Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Clerk, John (1684-1755)

CLERK, Sir JOHN (1684–1755), of Penicuik, judge and antiquary, was the eldest son of John Clerk of Penicuik, who was created knight bart. on 24 March 1679, by Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Henderson of Elvington. He early achieved some success as an advocate at the Scotch bar, and was elected to the Scotch parliament as member for Whithorn (in the Wigtown district) in 1702, which he continued to represent until 1707. In 1706-7 he was placed on the commission appointed to treat for the union of the realms, was returned to the first parliament of Great Britain in the same year, and next year was raised to the bench of the then newly constituted Scotch court of exchequer. On the death of his father, which occurred in 1722, he succeeded to the title and estates. His house, Penicuik, where he gathered together a very valuable collection of antiques, specially rich in inscriptions illustrative of the history of Great Britain, was long a centre of reunion for the cultivated society of Edinburgh. He enjoyed the intimacy of the great English antiquary, Roger Gale, and was one of the earliest and most constant patrons of Allan Ramsay, whom he used to invite year by year to spend a portion of the summer with him. Ramsay is said to have passed much of his later years under Clerk's roof, and to have bitterly felt his death, which took place on 4 Oct. 1755. He survived his patron for only three years, Clerk's son and successor, Sir James Clerk, erecting an obelisk to his memory at Penicuik. Sir John became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1725, of the Royal Society three years later, and of the Spalding Society in 1740. He married twice, viz. (1) on 23 Feb. 1700-1, Lady Margaret Stewart, eldest daughter of Alexander, third earl of Galloway, who died the same year (26 Dec.) after giving birth to a son, whose premature death in 1722 was made by Allan Ramsay the occasion for an elegy; (2) Janet, daughter of Sir John Inglis of Cramond, bart., by whom he had issue seven sons and six daughters.

Clerk was the author of:

  1. 'Money and Trade considered, with a Proposal for supplying the Nation with Money' (published anonymously), Edinburgh, 1705, 4to.
  2. 'Historical View of the Forms and Powers of the Court of Exchequer in Scotland.' This work was written jointly with Baron Scrope in 1726, but remained in manuscript until 1820, when it was edited by Sir Henry Jardine, writer to the signet and kings remembrancer, and printed for private circulation by the barons of the exchequer.
  3. 'De Stylis Veterum et diversis Chartarum generibus Dissertatio.' Published in vol. iii. of the 'Supplement to the Thesauri of Grævius and Gronovius,' edited by Joannes Polenus, Venice, 1738, fol. A portion of the dissertation was translated and communicated by Gale to the Royal Society in 1731 (see Philosophical Transactions, xxxvii. 157-63). A letter from Clerk to Gale, dated 6 Nov. 1731, giving an account of certain peculiar effects of thunder on trees, and of the discovery of the horn of a large deer in the heart of an oak, will also be found in 'Philosophical Transactions,' xli. pt. i. 235.
  4. 'Dissertatio de Monumentis quibusdam Romanis in boreali Magnæ Britanniæ parte detectis anno mdccxxxi,' Edinburgh, 1750, 4to. This Latin tract describes some Roman remains discovered near Middleby in 1731, which the author referred to the age of Julian the Apostate, and pronounced to be the ruins of the temple dedicated to Mercury and Brigantia.
  5. Some letters on the subject of tumuli and other antiquities which passed between Clerk and Roger Gale in 1725-6 were printed, apparently without Clerk's sanction, by Alexander Gordon, by way of appendix to his 'Itinerarium Septentrionale,' London, 1726, 4to.

These, with other correspondence on a variety of curious and more or less recondite topics extending from 1726 to 1740, are included in 'Reliquiæ Galeanæ' (Nichols, Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica, iii. No. ii. pts. ii. and iii.) Clerk also wrote all but the first stanza of the popular Scotch song, 'O, merry may the Maid be that marries the Miller;' and he is the reputed author of some lines addressed to Susanna, daughter of Sir Archibald Kennedy of Culzean, bart., ancestor of the Marquis of Ailsa, afterwards wife of Alexander, ninth earl of Eglinton. The verses may be read in Anderson's 'Scottish Nation.' Allan Ramsay dedicated his 'Gentle Shepherd ' to the same lady.

[Foster's Baronetage; Members of Parliament, Scotland; Acts Parl. Scot. xi. 217, 139 a, App. 162 b; Return of Members of Parliament, ii. 8; Scots Mag. xvii. 461; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, iv, 547, v. 330-335, vi. 13, 79, 129, 139; Cat. Adv. Lib. ii. 268; Cat. Sig. Lib. i. 213; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Anderson's Scottish Nation.]

J. M. R.