John Spottiswoode 1667-1728

From Book Owners Online


Biographical Note

Keeper of the Advocates Library, advocate, and teacher of law. Born in Edinburgh, the second son of Alexander Spotswood, advocate, and Helen Trotter. Married Helen Arbuthnott in 1710, the widow of John MacFarlane of that Ilk, making him the stepfather of antiquarian Walter Macfarlane d. 1767. Early education in Pilrig in Crumstaine, and in Duns; went to Kelso school, and then the University of Edinburgh, where he studied mathematics under Professor David Gregory and philosophy under Herbert Kennedy, graduating M.A. in 1686. Apprenticed himself to James Hay of Carriber, Writer to the Signet, 1686-1692. Friend of James Anderson. Travelled to the Netherlands in 1692, then Leiden, where he matriculated in law under professors Vitriarius and Noodt. In 1693 he toured the Low Countries. Returned to Leith in 1694; visited Oxford University in late 1695 or 1696.

Admitted advocate in 1696. Reacquired the family estate in Berwickshire and the barony of Spotswood in 1700. Active in the faculty of advocates - was Clerk to the Faculty 1697-1702. Record of the scheme of study he set out for himself in 1702 exists in manuscript at the NLS, MS 658, fo. 25r-25v. In July 1702 he was appointed Keeper of the Advocates Library. Spottiswoode 'seems to have done much to introduce and develop a European model for legal education in early eighteenth-century Scotland' in his work as a law teacher. His students included Alexander Bayn d.1737, future Edinburgh professor of Scots law, and Duncan Forbes of Culloden.


His library was sold at auction after his death at the High Exchange, Edinburgh, from the 1st July 1728, comprising 2982 lots. Lots are numbered independently in each format, and the pattern of formats suggests it may have been sold over 12 days. The library contained 401 books in folio, 741 in quarto and 1840 in octavo and smaller. His collection included incunabula: p.19 lot 188, p.40 lot 704, p.46 lot 796, p.53 lot 357, p.71 lot 434, and p.72 lot 462.

Notable topics of his library include religion and theology, at least 100 medical books, and legal texts. He owned many 16th century books, and some French and Latin texts. He owned the works of his professors in Leiden on his death - for example, "Vitriarii Universum Jus Civile, Lugd. 1697", p82 in A Catalogue of Curious and Valuable Books…, which Cairns identifies as Universum jus civile privatum ad methodum institutionum Justiniani … (Leiden, 1697); Cairns references a copy in the NLS (Nha. 1162) with the inscription 'Duncan Forbes', Spottiswoode's pupil.

Characteristic Markings

Some of his books have manuscript annotations, including a price, date and place of acquisition. For example, Saint-Jure's The holy life of Monsieur de Renty (London, 1684) [National Library of Scotland: FF.5/2.34] has a manuscript annotation on the front pastedown ("Bought from Alex Hendersone bookseller in Edinb[urgh] Sept 25 1689 for the price N.N.5."), a signature on the title-page ("Jspotiswoode" and "Js") and manuscript annotations throughout the first four chapters in the same hand.


  • A catalogue of curious and valuable books, being the library of Mr. John Spotiswood of that Ilk Advocate, lately deceas'd ... first day of July 1728 (Edinburgh, Alexander Davidson, 1 July 1728). (National Library of Scotland: Bc.5.33(1)).
  • Cairns, J.W. "John Spotswood, Professor of Law: A Preliminary Sketch", Miscellany Three (Stair Society 1992). 131-159.
  • Saint-Jure, Jean-Baptiste. The Holy Life of Monsieur De Renty, : A Late Nobleman of France, and Sometimes Councellor to King Lewis the Thirteenth. (London: Printed for Benj. Tooke, at the Sign of the Ship in St. Paul's Church-yard, 1684). (National Library of Scotland: FF.5/2.34).