Son of Sir Alexander Macdonald (1711-1746), 7th Bart of Sleat, and Lady Margaret Macdonald. Nephew of Alexander Montgomerie, 10th Earl of Eglinton. An eminent student of Eton and Oxford. Because of his learning and intelligence he was known as The Scottish Marcellus. He died in Rome, Italy on July 26th, 1766. The poet John MacCodrum had been employed as a bard by Sir James since 1763, and the bard wrote an elegy following the death of his master. Supposedly, all of Macdonald's personal papers were buried along with his coffin.1
As reported by Boswell in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, a monument was later raised in the parish church of Sleat (probably at Kilmore), with the following inscription:
To the memory Of SIR JAMES MACDONALD, BART. Who in the flower of youth, Had attained to so eminent a degree of knowledge in Mathematics, Philosophy, Languages, And in every other branch of useful and polite learning. As few have acquired in a long life Wholly devoted to study: Yet to this erudition he joined What can rarely be found with it. Great talents for business, Great propriety of behaviour, Great politeness of manners! His eloquence was sweet, correct, and flowing; His memory vast and exact; His judgement strong and acute; All which endowments, united With the most amiable temper And every private virtue, Procured him, not only in his own country, But also from foreign nations, The highest marks of esteem. In the year of our Lord 1766, The 25th of his life, After a long and extremely painful illness, Which he supported with admirable patience and fortitude, He died at Rome, Where, notwithstanding the difference of religion. Such extraordinary honours were paid to his memory, As had never graced that of any other British subject, Since the death of Sir Philip Sydney. The fame he left behind him is the best consolation To his afflicted family,
And to his countrymen in this isle. For whose benefit he had planned Many useful improvements, Which his fruitful genius suggested. And his active spirit promoted. Under the sober direction Of a clear and enlightened understanding. Reader, bewail our loss, And that of all Britain. In testimony of her love, And as the best return she can make To her departed son. For the constant tenderness and affection Which, even to his last moments, He shewed for her. His much afflicted mother. The LADY MARGARET MACDONALD, Daughter to the EARL of EGLINTOUNE, Erected this Monument, A.D. 1768
Boswell also published the two last letters from Sir James to his mother, Margaret Macdonald, in a footnote, which is here reproduced, complete with Boswell's comments.
[Footnote: This extraordinary young man, whom I had the pleasure of knowing intimately, having been deeply regretted by his country, the most minute particulars concerning him must be interesting to many. I shall therefore insert his two last letters to his mother. Lady Margaret Macdonald, which her ladyship has been pleased to communicate to me.
Rome, July 9th, 1766.
My Dear Mother,
Yesterday's post brought me your answer to the first letter in which I acquainted you of my illness. Your tenderness and concern upon that account are the same I have always experienced, and to which I have often owed my life. Indeed it never was in so great danger as it has been lately; and though it would have been a very great comfort to me to have had you near me, yet perhaps I ought to rejoice, on your account, that you had not the pain of such a spectacle. I have been now a week in Rome, and wish I could continue to give you the same good accounts of my recovery as I did in my last: but I must own that for three days past. I have been in a very weak and miserable state, which however seems to give no uneasiness to my physician. My stomach has been greatly out of order, without any visible cause; and the palpitation does not decrease. I am told that my stomach will soon recover its tone, and that the palpitation must cease in time. So I am willing to believe; and with this hope support the little remains of spirits which I can be supposed to have, on the forty-seventh day of such an illness. Do not imagine I have relapsed--I only recover slower than I expected. If my letter is shorter than usual, the cause of it is a dose of physick, which has weakened me so much to-day, that I am not able to write a long letter. I will make up for it next post, and remain always
Your most sincerely affectionate son, J. Macdonald.
He grew gradually worse; and on the night before his death he wrote as follows from Frescati:
My Dear Mother,
Though I did not mean to deceive you in my last letter from Rome, yet certainly you would have very little reason to conclude of the very great and constant danger I have gone through ever since that time. My life, which is still almost entirely desperate, did not at that time appear to me so, otherwise I should have represented, in its true colours, a fact which acquires very little horror by that means, and comes with redoubled force by deception. There is no circumstance of danger and pain of which I have not had the experience, for a continued series of above a fortnight; during which time I have settled my affairs, after my death, with as much distinctness as the hurry and the nature of the thing could admit of. In case of the worst, the Abbe Grant will be my executor in this part of the world, and Mr Mackenzie in Scotland, where my object has been to make you and my younger brother as independent of the eldest as possible.]
- 1Some further information about James Macdonald is available in the Scottish Nation Biographical History (1864), vol. 2. Entry: Macdonald, in which he is much praised. Sir James' successor as Baronet of Sleat, his younger brother Alexander, became 9th of Sleat and, in 1776, 1st Baron of Slate - the spelling actually did change, and Sir James is sometimes referred to as 8th Baronet of Slate.
Following an invitation extended by Sir James during a visit to Lord Eglinton's on March 25, 1763, on April 23, 1763 Boswell went to visit Macdonald at Oxford, leaving again on the 26th, after having spent some time with Macdonald and his friends, among them a Mr. Pepys of Devonshire, Mr. Cornwallis, Mr. Eden of the County of Durham, and a Mr. Foote. As Pottle has put it, "Sir James, a remarkable young man, was likely to have remarkable young men for friends,"2 and Pepys, Cornwallis and Eden all achieved some degree of fame in the following years. He also met with Dr. John Smith, Samuel Thomson and the writer and theologian Mr. Shepherd.
Boswell wasn't too happy about his stay in Oxford, which he found to be dull and unhappy (too academic for Boswell's taste at the time).
It is unclear if Boswell ever met Macdonald again, as Boswell himself travelled Europe for most of the next three years, while Macdonald died in Rome in July 1766, several months after Boswell's return home
Boswell's great respect for Sir James is best illustrated by a footnote in The Life of Johnson where he wrote about "the Marcellus of Scotland, whose extraordinary talents, learning, and virtues, will ever be remembered with admiration and regret", and Boswell seems to have been genuinely affected by the young Lord's untimely death in Italy at the age of 25. Some years later, on September 1773, when on his tour of Scotland with Dr Johnson, Boswell went to see the monument to Sir James at Kilmore on Skye, describing it as "a pretty one".
Macdonald died young and did not publish anything. It is possible to find rather inexpensive editions of A.C.C. Gaussen's A Later Pepys (The Correspondence of Sir William Weller Pepys) via the AbeBooks used books search engine. Included is Pepys correspondence with, among many others, Sir James Macdonald.