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Millar, John, 1735-1801, Professor of Law, University of Glasgow, Scotland

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

John Millar was born 22 June 1735 , in the parish of Shotts, Lanarkshire, of which his father, James Millar, was minister. His mother was a daughter of Archibald Hamilton of Westburn, Lanarkshire. Millar was taught to read by his uncle, and in 1742 was sent to the grammar school of Hamilton. In 1746, he went to Glasgow University, where he became a friend of William Morehead, afterwards of Herbertshire, the uncle of Francis Jeffrey. When a little older he lived in college chambers, and dined with his mother's first cousin, William Cullen. He became intimate with James Watt, and attended Adam Smith's lectures upon moral philosophy. After completing his course at Glasgow he was for two years in the family of Henry Home, lord Kames, to whose son he was tutor. He there made the acquaintance of David Hume. Millar became a firm believer in Hume's metaphysical doctrines, and though they were politically opposed, Hume placed his nephew, David Hume, under Millar's charge in 1775.

Millar became an advocate, in 1760, and made a promising start in his profession. In 1761, he accepted the Professorship of law at Glasgow. His duties did not at first preclude him from attending circuits, and he had a reputation for his influence with juries in defending criminals. He was also frequently employed in arbitrations in commercial cases. He devoted himself, however, to his professorial duties and rapidly increased the attendance of students. He had soon forty students of civil law in place of four or five, and a greater number attended his lectures on government. Millar followed his predecessors practice of attracting students by lecturing in English, despite the protests from the Faculty of Advocates. Unlike many Scottish professors, he never wrote his lectures, but spoke from notes, and continued to modify his lectures materially until his death.

He gave half the session to lectures upon civil law, and half to lectures upon jurisprudence generally. He gave additional courses upon government, upon Scottish law, and for some years before his death upon English law. He appears to have been a very animated lecturer, commanding the interest of his hearers, and uncompromising in asserting his principles. He took pupils in his house, and on becoming Professor was elected a member of the Literary Society of Glasgow, founded in 1752. He practised speaking there regularly, and became one of the leading orators; especially maintaining Hume's theories in opposition to Thomas Reid, who held the Professorship of moral philosophy at Glasgow from 1763 to 1796. Their controversies did not disturb their friendship.

Millar's political views made him conspicuous at a time when Scotland was chiefly in the hands of the tories. He did not scruple to express his hopes that the American struggle might end in the independence, rather than in the conquest of the colonies. He was in favour of parliamentary reform, though he opposed universal suffrage as leading to corruption. He taught that the power of the crown had made alarming advances, and held that the triumph of Pitt and George III, in 1784, had dealt 'a fatal blow to the British Constitution.' He was a vigorous supporter of the agitation against the slave-trade, and sympathised with the French revolution at its start, though he lamented the catastrophes which followed.

Millar spent much of his time at the small farm of Whitemoss, near Kilbride, about seven miles from Glasgow, which was given to him by his uncle, John Millar. Millar was an athletic and temperate man, and appeared to retain his health and spirits. He was weakened by an illness in 1799, and after making a brief recovery, died of pleurisy on 30 May 1801.


John Millar had four sons and seven daughters. His eldest son, John, a promising young man, went to the bar, and married the daughter of William Cullen. He published a book upon the 'Law relating to Insurances' in 1787. Ill-health and the unpopularity of the politics, which he inherited from his father, induced him to emigrate, in the spring of 1795, to America, where he died soon afterwards from a sunstroke. Of Millar's other three sons, James became Professor of mathematics at Glasgow University; the second, William, had a successful military career, rising to the post of lieutenant-general, colonel commandant royal artillery, before dying from self inflicted wounds in 1838; the third was a writer to the signet. Millar lost one daughter to consumption in 1791. Another daughter was married to James Mylne, Orofessor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, and another to Dr. John Thomson, by whom she was mother of Allan Thomson, Professor of surgery at Edinburgh University.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, ( 1771)

Historical View of the English Government from the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain to the Accession of the House of Stewart, ( 1787)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1761-1801: Professor of Law, University of Glasgow


List of sources for the biographical information:

Harrison, Brian (editor), Dictionary of National Biography, ( University Press, 1995)

Rules or Conventions

Authority record created according to theNational Council on ArchivesRules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names (NCA Rules)1997 and International Council on Archives: Ad Hoc Committee on Descriptive StandardsInternational Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR)CPF1995

Author and Date of Biographical History

Personal name authority record compiled for the GASHE project by John O'Brien, Glasgow University Archive Services, 6 August 2002