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Significant Scots
John Erskine


ERSKINE, JOHN, of Carnock, afterwards of Cardross, professor of Scots law in the university of Edinburgh, was born in the year 1695. His father was the honourable colonel John Erskine of Carnock, the third son of lord Cardross, whose family now holds the title of earl of Buchan. The zeal which colonel Erskine had manifested for the cause of the presbyterian religion and of liberty, constrained him to retire into Holland, where he obtained the command of a company in a regiment of foot, in the service of the prince of Orange. He afterwards accompanied that prince to England, at the revolution of 1688, and received as a reward for his services and attachment, the appointments of lieutenant-governor of Stirling castle, a lieutenant-colonelcy of a regiment of foot, and, afterwards, the governorship of the castle of Dumbarton. He was chosen, in 1695, a director of the African and Indian company of Scotland, and, in the following year, was sent to Holland and other parts of the continent, to manage the affairs of the company. He was representative of the town of Stirling in the last Scottish parliament, and was a great promoter of the legislative union of the kingdoms. When the treaty of union was effected, he was nominated, in the year 1707, to a seat in the united parliament of Britain, and, in the general election of 1708, he was chosen member for the Stirling district of burghs. He died in Edinburgh, January, 1743, in the 82d year of his age. He was four times married; first, to Jane, daughter and heiress of William Mure of Caldwell, in Renfrewshire, by whom he had no issue; secondly, on the 5th of January, 1691, to Anne, eldest daughter and co-heiress of William Dundas of Kincavel, who was the mother of John Erskine of Carnock, the subject of this notice, and of other three sons and a daughter; thirdly, on the 18th of April, 1725, to Lilas, daughter of Stirling of Keir, who died leaving no issue; and, fourthly, to Mary, daughter of Charles Stuart of Dunearn, by whom he had one son.

John Erskine of Carnock having been educated for the profession of the law, became a member of the faculty of advocates, in the year 1719, and continued for some years to discharge the duties of his profession without having been remarkably distinguished. In 1737, on the death of Alexander Bain, professor of Scots law in the university of Edinburgh, Mr Erskine became a candidate for that chair. The patronage of this professorship is nominally in the town council of Edinburgh, but virtually in the faculty of advocates; the election, under an act of parliament passed in the reign of George I., being made in the following manner:—The faculty, by open suffrage of all the members, send a leet, (as it is called,) or list, containing the names of two of their number, to the town council; one of whom the patrons must choose. The candidate favoured by his brethren is of course joined in the leet with another member of the body, who, it is known, will not accept; and although, in case of collision, this arrangement might occasion embarrassment, practically the effect is, to place the nomination to this chair in the body best qualified to judge of the qualifications of the candidates. Hence this preferment is, generally speaking, a very fair test of the estimation in which the successful candidate is held by his brethren; and their choice has seldom been more creditable to themselves than it was in the case of Mr Erskine. The list presented to the town council contained the names of Erskine and of Mr James Balfour, advocate, a gentleman who had no desire for the appointment, and Mr Erskine was consequently named professor. The emoluments of the office consist of a salary of 100 per annum, payable from the revenue of the town, in addition to the fees paid by the students.

Mr Erskine entered on the discharge of his academical duties with great ardour; and, from the ability which he displayed as a lecturer, his class was much more numerously attended, than the Scots law class had been at any former period. The text book which he used for many years was Sir George Mackenzie’s Institutions of the Law of Scotland; but, in the year 1754, Mr Erskine published his own "Principles of the Law of Scotland," 8vo, which he intended chiefly for the use of his students, and which, from that time forward, he made his text-book. In this work, Mr Erskine follows the order of Sir George Mackenzie’s Institutions, supplying those omissions into which Sir George was betrayed by his desire for extreme brevity, and making such farther additions as the progress of the law since Sir George’s time rendered necessary. The book is still very highly esteemed on account of the precision and accuracy, and, at the same time, the conciseness, with which the principles of the law are stated; nor is it an inconsiderable proof of its merit, that, notwithstanding the very limited circulation of Scottish law books, this work has already gone through numerous editions.

After having taught the Scots law class with great reputation for twenty-eight years, Mr Erskine, in 1765, resigned his professorship, and retired from public life. For three years after his resignation, he occupied himself chiefly in preparing for publication his larger work, "The Institutes of the Law of Scotland." It was not published, however, nor, indeed, completed, during his life. The work, in the state in which Mr Erskine left it, was put into the hands of a legal friend, who, after taking the aid of some of his associates at the bar, published it in 1773, in folio. Although marked with some of the defects incident to a posthumous publication, Erskine’s Institutes has been, for the last eighty years, a book of the very highest authority in the law of Scotland. It is remarkable for the same accuracy and caution which distinguish the Principles; and as additions have been made in every successive impression, suitable to the progressive changes in the law, there is perhaps no authority which is more frequently cited in the Scottish courts, or which has been more resorted to, as the ground-work of the several treatises on subordinate branches of the law, which have appeared within the last fifty years. It has been said, that the Institutes partakes somewhat of the academical seclusion in which it was written, and indicates occasionally that the author was not familiar with the every-day practice of the law. But this is a defect, which, if it exists at all, would require keener eyes than ours to discover. On the contrary, without presuming to dogmatise on such a subject, we should be inclined to say, that we have met with no Scottish law book, which appears to us to contain a more clear and intelligible exposition, both of the theory and practice of the law, or in which the authorities cited are digested and analysed with more care and success.

Mr Erskine died at Cardross on the 1st of March, 1768, in the 73d year of his age. He had been twice married; first to Miss Melville, of the noble family of Leven and Melville, by whom he left the celebrated John Erskine, D.D., one of the ministers of Edinburgh; secondly, to Anne, second daughter of Mr Stirling of Keir, by whom he had four sons and two daughters. In the year 1746, Mr Erskine had purchased, at a judicial sale, the estate of Cardross, which formerly had belonged to his grandfather, lord Cardross, and he was possessed, besides, of very considerable landed property, the greater part of which devolved on James Erskine of Cardross, the eldest son of his second marriage, who died at Cardross on the 27th of March, 1802.


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