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Significant Scots
Malcolm Laing


LAING, MALCOLM, a lawyer and distinguished constitutional historian, was born in the year 1762, at Strynzia, his paternal estate, situated on the main-land of Orkney. He received the rudiments of his education at the humble but respectable grammar school of Kirkwall; a seminary which is generally attended by about a hundred boys, the sons of the neighbouring proprietors and farmers. When he had reached the proper age, he was sent to the university of Edinburgh, then superintended and attended by men of great talent. Along with many of the latter class, he joined in the establishment of the Speculative Society, an institution whose subjects of discussion were perhaps to a certain extent guided by his peculiar tastes, and certainly coincided remarkably with those in which he afterwards distinguished himself.

In 1785, he passed as a Scottish advocate: we do not know whether he had any predilection for the practice of the law, or whether he made choice of the profession, for the mere respectability of the title, and the opportunity it might afford of attracting notice as a politician; but assuredly, notwithstanding his very high talents in general, and his peculiarly great powers as a reasoner or special pleader, he never was much employed, or known as a distinguished practicing barrister. It will scarcely account sufficiently for this circumstance, that the manner in which he delivered his powerful arguments was neither majestic nor pleasing, that "his speeches were uttered with an almost preternatural rapidity, and in harsh and disagreeable tones." If he could speak and compose with facility—and in parliament he was considered an able speaker—such arguments as he might have used did not require the extraneous assistance of manner, even for a jury; while almost the whole pleading in Scotland at that period was addressed to the judges, from whose well-practised intellects, reason and powerful argument only could find attention. Laing has shown in his writings a minute knowledge of all branches of Scottish law: he voluntarily acted the part of a lawyer, in historical subjects, in a manner which has called forth the highest praise to his merely forensic talents; and it may, on the whole, be safely concluded, that the limited extent of his practice at the bar must be attributed more to his choice than to his talent. The first fruit of Mr Laing’s laborious constitutional investigations, was the preparing for the press the last volume of Dr Henry’s History of Great Britain in 1793, after that author’s death. The matter collected by Henry did not extend to a period at which the work could be terminated, and Laing was requested by his executors to write two terminating chapters, to which he annexed a dissertation on the alleged crimes of Richard III. The labours of the two authors could not be very aptly united, and many consider Laing as a fierce liberalist, whose doctrines appeared harsh and prejudiced, when compared to the calm narrative of Henry. The authors were indeed extremely dissimilar, but we must pause before we decide in favour of the former. Henry was a man of tame mind and tolerable good sense; but if he appeared calm and moderate in his historical opinions, he was so, in the very safe and reputable cause of despotism, in which he ensconced himself as an impregnable fortress, which it did not require much skill to defend. Laing, on the other hand was a man of strong judgment and profound speculation; and if he was violently argumentative in support of the opinions he had adopted, he was so, not as a man who is determined to maintain a given point because he has chosen it, and is personally interested in its being shown to be true; but as one who had considered the matter accurately, had submitted it to the arbitration of his strong judgment, and was resolved to crush those prejudices which prevented others from seeing it as it appeared to himself. It is the height of all prejudice to blame an historian for his opinions; but many have deserved to be censured severely for twisting facts to support opinions, instead of bending opinions to accommodate them to facts. It was the object of Laing to discover the truth. Perhaps prepossession in favour of the line of principles he had adopted may have, therefore, prompted him to derive improper deductions from the facts which he produced; but his strongest political opponents have never accused him of perverting facts. Laing is said likewise to have composed the memoir of Henry which accompanied the History; but it certainly does not display his usual energy of style. Whatever defects some may have discovered in the continuation of Henry’s History, the critical world in general saw its merit, and bestowed the countenance of its approbation. The author thus encouraged to new historical labours, looked towards his native country, and in 1800, he published "The History of. Scotland, from the union of the crowns, on the accession of king James VI. to the throne of England, to the union of the kingdoms, in the reign of queen Anne. With two dissertations, historical and critical, on the Gowry Conspiracy, and on the supposed authenticity of Ossian’s Poems." As in the previous case, his book was very dissimilar to that of the person of whose labours his were a continuation—Dr Robertson. Of the flowing academical ease of that author it is very destitute. It cannot be called either inelegant or harsh, but it is complicated; and by being laboured to contain much meaning, is occasionally obscure. There is much in the profundity of the remarks and reflections which Dr Robertson could not have reached; but the chief merit lies in the display of critical power on matters of evidence, in which he displays all the acumen of the practised lawyer, and the close observer of human nature. From this peculiar merit, the separate dissertations, containing nothing but special pleadings, are the most useful and admirable parts of the book. In all parts of the work, the author’s ruling spirit has prompted him to search for debated facts, few of which he has left without some sort of settlement of the point. He has treated in this manner many points of English history, among which is the celebrated question of the author of Elkon Basilike, concerning which he has fully proved, that whatever share Charles may have had in the suggestion or partial composition, Gauden was the person who prepared the work for the press. Mr Laing appears to have enjoyed a peculiar pleasure in putting local and personal prejudices at defiance, and exulting in the exercise of strong reasoning powers, he has not hesitated to attack all that is peculiarly sacred to the feelings of his countrymen; a characteristic strikingly displayed in his dissertation on the authenticity of Ossian’s Poems. These productions required no depth of argument, or minute investigation of facts, to support their authenticity in the feelings of an enthusiastic people: and those who did not believe them, had not troubled themselves with calmly meeting what they considered unconquerable prejudices.

Laing may, therefore, be considered as the first person who examined the pretensions of Macpherson on the broad ground of an investigation into facts. The arguments in this dissertation may be considered as of three sorts: the first, a logical examination of the arguments and proofs adduced, or supposed to be adduced, in favour of the authenticity of the poems, which, as the author has only sceptical arguments to produce, is the least interesting and satisfactory part of the investigation. The second body of arguments is drawn from contemporary documents and chronological facts,—a portion of the subject in which the author showed his vast reading, and his power of clearly distinguishing truth from falsehood, constituting a body of evidence which finally demolished any claim on the part of "the Poems of Ossian" as authentic translations of the productions of a Highland bard of the fourth century. The third part of our division, containing an examination of the internal evidence drawn from the poems themselves, if not the most conclusive part of the examination, is certainly that which gives us the strongest idea of the author’s critical ingenuity, and his powers as a special pleader. He produces terms and ideas which could not be presumed to have entered into the minds of the early inhabitants of Britain, from their never having encountered the circumstances which legitimately rouse them, such as the idea attached to the term "desert," which cannot be a part of speech with men who inhabit a wild and thinly peopled country, and can only be comprehended by those who are accustomed to see or hear of vast barren tracts of country, as opposed to cities, or thickly peopled districts.

He produces similes, and trains of ideas derived, or plagiarised from the writings of other authors, particularly from Virgil, Milton, Thomson, and the Psalms; and finally, he enters into a curious comparison between the method of arranging the terms and ideas in the Poems of Ossian, and that exhibited in a forgotten poem called "The Highlanders," published by Macpherson in early life. The author of such an attack on one of the fortresses of the national pride of Scotland, did not perpetrate his work without suitable reprobation; the Highlanders were "loud in their wail," and the public prints swarmed with ebullitions of their wrath. Mr Laing was looked on as a man who had set all feelings of patriotism at defiance: to many it seemed an anomaly in human nature, that a Scotsman should thus voluntarily undermine the great boast of his country; and, unable otherwise to account for such an act, they sought to discover in the author, motives similar to those, which made the subject sacred to themselves. "As I have not seen Mr Laing’s History," says one gentleman, "I can form no opinion as to the arguments wherewith he has attempted to discredit Ossian’s Poems: the attempt could not come more naturally than from Orcadians. Perhaps the severe checks given by the ancient Caledonians to their predatory Scandinavian predecessors raised prejudices not yet extinct. I conceive how an author can write under the influence of prejudice, and not sensible of being acted upon by it." [Rev. Mr. Gallie’s Letter to the Highland Committee,--Report 39.] This gentleman, who had not seen Mr Laing’s History, probably conceived his observation to be one which would go bitterly home to the feelings of his opponent; but we fear Mr Laing’s feelings regarding the Celts were a strong armour against the arrow, as we have heard that he was personally partial to the Highlanders, so much so as to be designated by those who knew him, "a regular Celt." Mr Laing’s dissertations on the Poems of Ossian had the merit of causing to be produced "The Report of the Committee of the Highland Society, appointed to inquire into the nature and authenticity of the Poems of Ossian," conducted under the superintendence of Henry Mackenzie, published in 1805.

At the same period, Mr Laing brought the controversy to a final issue, by publishing a work, which, with a sneer in its designation he entitled "The Poems of Ossian, &c. containing the poetical works of James Macpherson, Esq., in prose and rhyme, with notes and illustrations." The nature of the "notes and illustrations" may easily, be presumed; the work indeed is a curiosity in literature. The edition of Ossian is a very splendid one; and, like an animal decked for sacrifice, the relentless editor introduced it conspicuously to the world, with the apparent purpose of making its demolition the more signal. Within the same year, Mr Laing’s line of argument was answered by Mr M’Donald, and two years afterwards, a long and elaborate work, complacently termed a "confutation," was produced by the reverend Mr Graham, who, however, made a somewhat unlucky development of his qualifications for this task, by quoting the "De Moribus Germanorum" of Tacitus, referring entirely to the Teutonic nations, as authority concerning the Celts. Mr Laing never confuted his arguments, having never made the attempt.

In the mean time, Mr Laing’s controversial disposition had prompted him to discover another subject, in the treatment of which he excited a still greater degree of wrath. In 1804, he published an edition of his History of Scotland, to which he prefixed two volumes, containing "A Preliminary Dissertation on the participation of Mary queen of Scots in the murder of Darnley." The purpose of the treatise was, with the author’s usual decision and boldness, declared in the title, and through the whole of the lengthy detail of two volumes on one historical incident, he never wavers in the slightest degree from the conclusion of guilt. Having first formed his opinion in the matter—on good grounds, it is charitably to be presumed—he lays down and arranges his documents and arguments with the precision and conciseness of a lawyer, and no more hints at the possibility of the innocence of the queen, than the crown lawyer at that of his victim. Few who have ever read this extraordinary work can forget the startling exactness with which the arguments are suited to the facts, and to the guiding principles of the whole narrative of the renowned event laid before the reader. "Mr Laing’s merit," says a writer in the Edinburgh Review, who refers to this work as to one peculiarly characteristic of his genius, "as a critical inquirer into history, an enlightened collector of materials, and a sagacious judge of evidence, has never been surpassed. If any man believes the innocence of queen Mary, after an impartial and dispassionate perusal of Mr Laing’s examination of her case, the state of such a man’s mind would be a subject worthy of much consideration by a philosophical observer of human nature. In spite of his ardent love of liberty, no man has yet presumed to charge him with the slightest sacrifice of historical integrity to his zeal. That he never perfectly attained the art of full, clear, and easy narrative, was owing to the peculiar style of those writers who were popular in his youth, and may be mentioned as a remarkable instance of the disproportion of particular talents to general vigour of mind." [Ed. Rev. xliv. 37.]

Laing was intimately acquainted with Charles Fox, with whom he conducted an ample correspondence, the letters of which on both sides, still, we believe, exist unpublished, and would certainly form a very interesting addition to our epistolary information regarding great men. That eminent statesman frequently quoted the historical works of Mr Laing, as containing matter which could be relied on for its authenticity; and Laing became an active and zealous supporter of the short administration of his friend, during which he represented his native county in parliament. It is said, that notwithstanding the disadvantages of his manner, he was listened to and much respected as a speaker; and he gave all the assistance which so short a period admitted to the plans of the ministry for improving the Scottish courts of law. After his brief appearance as a legislator, the state of his health prevented him from interfering in public business. Whether from excessive study and exertion, or his natural habit of body, he suffered under a nervous disorder of excessive severity, which committed frightful ravages on his constitution; and it is said that he was required to be frequently supported in an artificial position, to prevent him from fainting. He retired to his estate in Orkney, and his health being to a certain extent restored by a cessation from laborious intellectual pursuits, his ever active mind employed itself in useful exercise within his narrow sphere of exertion: he improved his own lands, introduced better methods of cultivation than had been previously practised in the district, and experimented in the breeding of Merino sheep. He died in the end of the year 1818, having, notwithstanding the great celebrity of his works, been so much personally forgotten by the literary world, that it is with difficulty that we have been enabled to collect matter sufficient for an outline of his life. He was married to Miss Carnegie, daughter of a gentleman in Forfarshire, and sister-in-law to lord Gillies. His property was succeeded to by Samuel Laing, his elder brother. [Ed. Annual Register, 1818, p. 250.] Besides the works we have discussed above, it may be mentioned that he edited the Life of James VI., published in 1804.


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