John Pinkerton

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Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 3,523 words

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About this Person
Born: February 17, 1758 in Edinburgh, Scotland
Died: March 10, 1826 in Paris, France
Nationality: British
Occupation: Poet

The eighteenth-century fascination with ancient Scottish history reached its popular peak in the novels of Sir Walter Scott , whose third Waverley novel, The Antiquary (1816), deals directly with the topic. Scott's fictional characters, Jonathan Oldbuck (the antiquary of the title) and his friend Sir Arthur Wardour, represent two competing views of the latter half of the eighteenth century, with Oldbuck claiming that the Picts were of Gothic origins and Wardour asserting that their language was Celtic:

"Why, man, there was once a people called the Piks--"
"More properly Picts," interrupted the Baronet.
"I say the Pikar, Pihar, Piochtar, Piaghter, or Peughtar," vociferated Oldbuck; "they spoke a Gothic dialect--"
"Genuine Celtic," again asseverated the knight.
"Gothic! Gothic, I'll go to death upon it!" counter-asseverated the squire. ". . . I have the learned Pinkerton on my side."

Oldbuck's "learned Pinkerton" is John Pinkerton, born 17 February 1758 in Edinburgh. His father, James Pinkerton, was one of several children of Walter Pinkerton, a small farmer of Dalserf, Lanarkshire. James established himself as a successful dealer in wigs in Somerset, after which he returned to Edinburgh in 1755. There he increased his modest fortune by marrying a widow, Mrs. Bowie, the daughter of an Edinburgh merchant named Heron. John, the third of their sons, received his earliest education at a small school in a village near Edinburgh. In 1764 he was sent to the grammar school at Lanark, where he studied for six years. As a young student he had a reputation for being a skilled classicist and a hypochondriac like his father.

He returned to Edinburgh in 1770 hoping to attend the university, but his father disapproved. For the next few years Pinkerton was tutored at home by a French teacher. He studied Latin on his own, achieving considerable mastery. For two or three years he also studied mathematics under Mr. Ewing, a respected teacher in Edinburgh. About 1775 Pinkerton undertook the traditional five-year apprenticeship to William Ayton, a prominent Edinburgh writer to the signet (a Scottish lawyer similar to a solicitor).

In 1776, still in his apprenticeship, he anonymously published a poem, Craigmiller Castle: An Elegy. On this small scale at age seventeen, Pinkerton began his career as a tireless researcher and prodigious writer on a variety of subjects.

Pinkerton finished his apprenticeship in 1780, and his father died the same year. Pinkerton's inheritance allowed him financial independence with £300 per year. He visited London that same year to buy books, and the abundance available there was the basis of his decision to move to London permanently in late 1781.

In quick succession, in 1781 and 1782, he published four volumes of poetry: Rimes (1781), Scottish Tragic Ballads (1781), Tales in Verse (1782), and Two Dithyrambic Odes on Enthusiasm and to Laughter (1782). The following year he expanded Scottish Tragic Ballads to two volumes, adding Ballads of the Comic Kind and publishing all the ballads under the title Select Scotish Ballads (1783). The poems included in these volumes were presented as traditional ballads in the Lowland Scots language, the merits of which Pinkerton claims to be on a par with the poetry of Homer. Among the Tragic Ballads is "Hardyknute," a supposedly ancient ballad commemorating the victory of Scots king Alexander III over Haakon Haakonsson of Norway at Largs in 1283. In addition to the previously known ballad, Pinkerton added part 2, which he supposedly had just discovered. His additions to "Hardyknute" were exposed as a forgery by Joseph Ritson, an English antiquary who became Pinkerton's chief nemesis. Pinkerton admitted to the forgery as well as to having composed other poems which he had claimed to be newly discovered traditional works. Further, the original "Hardyknute" was revealed to be the 1719 composition of Lady Wardlaw of Pitreavie.

As a boy Pinkerton was given a rare coin from the reign of the Emperor Constantine, which the giver had mistaken for a farthing. This coin triggered Pinkerton's interest in numismatics. He developed tables of coins for his own use and in 1784, with the assistance of Richard Southgate and Francis Douce of the British Museum, anonymously published An Essay on Medals. It resulted in Pinkerton's introduction to Horace Walpole , who in turn introduced him to Edward Gibbon , who praised Pinkerton to London booksellers. The work was well received and was revised, illustrated, and expanded into two volumes for the second and third editions.

Perhaps because of embarrassment over the "Hardyknute" affair, Pinkerton published his next work under the pseudonym "Robert Heron, Esquire," borrowing his mother's maiden name. Letters of Literature (1785) is presented as fifty-seven letters on various topics of literary criticism. The proposed innovations in English spelling and deprecating assessments of classical writers set forth in this work provoked outrage among most critics.

In 1786 Pinkerton published Ancient Scotish Poems, which he claimed to be from the Maitland manuscripts in the Pepsyian Library at Cambridge. Probably because of his previous deceptions, many critics assumed that these poems were also forgeries. Robert Chambers says that "the forgery was one of the most audacious recorded in the annals of transcribing." More recent authority has established that the poems are genuine and are still to be found in the Pepysian Library.

Pinkerton's collection The Treasury of Wit (1786) was a deviation from his accustomed subject matter and, according to Chambers, may have been solicited by a bookseller. It appeared under a pseudonym, "H. Bennett, M.A." The same year Pinkerton published under his own name his first real historical treatise, A Dissertation on the Origin and Progress of the Scythians or Goths (1787). The central thesis of this work is his historical theory that the Goths were a race superior to the Celts and that both the Greeks and the Romans were of Gothic origins. He claims that the "Piks" were a Gothic tribe who came to Scotland via Scandinavia. The work brims with classical references to Thucydides , Pliny, Tacitus , Herodotus , Strabo , and others to support what Pinkerton asserts as "Historic Truth."

In 1788 Walpole recommended Pinkerton for the position of librarian at the British Museum, writing Sir Joseph Banks, a great botanist and the president of the Royal Society, asking his support for Pinkerton. Banks replied that his support was already pledged, and nothing more came of the matter.

About this time, at age thirty, Pinkerton began to suffer severe eye trouble. His intense and constant research in old documents must have added to vision problems which plagued him for the rest of his life.

Pinkerton's next book was in Latin--Vitae antiquae sanctorum qui habitaverunt in ea parte Britanniae nunc vocata Scotia (1789). This work was edited from ancient printed and manuscript writings of Scottish monks. Only one hundred copies were printed. In 1790 Pinkerton also published his translation of John Barbour 's The Bruce, an old Scots poem about the history of Robert I.

Pinkerton's reputation as an historian was firmly established with the publication of An Enquiry into the History of Scotland Preceding the Reign of Malcolm III. Or the Year 1056 (1789). The two-volume work is bound with A Dissertation on the Origin and Progress of the Scythians or Goths and expands on the ideas first set forth in the earlier work. Pinkerton opines that the racially superior Picts--or "Piks," as he calls them--conquered the Celtic Scots from Ireland and that the northern kingdom was misnamed in the writings of Irish monks. Pinkerton refers to ancient Scotland as "Pikland," a name he feels is more apt. He asserts that the Picts were Goths rather than Celts, that they are the ancestors of modern-day Lowland Scots, and that the Scots language is "modern Pikish." He contends that the Celtic people were absorbed by the Picts in all but the Highland regions, where they retain their inferior characteristics. Of considerable value to historians is the extensive bibliography he provides on the ancient history of Britain, Scotland, and Ireland.

Pinkerton then returned to his former subject of coins, publishing The Medallic History of England to the Revolution in 1790. Two more years lapsed before his final venture into the collection of Scots poetry with his three-volume Scotish Poems, Reprinted from Scarce Editions (1792).

In 1793 Pinkerton was once again unsuccessfully trying to organize his friends to influence his appointment as librarian of the British Museum. In the same year, he married Henrietta Burgess, a woman in possession of a respectable fortune and the sister of Thomas Burgess, Bishop of Salisbury. That this was not a love match is strongly suggested in Pinkerton's letter of 23 September 1793 to David Steuart Erskine, the eleventh earl of Buchan, assigning his delay in corresponding "partly to domestic disquiets, which have forced me to change my former mode of life, and to enter into the holy state of matrimony." The marriage was not a happy one, and the couple separated after producing two children, ultimately divorcing on the grounds of Pinkerton's infidelity. He may have married yet another woman before the divorce was final. Pinkerton also provided for the education of three illegitimate children.

In December 1794 he initiated a subscription series that came to be known as Iconographia Scotica; or, Portraits of Illustrious Persons of Scotland, with Biographical Notes. The serial publication was not successful, but the whole was expanded and republished as a book in 1797.

Meanwhile, Pinkerton was finishing the research and writing of his continuing history of Scotland, The History of Scotland from the Accession of the House of Stuart to that of Mary. With Appendixes of Original Papers (1797). According to Gordon Donaldson and Robert Morpeth in Who's Who in Scottish History (1973), the state papers appended to the two-volume work make it valuable still for studying the reign of James V. But preparation of the work resulted in Pinkerton's being sued by William Anderson, an Edinburgh lawyer whom he had hired to transcribe the public records and documents from the Advocates Library. The lawyer's bill was more than £12, which Pinkerton found excessive and refused to pay. The lawyer successfully sued to compel payment of the fee plus the cost of the suit, garnisheeing some of Pinkerton's rents in Scotland. He also published a pamphlet: An Answer to an Attack Made by John Pinkerton, Esqr., of Hampstead, in His "History of Scotland" (1797).

Walpole's friendship with Pinkerton continued until Walpole's death in 1797. Pinkerton must have enjoyed his contacts with the literati and Whig politicians of the late eighteenth century at Strawberry Hill, the extravagant Gothic home of Walpole, Earl of Orford. When Walpole died, Pinkerton assembled a collection of reminiscences of his friend and published them as a series in the Monthly Magazine from March 1998 to May 1799. He then published them under the title Walpoliana in two volumes in 1799.

Pinkerton's other 1799 book, The Scottish Gallery; or, Portraits of Eminent Persons of Scotland, was along the same lines as Iconographia Scotica. The fifty-two "eminent persons" are arranged chronologically, beginning with Robert I, crowned king of Scotland on 27 March 1306, and ending with Colin Maclaurin, a distinguished mathematician.

Pinkerton next turned his attention to geography, publishing Modern Geography: A Description of the Empires, Kingdoms, States, and Colonies, with the Oceans, Seas, and Isles in All Parts of the World in 1802. About this time he moved to Paris for a few years, reporting on his experiences there in Recollections of Paris in the Years 1802-3-4-5 (1806), which was not well received by the critics.

By the summer of 1803 Pinkerton had entirely lost the sight of one eye. In spite of the progressive degeneration of his vision, he continued to be a tireless researcher. Between 1808 and 1814 he compiled a seventeen-volume work on geography, A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in all Parts of the World; Many of Which Are Now First Translated into English followed by A Modern Atlas, from the Latest and Best Authorities, Exhibiting the Various Divisions of the World, with Its Chief Empires, Kingdoms, and States, in Sixty Maps (1809-1815). In between, intrigued by his association in Paris with several eminent geologists, he turned his attention to rocks, publishing the two-volume Petralogy. A Treatise on Rocks in 1811.

For a period in the early nineteenth century Pinkerton edited The Critical Review, which was experiencing a decline from its previous prominence. In late 1812 he moved to Edinburgh, where he produced a play he had written, The Heiress of Strathearn; or, The Rash Marriage, at the Theatre Royal on 24 March 1813. When he failed to be appointed to a position in the Register House overseeing Scotland's public records, he left Edinburgh for Paris in 1814, where he spent the rest of his life in ill health and reduced circumstances. In 1819 Francis Douce visited him in Paris and wrote to G. J. Thorkelin, describing Pinkerton as "a banished man . . . , living in mean lodgings, and [existing] partly by gleaning scarce books on the Parisian stalls, and supplying some of the London dealers in that article." For the last five years of his life, Pinkerton was totally blind. He died in poverty on 10 March 1825 at the age of sixty-seven. According to Chambers, he was "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."

John Pinkerton was a prodigious researcher and productive writer with a passionate interest in the history of his native Scotland. His talents brought him in contact with some of the great men of his age, but his focus on the merits of the Picts and the defects of the Celts made him an oddity among his fellow historians. His younger contemporary, Sir Walter Scott , summed him up with this assessment: "A man of considerable learning and some severity as well as acuteness of disposition." In spite of the personal prejudices and temperament that biased his writings, Pinkerton made positive contributions to historiography. In 1872, Scottish historian W. F. Skene described him as "the only historian who has estimated correctly the value and superior claims of the earlier documents, and saw somewhat of their true bearing upon the early history."




  • Craigmiller Castle: An Elegy, anonymous (Edinburgh: Privately printed, 1776).
  • Rimes (London: Printed for Charles Dilly, 1781; second edition, enlarged, 1782).
  • Scottish Tragic Ballads (London: Printed by and for James Nichols, 1781); enlarged as Select Scotish Ballads, 2 volumes (London: Printed by and for John Nichols, 1783).
  • Tales in Verse (London: Printed for James Dodsley, 1782).
  • Two Dithyrambic Odes: I. On Enthusiasm. II. To Laughter, by the author of Rimes (London: Printed for Charles Dilly, 1782).
  • An Essay on Medals, anonymous (London: Printed for James Dodsley, 1784); revised, enlarged, and illustrated with plates (London: Printed for J. Edwards & J. Johnson, 1789); revised and enlarged (London: Printed for T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1808).
  • Letters of Literature, as Robert Heron, Esq. (London: G. G. J. & J. Robinson, 1785).
  • A Dissertation on the Origin and Progress of the Scythians or Goths: Being an Introduction to the Ancient and Modern History of Europe (London: Printed by John Nichols for George Nicol, 1787); republished in An Enquiry into the History of Scotland Preceding the Reign of Malcolm III (London: Printed by John Nichols and sold by B. & J. White, 1794); two volumes, revised and enlarged (Edinburgh: Printed by James Ballantyne for Bell & Bradfute, 1814).
  • Vitae antiquae sanctorum qui habitaverunt in ea parte Britanniae nunc vocata Scotia vel in ejus insulis, as Johannes Pinkerton (London: Printed by John Nichols, 1789); translated from the Latin by W. M. Metcalfe as Ancient Lives of Scottish Saints (Paisley, U. K.: Alexander Gardner, 1895).
  • An Enquiry into the History of Scotland Preceding the Reign of Malcolm III. Or the Year 1056. Including the Authentic History of That Period, 2 volumes (London: Printed by John Nichols for George Nicol and John Bell, Edinburgh, 1789; London: Printed by John Nichols, 1794; revised and enlarged, Edinburgh: Printed by James Ballantyne for Bell & Bradfute, 1814).
  • The Medallic History of England to the Revolution, anonymous (London: Printed for Edwards and Faulder, 1790).
  • The History of Scotland from the Accession of the House of Stuart to that of Mary. With Appendixes of Original Papers, 2 volumes (London: Printed by Bye & Law for Charles Dilly, 1797).
  • Iconographia Scotica; or, Portraits of Illustrious Persons of Scotland, with Biographical Notes (London: Printed for I. Herbert; Barrett, 1797).
  • The Scottish Gallery; or, Portraits of Eminent Persons of Scotland: Many of Them After Pictures by the Celebrated Jameson, at Taymouth, and Other Places. With Brief Accounts of the Characters Represented, and an Introduction on the Rise and Progress of Painting in Scotland (London: Printed for E. Harding, 1799).
  • Modern Geography: A Description of the Empires, Kingdoms, States, and Colonies, with the Oceans, Seas, and Isles in All Parts of the World, 2 volumes, astronomical introduction by the Rev. S. Vince (London: T. Cadell & W. Davies/T. N. Longman & O. Rees, 1802; abridged to one volume with an added catalogue of maps and books of travels and voyages, 1803); 2 volumes, corrected and essay "America" enlarged by Dr. Barton (Philadelphia: John Conrad, 1804); republished as Pinkerton's Geography, Epitomised for the Use of Schools by David Doyle (Philadelphia: Printed for Samuel F. Bradford, 1805); republished with the original title and enlarged by the author, 3 volumes (London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1807).
  • Recollections of Paris in the Years 1802-3-4-5 (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees & Orme, 1806).
  • Petralogy. A Treatise on Rocks, 2 volumes (London: Printed by S. Hamilton for White, Cochrane, 1811).


  • The Heiress of Strathearn: or, the Rash Marriage, 24 March 1813, Royal Theatre, London.


  • Ancient Scotish Poems, Never Before in Print. But Now Published from the MS. Collections of Sir Richard Maitland . . . ; Comprising Pieces Written from about 1420 till 1586. With Large Notes, and a Glossary; Prefixed Are an Essay on the Origin of Scotish Poetry, A List of All the Scotish Poets. . . and an Appendix Is Added, Containing, . . . an Account of the Contents of the Maitland and Bannatyne MSS (London: Printed for Charles Dilly, 1786; Edinburgh, Printed for William Creech, 1786).
  • The Treasury of Wit; Being a Methodical Selection of about Twelve Hundred, the Best, Apophthegms and Jests; from Books in Several Languages, as H. Bennett, M.A. (London: Charles Dilly, 1786).
  • John Barbour, The Bruce; or, The History of Robert I, King of Scotland. Written in Scotish Verse. . . . The First Genuine Edition, Published from a MS. Dated 1489; with Notes and a Glossary by J. Pinkerton, translated and edited by Pinkerton (London: Printed by H. Hughs for George Nicol, 1790).
  • Scotish Poems, Reprinted from Scarce Editions . . . with Three Pieces before Unpublished, 3 volumes, collected by Pinkerton (London: Printed by and for John Nichols, 1792).
  • Horace Walpole, Walpoliana, 2 volumes, compiled and edited by Pinkerton (London: Printed by T. Bensley for R. Phillips, 1799); previously printed serially in Monthly Magazine (March 1798-May 1799).
  • "Dissertation on the Gowrie Conspiracy," in Malcolm Laing, The History of Scotland, from the Union of the Crowns on the Accession of James VI, to the Throne of England, to the Union of the Kingdoms in the Reign of Queen Anne, 2 volumes (London: Printed by A. Strahan for T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies / Edinburgh: Manners & Miller, 1800).
  • A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in all Parts of the World; Many of Which Are Now First Translated into English. Digested on a New Plan, 17 volumes, compiled by Pinkerton (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees & Orme, 1808-1814; volumes 1-6, Philadelphia: Kimber & Conrad, 1810-1812).
  • A Modern Atlas, from the Latest and Best Authorities, Exhibiting the Various Divisions of the World, with Its Chief Empires, Kingdoms, and States, in Sixty Maps, compiled and edited by Pinkerton (London: Printed by T. Bensley for T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1809-1815; Philadelphia: Printed by William Fry for Thomas Dobson, 1818).


  • The Literary Correspondence of John Pinkerton, Esq.: Now first Printed from the Originals in the Possession of Dawson Turner (London: Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley, 1830).
  • The Percy Letters, edited by Harriet Harvey Wood, Volume VIII: The Correspondence of Thomas Percy & John Pinkerton, edited by Cleanth Brooks and A. F. Falconer (New Haven, Conn. & London: Yale University Press, 1985).


A collection of John Pinkerton's papers is in the Manuscripts Division of the National Library of Scotland. Correspondence from Pinkerton is also found in the Beinecke Library and in the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University, in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and in the British Library.




  • S. Austin Allibone, A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, Living and Deceased, from the Earliest Accounts to the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century, 3 volumes (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1872); republished (Detroit: Gale Research, 1965), II: 1598-1599.
  • William Anderson, The Scottish Nation; or, The Surnames, Families, Literature, Honours, and Biographical History of the People of Scotland by William Anderson, 3 volumes (Edinburgh: A. Fullarton, 1864), III: 286-288.
  • Bertrand H. Bronson, "Ritson's Bibliographia Scotia," PMLA (March 1937): 122-159 <>.
  • William Ferguson, The Identity of the Scottish Nation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).
  • John Nichols and John Bowyer Nichols, Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century. Consisting of Authentic Memoirs and Original Letters of Eminent Persons. To Which Are Appended Additions to the Literary Anecdotes and Literary Illustrations, 8 volumes (London: Printed for the author by Nichols & Bently, 1817-1858).
  • Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary (Edinburgh: Printed by James Ballantyne for Archibald Constable, Edinburgh; London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1816).


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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200013450