John Hill Burton (1809-1881), Scottish historical writer, the son of an officer in the army, was born at Aberdeen on the 22nd of August 1809. After studying at the university of his native city, he removed to Edinburgh, where he qualified for the Scottish bar and practised as an advocate; but his progress was slow, and he eked out his narrow means by miscellaneous literary work. His Manual of the Law of Scotland (1839) brought him into notice; he joined Sir John Bowring in editing the works of Jeremy Bentham, and for a short time was editor of the Scotsman, which he committed to the cause of free trade. In 1846 he achieved high reputation by his Life of David Hume, based upon extensive and unused MS. material. In 1847 he wrote his biographies of Simon, Lord Lovat, and of Duncan Forbes, and in 1849 prepared for Chambers's Series manuals of political and social economy and of emigration. In the same year he lost his wife, whom he had married in 1844, and never again mixed freely with society, though in 1855 he married again.
He devoted himself mainly to literature, contributing largely to the Scotsman and Blackwood, writing Narratives from Criminal Trials in Scotland (1852), Treatise on the Law of Bankruptcy in Scotland (1853), and publishing in the latter year the first volume of his History of Scotland, which was completed in 1870. A new and improved edition of the work appeared in 1873. Some of the more important of his contributions to Blackwood were embodied in two delightful volumes, The Book Hunter (1862) and The Scot Abroad (1864). He had in 1854 been appointed secretary to the prison board, an office which gave him entire pecuniary independence, and the duties of which he discharged most assiduously, notwithstanding his literary pursuits and the pressure of another important task assigned to him after the completion of his history, the editorship of the National Scottish Registers. Two volumes were published under his supervision. His last work, The History of the Reign of Queen Anne (1880), is very inferior to his History of Scotland. He died on the 10th of August 1881. Burton was pre-eminently a jurist and economist, and may be said to have been guided by accident into the path which led him to celebrity.
It was his great good fortune to find abundant unused material for his Life of Hume, and to be the first to introduce the principles of historical research into the history of Scotland. All previous attempts had been far below the modern standard in these particulars, and Burton's history will always be memorable as marking an epoch. His chief defects as a historian are want of imagination and an undignified familiarity of style, which, however, at least preserves his history from the dulness by which lack of imagination is usually accompanied. His dryness is associated with a fund of dry humour exceedingly effective in its proper place, as in The Book Hunter. As a man he was loyal, affectionate, philanthropic and entirely estimable.
A memoir of Hill Burton by his wife was prefaced to an edition of The Book Hunter, which like his other works was published at Edinburgh (1882).