James Dalrymple, 1st Viscount Stair (1619-1695)

James Dalrymple, 1st Viscount Stair (1619 - 1695), was born at Drummurchie, Barr, South Ayrshire, the son of the laird of the small estate of Stair in the District of Kyle. He was educated at the grammar school at Mauchline and at the age of fourteen went to the University of Glasgow. He proved to be a brilliant student and graduated in arts on 26 July 1637. After a period serving in the Earl of Glencairn's regiment in the War of the Covenant, he returned to philosophy and to Glasgow University where he successfully competed for the position of regent in 1641. As well as logic and ethics, he taught mathematics - a notebook on logic by one of his students has been preserved. His enthusiastic teaching was much appreciated by his students (among whom was his successor Hugh Binning) and his active engagement in the business of the college made him a welcome colleague. But after seven years he resigned his regency. He left both Glasgow and philosophy, and moved to Edinburgh, where he was admitted to the bar on 17 February 1648.

In the ensuing years, while practicing at the bar, Dalrymple fulfilled a number of political roles -- as secretary to the commission that was sent to the Hague by the Scots Parliament to negotiate with the future Charles II, for example. He was first appointed to the bench in 1657, but the appointment was short lived because of the collapse of Cromwell’s commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy. However, he was included in the new nomination of judges in the Court of Session in 1661, made first Baronet Dalrymple in 1664, and then appointed Lord President of the Court of Session in 1667. He was subsequently elected to Parliament.

In 1681, political changes led him to retire to his wife's estate in Galloway, where he occupied himself with preparing for the press his great work, The Institutions of the Law of Scotland deduced from its Originals, and collated with the Civil, Canon and Feudal Laws and with the Customs of Neighbouring Nations. The first edition was published in 1681, but not long after, the uncertainty of the times led him to move his entire family to Holland. There he returned to his original studies and wrote a treatise on natural philosophy (physics) – the Physiologia nova experimentalis, published in Leiden in 1686. Though favorably noticed by Robert Boyle, it was essentially pre-Newtonian and made little contribution to its subject matter.

The political settlement in which William of Orange became King of England favored Dalrymple and in 1690 he was created Viscount Stair, the name by which he has been best known ever since. In 1693 a second edition of his great work was issued. Viscount Stair’s Institutions show the influence of his earlier philosophical training, as well as his knowledge of continental systems of law. Its considerable influence on the subsequent development of Scots law has been widely acknowledged, but Alasdair MacIntyre (in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 1988) has argued that the Institutes also played a crucial role in the intellectual background to the Scottish Enlightenment as it emerged out of the Calvinism of the Westminster Confession.

Viscount Stair died in Edinburgh on 29 November 1695. The careers of his five sons and their descendents led Sir Walter Scott to remark that “The family of Dalrymple produced within two centuries as many men of talent, civil and military, of literary, political and professional eminence, as any house in Scotland.” His youngest son, Sir David Dalrymple, bought Newhailes, an elegant house built in 1686. This became the seat of the Dalrymple family for nearly three and a half centuries (until it was given to the National Trust for Scotland in 1997), and was famous in the Scottish Enlightenment for its library, which David Dalrymple added in 1718. This became the largest private library of its time in Scotland, and key figures of the Enlightenment were said to gather there for discussion and debate surrounded by Dalrymple’s vast collection of books, giving rise to Dr Johnson’s famous description of it as ‘the most learned room in Europe’.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary