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James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799)

Judge, philosopher and founder of modern comparative historical linguistics.

Lord Monboddo

James Burnett, better known by his judicial title of Lord Monboddo, was born at Monboddo in Kincardineshire in the north-east of Scotland, a son of the Laird of Monboddo. He initially attended university in Aberdeen where he learned Greek from Professor Thomas Blackwell, famous for bringing about a revival of classical learning in the north of Scotland. 


After studying Law at Edinburgh, Burnett moved to the Netherlands studying Dutch jurists on Roman Law, where he also gained a lifelong interest in folklore. He returned to Edinburgh in 1736, and in 1737, he became an Advocate, but it was some years before his role in a high profile inheritance case gained him the political support that brought his appointment as a judge in 1767, a position in which he was better able to exhibit his undoubted legal abilities.

Although he lived during the Scottish Enlightenment, Monboddo had little time for intellectual ideals. However, he frequently entertained at his home in the Canongate, becoming renowned for his genial hospitality, and welcoming guests from the Edinburgh literati, including the mathematician John Gregory, historian William Robertson, and the philosopher Adam Ferguson.


Despite his shirking of the Enlightenment ideals, he was a prolific writer on intellectual subjects. Over a period of almost 20 years, he published a six volume study on 'The Origin and Progress of Language'. His second major project was of a more philosophical nature: 'Ancient Metaphysics' also appeared volume by volume over 20 years (1779-99), the last being published just a few weeks before his death. In these volumes he drew on ancient metaphysics to counter both the philosophy of David Hume and the physics of Isaac Newton.

Orangutans and tails

Monboddo also gave credence to several unorthodox ideas, including that orangutans are human, and that humans had tails until relatively recently in evolution. Such theories tesified to an eccentric personality that led to his works being met with caution by contemporaries. He may recently have been somewhat vindicated, however, when in 2015 an orangutan named Sandra became the first non-human to be recognised as a person, during a legal battle in Argentina.