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Significant Scots
Sir Alexander Gibson


GIBSON, (SIR) ALEXANDER, lord Durie, an eminent lawyer and judge, was the son of George Gibson of Goldingstones, one of the clerks of session. The period of his birth we have been unable to discover; but as we find him admitted a clerk of session in 1594, we may conclude that he was born considerably more than twenty years previous to that period. It appears that the appointment of Gibson to this duty created a new clerkship, and as the addition in number would reduce the arbitrary sources of emolument of the other two clerks, it was naturally apprehended that the interloper would be received with the usual jealousy of those whose interests are unduly interfered with. King James the sixth, who had generally some deep and mysteriously wise purpose in all he did, chose to be personally present at the appointment of his nominee, in order that the royal choice might meet with no marks of contempt. The mindful sovereign was on this occasion pleased to be so highly delighted with the disinterested conduct of his obedient clerks, who had so willingly received a partner "at his Highness’s wish and special desire," that he promised in presence of the court, to remunerate them with "ane sufficient casualty for said consents." The chamber in the Register house instituted by this appointment still retains the denomination of "Durie’s Office." At that period the duties of a principal clerk of session were of a more politically important nature than they have been since the union: these officers had to register the decrees and acts of parliament, in addition to their present duties. The only remnant of their former occupations, is their acting as clerks at the elections of the Scottish representative peers. Gibson continued in his clerkship for all the remainder of his life, notwithstanding the higher offices to which he was afterwards promoted. In 1621, he was appointed a lord of session, and as the duties of judge and clerk were rather anomalous, we find by the books of sederunt, that the prudent clerk had procured in the previous month his son to be installed in the office. Mr Alexander Gibson, junior, being appointed conjunct clerk with Mr Alexander Gibson, senior, during the life of the longest liver, the senior, it may be presumed, continued to draw the salary, without being much troubled with the duties. Seven years after his appointment to the bench, we find him accepting a baronetcy of Nova Scotia, with a grant of some few square miles of land in that district. In 1633, he was appointed a member of one of the committees for the revision of the laws and customs of the country. In 1640, he appears to have been elected a member of the committee of estates, and his appointment as judge was continued under a new commission to the court in 1641. From the period of his elevation to the bench in 1621, till the year 1642, this laborious lawyer preserved notes of such decisions of the court as he considered worthy of being recorded as precedents, a task for which a previously extensive practice had fitted him. These were published by his son in one volume folio, in 1688, and are valuable as the earliest digested collection of decisions in Scottish law. Their chief peculiarities are their brevity, and, what would not appear at first sight a natural consequence, their obscurity. But Gibson produced by a too niggardly supply, the effect which is frequently attributed to a too great multitude of words. He appears, however, to have always known his own meaning; and when, with a little consideration, his raciones decidendi are discovered, they are found to be soundly stated. The clamours which other judges of the day caused to be raised against their dishonesty and cupidity, were not applied to Durie. He seems, indeed, asfar as the habits of the times could allow the virtue to exist, except in an absolutely pure being, tohave been a just and fearless judge, for in a period of general legal rapine and pusillanimity, the possession of a very moderate share of honesty and firmness in the judgment seat, made their proprietor worthy of a nation’s honour. If the affirmation of a professional brother may be credited, Durie possessed, according to the opinion of Forbes, a later collector of decisions, most of the intellectual and moral qualities which can dignify the bench. It is a proof of the respect in which his brethren held him, that while the office continued elective in the senators of the college, he was repeatedly chosen as president. At that period, the legal practice of Scotland appeared to have improved for the mere purpose of substituting sophism and injustice under form, for rude equity; it was a handle to be made use of, rather; than a rule to be applied. The crown had recourse to legal fictions, and unjust and arbitrary presumptions, in its dealings with the subject. The subject, instead of calling for a recourse to constitutional principles, sometimes rose against the administration of the law, just or unjust. With private parties, the more powerful got the command of the law, and used it against the weaker. A striking instance of contempt towards the laws, which took place during one of the presidencies of Gibson of Durie is mentioned in Douglas’s Baronage, and Forbes’s Journal, and is more fully and pleasingly narrated in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. The earl of Traquair had an action depending in court, in which it was understood the president would, by his influence, cause the court to give judgment against him. A border freebooter, or gentleman thief, known by the name of Christie’s Will, owed to the peer some gratitude and allegiance, having gained his protection by an insolent jest on the subject of his having been imprisoned for theft. This person being a gentleman both by descent and education, insinuated himself into the president’s company during his usual morning ride on the sands of Leith. On the two reaching a very lonely spot, the judge was snatched from his horse, rolled into a blanket, and carried off he knew not where. He was imprisoned three months, during which time his friends and himself considered that he was in fairy-land. The case was decided in favour of Traquair, and a new president appointed, when the judge one morning found himself laid down in the exact spot from which he had been so suddenly carried off, and returned to claim his privileges. This useful man died at his house of Durie on the 10th of June, 1644. He left behind him a son of his own name, who was active among the other persons of high rank, who came forward to protect their national church from the imposition of a foreign liturgy. He is known as having boldly resisted one of king Charles the first’s prorogations, by refusing the performance of the duty of clerk of parliament, already alluded to. He appears, however, not to have always given satisfaction to the cause he had so well espoused, as he is more than once mentioned in Lamont’s Diary as a malignant. He was raised to the bench in 1646. Besides this son, the wealth of the father allowed him to provide a junior branch of the family with the estate of Adistone in Lothian.


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