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Lord Braxfield, of the Court of Session


This eminent lawyer and judge of the last century was born in 1722. His father, John M'Queen, Esq., of Braxfield, in the county of Lanark, was educated as a lawyer, and practised for some time; but he gave up business on being appointed Sheriff-Substitute of the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire. He was by no means wealthy, and, having a large family, no extravagant views of future advancement seem to have been entertained respecting his children. Robert, who was his eldest son, received the early part of his education at the grammar-school of the county town, and thereafter attended a course at the University of Edinburgh, with the view of becoming a writer to the signet.

In accordance with this resolution, young M'Queen was apprenticed to Mr. Thomas Gouldie, an eminent practitioner, and, during the latter period of his service, he had an opportunity of superintending the management of processes before the Supreme Court. Those faculties of mind which subsequently distinguished him both as a lawyer and a judge, were thus called into active operation; and feeling conscious of intellectual strength, he resolved to try his fortune at the bar. This new-kindled ambition by no means disturbed his arrangement with Mr. Gouldie, with whom he continued until the expiry of his indenture. In the meantime, however, he set about the study of the civil and feudal law, and very soon became deeply conversant in the principles of both, especially of the latter.

In 1744, after the usual trials, he became a member of the Faculty of Advocates. In the course of a few years afterwards, a number of questions arising out of the Rebellion in 1745, respecting the forfeited estates, came to be decided, in all of which M'Queen had the good fortune to be appointed counsel for the crown. Nothing could be more opportunely favourable for demonstrating the young advocate's talent* than this fortuitous circumstance. The extent of knowledge which he displayed as a feudal lawyer, in the management of these cases—some of them of the greatest importance—obtained for him a degree of reputation which soon became for him substantially apparent in the rapid increase of his general practice. The easy unaffected manners of Mr. M'Queen also tended much to promote success. At those meetings called consultations, which, for many years after his admission to the bar, were generally held in taverns, he "peculiarly shone," both in legal and social qualifications. Ultimately his practice became so great, especially before the Lord Ordinary, that he has been repeatedly known to plead from fifteen to twenty causes in one day. Some idea of the influence and high character to which he had attained as an advocate, may be gathered from the couplet in the "Court of Session Garland," by Boswell:—

"However of our cause not being ashamed,
Unto the whole Lords we straightway reclaimed;
And our petition was appointed to be seen,
Because it was drawn by Robbie Macqueen."

On the death of Lord Coalston, in 1766, Mr. M'Queen was elevated to the bench by the title of Lord Braxfield—an appointment, it is said, he accepted with considerable reluctance, being in receipt of a much larger professional income. He was prevailed upon, however, to accept the gown by the repeated entreaties of Lord President Dundas, and the Lord Advocate, afterwards Lord Melville. In 1780, he was appointed a Lord Commissioner of Justiciary; and, in 1787, was still more highly honoured by being promoted to the important office of Lard Justice-Clerk of Scotland. "Mr. M'Queen had contracted an intimacy with Mr. Dundas, afterwards Lord President of the Court of Session, and his brother, Lord Melville, at a very early period of life. The Lord President, when at the bar, married the heiress of Bonning-ton, an estate, situated within a mile of Braxfield. During the recesses of the Court, these eminent men used to meet at their country seats, and read and study law together. This intimacy, so honourable and advantageous to both, continued through life."

Lord Braxfield was equally distinguished on the bench as lie had been at the bar. He attended to his duties with the utmost regularity, daily making his appearance in court, even during winter, by nine o'clock in the morning; and it seemed in him a prominent and honourable principle of action to mitigate the evils of the "law's delay," by a despatch of decision, which will appear the more extraordinary considering the number of causes brought before him while he sat as Judge Ordinary of the Outer House.

As Lord Justice-Clerk, he presided at the trials of Muir, Palmer, Skirving, Margarot, Gerrald, etc., in 1793-4. At a period so critical and so alarming to all settled governments, the situation of Lord Justice-Clerk was one of peculiar responsibility, and indeed of such a nature as to preclude the possibility of giving entire satisfaction. During this eventful period Lord Braxfield discharged what he conceived to be his duty with firmness, and in accordance to the letter and spirit of the law, if not always with that leniency and moderation which in the present day would have been esteemed essential.

The conduct of Lord Braxfield, during these memorable trials, has indeed been freely censured in recent times as having been distinguished by great and unnecessary severity ; but the truth is, he was extremely well fitted for the crises in which he was called on to perform so conspicuous a part; for, by the bold and fearless front he assumed, at a time when almost every other person in authority quailed beneath the gathering storm, he contributed not a little to curb the lawless spirit that was abroad, and which threatened a repetition of that reign of terror and anarchy which so fearfully devastated a neighbouring country. But if the conduct of his lordship in those trying times was thus distinguished by high moral courage, that of the prisoners implicated in these transactions, it cannot be denied, was marked by equal firmness. During the trial of Skirving, this person conceiving Braxfield was endeavouring by his gestures to intimidate him, boldly addressed him thus: "It is altogether unavailing for your lordship to menace me; for I have long learned to fear not the face of man."

As an instance of his great nerve, it may be mentioned that Lord Braxfield, after the trials were over, which was generally about midnight, always walked home to his house in George Square alone and unprotected. He was in the habit, too, of speaking his mind on the conduct of the Eadicals of those clays in the most open and fearless manner, when almost every other person was afraid to open their lips, and used frequently to say, in his own blunt manner, "They would a' be muckle the better o' being hanged!"

When his lordship paid his addresses to his second wife, the courtship was carried on in the following characteristic manner. Instead of going about the bush, his lordship, without any preliminary overtures, deliberately called upon the lady, "and popped the question" in words to this effect:—"Lizzy, I am looking out for a wife, and I thought you just the person that would suit me. Let me have your answer, aff or on, the morn, and nae mair about it! " The lady, who understood his humour, returned a favourable answer next day, and the marriage was solemnized without loss of time.

Lord Braxfield was a person of robust frame—of a warm or rather hasty temper—and, to "ears polite," might not have been considered very courteous in his manner. "Notwithstanding, he possessed a benevolence of heart," says a contemporary, "which made him highly susceptible of friendship, and the company was always lively and happy of which he was a member."

His lordship was among the last of our judges who rigidly adhered to the broad Scotch dialect. "Hae ye ony counsel, man?" said he to Maurice Margarot, when placed at the bar. "No." "Do you want to hae ony appointit'?" continued the judge. "No," replied Margarot, "I only want an interpreter to make me understand what your lordship says!"

Of Lord Braxfield and his contemporaries there are innumerable anecdotes. When that well-known bacchanalian, Lord Newton, was an advocate, he happened one morning to be pleading before Braxfield, after a night of hard drinking. It so occurred that the opposing counsel, although a more refined devotee of the jolly god, was in no better condition. Lord Braxfield observing how matters stood on both sides of the question, addressed the counsel in his usual unceremonious manner—"Gentlemen," said he, "ye may just pack up your papers and gang hame; the tane o' ye's rifting punch, and the ither's belching claret—and there'll be nae gude got out o' ye the day!"

Being one day at an entertainment given by Lord Douglas to a few of his neighbours in the old Castle of Douglas, port was the only description of wine produced after dinner. The Lord Justice-Clerk, with his usual frankness, demanded of his host if " there was nae claret in the Castle?" "I believe there is," said Lord Douglas, "but my butler tells me it is not good." "Let's pree't," said Braxfield, in his favourite dialect. A bottle of the claret having been instantly produced and circulated, all present were unanimous in pronouncing it excellent. "I propose," said the facetious old judge, addressing himself to Dr. M'Cubbin, the parish clergyman, who was present, "as fama elamosa has gone forth against this wine, that yon absolve it." "I know," replied the Doctor, at once perceiving the allusion to Church-court phraseology, "that you are a very good judge in cases of civil and criminal law; but I see you do not understand the laws of the Church. "We never absolve till after three several appearances!''' Nobody could relish better than Lord Braxfield the wit or the condition of absolution.

After a laborious and very useful life, Lord Braxfield died on the 30th of May, 1799, in the 78th year of his age. He was twice married. By his first lady, Miss Mary Agnew, niece of the late Sir Andrew Agnew, he had two sons and two daughters. By his second lady, Miss Elizabeth Ord, daughter of the late Lord Chief Baron Ord, he had no children.

His eldest son, Robert Dundas M'Queen, inherited the estate of Braxfield, and married Lady Lilias Montgomery, daughter of the late Earl of Eglintoun. The second entered the army, and was latterly a Captain in the 18th regiment of foot. The eldest daughter, Mary, was married to William Honeyman, Esq. of Graemsay, afterwards elevated to the bench by the title of Lord Annandale, and created a Baronet in 1804. The second, Catherine, was married to John Macdonald, Esq. of Clanronald.


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