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date: 24 April 2024

Gifford, Adam, Lord Giffordfree


Gifford, Adam, Lord Giffordfree

  • James Tait
  • , revised by Eric Metcalfe

Gifford, Adam, Lord Gifford (1820–1887), judge and benefactor, was born at Park Street, Edinburgh, on 29 February 1820, the eldest son in the family of two sons and one daughter of James Gifford (1779/80–1862), a manufacturer of leather goods and general merchant, and his wife, Katherine Ann, née West (1786–1873), the daughter of John West, a shoemaker. His sister Mary Gifford married the Congregationalist minister Alexander Raleigh, and was the mother of Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh, first professor of English literature at Oxford. His father, who had risen from a comparatively humble position, became treasurer and master of the Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh, a member of the town council of Edinburgh, an elder in the Secession church, and a zealous Sunday school teacher. His mother was vigorous in body and mind, and a very independent thinker. She was the only teacher of her sons Adam and John until Adam was eight years old, when the boys were sent to learn Latin and Greek at a small school kept by John Laurie in West Nicolson Street. Adam Gifford was afterwards a pupil at the Edinburgh Institution, founded in 1832. In early life he became a Sunday school teacher in the Cowgate, besides sometimes taking a service on a Sunday forenoon with the poor children of Dr Thomas Guthrie's ragged school.

In 1835 Gifford was apprenticed to his uncle, a solicitor in Edinburgh; at the same time he attended classes in the university, and became a member of the Scots Law Debating Society. He soon became managing clerk in the office, but decided to become an advocate, and in 1849 was called to the bar. He was clear-headed, persevering, and had good connections but, from unwillingness to push himself, advanced slowly. He acquired by degrees an extensive practice. As a radical politician he expected nothing from the government, but in 1861 he was appointed an advocate-depute. In that capacity he conducted on behalf of the crown, in 1863, the prosecution against Jessie McLauchlan in the Sandyford murder case. On 7 April 1863 he married Maggie Elliot Pott (1841–1868), daughter of James Pott, writer to the signet; they had a son, born in 1864. Gifford’s wife died on 7 February 1868. In 1865 he was appointed to succeed W. E. Aytoun as sheriff of Orkney and Shetland; but he continued his practice as an advocate, having appointed a resident sheriff-substitute.

On 28 January 1870 Gifford was nominated a judge, and on 1 February he took his seat in the Court of Session as Lord Gifford. From 1872 he suffered from progressive paralysis, but he worked on until 25 January 1881, when he retired with a pension. He died at his home, Granton House, near Edinburgh, on 20 January 1887. On the 27th he was buried in the old Calton cemetery, Edinburgh. He was survived by his son, Herbert James Gifford (1864–1907), a civil engineer.

Gifford was an able judge, with great common sense and little respect for technicalities. His greatest interest was in philosophy, and he was an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose lectures he had attended in Edinburgh in 1843, and later of Spinoza, whose works he studied. He often lectured to literary and philosophical societies. By his will, recorded on 3 March 1887, a sum estimated at £80,000 was bequeathed to found lectureships on natural theology, £25,000 being assigned to Edinburgh, where Gifford was curator, £20,000 to Glasgow and Aberdeen, and £15,000 to St Andrews. The object was to found 'a lectureship or popular chair for promoting, advancing, teaching, and diffusing the study of natural theology, in the widest sense of that term, in other words, the knowledge of God', and 'of the foundation of ethics' (will, 1887, proved at Edinburgh). All details and arrangements were left to be settled by the accepting trustees in each town, subject only to certain leading principles and directions stated in the will. The latter notably contained a stipulation that no religious test of any kind should be imposed on the lecturers, who might be of any denomination or none, including sceptics, agnostics, or freethinkers. They were, however, to be ‘able, reverent men, true thinkers, sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after truth’ (Jaki, 73–4). The first appointments were made and lectures delivered in 1888. The Gifford lectures soon became regarded as among the most prestigious lecture series dealing with religion, science, and philosophy, attracting world-renowned scholars from a variety of disciplines.


  • private information (1889)
  • The Scotsman (1870)
  • The Scotsman (21 Jan 1887)
  • will, General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh [proved 1887]
  • S. L. Jaki, Lord Gifford and his lectures: a centenary retrospect (1986)
  • The Gifford lectures: over 100 years of lectures on natural theology,
  • J. J. Haldane, ‘The Gifford lectures’, in A. C. Grayling, N. Goulder, and A. Pyle, ed., The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy (2010)



  • J. Moffat of Edinburgh, carte-de-visite, NPG

Wealth at Death

£189,338 7s. 3d.: confirmation, 10 March 1887, CCI

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National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
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National Portrait Gallery, London
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J. Irving, ed., (1881)