JOHN PINKERTON, F.S.A., an eminent antiquary and industrious miscellaneous writer, was born at Edinburgh, February 13, 1758, and claimed to be descended from an ancient family, originally seated at Pinkerton, near Dunbar. His grandfather, a yeoman at Dalserf, Lanarkshire, had a numerous family. His father, James Pinkerton, settled in Somersetshire, where having acquired a moderate property as a dealer in hair, an article, as wigs were generally worn, then greatly in request, he returned to Scotland about 1756, and married a Mrs. Bowie, whose maiden name was Heron, the widow of a respectable merchant in Edinburgh, who brought him an increase of fortune and three sons. James, the eldest, joined the army as a volunteer, and was slain at the battle of Minden; while Robert, the second son, succeeded to an estate in Lanarkshire left by the father. The subject of this notice acquired the rudiments of his education at a small school in the suburbs of his native city, and was in 1764 removed to the grammar school of Lanark, kept by Mr. Thomson, the brother-in-law of the poet of the Seasons, where he remained for six years. He was afterwards apprenticed to Mr. William Aytoun, an eminent writer to the signet at Edinburgh, in whose office he served five years. In 1776 he published an Elegy, called Craigmillar Castle, which he dedicated to Dr. Beattie. He also wrote one or two Tragedies, but these were never printed. On the death of his father in 1780 he visited London, principally with the view of procuring copies of rare books, which he could not obtain in Edinburgh, and in the end of the following year was induced to settle there altogether. In 1781 he published an 8vo. volume of miscellaneous poetry, under the affected title of Rimes, with dissertations prefixed On the Oral Tradition of Poetry, and On the Tragic Ballad, which reached a second edition. In 1782 he produced Two Dithyrambic Odes on Enthusiasm, and to Laughter, in a sixpenny quarto pamphlet, and soon after Tales in Verse. In 1783 appeared his Select Scottish Ballads, in 2 volumes; most of the pretended ancient pieces in which were fabrications of his own. The forgery being detected by a gentleman, who directly accused him of the same, by a letter in the Gentleman's Magazine for November 1784, he confessed himself guilty, but, in palliation of his conduct, pleaded his youth and purity of intention; professing that the imposition was only intended to give pleasure to the world. "All which," says the satirical Ritson, (in his Essay on Scottish Song, p. 77,) "it is to be hoped he has found some charitable person to believe."
A fondness for collecting medals, and other curiosities, first caused by his having, while a boy, received from a lady a rare coin of the Emperor Constantine, on his Sarmatian victory, which she had taken as a farthing, drew his attention to the defective state of all the books published on the subject, and led him to prepare a manual and tables for his own use, which he eventually enlarged, and, in 1784, published under the name of an Essay on Medals, in 2 vols. In compiling this excellent work he was materially assisted by the late Mr. Southgate of the British Museum, and Mr. Douce. In 1786, under the assumed name of Robert Heron, the surname of his mother, he published a singular work, entitled Letters of Literature, which was unfortunately ascribed to the ill-fated author of that name, then rising into notice. This work is remarkable for his dogmatical depreciation of the Greek and Roman authors, and his recommendation of a new system of orthography much more outré than that proposed by Elphinstone. The book, however, obtained for him an introduction to Horace Walpole, through whom he became acquainted with Gibbon the historian, and by the latter he was recommended to the booksellers as a fit person to translate a projected work called The English Monkish Historians, which, however, was dropped from want of encouragement. After the death of the earl of Orford, a collection of his remarks, witticisms, and letters, sold by Pinkerton to the proprietors of the Monthly Magazine, was published in two small volumes, with a portrait, under the title of Walpoliana.
In 1786 Mr. Pinkerton published a selection of Ancient Scottish Poems, never before in print, with notes and a glossary, being chiefly taken from the manuscript of Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington, in the Pepysian Library at Cambridge, in which work, in a List of all the Scottish Poets, with brief remarks, he coolly confesses the forgery of several pieces in the previous collection. In 1787 he brought out, under the feigned name of H. Bennet, M.A., The Treasury of Wit, being a selection of apophthegms and jests, from books in several languages, accompanied by a discourse on wit and humour, considered under four different heads. The same year he produced, in one volume, his celebrated Dissertation on the Origin and Progress of the Scythians or Goths, being an Introduction to the Ancient and Modern History of Europe, in which those singular prejudices against everything relating to the Celtic name or nations, which pervade all his historical and antiquarian disquisitions were first fully displayed. In 1789 he edited a collection of Ancient Latin Lives of the Scottish Saints, only one hundred copies of which were printed, a work which tended to illustrate the early history of his native country. This was soon after followed by a new and greatly enlarged edition of his Essay on Medals, which has become a standard work for information in numismatics. In the same year he published an edition of Barbour's old Scots poem of The Bruce, or the History of Robert, King of Scotland. In 1790 appeared another numismatic work, entitled The Medallic History of England, to the Revolution. Shortly after he brought out An Inquiry into the History of Scotland preceding the Reign of Malcolm III., including the authentic History of that period, which, from the many rare and curious documents it contains, is of great value to the student of Scottish antiquities. In 1792 he edited three octavo volumes of Scottish Poems, reprinted from scarce editions.
In 1793 Mr. Pinkerton married Miss Burgess of Odiham, Hants, sister of the bishop of Salisbury; but the union was not a happy one, and a separation soon took place. In 1797 he issued another work of laborious research and great importance, in spite of the distorted style in which it is written, entitled The History of Scotland, from the Accession of the House of Stuart to that of Mary, 2 vols. 4to, embellished with a portrait of the author, with "spectacles on's nose." Soon after he published Iconographia Scotica, or Portraits of Illustrious, Persons of Scotland, with Biographical Notes; and in 1799 another similar work, entitled The Scottish Gallery, or Portraits of Eminent Persons of Scotland, with their Characters. He next turned his attention to geography, and in 1802 issued a standard work in two vols. 4to, entitled The Modern Geography, Digested on a New Plan; a second edition of which, in three vols., was published in 1807. An abridgment of which also appeared in one volume 8vo.
In 1806 he visited the French capital, and on his return published his observations, under the title of Recollections of Paris, in two volumes 8vo. Subsequently he was employed in superintending A General Collection of Voyages and Travels, extending to seventeen volumes 4to; and a New Modern Atlas, in parts, the former of which was commenced in 1808, and the latter in 1809. He also edited for a short time The Critical Review, with but indifferent success. His last original work was Petralogy, or a Treatise on Rocks, which appeared in 1811. In 1814 he republished in two volumes 8vo, his Inquiry into the History of Scotland, along with his Dissertation on the Scythians or Goths. In his latter years he resided almost entirely at Paris, where he died, March 10, 1826. His appearance was that of a very little and very thin old man, with a small, sharp, yellow face, thickly pitted by the smallpox, and wearing a pair of green spectacles. He was an eccentric but highly industrious literary workman; and his talents, though in some instances ill directed, were commensurate with undertakings of no ordinary rank in literature.