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The Scottish Nation
Rosslyn


ROSSLYN, a title in the peerage of Great Britain, now possessed by the family of Erskine, but originally, in 1801, conferred on Alexander Wedderburn (see WEDDERBURN, surname of), Lord-high-chancellor of England. This distinguished lawyer, the eldest son of Peter Wedderburn, Lord Chesterhall, one of the senators of the college of justice in Scotland, was born in East Lothian, February 13, 1733. His great-grandfather, Sir Peter Wedderburn of Gosford, descended from an old family in Forfarshire, was an eminent lawyer and judge during the reign of Charles II.

Young Wedderburn studied at the university of Edinburgh. He was educated for the law of Scotland, and was admitted advocate in 1752, at the early age of nineteen. He soon obtained a respectable share of practice, but having gained a cause in which the celebrated Lockhart was the opposing counsel, that eminent barrister, in his chagrin at being defeated, styled him “a presumptuous boy.” The young advocate’s reply was so very sarcastic, that it called down upon him a severe rebuke from one of the judges, on which Wedderburn indignantly threw off his gown, and declared that he would never again plead in a place where he was subjected to insult. Removing to London, he entered himself a member of the Inner Temple, May 8, 1753, by which society he was called to the English bar November 23d, 1757. In 1763, he obtained a silk gown as king’s counsel, and became a bencher of Lincoln’s Inn. He rapidly acquired reputation and practice, and was eminently successful as counsel for the celebrated Lord Clive. IN 1768=9 he was one of the barristers engaged in the great Douglas cause, and his eloquent pleading on this occasion not only attracted the favourable notice of Lord Camden, but secured for him the friendship and patronage of the earls of Bute and Mansfield. He was subsequently called to the degree of sergeant-at-law, and, in January 1771, he was appointed solicitor-general. In June 1773 he was made attorney-general. The year following, the offensive nature of his language towards Franklin, when arguing before the privy council on American affairs, drew upon him, at the time, some severe though well-merited censure. He first sat in parliament as member for Richmond; in 1774 he was chosen both for Castle Rising and Oakhampton, but preferred the latter; and, in 1778, he was elected for Bishop’s Castle. In 1764 he distinguished himself by a spirited opposition to the expulsion of John Wilkes. In the course of the next year he married the daughter and heiress of John Dawson, Esq. of Morley, Yorkshire. He joined Mr. George Grenville in opposition to the administration, and was most eloquent and animated in his speeches against their policy with regard to the American colonies, predicting that by the measures of ministers, these colonies would, “in the reign of George III., be dissevered from the British empire.” In the course of Hilary Term 1771, he accepted the office of solicitor-general to the king and cofferer to her majesty. After he became solicitor-general, however, he changed his views, and defended all the acts of government in regard to America, -- conduct which brought upon him the resentment of his former political friends. “It is at least candid to believe,” says one impartial writer, “that Mr. Wedderburn, upon this occasion, was actuated by the purest motives, and that a change so sudden, a conversion so instantaneous, originated in the most profound conviction. His enemies, however, were bitter in their resentment, and so illiberal in their animosity, that they would not allow the intervention of any one honourable principle. They carried their hatred to such a length, that they attacked his principles, his profession, and even his country.” In respect to his profession, it was observed, “that the patriotism of a lawyer is always problematical,” and that, “having been accustomed, in the courts below, to plead for or against, according to his brief, he had carried the same facility of disposition up stairs with him.”

In Trinity Term, 1778, he was nominated attorney-general, in consequence of the elevation of Lord Thurlow to the Chancery bench. In this situation it does not appear that he exercised the office of prosecutor for the crown with any degree of asperity. On the contrary, his official conduct, as compared with that of any of his predecessors, was mild and meritorious. In the meantime, he persevered in supporting the measures of Lord North, which were intended to reduce America to a state of unconditional submission. So strenuous was the zeal of some individuals at this period, that they offered to subscribe money and raise regiments for the purpose of coercing the colonies. Wedderburn’s arguments, it was said, were full of confident assertions and predictions, never meant to be fulfilled, but merely to answer the temporary purposes of debate.

In June 1780 he was sworn a member of the privy council, and appointed chief justice of the common pleas, being raised to the peerage under the title of Lord Loughborough, of Loughborough, in the county of Leicester. In April 1783 he united with Lord North in forming the celebrated coalition ministry, in which he held the appointment of first commissioner for keeping the great seal. On its dissolution he was thrown out of office, and joined the opposition under Mr. Fox; but in January 1793, under the alarm produced by the French Revolution, with many others, he gave in his accession to Pitt’s administration, and on the 27th of that month he succeeded Lord Thurlow as lord-high chancellor. He retired from that office in April 1801, when he was created earl of Rosslyn, in Mid-Lothian, with remainder to his nephew, Sir James St. Clair Erskine of Alva, leaving no children of his own. He had been twice married, his second wife being the Hon. Charlotte Courtney. He died at Bayles, in Berkshire, January 3, 1805, and was interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Lord Rosslyn was an able lawyer, and an eloquent speaker, and “appeared,” says Sir Egerton Bridges, “to be a man of subtle and plausible, rather than solid talents. His ambition was great, and his desire of office unlimited. He could argue with great ingenuity on either side, so that it was difficult to anticipate his future by his past opinions. These qualities made him a valuable partisan, and a useful and efficient member of any administration.” In 1755 he contributed to the first Edinburgh Review, Critiques on Barclay’s Greek Grammar, the Decisions of the Court of Session, and the Abridgment of the Public Statutes; and in 1793 he published “Observations on the State of the English Prisons, and the means of improving them.”

Sir James St. Clair Erskine, sixth baronet of Alva, second earl of Rosslyn, was the eldest son of Lieutenant-general Sir Henry Erskine, fifth baronet of that family, by his wife, Janet Wedderburn, daughter of the above-named Lord Chesterhall and sister of the first earl of Rosslyn. Born in 1762, he succeeded his father in the baronetcy the following year, and in 1778 entered the army as cornet in the 1st horse-guards. In 1782 he served on the staff in Ireland, as aide-de-camp to the lord-lieutenant, and was subsequently appointed assistant-adjutant-general in that country. In 1783 he became major in the 8th light dragoons. In 1789 he succeeded Colonel Paterson, son of the Hon. Grizzel St. Clair and John Paterson of Prestonhall, in the St. Clair estates, parish of Dysart, Fifeshire, and in consequence assumed the name and arms of St. Clair. These estates at one period belonged to the Lords Sinclair, and had been settled on the Hon. James St. Clair, second son of the seventh Lord Sinclair, John, master of Sinclair, the eldest son, having been attainted for his share in the rebellion of 1715. On the latter receiving a pardon in 1726, his brother, who was afterwards a general in the army, generously gave the estates up to him, but succeeded him in them in 1750. On General St. Clair’s death in 1762, without issue, he was succeeded in his heritable property by his nephew, Colonel Paterson, who assumed the name of St. Clair, and died unmarried. In 1792 Sir James Erskine received the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 12th light dragoons. The following year he served with his regiment at Toulon, and afterwards as adjutant-general to the forces in the Mediterranean. IN 1795 he obtained the rank of colonel, and was appointed aide-de-camp to the king. From November 1796 to the end of 1797 he was employed as brigadier-general and adjutant-general to the British army in Portugal. IN 1798 he attained the rank of major general, and was present at the reduction of Minorca. IN January 1805 he succeeded his uncle as second earl of Rosslyn. The same year he became lieutenant-general, and was placed on the staff in Ireland. Before his accession to the peerage he had been for 23 years a member of the House of Commons. In 1806 he again served in Portugal. IN 1807 he was at the siege of Copenhagen, and in 1809 in the Zealand expedition. IN June 1814 he attained the full rank of general. In 1829 he was appointed keeper of the privy seal, and sworn a member of the privy council, and in December 1834 he was lord-president of the council in Sir Robert Peel’s brief administration. He was a knight grand cross of the Bath, and lord-lieutenant of Fifeshire. He died 18th January 1837.

His eldest son, James Alexander St. Clair, Lord Loughborough, born 15th February 1802, succeeded as third earl of Rosslyn. In 1841 he was sworn a member of the privy council, and from September of that year to July 1846 he was master of the buckhounds to the queen. In 1854 he became a major-general in the army. He married, 10th October 1826, Frances, daughter of Lieutenant-general Wemyss of Wemyss; issue, a daughter, Lady Harriet Elizabeth, and two sons, James Alexander, Lord Loughborough, born 10th May 1830, an officer in the life-guards, who died, unmarried, 28th December 1851, and Robert Francis, Lord Loughborough, born 2d March 1833.


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