Dr. John Casper Leyden M.D., Minister, surgeon, Professor, judge, poet and linguist, was born on the 8th of September, 1775.
John Leyden was an amazing guy and the tragedy is that this “man of genius” is so little known outside Scotland. What he achieved as a linguist means that his only peer is probably James Crichton – the original ‘Admirable’. Leyden was noted for his learning capacity and is chiefly recognised, by those in the know, for his poetry and as an Oriental linguist. In addition to Greek and Latin, Leyden is said to have acquired French, Spanish, Italian, and German, be familiar with ancient Icelandic, and studied Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, and Persic. During his time in India and the sub-continent, Leyden studied Canara, Hindustani, Mahratta, Malay, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telinga, and the Maldivian and Mapella languages, and became competent enough to make significant inroads into translations of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark into Pashto and that of Mark into Baluchi.
There are various estimates of the number of languages Leyden knew, ranging from his being acquainted with 34 and knowing 21 well, to a biographer’s estimate that he was competent in no less than 45 languages. His friend and mentor, Lord Minto, the Governor General of India, said of Leyden, “If he had been at Babel he would have infallibly have learned all the languages there.” Never mind that he isnae weel kent these days; you cannae help but like a bloke who is on record as having said, “Learn English, never!” It was trying to learn that language that spoiled my Scots.”
Prior to becoming a linguist, John Leyden was ordained as a minister and qualified as a doctor, amazingly, in the space of five or six months; as the means to the end of his arrival in India. Leyden’s capabilities didn’t end with what you’ve read so far as there were few departments of science that escaped his attention. At college, he studied, with various degrees of dedication: mathematics; moral philosophy; natural philosophy (physics); natural history; chemistry; botany; and mineralogy. When challenged over the miscellaneous nature of his diversions, his favourite retort was, “Damn the bit, man! Dinnae fash yersel’. If ye hae the scaffolding ready, ye can run up the masonry ony time ye please.” And that, as it happens, was the foundation of his being able to gain his M.D.
Leyden’s literary and journalistic talents ranged from writing a short volume with a long name (it was called, ‘An Historical and Philosophical Sketch of the Discoveries and Settlements of the Europeans in Northern and Western Africa at the Close of the 18th Century’) to researching and contributing material that was put to such good use by his buddy, Sir Walter Scott. That work included drafting the ‘Dissertation on Fairy Superstition’ and the ballads, ‘Lord Soulis’ and ‘The Cout of Keeldar’. Like Johnson and Boswell, Leyden undertook a tour of the Highlands and the Hebrides, during which he compiled a journal and composed several poems, including a ballad based on the legend of MacPhail of Colonsay and the Mermaid of Corryvreckan, which was published in the third volume of Scott’s ‘Border Minstrelsy’. Leyden contributed another ballad, ‘The Elf King’, to ‘Tales of Wonder’ by Matthew Gregory Lewis. In India, Leyden wrote ‘Memoirs of the Emperor Baber’, commemorating an Indian hero comparable to Caesar or Napoleon, which was published posthumously, in 1826. These days, Leyden’s recognised poetry starts and ends with ‘The Scenes of Infancy’, based on the traditions of his native Teviotdale, which was published on the eve of his departure for India.
John Casper Leyden was born in Denholm, Roxburghshire, on the 8th of September, 1775. Wee Johnnie was taught to read by his grandmother, using the Old Testament as a textbook, before being sent to the Parish School of Kirktown, when he was nine. At thirteen, having already developed a thirst for books and learning, John was placed under the charge of Mr Duncan, a local Cameronian Minister, and two years later, in 1790, he went to Edinburgh University. John covered a bewildering array of subjects, despite being on a divinity course. And, despite it not being his vocation, Leyden was ordained as a minister, in 1800. Prior to that, from 1796 to 1798, Leyden was private tutor to the sons of Campbell of Fairfield. A third ‘despite’ was, not lacking friends amongst ‘noblemen of rank’ with the power of patronage, Leyden lacked a church and gainful employment.
Leyden’s desire for travel and adventure was kindled by Mungo Park’s travels and travails in Africa, which “haunted his very slumbers,” so much so, that, early in 1802, Leyden had petitioned the African Society to explore the ‘Interior’. His mates, including Prof./Rev. Alexander Murray (who, incidentally, was to write of Bruce and the Blue Nile), considered that to be “be little better than an act of absolute suicide” and it was suggested Leyden go to India instead. However, the only means of getting there proved to be qualifying as a surgeon’s assistant, which had a proviso – Leyden had to take a surgical degree and a medical board examination at India House. Despite (there’s the fourth) the seeming impossibility, Leyden duly did all of that, inside six months, and obtained his diploma with credit, from St. Andrews.
So that was that; after a fortuitous delay in London (the ship in which he was to have sailed sank!), Leyden departed Portsmouth for Madras, in April, 1803, aboard the ‘Hugh Inglis’. As one early biography put it, Leyden was “perhaps the first British traveller that ever sought India, moved neither by the love of wealth nor of power. …[he] was guided solely by the wish of extending our knowledge of oriental literature …as its most successful cultivator.”
When he reached India, in addition to his day job as a doctor and surgeon, Leyden set about studying and analysing the languages, with unprecedented determination and aptitude. Sadly, his health suffered as he was afflicted by one tropical illness after another. Indeed, he once wrote to his friend, James Ballantyne, “I have been five times given up by the most skilful physicians in these parts.” Nevertheless, at the end of 1805, he left India for Malaysia and, when he got back to India, in 1806, Leyden gained respite from his second avocation, by becoming Professor of Hindustani at Fort William College, in Calcutta. Soon after, he gave that up to become Judge of the twenty-four Purgunnahs of Calcutta. And all of the time, wherever he was, Leyden devoted every spare minute to procuring and translating oriental manuscripts and compiling, as example, the natural history of the natives of Mysore, and the Indi-Chinese tribes of the coasts of Sumatra and the Malayan peninsula, which he delivered to the Asiatic Society at Calcutta.
Fatefully then, in 1811, Leyden joined Minto’s naval expedition to Java and, after the island was taken, Leyden went to explore a disused library, which hosed a veritable magnet of rare books and manuscripts. Tragically, that proved to be his undoing as he promptly contracted Batavian fever and “changed his climate,” as the elegant Indian circumlocutory phrase has it, three days afterwards, on the 28th of August, 1811. John Leyden was buried thousands of miles from Teviotvale, in Batavia (Jakarta) on Java.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.