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The Honourable Henry Erskine, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates


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."

During the 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 snuff."

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 himself:—

"Let sparks and topers o'er their bottles sit,
Toss bumpers down, and fancy laughter wit;
Let cautious 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 a-day.
Give me a nook in some secluded spot,
Which business shuns, and din approaches not—
Some snug retreat, where I may never know
What Monarch reigns, what Ministers bestow—
A book—my slippers—and a field to stroll in—
My garden-seat—an elbow chair to loll in—
Sunshine, when wanted—shade, when shade invites,
With pleasant country laurels, smells, and sights,
 And now and then a glass of generous wine,
Shared with a chatty friend of 'auld langsyne;'
And one companion more, for ever nigh,
To sympathise 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 water."

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 a, pannel."

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 Cape."

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.


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