Douglas, James, fourteenth Earl of Morton 1702-1768, the eldest son of George, thirteenth earl, by his second wife, Frances, daughter of William Adderley of Halstow, Kent, was born in Edinburgh in 1702. He was sent to King's College, Cambridge, where he graduated M.A. 1722. On leaving the university he travelled on the continent, remaining abroad some years and applying himself to the study of physics. When he returned to Scotland his attainments made him favourably known to the scientific men of the day. Chief among these was Colin Maclaurin, the mathematician, who became his most intimate friend, and whom he strongly supported in his plan of so extending the Medical Society of Edinburgh as to include literature and science within its scope. As a result of their joint efforts the institution was remodelled in 1739 into the Society for Improving Arts and Sciences, and Morton, who had succeeded to his father's honours the year before, was chosen its first president. He had been elected a member of the London Royal Society 19 April 1733. In 1738 he was invested with the order of the Thistle, and the next year was appointed a lord of the bedchamber, on the death of the Earl of Selkirk, whom he also succeeded as a representative peer of Scotland. He retained his seat in the House of Lords till his death, speaking well and frequently in debate. On visiting in 1739 his family estates of the island of Orkney, which was held under form of mortgage from the crown, Morton found his claim to certain property disputed by Sir James Murray, bart., who personally assaulted him, with the result that an action was brought, and Sir James was fined and imprisoned. In 1742 Morton obtained an act of parliament vesting the ownership of Orkney and Shetland in himself and heirs, discharged of any right of redemption by the king or his successors on the throne. At the same time he procured a lease of the rents of the bishopric of Orkney, and a gift of the rights of admiralty. But so troublesome did the tenure of this island property become on account of constant complaints and difficulties in exacting rents and duties, that not long after he became its absolute owner Morton sold his rights in the two islands to Sir Laurence Dundas for 60,000l. On visiting France in 1746, Morton, together with his wife, child, and sister-in-law, was imprisoned in the Bastille for a reason which was not made known, but which was probably connected with his Jacobite leanings (Walpole, Letters, ed. Cunningham, ii. 68). The imprisonment lasted three months, and even when released the family was not allowed to leave Paris till May 1747, when they returned to England. On the death of the Hon. Alexander Hume Campbell in 1760, Morton was appointed lord clerk register of Scotland. After having been a fellow of the Royal Society for thirty years, during which time he contributed several papers, chiefly on astronomical subjects, to the Transactions, he was on 30 Nov. 1763 elected into the council, and in the following year was chosen president, in succession to the Earl of Macclesfield, whose place he also took as one of the eight foreign members of the French Academy. As president of the Royal Society, Morton devoted himself to the affairs of the society, using all his efforts to encourage scientific investigation, and exercising a much-needed caution in the election of new members. He took an active part in the preparations to observe the transit of Venus in 1769, and as commissioner of longitude successfully used his influence with the government to obtain vessels for the expedition. He was also one of the first trustees of the British Museum. As keeper of records of Scotland he was engaged in drawing up a plan for the better preservation of the archives at the time of his death, which took place at Chiswick 12 Oct. 1768. He was twice married: first to Agatha, daughter of James Halyburton of Pitcur, Forfarshire, by whom he was the father of three sons, two of whom died young, while the second, Sholto Charles, succeeded him; and secondly to Bridget, daughter of Sir John Heathcote, bart., of Normanton, who bore him a son and daughter, and who outlived him thirty-seven years.
Douglas and Wood's Peerage of Scotland, ii. 276
Weld's Hist. of the Royal Society, ii. 22
De Fouchy's Histoire de l'Académie, ed. 1770
Barry's Hist. of Orkney, p. 260.
Contributor: A. V. [Alsager Vian]