Sir Thomas Urquhart, 1611-1660: A Man of Parts

Urquhart is best known as the first translator into English of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, a work completed by Peter Anthony Motteux.

It is perhaps something of his nature to be attracted to his work.

The family is old, and was well stocked with real estate, which Thomas’ father spent a good deal of effort in squandering.  It came to such a cross that Thomas and his brother in frustration locked the old fellow up à la Mrs. Rochester, albeit only for a few days.  Afterwards father sued, but got nowhere with it, and family amity was eventually restored.   But nothing improved the finances of the estate, concerning which creditors hounded once the old man died.

Thomas had managed to get a proper education at the U. of Aberdeen and a grand tour in Europe before this happened.  Local squabbles (1636) proved his loyalty to the Church of England and to his king, and in 1641 Urquhart was knighted by Charles I.  By then our hero had moved to England, as much to avoid creditors as anything else. More or less at loose ends, he applied himself to mathematics and wrote a book more or less on trigonometry that did not exactly set the scientific world on fire.  Sound enough, according to those who know about such things, but on the whole, all but incomprehensible.

War interrupted is studies again, this time the Civil War, in which he took the Royalist’s side in 1649 . He was present at Worchester (1651) after which Charles II fled England and Sir Thomas was captured and imprisoned.  The jail time was brief, but his properties taken from him.  Bad luck, but better than Charles I who lost his head.

Again at loose ends,  but presumably trusting at least to the concept of English justice , he turned to his pen again and wrote a genealogy of his family.  It was, in the tradition of Pantagruel, a bohemoth of a book covering all manner of Urquharts as far back as Adam and Eve by way of various Egyptian Urquharts.  He was, it seems and among other things, related by marriage to the god Bacchus.

The point of this enterprise was to prove to English Justice his rightful claim to his property.

English justice did not live up to his hopes.

Finished with genealogy and with math, he set about to write a defense of Scotland, and to invent an early universal language which was about as accessible as his mathematics.

Politically, England was unwelcoming, Scotland little better.  Creditors, for one thing, the bane of his life.  In 1653 or so, Urquhart moved abroad for good.

There’s a school of thought, po-faced academics, no doubt, that suspects the man was a bit off his jig.  Those books of his!

They could be right.  A simpler explanation is that he, like Scaramouche, was “born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”  Why not pull the publics’ leg?  His death, according to family tradition, was caused by laughter occasioned by the the news that Charles II had been restored to the English throne.

As good a way of going as any, and better than most.


The Admirable Urquhart by Richard Boston (1975)

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