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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
James Marshall, Esq., Writer to the Signet


This is a striking etching of a somewhat eccentric yet active man of business—one of the few specimens of the old school who survived the close of last century. The smart gait—the quick eye—aquiline nose—compressed lips—the silver spectacles, carelessly thrown upwards—the cocked hat firmly crowning the old black wig—and the robust appearance of the whole figure, at once bespeak the strong nerve and decisive character of the original.

Almost every sexagenarian in Edinburgh must recollect Mr. James Marshall, Writer to the Signet. He was a native of Strathaven, in Lanarkshire, and made his debut upon the stage of life in the year 1731. From his having become a writer to the signet at a period when that society was more select than it is at present, we may fairly presume that his parents were respectable, and possessed of at least some portion of the good things of this world.

Mr. Marshall was both an arduous and acute man of business; but he possessed one accomplishment that might have been dispensed with, for he was one of the most profound swearers of his day; so much so, that few could possibly compete with him. Every sentence he uttered had its characteristic oath ; and, if there was any degree of wit at all in the numerous jokes which his exuberance of animal spirits suggested, it certainly lay in the peculiar magniloquent manner in which he displayed his "flowers of eloquence." As true chroniclers, however, we must not omit recording a circumstance which, notwithstanding this most reprehensible habit, does considerable credit to the heart of the heathen lawyer. One day the poor washerwoman whom he employed appeared at his office in Milne's Square, with her head attired in a mourning coif, and her countenance unusually rueful. "What—what is the matter, Janet?" said the writer, in his usual quick manner. Janet replied, in faltering accents, that she had lost her gudeman. "Lost your man!" said Marshall; at the same time throwing up his spectacles, as if to understand the matter more thoroughly, "How the d------did that happen?" Janet then stated the melancholy occurrence by which she had been bereaved. It seems that at that time extensive buildings were going on about the head of Leith Walk; and, from the nature of the ground, the foundations of many of them were exceedingly deep. Janet's husband had fallen, in the dark, into one of the excavations—which had been either imperfectly railed in, or left unguarded—and, from the injuries sustained, he died almost immediately. Marshall patiently listened to the tale, rendered doubly long by the agitated feelings of the narrator; and, as the last syllable faltered on her tongue, out burst the usual exclamation, but with more than wonted emphasis—"The b------s, I'll make them pay for your gudeman!"

No sooner said than done: away he hurried to the scene of the accident—inspected the state of the excavation—and, having satisfied himself as to all the circumstances of the case, and the liability of the contractors, he instantly wrote to them, demanding two hundred pounds as an indemnity to the bereaved widow. No attention having been paid to his letter, he immediately raised an action before the Supreme Court, concluding for heavy damages; and, from the active and determined manner in which he went about it, soon convinced his opponents that he was in earnest. The defenders became alarmed at the consequences, and were induced to wait upon Mr. Marshall with the view of compounding the matter, by paying the original demand of two hundred pounds. "Na, na, ye b------s! " was the lawyer's reply; "that sum would have been taken had ye come forward at first, like gentlemen, and settled wi' the puir body; but now (adding another oath) three times the sum'll no stop the proceedings." Finding Marshall inexorable, another, and yet another hundred was offered—not even five hundred would satisfy the lawyer. Ultimately the parties were glad to accede to his own terms; and it is said he obtained, in this way, upwards of seven hundred pounds as a solatium for the "lost gudeman"—all of which he handed over to his client, who was thus probably made more comfortable by the death of her husband than she had ever been during his life.

In the winter season, Mr. Marshall resided in Milne's Square, but in summer he retired to Greenside House (his own property), situated in the Lover's Lane, near Leith Walk, where he kept a capital saddle horse; but for what purpose it was impossible to divine, no man ever having seen him on horseback (indeed, it was generally supposed he could not ride), and he would allow no one else, not even the stable-boy, to mount the animal. From this it may be inferred that the horse was in high favour with its master. Well fed, and well attended to, the only danger likely to have occurred from this luxurious mode of life arose from the want of exercise. To obviate this, the discipline adopted was truly worthy of the eccentric lawyer. Almost daily he had the horse brought out to the field behind the house, where, letting him loose, he would whip him off at full gallop ; and then, to increase the animal's speed and insure exercise enough, his dog (for he always kept a favourite dog) was usually despatched in pursuit. Thus would Marshall enjoy, with manifest pride and satisfaction, for nearly an hour at a time, the gambols of the two animals.

Having no near relatives to whom he cared bequeathing his property, Mr. Marshall had selected, as the favoured individual, one of the judges of the Court of Session; but an incident occurred about two years prior to his death, which entirely changed his views on the subject. In politics he had been, if anything, an adherent of Henry Dundas, afterwards Lord Viscount Melville, and felt very deeply the injustice of the charges latterly preferred against that distinguished nobleman. While the impeachment against him was going on in London, Mr. Marshall, although then in his seventy-fourth year, daily repaired to the Parliament House, where the news of the day were generally discussed. The all-engrossing topic was of course "the impeachment;" and the innocence or guilt of Melville decided upon according to the political bias of the disputants. Having one day paid his accnstomed visit, old Marshall was astonished to find the sentiments of his intended heir decidedly adverse to the fallen minister. This appeared the more intolerable to Marshall, knowing, as he did, that this individual entirely owed his elevation to the very person whom he now villified. *O the ungrateful scoundrel! " exclaimed the old man; and working himself up into a towering passion, he strode up and down the floor of the court-house, cursing with more than usual vehemence—then grumbling through his teeth as he left the court—"He shall never finger a farthing of my money "—he hurried directly home, ere his accumulated wrath should be expended, and committed the " will " to the flames.

Mr. Marshall died at Greenside House on the 23rd May, 1807, in the seventy-sixth year of his age. He married a Miss Janet Spens, who died in 1788.


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