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Significant Scots
Honourable Henry Erskine


Honourable Henry Erskine ERSKINE, (HONOURABLE) HENRY, an eminent pleader, was the third son of Henry David, tenth earl of Buchan, by Agnes, daughter of Sir James Stewart of Coltness and Goodtrees, Baronet. He was born at Edinburgh, on the 1st of November, 1746, O.S. His fame has been eclipsed by that of his younger and more illustrious brother, Thomas lord Erskine, who rose to the dignity of lord high chancellor of Great Britain; but his name, nevertheless, holds a distinguished place in the annals of the Scottish bar, to which he was called in the year 1768, and of which he was long the brightest ornament.

Mr Erskine’s education was begun under the paternal roof. He was afterwards sent, with his two brothers, to the college of St Andrews; whence they were subsequently transferred to the university of Edinburgh, and latterly to that of Glasgow. As his patrimony was small, Henry was taught to look forward to a profession, as the only avenue to fortune; and he early decided on that of the bar, while his younger brother resolved to push his fortune in the army.

It was in the Forum, a promiscuous debating society established in Edinburgh, that young Erskine’s oratorical powers first began to attract notice. While prosecuting his legal studies, and qualifying himself for the arduous duties of his profession, he found leisure to attend the Forum, and take an active part in its debates. It was in this school that he laid the foundation of those powers of extemporary speaking, by which in after years he wielded at will the feelings of his auditors, and raised forensic practice, if not to the models of ancient oratory, at least to something immeasurably above the dull, cold, circumlocutory forms of speech in which the lords of council and session were then wont to be addressed. Another arena upon which Henry Erskine trained himself to exhibitions of higher oratory than had yet been dreamt of by his professional brethren, was the general assembly of the kirk of Scotland, of which it was then said with greater truth than it would be now, that it afforded the best theatre for deliberative eloquence to be found in Scotland. Here his lineage, talents, and orthodox sentiments commanded respect; and accordingly he was always listened to by that venerable body with the greatest deference and attention.

Mr Erskine was equalled, perhaps surpassed in depth of legal knowledge, by one or two of his fellows at the bar; but none could boast of equal variety and extent of accomplishments; none surpassed him in knowledge of human character; and none equalled him in quickness of perception, playfulness of fancy, and professional tact. He was the Horace of the profession; and his "seria commixta jocis" are still remembered with pleasure by his surviving contemporaries. Yet, while by the unanimous suffrages of the public, Mr Erskine found himself placed without a rival at the head of a commanding profession, his general deportment was characterized by the most unaffected modesty and easy affability, and his talents were not less at the service of indigent but deserving clients, than they were to be commanded by those whose wealth or influence enabled them most liberally to remunerate his exertions. Indeed his talents were never more conspicuous than when they were employed in protecting innocence from oppression, in vindicating the cause of the oppressed, or exposing the injustice of the oppressor. Henry Erskine was in an eminent sense the advocate of the people, throughout the long course of his professional career; he was never known to turn his back upon the poor man; or to proportion his services to the ability of his employers to reward them. It is said that a poor man, in a remote district of Scotland, thus answered an acquaintance who wished to dissuade him from engaging in a law-suit with a wealthy neighbour, by representing the hopelessness of his being able to meet the expense of litigation: "Ye dinna ken what ye’re saying, maister; there’s no a puir man in a’ Scotland need to want a friend or fear an enemy sae lang as Harry Erskine lives !"

When Mr Erskine deemed his independence secured, he married Christina, the only daughter of George Fullarton, Esq., collector of the customs at Leith. This lady brought him a handsome fortune; but, with the prospect of a pretty numerous family before him, Mr Erskine continued assiduously to practise his profession. By this lady he had three daughters: Elizabeth Frances, who died young; Elizabeth Crompton, afterwards Mrs Callendar; and Henrietta, afterwards Mrs Smith; together with two sons, Henry and George, the former of whom married the eldest daughter of the late Sir Charles Shipley in 1811, and became earl of Buchan.

Mr Erskine, like his elder brother, had early embraced the principles of whiggism; and this distinguished family, during the progress of the American war, openly expressed their decided disapprobation of the course which ministers were pursuing in that unfortunate contest. Opposition was a more serious thing in these times than it has since become; to oppose ministers was considered tantamount to disaffection to the constitution, and often exposed a man to serious loss and inconvenience. Mr Erskine’s abilities, indeed, were beyond the reach of detraction; and his practice at the bar was founded upon a reputation too extensive to be easily shaken; but it cannot be doubted that, in espousing the liberal side of politics, he was sacrificing to no small amount his prospects of preferment. At the conclusion, therefore, of the American war, and the accession of the Rockingham administration, Mr Erskine’s merits pointed him out as the fittest member of faculty, for the important office of lord advocate of Scotland, to which he was immediately appointed. But his opportunities to support the new administration were few, on account of its ephemeral existence; and on its retirement, he was immediately stripped of his official dignity, and even some years afterwards deprived, by the vote of his brethren, on account of his obnoxious political sentiments, of the honourable office of dean of faculty. On the return of the liberal party to office in 1806, Henry Erskine once more became lord advocate, and was returned member for the Dumfries district of burghs, in the room of major general Dalrymple. This, however, like the former whig administration, was not suffered to continue long in power, and with its dissolution, Mr Erskine again lost his office and seat in parliament. Amid these disappointments, Mr Erskine remained not less distinguished by inflexible steadiness to his principles, than by invariable gentleness and urbanity in his manner of asserting them. "Such, indeed," says one of his most distinguished contemporaries, "was the habitual sweetness of his temper, and the fascination of his manners, that, though placed by his rank and talent in the obnoxious station of a leader of opposition, at a period when political animosities were carried to a lamentable height, no individual, it is believed, was ever known to speak or to think of him, with any thing approaching to personal hostility. In return it may be said, with equal correctness, that though baffled in some of his pursuits, and not quite handsomely disappointed of some of the honours to which his claim was universally admitted, he never allowed the slightest shade of discontent to rest upon his mind, nor the least drop of bitterness to mingle with his blood. He was so utterly incapable of rancour, that even the rancorous felt that he ought not to be made its victim."

Mr Erskine’s constitution began to give way under the pressure of disease, about the year 1812; and he, thereupon, retired from professional life, to his beautiful villa of Ammondell in West Lothian, which originally formed part of the patrimonial estate, but was transferred to the subject of our memoir by his elder brother about the year 1795, to serve as a retreat from the fatigues of business during the vacation. "Passing thus," says the eloquent writer already quoted, "at once from all the bustle and excitement of a public life, to a scene of comparative inactivity, he never felt a moment of ennui or dejection; but retained unimpaired, till within a day or two of his death, not only all his intellectual activity and social affections, but, when not under the immediate affliction of a painful and incurable disease, all that gayety of spirit, and all that playful and kindly sympathy with innocent enjoyment, which made him the idol of the young, and the object of cordial attachment and unenvying admiration to his friends of all ages." The five remaining years of his life were consumed by a complication of maladies; and he expired at his country-seat on the 8th of October, 1817, when he had nearly completed the 71st year of his age.

In person, Mr Henry Erskine was above the middle size; he was taller than either of his brothers, and well-proportioned, but slender; and in the bloom of manhood, was considered handsome in no common degree. In early life, his carriage was remarkably graceful; and so persuasive was his address, that he never failed to attract attention, and by the spell of irresistible fascination, to fix and enchain it. His features were all character,—his voice was powerful and melodious,—his enunciation uncommonly accurate, and distinct,—and there was a peculiar grace in his utterance, which enhanced the value of all he said, and engraved the remembrance of his eloquence indelibly on the minds of his hearers. His habits were domestic in an eminent degree. It has been said of men of wit in general, that they delight and fascinate every where but at home; this observation, however, though too generally true, could not be applied to him, for no man delighted more in the enjoyment of home, or felt more truly happy in the bosom of his family, while at the same time none were more capable of entering into the gayeties of polished society, or more courted for the brilliancy of his wit, and the ease and polish of his manners.

"The character of Mr Erskine’s eloquence," says another friend, well capable of estimating his merits, "bore a strong resemblance to that of his noble brother; but being much less diffuse, it was better calculated to leave a forcible impression. He had the art of concentrating his ideas, and presenting them at once in so luminous and irresistible a form, as to render his hearers master of the view he took of his subject, which, however dry or complex in its nature, never failed to become entertaining and instructive in his hands; for to professional knowledge of the highest order, he united a most extensive acquaintance with history, literature, and science, and a thorough conversancy with human life." His oratory was of that comprehensive species which can address itself to every audience, and to every circumstance, and touch every chord of human emotion. Fervid and affecting in the extreme degree, when the occasion called for it: it was no less powerful, in opposite circumstances, by the potency of wit and the irresistible force of comic humour, which he could make use of at all times, and in perfect subordination to his judgment. "In his profession, indeed, all his art was argument, and each of his delightful illustrations a material step in his reasoning. To himself it seemed always as if they were recommended rather for their use than their beauty; and unquestionably they often enabled him to state a fine argument, or a nice distinction, not only in a more striking and pleasing way, but actually with greater precision than could have been obtained by the severer forms of reasoning. In this extraordinary talent, as well as in the charming facility of his eloquence, and the constant radiance of good humour and gayety which encircled his manners in debate, he had no rival in his own times, and as yet has no successor. That part of eloquence is now mute, that honour in abeyance."

There exists a bust of Mr Erskine, from the chisel of Turnerelli. We are not aware that any good portrait of him was ever taken.’

[After the above account of Mr Erskine was written, we happened to read a very pleasing account of him in his latter days, which was drawn up by his relation, Henry David Inglis, Esq., and inserted in the Edinburgh Literary Journal. This sketch we subjoin:

"My youthful visits to Ammondell live very greenly in my memory: these had greater charms for me than either Horace or Virgil, and, I suspect, charms quite as rational. None of my holidays were anticipated with longings more eager than those that were to be spent at Ammondell. I had my fishing tackle to arrange, which, to one fond of angling, is a pleasure secondary only to that of using it. I had to prepare myself in the classics, which, though a less agreeable occupation than the other, was as necessary—certain, as I was, that I should be examined as to my proficiency. Sometimes, also, I ventured upon a verse or two of English poetry, to show to my indulgent relative.

"It was soon after Mr Erskine retired from the bar and from political life, that my visits to Ammondell were the most frequent; and it is this period that my recollections of him are the most vivid. Some say he retired from public life disgusted: all admit, that he retired neglected—but no one will add, forgotten. Sure I am, that if impressions made upon the mind of a boy be entitled to any regard, I may say truly, that disappointment, if felt at all, had been unable in him to sour the milk of human kindness: and that, when I saw that fine grey-headed man—the most eloquent, the wittiest of his day—walking in his garden, with the hoe in his hand, I never questioned his sincerity in the following charming and characteristic lines, which he once read to me from his scrap-book, and which, not very long before his death, he kindly permitted me to copy. They have never before been published:

‘Let sparks and topers o’er their bottle sit,
Toss bumpers down, and fancy laughter wit;
Let cautious plodders o’er the ledger pore,
Note down each farthing gain’d, and wish it more:
Let lawyers dream of wigs, poets, of fame,—
Scholars look learned, and senators declaim:
Let soldiers stand like targets in the fray,
Their lives worth just their thirteen pence a day;

Give me a nook in some secluded spot
Which business shuns, and din approaches not,—
Some quiet retreat, where I may never know
What monarch reigns, what ministers bestow:
A book—my slippers—and a field to stroll in—
My garden-seat—an elbow-chair to loll in:
Sunshine when wanted—shade, when shade invites;
With pleasant country sounds, and smells, and sights;
And, now and then, a glass of generous wine,
Shared with a chatty friend of ‘auld lang syne;’
And one companion more, for ever nigh,
To sympathize in all that passes by—
To journey with me on the path of life,
And share its pleasures, and divide its strife.
These simple joys, Eugenius, let me find,
And I’ll ne’er cast a lingering look behind.’

These lines were written after Mr Erskine’s second marriage, and refer, no doubt, in the latter part, to his second wife, who proved a most valuable companion and a tender nurse in his declining years. What degree of happiness his first connexion yielded in his early days, I have no access to know; but the extreme nervous irritability, and somewhat eccentric ways of the first Mrs Erskine, did not contribute greatly to his happiness in her later years. One of her peculiarities consisted in not retiring to rest at the usual hours. She would frequently employ half the night in examining the wardrobe of the family, to see that nothing was missing, and that every thing was in its proper place. I recollect being told this, among other proofs of her oddities, that one morning, about two or three o’clock, having been unsuccessful in a search, she awoke Mr Erskine by putting to him this important interrogatory, ‘Harry, lovie, where’s your white waistcoat?’

"The mail coach used to set me down at Ammondell gate, which is about three quarters of a mile from the house; and yet I see, as vividly as I at this moment see the landscape from the window at which I am now writing, the features of that beautiful and secluded domain,—the antique stone bridge,—the rushing stream, the wooded banks,—and, above all, the owner, coming towards me with his own benevolent smile and sparkling eyes. I recollect the very grey hat he used to wear, with a bit of the rim torn, and the pepper-and-salt short coat, and the white neckcloth sprinkled with snuff.

"No one could, or ever did, tire in Mr Erskine’s company—he was society equally for the child and for the grown man. He would first take me to see his garden, where, being one day surprised by a friend while digging potatoes, he made the now well-known remark, that he was enjoying otium cum diggin a tautie. He would then take me to his melon bed, which we never left without a promise of having one after dinner; and then he would carry me to see the pony, and the great dog upon which his grandson used to ride.

"Like most men of elegant and cultivated minds, Mr Erskine was an amateur in music, and himself no indifferent performer upon the violin. I think I scarcely ever entered the hall along with him that he did not take down his Cremona—a real one, I believe—which hung on the wall, and, seating himself in one of the wooden chairs, play some snatches of old English or Scottish airs; sometimes, ‘Let’s have a dance upon the heath’ an air from the music in Macbeth, which he used to say was by Purcel, and not by Locke, to whom it has usually been ascribed – sometimes, ‘The flowers of the forest’ or ‘Auld Robin Gray’ – and sometimes the beautiful Pastorale from the eighth concerto of Corelli, for whose music he had an enthusiastic admiration. But the greatest treat to me was when, after dinner, he took down from the top of his bookcase, where it lay behind a bust, I think, of Mr Fox, his manuscript book, full of jeus d’esprit, charades, bon mots, &c., all his own composition. I was then too young, and, I trust, too modest, to venture any opinion upon their merits; but I well recollect the delight with which I listened, and Mr Erskine was not above being gratified by the silent homage of a youthful mind.

"Few men have ever enjoyed a wider reputation for wit than the Honourable Henry Erskine; the epithet then, and even now, applies to him, par excellence, is that of the witty Harry Erskine; and I do believe, that all the puns and bon mots which have been put into his mouth – some of them, no doubt, having originally come out of it – would eke out a handsome duodecimo. I well recollect, that nothing used to distress me so much as not perceiving at once the point of any of Mr Erskine’s witticisms. Sometimes, half an hour after the witticism had been spoken, I would begin to giggle, having only then discovered the gist of the saying. In this, however, I was not singular. While Mr. Erskine practiced at the bar, it was his frequent custom to walk, after the rising of the courts, in the Meadows; and he was often accompanied by Lord Balmuto – one of the judges, a very good kind of man, but not particularly quick in his perception of the ludicrous. His lordship never could discover at first the point of Mr Erskine’s wit; and, after walking a mile or two perhaps, and long after Mr Erskine had forgotten the saying, Lord Balmuto would suddenly cry out, ‘I have you now, Harry – I have you now, Harry!’ – stopping, and bursting into an immediate fit of laughter."]

The Honourable Henry Erskine, Lord Advocate of Scotland (pdf)

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