History, but the date of the first edition is not mentioned by his biographer. In 1791, he published his excellent compendium of Roman Antiquities, and in 1800 his Classical Biography ; for the copyright of the former he received £600, and for that of the latter £300. Dr Adam's last, and perhaps his most laborious work, was his Latin Dictionary, published in 1805. Towards the beginning, his illustrations are brief, but, as he proceeds, they gradually become more copious. It was his intention to add an English-and-Latin part, and to enlarge the other to a considerable extent. In this favourite plan he had made some progress at the time of his death.
On the 13th of December, 1809, Dr Adam was seized in the High School with an alarming indisposition, which had all the appearance of apoplexy. Having been conducted home, he was put to bed, and enjoyed a sound sleep, which appeared to have arrested the progress of the disease, for he was afterwards able to walk about his room. The apoplectic symptoms, however, returned in a few days, and he fell into a state of stupor. His last words marked the gradual darkening of the ray of life and intellect beneath this mortal disorder. He said, "It grows dark, boys -- you may go --" his mind evidently wandering at that moment to the scene where he had spent the better part of his life. This twilight soon settled down into the night of death : he expired early in the morning of the 18th December, 1809. The death of the amiable and excellent Dr Adam operated, among his numerous friends and admirers, like a shock of electricity. Men of all ages and denominations were loud in lamenting an event which had bereaved them of a common benefactor. The effect of the general feeling was a resolution to honour him with what is a very rare circumstance in Scotland, a public funeral.
The life of Dr Adam proves, had any proof been wanting, the possibility of rising to distinction in this country from any grade of life, and through whatsoever intervening difficulties. In 1758 and 1759 he was a student living at the inconceivably humble rate of four guineas a-year ; in ten years thereafter, he had qualified himself for, and attained, a situation which, in Scotland, is an object of ambition to men of considerable literary rank. The principal features of his character were, unshaken independence and integrity, ardour in the cause of public liberty, the utmost purity of manners and singleness of heart, and a most indefatigable power of application to the severest studies. "His external appearance was that of a scholar who dressed neatly for his own sake, but who had never incommoded himself with fashion in the cut of his coat, or in the regulation of his gait. Upon the street he often appeared in a studious attitude, and in winter always walked with his hands crossed, and thrust into his sleeves. His features were regular and manly, and he was above the middle size. In his well-formed proportions, and in his firm regular pace, there appeared the marks of habitual temperance. He must have been generally attractive in his early days, and, in his old age, his manners and conversation enhanced the value and interest of every qualification. When he addressed his scholars, when he commended excellence, or when he was seated at his own fireside with a friend on whom he could rely, it was delightful to be near him ; and no man could leave his company without declaring that he loved Dr Adam."