Hugo Arnot of Balcormo (1749-1786), was a Scottish advocate, writer and campaigner.
Arnot was the son of a merchant at Leith, where he was born 8 December 1749. He changed his name from Pollock to Arnot on succeeding to his mother's property of Balcormo, by Arncroach, Fife. He became an advocate 5 December 1772. In 1779 he published his 'History of Edinburgh' (a second edition appeared in 1817), and in 1785 a Collection of Celebrated Criminal Trials in Scotland. Both works were pirated in Ireland.
Arnot published the second at his own expense in defiance of the Edinburgh booksellers, and the gross proceeds were 600 pounds. He became prematurely old from asthma, and his irritability, caustic language, and a reluctance to accept cases where the potential customer in his opinion was in the wrong, hindered his success as an advocate. Many anecdotes are told of his eccentricity. He wrote many papers on local politics, opposing local taxation and road tolls mainly hitting the poorer part of the population as means for funding road projects. He is said to have held up for ten years the erection of the city's South Bridge.
Arnot died 20 November 1786, and left eight children. He is buried in South Leith Parish Churchyard.
In his texts, Arnot was sharp and outspoken, which was met with mixed feelings. In his Collection of Celebrated Criminal Trials in Scotland, he clearly comments on what he considered as unjust decisions, using terms such as despotism. Here, for example, is his Enlightenment view of 'progress' being made in the sentencing of criminals, while at the same implying the need to reform the criminal justice of his time.
We do not think it possible, that a nation can attain to improvement in science, to refinement of taste, and in manners, without, at the same time, acquiring a refinement in their ideas of justice, and feelings of humanity. The codes of the criminal laws of most nations (our own in no ways excepted) are exceedingly barbarous. This is owing to their having been compiled when the respective nations were sunk in barbarity, were subjected to an absolute government, or were blinded with religious bigotry. But, although scarce any attention has been paid to the state of criminal jurisprudence, by revising the penal statutes; yet, with the increasing mildness of manners, the officers of the law have declined to raise prosecutions for inflicting those rigorous punishments.
In 1777 Arnot published a "fanciful metaphysical treatise", called an 'Essay on Nothing,' which originally was read before the debating club called the Speculative Society, and made himself unpopular by his sarcasms. However, he was later a regular participant in church activities, and his contributions to the Society were recognised by the Edinburgh magistrates, who gave him the freedom of the city.
Arnot was a favourite subject with John Kay, the Edinburgh caricaturist, who took full advantage of the extreme slimness of his figure.