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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Arnot, John (c. 1738-89)

A subscriber to the first Edinburgh edition of Burns's poems, and the recipient of one of Burns's letters. When Burns transcribed that letter into the Glenriddell Manuscript, he called him John Arnot of Dalquhatswood in Ayrshire, 'One of the most accomplished of the sons of men that I ever met with- alas! Had he been equally prudent.'

The Arnots of Dalquhatswood, in the parish of Loudoun, near Galston, Ayrshire, were a family who might well have been engulfed in obscurity but for Burns's friendship with John and the connections of John's father and grandfather with the Loudoun family. William Arnot apparently lent money to the Earl of Loudoun on the strength of land securities. James, his son, who became factor to John, fourth Earl of Loudoun, had seven children: Margaret, Elizabeth, Hugh (born 1732: he joined the Army but became insane), James junio (died 1763), Thomas, John and William. Thomas became a surgeon with the East India Company in Canton, China, but died 26th June 1767, aboard the ship Duke of Kingston off the Western Isles, on his way home, predeceasing his father, and apparently leaving a movable estate which was shared between his father and his brothers and sisters. James, the father, also lent considerable sums of money to the Earl of Loudoun - £4,314 on one occasion and £1,600 on another (the documents relating to these transactions are in Register House, Edinburgh).

In a letter dated 20th February 1760, from James Arnot to Lord Loudoun, which seems to refer to John, Arnot writes: 'I acknowledge I have been too precipitent in sending him to London, was told there would be no difficulty in getting him to the East Indies and thought if he could get to his brother he might put him in a way of earning a bit of bread. Poor man he has lost some years of his youth. God grant, he may see the folly of it.'

John was certainly in Macao, the Portuguese colony in China, in January 1766, for both he and Thomas wrote to Lord Loudoun, Thomas asking his Lordship to intercede with 'the court of Portugal.... so as to procure liberty for him (John) to reside there as long as he pleases, and be more indulged in Trade'. John, however, seems to have remained in Canton, sending Lord Loudoun numerous packets of seeds of Chinese plants. In October 1769, he sent from Dalquhats wood 'a pott containing the stones of the fruit call Leechee' and 'a book of Chinese paintings'. John explained that 'the top of the pot was broke in coming down from London'., suggesting that he had brought these gifts with him on his homecoming.

In 1770, John appears to have married and in a letter to Lord Loudoun dated 28th February 1771, referring to John's affairs, James says: 'Poor Mrs Arnot is in a bad state of health at present from a miscarriage.'

In 1783, John took out an overdraft from the Ayrshire Bank of Hunter and Company on the security of three other people, the year after he had borrowed £300 in conjunction with another man, from Mrs Rachel Hamilton, the widow of an Edinburgh wine merchant.

John Arnot's exact dates of birth, marriage and death have not yet been discovered. The name of Arnot does not appear in the Newmilns or Galston Parish Registers, except for an entry dated May 1760 in the Newmilns Register, which records the church baptism of an illegitimate daughter to John Arnot and Janet Little. There is nothing to connect Burns's John Arnot with the Arnot who fathered this little girl. And yet Burns's letter to Arnot, post-dated by Burns 'about the latter end of 1785' (and dated by Ferguson about 1786), describes in amusing but bawdy literary terms, full of sexual boastfulness, how the poet had successfully besieged and captured Jean Armour, and subsequently was prevented from making her his wife by Jean's father. In it, Burns also called himself, 'One of the rueful-looking, long-visaged sons of Disappointment... I rarely hit where I aim and if I want anything, I am almost sure never to find it where I seek it'.

By April 1791, when Burns completed the copying out of the Glenriddell Manuscript, and the introductory note to this letter he wrote of Arnot as if he were already dead - 'Alas! Had he been equally prudent!' - and furthermore had died in dishonour, his death making Burns reflect:

'It is a damning circumstance in human life, that Prudence, insular & alone, without earthly virtue, will conduct a man to the most envied eminences in life, while having every other good quality & wanting that one, which at best is itself but a half virtue, will not save a man from the world's contempt, & real misery, perhaps perdition.'

Arnot's fate is of little enough account to us now. And yet I confess to a curious desire to know what fearful folly Burns's friend, this 'accomplished man', committed to earn 'the world's contempt,'! What is here set forth is at least an advance on Ferguson's comment that 'no facts about Arnot are recorded beyond what Burns himself tells'.

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