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date: 09 December 2023

Leyden, Johnfree


Leyden, Johnfree

  • T. W. Bayne
  • , revised by Richard Maxwell

John Leyden (1775–1811)

by Captain Elliot, 1811

Leyden, John (1775–1811), linguist and poet, was born on 8 September 1775 at Denholm, in the parish of Cavers, near Hawick, Roxburghshire, the son of John Leyden and Isabella Scott. A year later his parents took over a farm 3 miles away in Henlawshiel; here Leyden grew up. Having been taught to read by his grandmother, he worked as a shepherd and attended (from the age of nine) the parish school at Kirktown. When twelve he became the student of the Reverend James Duncan, a covenanting pastor; from 1790 to 1797 he was a student at Edinburgh University (a hard day's journey from Henlawshiel). His 'rustic appearance and strong Teviotdale accent' made him an occasional object of laughter; none the less, he greatly distinguished himself as a scholar, reading very widely (Lockhart, 1.324). In the vacations he studied natural science and modern languages, besides Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian. His professional pursuits included both philosophy and theology, and he gave some attention to medicine. He practised public speaking at the university literary society. Among his associates were Henry Brougham, Sydney Smith, Francis Jeffrey, Francis Horner, and Thomas Brown. From 1796 to 1798 he was tutor to the sons of Mr Campbell, of Fairfield, Edinburgh, and accompanied them in 1797–8 to St Andrews, where he was licensed as a preacher. His pulpit appearances were not successful.

Leyden as a student had made the acquaintance of Robert Anderson, editor of the British Poets (1795), through whom he contributed to the Edinburgh Literary Magazine. He was one of the first to welcome Thomas Campbell's Pleasures of Hope (1799), though he and Campbell subsequently quarrelled. In 1799, while browsing in a bookshop owned by the young Archibald Constable, later a central figure in Scottish publishing, Leyden met Richard Heber, then studying Scottish literature in Edinburgh. About the same time Leyden published A historical and philosophical sketch of the discoveries and settlements of the Europeans in northern and western Africa at the close of the eighteenth century. To Lewis's Tales of Wonder (1801) he contributed 'The Elf King', a ballad, and on the combined recommendation of Heber and Anderson he edited for Constable the Complaynt of Scotland, with an elaborate preliminary dissertation and an excellent glossary. Though not free from error, the work helped stimulate the study of earlier Scottish literature.

In 1801 Heber introduced Leyden to Walter Scott, whom he materially helped with the earlier volumes of the Border Minstrelsy (1802), contributing five poems to volume 1 and material for the learned disquisition on fairies to volume 2 (Lockhart, 1.326). He also got to know the eminent antiquary Joseph Ritson, but, on virtually every occasion when they were together, teased him mercilessly (often about his vegetarianism). In 1800 he accompanied a pair of German tourists to the Scottish highlands and the Hebrides, keeping a journal along the way (published 1903). While on this journey he investigated the Ossianic question, and recovered from James Beattie at Aberdeen the anonymous poem 'Albania', which he published along with John Wilson's 'Clyde' in his Scottish Descriptive Poems (1802). For six months in 1802 he edited the third series of the Scots Magazine, himself contributing both prose and verse. In several of his miscellaneous lyrics Leyden shows his best poetic quality.

In default of a church appointment, Leyden considered emulating Mungo Park's example as an African discoverer, under the aegis of the Sierra Leone Company. Worried about the perils of such a trip, his friends attempted to find him some safer post; eventually the Rt Hon. William Dundas secured for him the post of assistant surgeon at Madras. His previous medical studies enabled him in six months to take at St Andrews a nominal MD degree. For some months he zealously studied Eastern languages, passed a pleasant time in London with Heber and George Ellis, and prepared for publication his Scenes of Infancy (1803). The latter, perhaps his major poetical work, is notable for combining nostalgia about Scotland's past with anxiety about its future: Leyden worries that displaced peasants will leave the country altogether, settling new colonies and driving 'the displaced population there out of its traditionary homes' (Trumpener, 190). Meanwhile Leyden embarked on his own colonial adventure. After some delay—including his failure to board a ship that later sank, with many casualties—he reached Madras on 19 August 1803.

At first Leyden had charge of the Madras general hospital. In January 1805, as surgeon and naturalist, he accompanied the commissioners over the Mysore provinces taken from Tippoo Sultaun, and prepared a report on the geology, the diseases, the crops, and the languages of the districts traversed. He also used his medical skills, treating, for instance, a feverish military officer far away from any town; on this occasion he was stalked by a tiger. By November he had fallen ill himself; he stayed at Seringapatam, where he was befriended by Sir John Malcolm. When convalescent he studied Sanskrit, and translated from Persian and Hindustani. From May to September 1805 he travelled for his health through Malabar on to Cochin and Quilon, whence he sailed for Penang. While being chased on the voyage by a French privateer, Leyden characteristically composed a vigorous ode to his Malay kris, or dagger. In Penang he wrote a Dissertation on the Languages and Literature of the Indo-Chinese Nations, first published in Calcutta (1808). This essay affords a really remarkable survey of fourteen different languages and literatures geographically between India and China, treating, among other cultures, those of Malaysia, Java, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Bali. Leyden also makes extensive historiographical comments on the development of European scholarship about these areas between the Renaissance and his own time.

Having returned to India in 1806, Leyden settled at Calcutta. His elaborate essay submitted to the government in 1807 on the Indo-Persian, Indo-Chinese, and Dekkan languages led to his election as a member of the Asiatic Society, and as professor of Hindustani in the Calcutta college. But he soon accepted Lord Minto's offer of the post of judge of the twenty-four parganas of Calcutta; one of his main tasks as judge was to direct troops engaged in pursuing ‘freebooters’ then circulating in Bengal, a task that he seems to have pursued with enthusiasm. At the beginning of 1809 he was appointed commissioner of the court of requests in Calcutta. While holding that office he undertook grammars of the Malay and Prakrit tongues, besides many translations. He also worked on translations of one or more of the gospels into Pashto, Maldivian, Baluch, Macassar, and Bugis. Some of his translations into English were published posthumously: his Malay Annals in 1821, and his Commentaries of Baber, completed by William Erskine in 1826.

Towards the end of 1810 Lord Minto appointed Leyden assay-master of the mint at Calcutta, and in 1811 he accompanied Lord Minto to Java, 'to assist', as he wrote to his father on the voyage, 'in settling the country when conquered, and as interpreter for the Malay language' (White, 103). When the expedition halted for some days at Malacca, Leyden journeyed inland, scrutinizing 'original Malays' and visiting sulphurous hot wells. Java was reached on 4 August, and as there was no opposition at Batavia, a leisurely possession was effected. Leyden's literary zeal took him into an unventilated native library: fever supervened, and he died at Cornelis, after three days' illness, on 28 August 1811.

Leyden did not always appreciate the cultures that he studied. By his own account his early experiences of India filled him with nauseous confusion; moreover, in common with many other British observers of his time, he belittled the moral character of Hindus, finding their religion 'wicked, shameless, impudent, and obscene' (Poetical Remains, lxv). On the other hand, his Asian journeys also brought out his extraordinary intellectual vigour and curiosity—perhaps best matched, in his own generation, by the verve of other self-educated Scots, such as Alexander Murray (the scholar of Ethiopia). Leyden's strengths were much celebrated by those who marked his passing. Before the Literary Society of Bombay William Erskine read a eulogium, in which he claimed for Leyden that in eight years he had done almost as much for Asia as the combined scholarship of centuries had done for Europe—he had 'nearly effected a classification of its various languages and their kindred dialects' (White, 111). Scott, in addition to frequent references, embalmed his 'bright and brief career' in the Lord of the Isles, iv.xi. His 'Memoir of Leyden' first appeared in the Edinburgh Annual Register (1811). Lord Cockburn, after referring to his unconscious egotism and his uncouth aspect and uncompromising demeanour—characteristics also noted by Scott and John Lockhart—declares there was 'no walk in life, depending on ability, where Leyden could not have shone' (Cockburn, 179); James Hogg bewailed his loss of the poet's 'glowing measure'. A monument to Leyden's memory was erected by public subscription at Denholm in 1861, and there also in 1875 the centenary of his birth was celebrated under the presidency of Lord Neaves.


  • W. Beattie, Life and letters of Thomas Campbell (1849)
  • Memorials of his time, by Henry Cockburn (1856)
  • T. Constable, Archibald Constable and his literary correspondents, 3 vols. (1873)
  • GM, 1st ser., 82/1 (1812), 409, 420, 486
  • D. Groves, ‘James Hogg and John Leyden’, N&Q, 233 (1988), 317–18
  • J. Leyden, Journal of a tour in the highlands and Western Islands of Scotland in 1800 (1903) [incl. comprehensive bibliography, pp. 285–318]
  • J. G. Lockhart, Memoirs of the life of Sir Walter Scott, 7 vols. (1837–8)
  • The poetical remains of the late Dr John Leyden: with memoirs of his life by the Rev. James Morton, ed. J. Morton (1819), incl. bibliography
  • J. Reith, Life of Dr. John Leyden: poet and linguist
  • W. Scott, ‘John Leyden, M. D.’, Miscellaneous prose works, 6 vols. (1827), 4.142–223
  • J. Sinton, Leydeniana, or, Gleanings from some unpublished documents regarding Dr. Leyden (1912)
  • K. Trumpener, Bardic nationalism: the romantic novel and the British empire (Princeton, 1997)
  • R. White, A supplement to Sir Walter Scott's biographical memoir of Dr. John Leyden (1857)


  • BL, corresp., literary MSS, and papers, Add. MSS 26555–26601
  • BL OIOC, flora Indica and papers, MSS Eur. C 78, D 345, E 148
  • Cumbria AS, Barrow, corresp. and papers
  • NL Scot., Advocates' Library
  • NL Scot., family corresp. and papers
  • University of Missouri Library, Columbia, travel journals and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Richard Heber
  • NL Scot., letters, mostly to William Erskine
  • NL Scot., letters to Robert Lundie [transcript copies]
  • NL Scot., letters to first earl of Minto
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Walter Scott


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National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
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Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
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Cumbria Archive Service, Barrow
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National Portrait Gallery, London
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Notes and Queries
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Bodleian Library, Oxford
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British Library, Oriental and India Office Collections
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British Library, London