Clan Crichton Places & People

Clan Crichton People

James Crichton, the Admirable Crichton, (1560 – 1582)

James Crichton

James Crichton was a Scottish polymath noted for his extraordinary accomplishments in languages, the arts, and sciences.

One of the most astoundingly gifted individuals of the 16th century, James Crichton of Clunie (Perthshire; although some sources maintain his birthplace was Dumfries), was the son of Robert Crichton, Lord Advocate of Scotland, and Elizabeth Stewart, from whose line James could claim Royal descent.

Educated at St. Andrews University from the ages of ten to fourteen, during which time he completed requirements for both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, James was taught by the celebrated Scottish politician and poet George Buchanan (1506-1582). It was apparent from his earliest days that James was an unusually gifted prodigy, which may have been due to a gift for perfect recall. By the age of twenty, he was not only fluent in, but could discourse in (both prose and verse) no less than twelve languages, as well as being an accomplished horseman, fencer, singer, musician, orator and debater. Noted for his good looks as well as his refined social graces, some consider him to have come closest to the ideal of the complete man.

Leaving Scotland, Crichton travelled to Paris, where he continued his education at the Collège de Navarre. It was in the French capital that he first came to prominence by challenging French professors to ask him any question on any science or liberal arts subject in Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English, Dutch, Flemish or Slavonic. It is said that throughout the course of one extremely long day, French scholars failed to stump Crichton on any question they threw at him, no matter how abstruse.

Thereafter he spent two years as a soldier in the French army before travelling to Italy in 1579, winning acclaim in Genoa, Venice and Padua by repeating his exploit of challenging Italian scholars to intellectual discourse and debate. Once, he is alleged to have bested a professional gladiator in a brutal fencing match.

In Venice in 1580, Crichton befriended the printer Aldus Manutius, who introduced him to the Venetian intellectual community, where the young Scot made an enormous impression on humanist scholars. In Padua in 1581, he clashed with a number of scholars over their interpretation of Aristotle while demonstrating that their mathematics were flawed.

Perhaps tiring of intellectual duels, the following year Crichton entered the service of the Duke of Mantua, and may have become tutor to the Duke’s headstrong son Vincenzo Gonzaga (although some sources suggest that Crichton served only as a member of the ducal council, and did not actually teach the prince).

What is beyond dispute is that while in the Duke’s employ, Vincenzo Gonzaga became hugely jealous of Crichton, probably from a combination of his father’s strong regard for the young prodigy as well as Crichton replacing Vincenzo as the lover of the prince’s former mistress.

On the night of July 3, 1582, after leaving this lady’s dwelling, Crichton was attacked in the street by a gang of masked ruffians. He bested all but one with his sword until the last man removed his mask to reveal the group’s ringleader, Vincenzo Gonzaga. Tradition holds that, on seeing Vincenzo, Crichton instantly dropped to one knee and presented his sword, hilt first, to the prince, his master’s son. Vincenzo took the blade and with it stabbed Crichton cruelly through the heart, killing him instantly. James Crichton of Cluny was then in his twenty-second year.

Much of Crichton’s posthumous reputation comes from a romantic 1652 account of his life written by Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611-1660). There is little or no contemporary evidence for many of the stories surrounding him. That said, his existence is supported by a few letters and his actual abilities were probably impressive. A historical novel entitled Crichton was published by the English writer William Harrison Ainsworth in 1836. James Crichton’s sobriquet “the Admirable Crichton” was later employed by fellow Scot Sir James Barrie as the title of his 1902 satirical play, about a butler whose savoir-faire far exceeds that of his aristocratic employers. A memorial to him can be found in the church of St Bride’s in Sanquhar and in the church of San Simone in Mantua.

Iain Crichton Smith (Iain Mac a’Ghobhainn) (1928 – 1998) - bust main image

Scottish man of letters, writing in both English and Scottish Gaelic, and a prolific author in both languages. He is known for poetry, short stories and novels.

He was born in Glasgow, but moved to the isle of Lewis at the age of two, where he and his two brothers were brought up by their widowed mother in the small crofting town of Bayble. Educated at the University of Aberdeen, Crichton Smith took a degree in English, and after serving in the National Service Army Education Corps, went on to become a teacher. He taught in Clydebank, Dumbarton and Oban from 1952, retiring to become a full-time writer in 1977, although he already had many novels and poems published. He was awarded an OBE in 1980.

Crichton Smith was brought up in a Scottish Gaelic speaking community, learning English as a second language once he attended school. Friend and poet Edwin Morgan notes that unlike his contemporaries (such as Sorley Maclean and Derick Thomson), Crichton Smith was more prolific in English than in Gaelic, perhaps viewing his writing in what, from Crichton Smith’s view, was an imposed non-native language as a challenge to English and American poets. However, Crichton Smith also produced much Gaelic poetry and prose, and also translated some of the work of Sorley Maclean from Gaelic to English, as well as some of his own poems originally composed in Gaelic.

Crichton Smith’s work also reflects his dislike of dogma and authority (he was an atheist), influenced by his upbringing in a close-knit, island presbyterian community, as well as his political and emotional thoughts and views of Scotland and the Scottish Highlands. A number of his poems explore the subject of the Highland Clearances, and his best known novel Consider the Lilies (1968) is an account of the eviction of an elderly woman during such times.