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Lord Eldin, of the Court of Session


John Clerk, afterwards Lord Eldin—a well-known and able lawyer—was the eldest son of John Clerk, Esq., of Eldin, sixth son of Sir John Clerk, of Pennycuick, and author of a celebrated work on Naval Tactics. He was born in April, 1757, and educated with the view of proceeding to India; but the expectations of his friends having been disappointed by the occurrence of certain political changes, his attention was turned to the legal profession. After completing his apprenticeship as a Writer to the Signet, and having practised for a year or two as an accountant, he qualified himself for the bar, and was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates in 1785.

Possessed of the most promising intellectual requisites, Mr. Clerk speedily rose to distinction ; and it is said that at one period he had nearly one-half of all the business of the Court upon his hands. His style of pleading was distinguished by strong sense, acuteness, and the most profound reasoning. His sole object being to convince, his mode of stating the argument was brief, simple, and clear. His eloquence was a constant appeal to legal reason, in the masterly exposition of which the whole collected force of his intellect was displayed.

In politics Mr. Clerk was a keen Whig; and, in 180G, when that party came into power for a short time, he was appointed Solicitor-General in the room of Robert Blair of Aventoun. This appointment he held only during the limited period of one year, while his friends were in office; and his elevation to the bench did not occur till 1823. In consequence of the infirmities of age, his lordship resigned five years afterwards, and died at his house in Picardy Place, on the 80th May, 1832.

At the time Lord Eldin was raised to the bench he was advanced in years, and a gradual decrease of business had previously given intimation that he had ceased to be regarded by agents as the vigorous and energetic pleader he once was. Perhaps at no period of his legal career, would John Clerk ever have given satisfaction as a judge; for, with all his talent and professional skill, he was one of those persons who could only see one side of a cause ; and although this may be an advantage to the bar for the client, it is assuredly a serious disadvantage on the bench for a suitor. As it was, no fair chance occurred to test the judicial talents of this once distinguished barrister; for his faculties at the date of his elevation were seriously impaired—an assertion, the truth of which his decisions afford ample proof. Latterly his memory failed entirely. On one occasion, shortly before his removal from the judgment-seat, a debate had been partly heard before him one day, and concluded the next. The astonishment of counsel maybe conceived, when, at the termination, the judge candidly announced he did not know what the parties were talking about, and proposed that they should recommence the debate, and repeat all they had previously said. This was one of his last appearances in Court.

Mr. Clerk was not remarkable either for symmetry of person or beauty of countenance. He was about as plain a looking man as could well be imagined. His inattention to dress was proverbial. In walking he had a considerable halt, one of his legs being shorter than the other. Proceeding down the High Street one day from the Court of Session, he overheard a young lady saying to her companion rather loudly, "There goes Johnnie Clerk, the lame lawyer." Upon which he turned round, and, with his usual face of expression, said, "No, madam; I may be a lame man, but not a lame lawyer."

Although his legal studies must have engrossed the greater part of his time, Mr. Clerk still found leisure to indulge a taste for the fine arts. He occasionally amused himself in drawing and painting. He was a skilful modeller; and even while seated on the bench with his colleagues, he was known to gratify his fondness for the ludicrous, by pencilling any object that might strike his fancy. (Mr. Clerk had been paid a fee of one hundred guineas for pleading in a particular case. The agent happened to call on him next day. "John," said Clerk, "where do you think your fee is?" "I know not," was the reply. "There it is," said he. On looking up the agent perceived a small painting of a cat, which he said he would not have given one shilling for.)

In the course of his long life he had collected a very extensive selection of paintings, sketches, and rare prints. At the sale of these, by auction, at his lordship's house in Picardy Place, a short time after his death, a serious accident occurred. The floor of the apartment gave way, and the crowd of purchasers were precipitated from the drawing to the dining-room flat, in consequence of which many were injured, and Mr. Smith, banker in Edinburgh, unfortunately killed.

Lord Eldin died a bachelor; and, old maid-like, he had formed such an attachment to cats, that his domestic establishment could always boast of at least half-a-dozen feline indwellers. When called on by a client, he was generally found seated in his study, with a favourite Tom elevated on his shoulder, and purring about his ears.

Throughout the whole of his career as a barrister, Mr. Clerk took infinite delight in ridiculing the bench. To one amiable individual, now no more, he was invariably rude ; and whilst his lordship acted as an Ordinary in the Outer House, he suffered a species of torture that required great natural sweetness and kindness of disposition to endure. Lord Craigie, the person alluded to, being himself a most excellent feudal lawyer, highly respected the talents of Mr. Clerk ; and although many occasions occurred, which a man of vindictive feeling would eagerly have seized on, to punish his tormentor, still he uniformly passed them over. Clerk, however, did not come off so well with the Inner House. On one occasion, having used rather strong language towards one of the bench, the presiding judge most properly called him to order, and required him instantly to make a suitable apology to the venerable and excellent individual whom he had insulted. It was a bitter pill to swallow; but, as there was no alternative, the discomfited lawyer—who did not aspire to the honour of judicial martyrdom—was compelled to succumb.

Mr. Clerk was of a convivial disposition, and the contrast between the crabbed lawyer and the good-natured bonvivantvt&s, great. Being a member of the Bannatyne Club, he invariably attended the anniversary dinner; and no one could enjoy with greater zest the good things which Mr. Barry unsparingly lavished on such occasions. Until within a year or two of his death, Sir Walter Scott, as president, uniformly took the chair; and it is not surprising that, in the witchery of his company, libations to Bacchus should have been more frequent than perhaps was beneficial to the health of the assembled members. At the termination of one of these feasts, where wit and wine contended for the mastery, the excited judge (for Mr. Clerk had then been raised to the bench), on the way to his carriage, tumbled down stairs, and, miserabile dictu, broke his nose—an accident which compelled him to confine himself to the house for a day or two. He re-appeared, however, with a large patch on his olfactory member, which gave a most ludicrous expression to his face. On some one inquiring how this happened, he said it was the effect of his studies. "Studies!" ejaculated the inquirer. "Yes," growled the judge, "ye've heard, nae doot, about Coke upon Littleton, but I suppose you never before heard of Clerk upon Stair ! "

The small estate of Eldin devolved to his brother William, one of the Jury Court Clerks; but he bequeathed his property, under the burden of a few legacies, to his friend, Charles Boss, Esq., advocate.


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