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The Whig Coterie of Edinburgh
From Tait's Edinburgh Magazine


The old parties have been broken up with the old system, and new ones are forming. Not to speak it profanely, “all old things have passed away." The Tory party is an unreal shade, which continues to look spitefully and peevishly upon us, but eludes our grasp. The Whig party is a mere name bestowed upon all that worthy class of the community who wish to have matters amended, without well knowing how to set about it. It is supposed to include every man who, disapproving of our Com Laws, is of opinion that it would be inexpedient to alter them; or who, abhorring slavery, thinks it unjust to free the slave; or who, averse to wasteful expenditure, rejects every plan of retrenchment; or who thinks the law of entail an absurdity which ought to be perpetuated. This is not a party. A party must have a community of interests or opinions for the bones and sinews of its frame. This is merely a ruddle of timid sheep crowding together, and tumbling stupidly over one another at the impulse of their common fear. Then the word Radical is one which indicates no class of politicians; it vaguely comprehends every man who goes a step beyond the worthy citizens we have been describing. It includes Mr. Hume, who would keep faith with the national creditor; Mr. Cobbett, who would turn him adrift; and Mr. Att-wood, who would pay him with fine words, which butter no parsnips, and little paper parallelograms. It includes Mr. Roebuck, who squares all his actions to the principles of Bentham; and Mr. Hunt, who troubles himself with no principles at all. Mr Hume's patriotic band has received an accession of numbers, and a still greater accession of talent. The Edinburgh Whigs, who have hitherto been little more than the literary champions of their cause, have emerged into legislative existence. It is worth while to take a closer view of this first-born of the Scottish Reform Act.

The Edinburgh Whig Coterie has gained a name by the identification of some of its leading members with the Edinburgh Review, and has riveted its influence over the minds of the wealthiest and most influential Whigs of Scotland, by the high stations which they occupy in the legal profession. The talents and professional habits of this body eminently qualified them, as both friends and foes have found, for organizing a partisan force. They are united among themselves, and to the Chancellor; to whom, in despite of occasional piques and jealousies, they look as their leader and representative, by early, unbroken, and long-continued friendship and intimacy. They will stand one for all, and all for one; will enable Brougham to cock his wig more crousely in the cabinet than ever. It is therefore of some importance, that the public should be put in possession of the character of this new influence which has been added to Earl Grey's councils.

The literary talents, amiable dispositions, and purely honourable characters of the leaders of this clique, are beyond a doubt. It were affectation to dwell on their claims to the first of these attributes; and as to the others, men better fitted to grace the festive circle, and add a charm to retired intimacy; men guided by purer feelings and higher principles in the relations of private life, are not to be found. Our estimate of their public character must, however, be “craftily qualified." They commenced their political career at a time when the suspicion of a man's being tainted with liberal principles was, in Scotland, enough to exclude him from the more fashionable circles. The Edinburgh Review, in its earlier numbers, was, if any thing, a Tory publication. When its young conductors did at last venture to shew the cloven foot, it was with a degree of timidity, drubbed into them by the repeated snubbings they had received from the civic and collegiate authorities during their career in the Speculative Society. They avoided the expression of any decided opinions, preferring the eclectic or sceptical tone. Those few doctrines which they have at last heartily embraced, (chiefly relating to the theory of commerce,) they long coursed around, and snuffed at, then scampered away, and then came back again, for all the world as a dog does before he ventures to pick up the bone he finds lying among the snoirl They mildly remonstrated with the Tories on the inexpediency of some of their ways; disclaiming, at the same time, with hysterical vehemence, all connexion with the naughty men who had frightened the said Tories. They uplifted their mouths, and thanked God, that they were not as Godwin, neither contaminated with the heresies of Bentham. They were a race of political academists; touching with gentle hand the sore parts of either party, and elegantly and playfully hinting at a remedy; but not particularly sanguine in their expectations that the world would follow their prescriptions, and not much caring whether it did or not. They were like “La Belle Hamilton" at the court of Charles II., possessed of sufficient self-command to keep her own person pure, but not of nice enough feelings to be annoyed by the uncloaked debauchery of those who surrounded her. They held the even tenor of their way, more gratified by the consciousness of their own goodness, than pained by the naughtiness of the rest of the world.

The political condition of Scotland, previous to the passing of the Reform Act, was well calculated to keep them in this state of political nonage. They were placed in a region where the voice of the people was never heard in any consultation regarding the business of the state. Like certain gentlemen in Milton's Scotland—Pandemonium we mean they “apart sate on a hill retired, and reasoned high," of matters in which the constitution of their country permitted them to take no active share. The nearest approach allowed them to taking a part in the tug of war, was the delivery of beautiful set speeches at political din. ners, and those solemn meetings, heralds of parliamentary petitions, where the orators have it, “like the bull in the china shop, all their own way." They could not exactly be called unversed in the real business of life; for most of them, as before hinted, are lawyers; but politics were “of their lives a thing apart," a beautiful imagination not linked with sordid realities; and the only debates tending to practical result in which they mingled, were those of a Court where every step is prescribed by law, not of those more stirring, character-forming assemblies where the laws themselves are made. Every thing tended to keep the leaders, the lights of the party, theoretical, not practical statesmen; persons to whom it was free to float at will on a sea of doubts, indulging in nice distinctions; men untrained to promptitude in decision, and perseverance in action. Such , of them as meddled with local politics, experienced the truth of the old proverb respecting the handling of pitch.

This ripeness of judgment, and want of experience, have conjoined with the provincial locality of the Edinburgh Whigs, to stamp the respectable portion of them with a very peculiar character. Without belonging to that class, which, looking more deeply into the workings of society than the busy multitude, elaborate, in quiet cells, the political and moral creeds of coming generations; their views are eminently unpractical. They are called upon to take a share in the active management of a machine which they have hitherto contemplated iply from a distance. They are conscious of their want of mechanical skill and readiness, and consequently timid. At the same time, they have been too long the oracles of their little circle, to have failed to acquire, not exactly a confidence in their own judgment, but a comparatively greater distrust in every other person's. Anxious and hesitating when called to action, they are supercilious and immovable in argument. They will neither stir themselves, nor allow others to push them on. They disapprove of the system upon which the Government of this country has hitherto been conducted, and, if you give them time, will take it into their consideration whether a better may not be devised; but if you hint that there is no time left—that the wolf is at the door; and still more, if you venture to hint at what they ought to do, they turn away with a cold smile of conscious superiority. They are too ineffably above you, even to be moved by your presumption.

This has heen their line of conduct ever since the Duke of Welling, ton's dismissal. They were averse to petitioning at first—'“Let us wait and see what ministers will do." When forced into a demonstration, they took care that the petition of Edinburgh should be such as might be amply granted by the narrowest, the most illusory reform—“For any sake, avoid all details: they are rocks upon which we cannot fail to split." The struggle grew keener and closer; it was evidently the death-grapple. A bolder demonstration was called for. With timorous deprecatory remonstrances, they acquiesced in an open air meeting. Earl Grey resigned. The whole of the rest of the nation boldly pointed to the last resource; but our Edinburgh Whigs shrunk from the slightest allusion to the stopping of the supplies, as if the shade of Castle-reagh stood frowning before them. It was only after the most urgent and reiterated prayers, and under the threat of a counter-motion, that they nerved themselves to stand firm by the L.10 qualification. They were willing to have conceded that essential point “as one of the details." During the whole of the canvass which preceded the late elections, they evaded the questions of short parliaments and the ballot. To the former we know them to be unfriendly; respecting the latter, they have uniformly said, "Let us see whether it be necessary?” Its necessity has been experimentally established. The most unwarrantable acta of bribery and oppression are proved to have been resorted to by the Conservatives; and Sir John Dalrymple mildly tells them, that t( if they persist," he may “incline to favour the ballot.” Maria Darlington a “Very naughty man," addressed to her seemingly faithless spouse, was not a more disproportionate rebuke. All the time that they are thus turning a deaf ear to the urgency of the people, they are coaxing the Tories to kiss and be friends. “Now that the struggle is ever, let all harsher feelings be forgotten." Oh yes! We have won at the game of Change seats, the king's cominglet us now join with the losers to bar the door against the intrusion of too many new guests.

Some people think there is dishonesty in all this. They are mistaken. The Scottish Whigs persist in keeping up every sinecure appointment; they refuse to hear of further reforms; they strive to keep on good terms with the Tories: it is all weakness and ignorance of the world— no positively dishonest purpose. Raw from their studies, they tremble to lay a reforming finger upon the delicate machine intrusted to their care, least*it should crumble in their grasp. Conceited of their own superior acquirements; believing that all are in utter ignorance except their old corrupt opponents, themselves and their toadies, they doggedly refuse to hear of any person undertaking what they fear to attempt. They are like a physician who would consult all his authorities by the bed-side of an apoplectic patient; carefully collating every passage with the symptoms of the dying man, before he attempted to relieve him. They feel not themselves the grinding of that penury which redundant taxation, and a clumsy, cumbrous system of executive government have brought upon the working classes; and they believe every man who speaks from feeling an unsafe counsellor. He is excited, and cannot reflect coolly. It is as though they should address a friend, “My good fellow, you must allow that you, who have a goad of red-hot iron sticking in your breech, cannot reason so coolly on the matter as we who are free from all such appliances and means to boot. It is absurd in you to deafen us with your cries to pull it out before we have time to come to the conclusion that such is the most eligible mode of procedure."

This is not dishonesty: but it is every whit as dangerous. You may force a rogue to act right by pointing to the gibbet: but pragmatical council walks with closed eyes over the precipice. Again, it engenders public distrust. Public men must be judged by their public actions: few have access, and fewer leisure, to study their ruling motives, and to learn to pardon them for their good intentions. That people with which they disdain to form a nearer intimacy, will soon grow disgusted with them. They will bear the blame of all the ill they occasion, which is fair ; but they will also be accused of having willed it, which is hard; for they have kind hearts and high aspirations.

If they persist in their besotted obstinacy, they will form a drag-ch&in of imposing strength on the motions of government. Let us see: Then are in the present parliament Jeffrey, Murray, and Macaulay,—tongues of the trump. Then there is Lord Dalmeny, an ingenuous diffident boy, who will do as they bid him; and Sir John Dalrymple, a good man and true, though somewhat priggish, whom they will manage by making him believe that he follows his own inclinations. There are Ferguson of Raith, (one of themselves,) Admiral Fleming, Lord Ormelie, and Stewart Mackenzie, as honest and well-meaning men as breathe, whose gentlemanly feeling will guard them against the blandishments of the Tories, and who will be kept from the approach of the people by the jealous and plausible arts of the Coterie. How many more of our Scottish members are in their toils, we cannot precisely say; but even this is a tolerable nucleus of a party in the House of Commons, to stick to the Lord Chancellor through thick and thin, and do his spiriting gently. With this tail wagging behind him, in its tremulous pride, Lord Brougham will be more likely to put on his peremptors in the Cabinet. He has been from youth a man more of brilliant, comprehensive, and restless, than of solid parts. In the Speculative Society he was one of those whose boldness was mainly instrumental in calling down the indignation of the big-wigs; and again, he was the one who most overlaid the character of conformity he was called upon to assume. Such has he been through life. His ambition is great, his conceptions noble, his activity sleepless: but his power wants continuity of application. He puts on too much at one time, and too little at another. Forming bold ideas, and acting upon them with a startling rapidity at one moment, he seeks the next to tread the perplexed paths of intrigue with the noiseless footstep of the courtier. One day he beards his enemies with fierce denunciations; and then fbr a week be is all conciliation, “the torrent’s smoothness ere it dash below/' For a week he is the oil spread over the vexed billows of the House of Lords, to restore the glassy surface of that once wavelesa aristocratic ocean ; and at the end of it, he breaks out into a Herculean frenzy, seizes poor Sugden, as his prototype did Hyks, and hurls him far away beyond human ken; or rather, by a more cruel metamorphosis than any in Ovid, he, before our eye9, transmutes a man into a bug. Such a creature of momentary and varying impulses—over-bold the one moment, dangerously timid the next—followed, as he is likely to be, by a numerous and talented body of personal adherents, is a questionable coadjutor for a government, which, more than any we have known, requires to temper boldness with caution, which must feel its way at every footstep, yet dare not loiter for a moment, or withdraw one hair's breadth after it has advanced.

Earl Grey will do well to look to the motions of this party, which, by its bigoted scepticism, and its coquetry with the old aristocratical and priestly faction, may interfere materially with the stately march of his own straight-forward policy. The nation will do well to look sharply after men who may not dare to be just to it. The party itself will do well to scrutinize its own character, and examine the nature of the hold it has upon the country. Our objurgation has not been uttered in anger. Personally, we love and esteem many of its members, however much we may distrust them in their corporate capacity. “We neither seek nor shun their favour nor their feud." Let them remember that they are new to office ; and not rooted in that genial soil. Let them remember that the national spirit has been excited by real wrongs, not abstract theories; and that men of action are what we now want. Let them remember, that they have hitherto kept themselves immured within the Bastile of their own domestic circles, and do not know the people. Even with our wealthier citizens, their intercourse has had a tone of distance and condescension. The ten-pound voters were a race altogether new to them ; and there are myriads behind of whom they know nothing,—men of clear heads and quick feelings. Above all, let them remember how feeble is their real influence. Their ill-omened patron, age mainly contributed to lose Mr. Crawfurd his election for Glasgow, and their opposition had almost re-established Mr. Johnstone in the Stirling burghs. They are taken on trial: let them beware lest they be weighed in the balance and found wanting.

We know that these are unpalatable truths, and we know the love generally born towards those who administer such nauseous mixtures. Nay more, we know that many worthy and independent men will blame us for hallooing before the hounds are out of the wood. It is indeed an unthankful office to keep men to their duty by hinting our suspicions of them. We are likely to be regarded as pragmatical coxcombs at the time, and abused afterwards for our distrust; although, perhaps, it was our plain speaking alone which prevented what we foresaw from taking place. Our moan however is soon made. We have already established a sufficiently good understanding with oat readers to entitle us to hazard the risk of incurring one harsh opinion at their hands, if there is any good object to be gained by it; and seeing that we are more anxious to Hve jolly members of a peaceful and happy community than to gain credit for prophetic powers, or to ride cock-a-hoop on the broad back of popular applause, we have ventured to strew our pearls before—a respected public.


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