Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Baird, George Husband

BAIRD, GEORGE HUSBAND, D.D. (1761–1840), principal of the university of Edinburgh, was a native of the parish of Borrowstounness (or Bo'ness) on the Forth, Linlithgowshire; his father, a landed gentleman of Stirlingshire, rented a farm from the Duke of Hamilton. Born in 1761, Baird received his primary education in the parish school of Bo'ness, and, on the family's removal to a newly purchased property, named Manuel, in West Lothian, at the parish school of Linlithgow. He was a plodding, persevering, and well-mannered, rather than a brilliant schoolboy. In 1773, in his thirteenth year, he was entered as a student in humanity (Latin) and Greek at Edinburgh. He speedily came under the favourable notice of Principal Robertson, the historian, and Professor Dalzel, and others, because of his devotion to his class-work and marked progress. Not content with the tasks of the university classes, he carried on simultaneously philological and philosophical researches. He was associated therein with Finlayson — afterwards a professor at Edinburgh — and Josiah Walker. The ripened fruit of these extra-collegiate studies was shown in his exceptionally varied and accurate knowledge of nearly all the living languages of Europe.

In 1784 he was recommended by Professor Dalzel as tutor in the family of Colonel Blair, of Blair. In 1786 he received license as a preacher of the gospel from the presbytery of Linlithgow of the kirk of Scotland. In 1787 he was presented to the parish of Dunkeld by the Duke of Athole, through influence brought to bear by his friend Finlayson. Before leaving for his parish he had met with Robert Burns, then the observed of all observers. In his old age he delighted to tell of his having repeatedly met with the 'Ayrshire ploughman.' He religiously preserved his copy of the poet's first volume, published at Kilmarnock in 1786 — his name being among the subscribers. Baird was evangelical rather than of the 'moderates,' but family ties threw him a good deal into the cultivated circle of the Robertsons and Blairs and their school. Whilst parish clergyman at Dunkeld he was resident in the duke's family, and superintended the education of his grace's three sons. The late Lord Glenlyon was wont to speak gratefully of his tutor's earnestness and accuracy in instruction. In 1789-90 he was presented to the large and important parish church of Edinburgh, known as 'Lady Yester's,' but the ducal house of Athole persuaded him to decline the call. In 1792 he accepted another Edinburgh presentation, viz. to New Greyfriars church. Contemporaneously he was elected and ordained to the professorship of oriental languages at Edinburgh. He had won for himself so high a reputation that in 1793, on the death of Principal Robertson, he was appointed his successor in the principalship. He was then in his thirty-third year. As principal he was called upon to punish a breach of the discipline of the university committed by three students who subsequently attained to pre-eminent distinction. A challenge had been addressed to one of the professors, and the parties implicated in the misdemeanour were Lord Henry Petty (afterwards Marquis of Lansdowne), Henry Brougham (afterwards Lord Brougham and Vaux), and Francis Horner (afterwards M.P.) These students were summoned before the Senatus Academicus. Only Brougham appeared, and the rebuke of the principal was so delivered and accepted that a warm friendship ensued, and lasted long after Brougham had entered public life.

In 1799 Principal Baird was translated to the new North parish church. In 1801, on the death of Dr. Blair, he was appointed his successor in the high parish church, where he remained until his death.

He married the eldest daughter of Thomas Elder, Esq., lord provost of Edinburgh. Towards the close of his life he threw his whole soul into a scheme for the education of the poor in the highlands and islands of Scotland. He submitted his proposals to the supreme court of the kirk—the general assembly—in May 1824, advocating with statesmanlike breadth of view enlarged education in the great centres, and especially the extension of the system to the neglected Celtic race. The general assembly of 1825 gave its sanction to the scheme, and it was launched most auspiciously. His intellectual and social influence provided all over Scotland for the education of the poor. In his sixty-seventh year, when enfeebled in health, he traversed the entire highlands of Argyll, the west of Inverness and Ross, and the western islands, from Lewis to Kintyre. In his sixty-eighth year he similarly visited the north highlands, and the Orkneys and Shetland, Through his influence Dr. Andrew Bell, of Madras, bequeathed 5,000l. for education in the highlands of Scotland. In 1832 the thanks of the general assembly were conveyed to him by the moderator for the year, the illustrious Dr. Thomas Chalmers, then in the zenith of his oratorical powers. Baird died on 14 Jan. 1840, at Manuel, near Linlithgow, in his seventy-ninth year.

[Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; Kay's Edinburgh Portraits; Lives of Drs. Chalmers and Candlish; Mackelvie's Life and Poems of Michael Bruce; private corespondence; Anderson's Scottish Nation.]

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