James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, lived from 25 October 1714 to 26 May 1799. He was a lawyer and a judge, a patron of the arts, and pioneer of the science of comparative historical linguistics. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
James Burnett was born at the family home at Monboddo House in Angus. He graduated from Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1729, and then studied law at the University of Edinburgh. He also studied at the University of Gronigen. He was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh in 1737 and started practicing law in the city. James Burnett married Elizabethe Farquharson and they had a son and two daughters. The youngest daughter, Eliza, became celebrated in Edinburgh for her beauty. When she died at the age of 25, Robert Burns, who was a friend of James Burnett's and an admirer of his daughter's, wrote the poem Elegy on the late Miss Burnet of Monboddo.
In 1754, Burnett became a part-owner of the Canongate Theatre, a role he relinquished on being made a judge in the Court of Session in 1767 and taking the title "Lord Monboddo". Monboddo's house at 13 St John Street became a focus for intellectual gatherings, with regular dinner guests including Robert Burns, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. One Edinburgh contemporary never invited was fellow judge Lord Kames, who shared a mutual dislike with Burnett. Burnett also spent time each summer visiting friends and intellectuals in London, always riding there on horseback rather than taking a ship or carriage.
Between 1773 and 1792, Burnett published the six volumes of his The Origin and Progress of Man and Language. In doing so he effectively invented the science of comparative historical linguistics, arguing that structure of primitive and modern languages showed mankind evolved language skills in response to his changing environment and altering social structures. Taking linguistics as his starting point, Burnett was the first to set out what we today call the single-origin theory, the suggestion that the human species began at a single place and time. Many feel that through his work on linguistics, Burnett was among the first to express views that were later developed by Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution. Burnett died in 1799 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, close to his daughter Eliza.