The Hon. Henry Erskine was the third son of Henry
David, tenth Earl of Buchan, by Agnes, daughter of Sir James Stewart of
Good-trees, and was born at Edinburgh on the 1st November, 1746. His
patrimony was trifling, and had it not been for the exemplary kindness
of his eldest brother, who took a paternal charge both of Henry and his
younger brother Thomas, afterwards Lord Erskine, he would not have been
able to defray the expenses attendant upon the course of study requisite
to be followed in order to qualify him for the bar. In the year 1765,
Mr. Erskine was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates. He had
previously prepared himself for extempore speaking, by attending the
Forum Debating Society established in Edinburgh, in which he gave
promise of that eminence as a pleader which he afterwards attained.
The brilliant talents of Mr. Erskine soon placed him at the head of his
profession. His legal services were as much at the command of the poor
as of the wealthy, and he gratuitously devoted his abilities in behalf
of any individual whom he believed to be ill-used, with greater zeal
than if he had been amply remunerated for his exertions. So well was
this benevolent trait in his character knowu, that it was said of him by
a poor man, who lived in a remote district of Scotland, when a friend
would have dissuaded him from entering into a certain lawsuit, "There's
no a puir man in a' Scotland need to want a friend or fear an enemy, sae
lang as Harry Erskine's to the fore."
Coalition Administration, Mr. Erskine held the office of Lord Advocate
of Scotland. He succeeded Henry Dundas (afterwards Lord Melville). On
the morning of the appointment, he had an interview with Dundas in the
Outer House; when, observing that the latter gentleman had already
resumed the ordinary stuff-gown which advocates are in the custom of
wearing, he said gaily, that he "must leave off talking, to go and order
his silk-gown" (the official costume of the Lord Advocate and
Solicitor-General). "It is hardly worth while," said Mr. Dundas, drily,
"for the time you will want it; you had better borrow mine." Erskine's
reply was exceedingly happy —"From the readiness with which you make the
offer, Mr. Dundas, I have no doubt that the gown is a gown made to fit
any party; but however short my time in office may be, it shall ne'er be
said of Henry Erskine that he put on the abandoned habits of his
predecessor." The prediction of Mr. Dundas proved true, however; for
Erskine held office only for a very short period, in consequence of a
sudden change of Ministry. He was succeeded by Hay Campbell, Esq.,
afterwards Lord President of the Court of Session, to whom he said upon
resigning his gown, "My Lord, you must take nothing off it, for I'll
soon need it again." To which Mr. Campbell replied, "It will be bare
enough, Harry, before you get it." On the return of the Whigs to power
in 1806, Mr. Erskine once more became Lord Advocate, and was at the same
time returned member for the Dumfries District of Burghs. But this
Administration being of short duration, he was again deprived of office.
After a long, laborious, and brilliant professional career, extending
over a period of forty-four years, Mr. Erskine retired from public life
to his villa of Amondell, in West Lothian, where he died on the 8th of
October, 1817, in the seventy-first year of his age.
In person Mr. Erskine was above the middle size, and eminently handsome.
His voice was powerful; his manner of delivery peculiarly graceful; his
enunciation accurate and distinct—qualities which greatly added to the
effect of his oratory.
Mr. Erskine's first wife (Miss
Fullarton) was a lady of somewhat eccentric habits—she not infrequently
employed half of the night in examining the family wardrobe, to see that
nothing was missing. On one of these occasions, she awoke her husband in
the middle of the night, by putting to him the appalling interrogatory,
"Harry, love, where's your white waistcoat?" The relater of this
anecdote thus incidentally speaks of his reminiscences of Mr. Erskine,
as he appeared in his retreat at Amondell:—"I recollect the very grey
hat that he used to wear, with a bit of the rim torn, and the
pepper-and-salt short coat, and the white neckcloth sprinkled with
While Mr. Erskine practised at the bar, it was
his frequent custom to walk after the rising of the Court to the
Meadows, and he was often accompanied by Lord Balmuto, one of the
judges—a very good kind of man, but not particularly quick in the
perception of the ludicrous. His lordship never could discover, at
first, the point of Mr. Erskine's wit, and after walking a mile or two
perhaps, and long after Mr. Erskine had forgotten the saying, he would
suddenly cry out, "I have you now, Harry—I have you now, Harry!"
stopping and bursting into an immoderate fit of laughter.
With all the liveliness of fancy, however, and with all these shining
talents, Mr. Erskine's habits were domestic iu an eminent degree. His
wishes and desires are pleasingly depictured in the following lines by
"Let sparks and topers o'er their bottles
Toss bumpers down, and fancy laughter wit;
plodders, o'er their ledger pore,
Note down each farthing gain'd,
and wish it more;
Let lawyers dream of wigs, poets of fame,
Scholars look learn'd, and senators declaim;
Let soldiers stand, like
targets in the fray,
Their lives just worth their thirteenpence
Give me a nook in some secluded spot,
shuns, and din approaches not—
Some snug retreat, where I may never
What Monarch reigns, what Ministers bestow—
slippers—and a field to stroll in—
My garden-seat—an elbow chair to
Sunshine, when wanted—shade, when shade invites,
pleasant country laurels, smells, and sights,
And now and then
a glass of generous wine,
Shared with a chatty friend of 'auld
And one companion more, for ever nigh,
iu all that passes by,
To journey with me in the path of life,
And share its pleasures and divide its strife.
These simple joys,
Eugenius, let me find,
And I'll ne'er cast a lingering look behind."
Mr. Erskine was long a member of the Scottish Antiquarian Society. One
of the members remarked to him that he was a very bad attender of their
meetings, adding, at the same time, that he never gave any donations to
the Society. A short time afterwards he wrote a letter to the Secretary
apologising for not attending the meetings, and stating that he had "inclosed
a donation, which, if you keep long enough, will be the greatest
curiosity you have!" This was a guinea of George III.
He had an inveterate propensity for puns. A person once said to him that
punning was the lowest species of wit, to which he replied, "Then it
must be the best species, since it is the foundation of the whole."
Mr. Erskine meeting an old friend one morning returning from St.
Bernard's Well, which he knew he was in the habit of daily visiting,
exclaimed, "Oh, S------e! I see you never weary in well-doing."
Being told that Knox, who had long derived his livelihood by keeping the
door of the Parliament-House, had been killed by a shot from a small
cannon on the King's birthday, he observed that "it was remarkable a man
should live by the civil, and die by the canon law." Lord Kellie was
once amusing his company with an account of a sermon he had heard in a
church in Italy, in which the priest related the miracle of St. Anthony,
when preaching on shipboard, attracting the fishes, which, in order to
listen to his pious discourse, held their heads out of the water. " I
can well believe the miracle," said Mr. Henry Erskine. "How so?"—"When
your lordship was at church, there was at least one fish out of the
Mr. Erskine of Alva, a Scotch advocate,
afterwards one of the Senators of the College of Justice, and who
assumed the title of Lord Barjarg, a man of diminutive stature, was
retained as counsel in a very interesting cause, wherein the Hon. Henry
Erskine appeared for the opposite party. The crowd in court being very
great, in order to enable young Alva to be seen and heard more
advantageously, a chair was brought him to stand upon. Mr. Erskine
quaintly remarked, "That is one way of rising at the bar."
Mr. Erskine, holding an appointment from the Prince
of Wales, generally presided at the anniversary meeting of his Koyal
Highness's household in Edinburgh. On one of these occasions, while a
gentleman was singing after dinner, the Prince's tobacconist accompanied
the song with his fingers upon the ivainscoting of the room, in a very
accurate manner. When the music finished, the chairman said, "He thought
the Prince's tobacconist would make a capital King's counsel" On being
asked "Why?" Harry replied, "Because I never heard a man make so much of
An English nobleman, walking through the
New town in company with Mr. Erskine, remarked how odd it was that St.
Andrew's Church should so greatly project, whilst the Physicians' Hall,
immediately opposite, equally receded. Mr. Erskine admitted that George
Street would have been, without exception, the finest street in Europe,
if the forwardness of the clergy, and the backwardness of the
physicians, had not marred its uniformity.
One day Mr.
Erskine was dining at the house of Mr. William Creech, bookseller, who
was rather penurious, and entertained his guests on that occasion with a
single bottle of Cape wine, though he boasted of some particularly fine
Madeira wine he happened to possess. Mr. Erskine made various attempts
to induce his host to produce a bottle of his vaunted Madeira, but to no
purpose ; at length lie said, with an air of apparent disappointment,
"Well, well, since we can't get to Madeira, we must just double the
In his latter years Mr. Erskine was very much
annoyed at the idea that his witticisms might be collected together in a
volume. Aware of this, a friend of his resolved to tease him, and having
invited him to dinner, he, in the course of the evening, took up a
goodly looking volume, and turning over the pages began to laugh
heartily. "What is the cause of your merriment?" exclaimed the guest.
"Oh, it's only one of your jokes, Harry."—"Where did yon get it?"—"Oh,
in the new work just published, entitled The Neiv Complete Jester, or
every man his own Harry Erskine!" Mr. Erskine felt very much amazed, as
may be supposed, upon the announcement of the fictitious publication.
Mr. Erskine was twice married, and by his first marriage he had the
present Earl of Buchan, Major Erskine, and two daughters: one married to
the late Colonel Callender of Craigforth, and another to Dr. Smith. By
his second wife, Miss Munro (who still survives), he had no issue.