The curious case of Thomas Urquhart

He invented a universal language long before Esperanto, traced his family back to Adam and Eve and revolutionised trigonometry. Or did he? Welcome to the wacky world of one of the most extraordinary characters in Scottish history

SIR Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty is probably the most baffling, endearing, intriguing and downright odd writer in the history of Scottish literature. Born on the Black Isle 400 years ago, in 1611, he was given a prominent position in Hugh MacDiarmid's book Scottish Eccentrics, for reasons that will become obvious, and was honoured by a conference in Cromarty this month – the 350th anniversary of his death, last year, went unrecognised. Even less forgivably, the compendious four-volume Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature mentioned him only in passing and failed to devote a chapter to him.

Four centuries after his birth, he is still an enigma, a conundrum to academics and a nonentity to common readers. The reason for this is simple. No-one yet can say for certain if Urquhart was bonkers, a conman or the most outrageously gifted prankster Scotland ever produced. If we take him, without irony, at his own word he revolutionised trigonometry, participated in a battle that started a war, traced his family history back to Adam and Eve and invented a Universal Language never dreamed of since the Tower of Babel or before the fad for Esperanto. What is certain is that in his own curious manner, he was a genius.

Sir Thomas's father was not renowned for his financial acumen. His father-in-law had been forced to set serious stipulations on the use of his daughter's estate when the elder Sir Thomas was wooing her; but to no avail. Although the younger Sir Thomas would gloss over his father's ineptitude by saying that as a nobleman he did not wish to break an agreement even when it was manifestly unfair to him, the impecunious nature of the Cromarty estate forced his son into a blizzard of schemes and projects. He attended Aberdeen University at the age of 11 but does not seem to have taken a degree. He then went travelling in Europe, and from his later writings it seems he spent time in Madrid, Saragosa, Sicily, Rome, Naples, Florence, Genoa and Paris. While abroad, he amassed a large library, a "complete nosegay of flowers which in my travels I have gathered out of the gardens of above 16 several kingdoms". Urquhart was an unremitting bibliophile.

He returned to Scotland in 1636, and, by his own account, spent a lot of time out shooting. He maintained, however, that while blunderbussing birds he was "employed in a diversion of another nature, such as optical secrets, mysteries of natural philosophy, reasons for the variety of colours, the finding out of the longitude, the squaring of the circle and ways to accomplish all trigonometrical calculations".

He fought at the "Trot of Turriff", a battle between Covenanters and Royalists which was one of the flashpoints for the coming "War of Three Kingdoms", and was knighted by Charles I for his support. It evidently led him to consider royal favour as a further means of advancement. In 1641 he published a book called Epigrams, Divine and Moral which had a section devoted to the king. One critic has called it "without exception, pointless" and George Sainstbury, the great 19th-century professor of English at Edinburgh University, said that the sentiments were conventional but the verse "hopelessly prosaic". Given how weirdly innovative and stylistically eccentric he was to become, the verses do look rather mundane. A typical example – indeed, one of the wittier, if nonetheless rather sexist examples – reads "Take Man from Woman, all that she can show // Of her own proper is naught else but Woe".

Urquhart's father died in 1642, leaving him responsible for the estate's large debts. Undeterred by his failure in poetry, Urquhart turned to mathematics, and we get the first glimmer of his weirder side. He published a book in 1645 called Trissotetras, Or A Most Exquisite Table For Resolving Triangles, which boasted that a student could learn a year's worth of mathematical formulae in seven weeks by using his method. It is such a cryptic and strange book its significance in his story has been overlooked. Mathematicians tend to read it for the mathematics, and have concurred that "it is not absolute nonsense, but it is written in a most unintelligible way".

A quick extract seems to prove their case: "The directory of this second axiome is Pubkegdaxesh, which declareth that there are seven enodandas grounded on it, to wit, four rectangular, Upalem, Ubeman, Ekarul, Egalem, and three obliquangular, Danarele, Xemenorom and Shenerolem". Urquhart would be the first to agree that these are made-up words. "The novelty of these words I know will seem strange to some, and to the ears of illiterate hearers sound like terms of conjuration" – but he goes on to say they "might be more easily retained in a memory susceptible to their impression" and cites the recent invention of the do-re-mi scale. He doesn't mention that Albert Girard had, only a generation ago, invented the terms "sin", "cos" and "tan". He had also, it seems, read and understood John Napier's logarithms. The Trissotetras makes a serious point: words have power, and new words might have new powers.

Urquhart fought for Charles II at the Battle of Worcester, and, on losing, was sent to the Tower of London. While in captivity, he tried to lobby for his release with Oliver Cromwell, particularly by a series of increasingly bizarre pamphlets. The Pantochronachanon shows how the Urquharts are descended from Adam and Eve, via a host of luminaries.

Among the claims are that his great x 109 grandmother, Termuth, found Moses in the rushes; that his great x 87 grandmother, Nicolia, although she lived in Ireland after her marriage, was "by many supposed to have been the Queen of Sheba", that his great x 66 grandfather Uthork was a general for the mythical Fergus I of Scotland and that a daughter of King Arthur, Tortolina, had also married into the family.

In both the Logopandecteision of 1653 and a book published the previous year, normally called The Jewel, Urquhart proposed his Universal Language. Perhaps as a bargaining chip, perhaps because it never existed, he declined to give the grammar of vocabulary. But he did hit on some truths about language. He realised that words are the arbitrary signs for things, and that most languages are a hotch-potch of different influences. No linguist would disagree with such propositions. Where they might cavil is the idea that an artificial language could succeed, let alone succeed in the extravagant ways Urquhart claims.

His language, he says, "hath at least ten several synonyms" for every word, as well as "a wonderful facility – in making anagrams". It outdoes every language known since it has 11 genders, seven moods, ten cases and "four voices, although it was never heard that ever any language had above three". The names of soldiers express their rank, and the names of stars contain in the syllables their latitude and longitude. It had 35 letters – he would rewrite the alphabet too – and "words expressive of herbs represent unto us with what degree of cold, moisture, heat or dryness they are qualified". For someone so keen to do away with all other languages, Urquhart was desperately keen to stretch and buckle English into new shapes. Among his new-coined terms are such tongue-stretchers as "kirkomantick" (fanatically devoted to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland), "vinomadified" (drunk), "fidimplicitary" (putting faith in another's teachings), "hondersponding" (acting like a German mercenary) and "jobernolisme" (stupid). The Jewel has an outline for this incredible discovery, along with a melancholy story of Urquhart being apprehended and his papers seized.

The Parliamentarian troops, Urquhart avers, could not understand the papers and gave them away "for packeting up of raisins, figs, dates, almonds, caraway and other such dry confections", then for lighting their pipes, and then, he says darkly, "for inferior employment and posterior uses". He also goes on to defend Scotland, particularly in the shape of the "Admirable Crichton" – a name later used by JM Barrie – a figure of hyperbolic brilliance in the Urquhart mode. Crichton is a swordsman, lover, actor, orator, strategist, thinker and all round Flashman of the 1600s. He also makes room to praise John Napier again, hinting that he may know of the mechanical device Napier created that could kill "30,000 Turks without the hazard to one Christian".

Having exhausted these lines of profit and escape, Urquhart turned to translating the work of Rabelais, the monk turned doctor of the 16th century, whose work combined intellectual flights of fancy with down-to-earth bawdy jokes. There are very few books where the translator is as important as the author – books like Pope's Iliad, Dryden's Aeneid or Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Scots have produced a staggering amount – Muir's Kafka, Scott-Montcrieff's Proust – but towering above them all is Urquhart's Rabelais. For a book all about exaggeration, it is the best tribute to write an over-the-top translation. For one thing, it's 70,000 words longer than the original. When Rabelais has a list of nine animal noises, Urquhart conjures a list of 71.

What happened to Sir Thomas Urquhart after his release is sketchy.

Letters from Holland show that he was released – whether as a harmless eccentric or a dangerous exile are not clear. It does not seem he returned to Scotland. He died in 1660, and an apocryphal but wholly believable story has it that he died of "excessive laughter" on hearing the news that Charles II had been restored to the throne.

Compared to England or France, Scottish writing in the 17th century is a drab field, and Urquhart, though not alone, is a psychedelic splash of much-needed colour. We can only imagine what he would have thought of a 21st century that didn't recognise his genius – or we can perhaps guess, looking at another of his expansions in Rabelais.

From the flyting of the Renaissance poets to the expletives of Malcolm Tucker, the Scots have always had a good line in invective, but Urquhart just about tops them all when he attacks… "prattling gabblers, lickorous gluttons, freckled bittors, mangy rascals, shite-a-bed scoundrels, drunken roystors, sly knaves, drowsy loiterers, slapsauce fellows, slabberdegallion druggels, lubbardly louts, cozening foxes, ruffian rouges, paultry customers, sycophant varlets, drawlatch hoydens, flouting milksops, jeering companions, staring clowns, forlorn snakes, ninny lobcocks, scurvy sneaksbies, fondling fops, base loons, saucy coxcombs, idle lusks, scoffing braggards, noddy meacocks, blockish gruntels, doddipol joltheads, jobberous goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, slutch calf-lollies, woodcock slangams, ninnie-hammer fly-catchers, noddie-peak simpletons, turdyguts and shitten shepherds"