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Life Jottings of an Old Edinburgh Citizen
Chapter Twenty-Three


"What art thou, idle ceremony?"
- Shakespere.

IN the last weeks of 1859 came the final day when, according to the established etiquette, I appeared before "the examiners," dressed up, although it was 11 a.m., in white tie and tailed coat—as no other being except a waiter is expected to appear in the forenoon—and was put through my facings in law, and duly informed that I had passed. How thankful a feeling glows over the poor intrant when he walks forth from the examination room with the certainty that he is free, no grim examiner making him afraid "in all time coming." In the olden days there could be no such feeling. Examinations were a farce. It was all in the style of the story, according to which the question put to the candidate for a degree was: "Magister, quid est icreare"? which was answered in hesitating tones: |Creare—est—eh, zh—facere —aliquid—eh—ex—nihilo," whereupon the examiner replied, waving his hand to the candidate: "Iirgo, te creodoetorem." But before my time things were changed, and much for the better. Examinations were real and strict, and practically enforced study. Still there was one farce left which I believe subsists still. The intrant has to go through what «s called a public examination. He is given a subject for a Latin thesis, and this thesis he has to send in, along with three brief as sertions in law—also in Latin—on points of the thesis. This thesis-writing when I came to the Bar was performed by deputy, the intrant paying a fee to a well-known individual who eked out his income by supplying theses to all applicants. I prepared my own thesis, but of this I make no boast. I only saved a guinea. It so happened that I had a number of presentation copies of theses inelegant binding, which formed part of Baron Hume's library, having been presented to him as Professor of Scots Law. With the aid of these, and in the certainty that no one would ever look at my thesis, either to test its latinity or its soundness, and therefore my Latin and my law ran no risk of challenge, I presented my thesis. Then came the most supreme farce. I had to find three friends who had never seen the thesis to impugn my law. of them I handed slips prepared by myself, on each of which an impugnetur was written beginning—Ufalsum est "or "minime Zero," or some such phrase. These were solemnly—more or less—read out by the friends, and I replied off my slip of paper "verum esf," and stated that I try phoninus, or somebody else, had said so and so. thus I passed through my public examination in presence of four or five persons. Then followed the ballot of the Faculty, the ballot-box having only about half a dozen balls, as nobody attended but the Dean and the impugning or other friends.

I do not know whether this mockery is still practised. If it is, I would ask, should it not be brought to an end? No doubt some would be shocked at the proposal, urging that it is well to keep up ancient practices, and would perhaps quote Guether.

"Ein tiefer Sinn wohnt in den alten Brauchen." That is quite sound. Many ceremonies of olden days should be kept up. They often convey symbolically what it !s well to remember. But this is not a ceremony— it :s no symbol representing any principle or truth. It is the acting of a farce and nothing else; and if it is suggested that there is any real :y in it, then it is not farce, but fraud. For what, it may be asked, is this gone through when the intrant has been actually examined as to his qualifications, and been found to stand the test? I shall probably offend some by saying this, but that s scarcely to be avoided, when a proposal is made to abandon an old form out of which all spirit has departed. But a farce is not the less a farce because it is solemn.

Of course one does not wait to see whether there will be success in passing this public examination. The wig and the gown are ordered before that "trial" Although the wig had become almost universal by the time I began to wear it, there were still a few who appeared in the Parliament House in tall hats. I believe Cockburn wore his hat until he took office, and Jeffrey for long periods discarded the wig, which was not wonderful, seeing that it's wig was that of a friend who gave it to him when he retired from the Bar, and was a hopeless misfit. In my time Mr. Robert Thompson, who used to refer to a book he wrote as "Mesilf on Bielts," and his friend Robert Hunter wore hats, Hunter giving this up when he was in such a condition of baldness that he must wear a wig of some kind. Then Messrs. Richardson and Park, two somewhat eccentric gentlemen, always appeared in hats. The last hat disappeared within the Sixties. One amusing incident relating to the advocate's wig occurred when Mr. Pattern, afterwards Lord-Advocate and Lord Justice-Clerk, was defending a prisoner. He was the baldest of the bald. While the trial was going on, Lord-Advocate Inglis was called out of the Court. As he passed the corner of the table, a button on the sleeve of his court coat caught in a loop of Mr. Patton's wig and carried it off, the Lord-Advocate disappearing through the swag-door instantly. The scene was comic in the extreme—Mr. Patton suddenly showing his bald pate and clawing round it with his hands, searching for the wig, which had made as mysterious a disappearance as a conjuror's vanishing rabbit. The whole assemblage, including the prisoner, was convulsed with laughter; Mr. Patton trying to look as if he thought nobody was looking at him—a feat, as Dickens says in the trial scene in "Pickw«ck," "no man ever succeeded in doing yet, or in all reasonable probability ever will"

A curious character to us juniors among those who clung to the hat was Mr. Maidment, who went about, much to the distress of the Dean of Faculty, in a hat and a blue waistcoat with gilt buttons, and with his gown dragging behind him. He had a habit of expressing himself in what he supposed was a whisper, but which could be heard afar. Pie was standing behind me at the end of the bar one day, when a member of the Bench, in the course of delivering judgment, said. "Now in that state of matters, I put this question to myself," when a lisping but loud voice said past my shoulder: "Couldn't put it to a more incompetent person."

Turning round, I saw him passing out at the swing-door, whistling, as was his constant practice in all kinds of unsuitable situations. Tradition has it that he, being a, bibliophile, used often to carry Advocates' Library books home, which he forgot to return, and that after his death, at the sale of his own library, not a small proportion of it consisted of books marked with the Library stamp. He was no thief, only he had the book borrower's bump of forgetfulness abnormally developed.

Talking of peculiarities, there were in those days, as might be expected, considerable variations in the treatment of the Queen's English in the Courts. Lord Colonsay represented the Highlander. While his speech was always dignified, and his language well chosen, his enunciation of words was strongly in contrast with the Lowland Scotch of his colleague, Lord Deas. It is narrated that on one occasion, at a social gathering, a junior counsel was guilty of a gaucherie, as when telling him that a brother advocate—Mr. Hector—was an excellent mimic, he added: "He even takes your lordship off occasionally." "Doss he," replied Colonsay; "I wass not awaire that ther wass any paycooliaritie in my prononciation that should make me the subject of meerricrie." The amazing thing about Mr. Hector, the mimic, was that in his own ordinary mode of speech he used most extraordinary perversions of English pronunciation. His "e's" were turned into "is" or "crs," and some of his words were very broad. When prosecuting at Glasgow Circuit, it is told of him that in the trial of a thief for stealing a watch and a cloak, the following took place in the examination of the chief witness:

"Did he gaw with you to the hid of the closs?"

"Yes."

"Had you your waatch on you et that time?"

"I had."

"And your clok on your back;

"Yes."

The judge intervened, with a twinkle in his eye:

"Mr. Advocate-Depute, is it part of your case that this witness was carrying an eight-day clock on his back up this close?"

"No, mee lord," replied Mr. Hector, "not a cloke, it was a clok, a spaachiees of tope-cot."

On the Bench Lord Deas represented the Lowlander, in good Scotch, although not of so marked a type has in the time of Eskgrove and Hermand. His "you" was always "ye," and when he addressed me the "d" always dropped off the end of my name. "Law" always sounded as if there were two "a's" i» it, and "card" had an "i" inserted. I incline to the belief that if his English had been more polished, the vigour of his thought would have lost something in the expression. At times, when he spoke solemnly, the form his words took tended to detract from his impressiveness, as when, in sentencing an aged and incorrigible prisoner, he referred to the unlikenhood of their meeting again in this life, and said,"You an'I hev met here before, but looking to the sentence I must pronounce now, I doot, when we meet again, it'll be at anither bawr."

At the same time that I was studying for the Bar I joined the Speculative Society, and did my share of writing rather "vealy" essays and making speeches on all sorts of subjects, with all the confidence of inexperienced youth. But the debates there are, I am sure, useful to the young man about to enter upon life. A great proportion of what is said may be full of paradox and tinged with prejudice, but the habit of thinking out a matter beforehand, and choosing the forms of speech in which the thought is to be expressed, has undoubtedly a useful effect on one whose fate in life is to be the presentation of arguments in support of a view, whether that view coincides with individual opinion or not. My colleague, Lord Kinnear, was. when I joined, just completing his three years as an ordinary member, and I can remember an essay he read on Boswell, which was a most elegant and interesting piece of writing.

As regards the essays, an amusing incident occurred when I was secretary. There were two brothers, who joined the Society at an interval of two years. The first brother gave in as the subject of his essay "Byron's Manfred," and read it. Three years afterwards, to my astonishment, the junior brother gave in the same subject, and my memory being good I was able to recognise the text as being the same. I got a hold of him afterwards and said, "My dear-, it was too bad of you to come here and read your brother's essay that he read to us three years ago." "What?" he said; "did he read that? The essay was written by me in my last year at school. He must have taken it out of my drawer and read it as his own." History does not tell what passed between the brothers. As we had the word of junior that the essay was his, we could only laugh.

I must confess that I also committed a fraud upon the Society, as to which I beg the reader to consider whether it has not at least a claim to be put «n the "pious fraud'' category. An intimate friend of my own joined the Society at a later period of life than was the case with most of us. He gave in as the subject of his essay "English Literature.' As the time approached he felt unlit to face the composition of the essay, he having no talent for literature, and he metaphorically went down on his knees to beseech my help. I swallowed my scruples and wrote an essay for him, to which I sat and listened as he read it. All went well until, to my horror—my "u's" being very like "n's"—he came to the name of a well-known work, and read out—"Frowde's History of England? Fortunately I can keep my countenance, and others were too polite to make any remark, but my inward feelings were not capable of being described.

In 1864 the centenary of the Society was celebrated by honorary membership being conferred on Lord Brougham and Lord Colonsay, who was then Lord Justice-General, and by a banquet n the evening. Another celebration on the 150th anniversary has just been reached, and I feel it a high honour that the Society has selected me, along with Lords Kinnear and Dunedin, for honorary membership. I little thought fifty years ago of having my name enrolled beside those of Lord Brougham and Lord Colonsay. My friends seem always to desire to be good to me, and I hope it will be believed that I have a grateful heart for this and many another kindness shown to me.

Several of my contemporaries were members of the Society at the same time as myself. Alas! there are few left. One of them gave us a most delightful instance of sang-froid. He was presiding, and during a vigorous speech from Alexander Moncrieff-—who was always vigorous—the Resident fell asleep, and hanging over the side of the chair began to snore loudly. Moncrieff gravely went on, while we .tittered, but at last could not stand it longer, and speaking as if he was a drill sergeant said loudly: "Wake him." The President was shaken up, but again went off worse than before, whereupon on his being once more roused, Kinnear rose to order, and moved "that the President do leave the chair. He recognised the situation, and taking up a long quill pen, he twiddled it in his fingers, and said slowly: "May I ask, Mr. Kinnear, are you serious in proposing that motion? "Yes, sir, quite serious was the reply. "Then," said the President, speaking in deliberate tones and settling himself back in his chair, "I must tell you that your motion is quite out of order, you must give a week's notice of it. It was impossible to do anything else than roar with laughter, which all did, and the President called on Mr. Moncrieff to proceed. But he kept awake after that.

My late brother advocate and friend, Alexander Asher, joined the Speculative while I was still an ordinary member. I was much struck with the power he showed of close debate. He was at that time training for the other branch of the profession, and was past the age at which it was usual to join the Bar. But I strongly urged him to consider whether he would not do better to enter the ranks of the pleaders, feeling convinced that he showed exceptional capacity for the work of the Bar. Others, I believe, pressed the same advice upon him, to which he yielded. All who watched his career will, I am sure, agree that his friends advised him rightly, as the position he took as a pleader was—not to say more—as high as that of any man of his time.


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