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Significant Scots
James Dalrymple


James DalrympleDALRYMPLE, JAMES, viscount Stair, an eminent lawyer and statesman, and the progenitor of many distinguished persons, was born at Drummurchie, in the parish of Barr, Ayrshire, in the month of May, 1619. His father, who bore the same name, was proprietor of the small estate of Stair, in that county, which, on his death, in 1624, fell to his son. James Dalrymple received his education at the parish school of Mauchline, and the university of Glasgow, and at an early age entered the army raised in Scotland to repel the religious innovations of Charles I. In 1641, when he had attained a captaincy in the earl of Glencairn’s regiment, he became a competitor for the chair of philosophy at Glasgow, and gained it against several rivals. Former writers have made a wonder of his appearing at this competition in his military dress of buff and scarlet, and also at his retaining his commission as captain for some time after assuming the philosophy chair. The truth is, he, and his brethren in arms, could hardly be considered as soldiers, but rather as civilians taking up arms for a temporary purpose; and, by the same enthusiasm, even clergymen appeared occasionally with sword and pistol. Dalrymple held this chair for six years, during which he employed much of his time in the study of civil law, which was not then taught publicly in Scotland. His mind being thus turned to the law as a profession, he resigned his chair in 1647, and in the ensuing year became an advocate at the Scottish bar. His abilities soon procured him both legal and political distinction, In 1649, he was appointed secretary to the commissioners who were sent by the Scottish parliament to treat with Charles II., then an exile in Holland, for his return to his native dominions. He held the same office in the more successful mission of 1650, and we are told that, on this occasion, he recommended himself to the king by his "abilities, sincerity, and moderation." After a short residence in Holland, during which he saw a number of the learned men of that country, he returned to Scotland, and was one of two persons sent by the parliament to attend the king at his landing. In the Cromwellian modification of the court of session, he was, in 1657, appointed one of the "Commissioners for administration of justice," chiefly upon the recommendation of general Monk, who thus characterized him in a letter to the protector—"a very honest man, a good lawyer, and one of a considerable estate." It was not, however, without great difficulty that he was prevailed upon to accept office under the government of Cromwell. He took the earliest opportunity, after the restoration, of paying his respects to the king, who knighted him, and nominated him one of the new judges. From this office, however, he retired in 1663, in order to avoid taking "the declaration," an oath abjuring the right to take up arms against the king. Next year, on the personal solicitation of the king, he resumed his duties, with only a general declaration of his aversion to any measures hostile to his majesty’s just rights and prerogatives, the king granting him a sanction in writing for this evasion of the law. On this occasion, Charles conferred upon him the title of a baronet. In 1671, he succeeded Gilmour of Craigmiller as lord president, and immediately availed himself of the situation to effect some important improvements in the system of judicature. He also, at this time employed his leisure hours in recording the decisions of the court. As a member of the privy council, he was invariably the advocate, though not always successfully, of moderate measures, and he remonstrated as warmly as he durst against all who were of an opposite character. When the celebrated test oath was under consideration, in 1681, Dalrymple, for the purpose of confounding it altogether, suggested that John Knox’s confession of faith should be sworn to as part of it. As this inculcated resistance to tyranny as a duty, he thought it would counterbalance the abjuration of that maxim contained in another part of the oath. The discrepancy passed unobserved, for not a bishop in parliament was so far acquainted with ecclesiastical history as to know the contents of the confession. However, inconsistent as it was, it was forced by the government down the throats of all persons in office, and thus became the occasion of much mischief. Lord Stair himself refused to take it, and accordingly had to retire from his offices. Before this period, he had prepared his celebrated work, "the Institutions of the Law of Scotland,’’ which was now published. This work still continues to be the grand textbook of the Scottish lawyer. "It is not without cause," says Mr Brodie, in a late edition, "that the profound and luminous disquisitions of lord Stair have commanded the general admiration of Scottish lawyers. Having brought to the study of jurisprudence a powerful and highly cultivated intellect, he was qualified to trace every rule to principle. Yet such was his sterling practical good sense, that he rarely allowed himself to be carried away by theory, too frequently the failing of philosophic minds, less endowed with this cardinal virtue. His philosophy and learning have enabled him to enrich jurisprudence with a work, which, in embodying the rules of law, clearly developes the ground on which they are founded."

Lord Stair lived for about a year at his country seat in Wigtonshire, but experiencing much persecution from the government, found it necessary, in October, 1682, to take refuge in Holland. In his absence he was accused of high treason, on the grounds, that some of his tenants had been concerned in the insurrection at Bothwell bridge. An attempt, however, which was made to obtain a surrender of his person from Holland, proved abortive. From his retirement Leyden, he sent forth his "Decisions," through the medium of the press at Edinburgh, the first volume appearing in 1684, and the second in 1687. In 1686, he published, at Leyden, a Latin treatise of much originality, under the title of "Physiologia Nova Experimentalis." He also busied himself at this time in a work respecting the mutual obligations of the sovereign and his people, on which subject he entertained more liberal opinions than what were generally received in that age. This work, however, was never published. When the prince of Orange was about to sail for Britain, lord Stair requested to know what was the object of his expedition. The prince replied, that it was not personal aggrandizement, but "the glory of God, and the security of the protestant religion, then in imminent danger." The reply of lord Stair was a strange mixture of the sublime and ludicrous. Taking off his wig, and exhibiting his bald head, he said, "Though I be now in the seventieth year of my age, I am willing to venture that, (pointing to his head,) my own and my children’s fortune, in such an undertaking." He accordingly accompanied the prince, and was rewarded, after the settlement of affairs under William and Mary, with a re-appointment to the presidency of the court of session, and a peerage under the title of viscount Stair. Though thus restored to his country, and to more than his former honours, the latter years of this great man were not happy. He had never been the friend of the high church party, and therefore he could expect no favour from that class of malcontents under the revolution settlement. But the presbyterian party, also, for which he had done and suffered so much, also treated him with little respect, considering him too deeply concerned in the late oppressive and cruel system to be worthy of their confidence. Under these circumstances he breathed his last, on the 25th of November, 1695, in the 77th year of his age, and was buried in the High church of Edinburgh.

Lord Stair had been married, in 1643, to Margaret Ross, co-heiress of the estate of Balneil, in Wigtonshire; by whom he had five sons, and four daughters. The eldest son, John, having held office under James II., was, like his father, held in suspicion by the presbyterian party; but nevertheless attained high office under the revolution government. He was secretary of state for Scotland, and elevated to the rank of earl of Stair, in 1703. On his death, in 1707, he was succeeded in his title by the celebrated commander and diplomatist, John, second earl of Stair. The junior branches of the family have produced fruit almost equally distinguished. Sir James Dalrymple, the second son, was himself the author of "Collections concerning Scottish History preceding the death of David I.," which appeared in 1705, and the grandfather of Sir John Dalrymple, of Cranston, author of that excellent work, "Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland, from the dissolution of the last parliament of Charles II, until the sea battle off La Hogue," in two volumes, 4to. The youngest son, Sir David, was the grandfather of lord Hailes, and Alexander Dalrymple, two persons already commemorated in this work. Through these channels, and by the alliances of his daughters, the blood of lord Stair now flows in most of the noble families in Scotland. The historical eminence of the family is only to be paralelled by the immense influence which it possessed for many years in this country, an influence hardly matched by that of the Dundasses in later times. [We preserve, for drollery’s sake, the following easy rhymes which lord Auchinleck, father of James Boswell, use to repeat, as descriptive of the succession of predominating influences in Scotland during the last century: -

First cam the men o’ mony wimples,
In common language ca’d Da’rumples,
And aftrer them cam the Dundasses,
Wha raide our lords an lairds like asses.

A quatrain, it must be confessed, more true than respectful, although, in both cases alike, the predominance was grounded in inherent family talent.]


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