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Significant Scots
Sir James Wellwood Moncrieff


Sir James Wellwood Moncrieff MONCREIFF, SIR JAMES WELLWOOD, Bart., of Tullibole.—This eminent judge, one of those distinguished ornaments of the Scottish bar and bench for which the present century has been so remarkable, but who have successively disappeared, and left a void which will not easily be filled, was the second son of the Rev. Sir Henry Moncreiff Wellwood, one of the ministers of St. Cuthberts, Edinburgh. His mother was Susan Robertson, eldest daughter of James Robertson Barclay, of Keavil, in Fifeshire. He was born in the second-charge manse of St. Cuthberts, Edinburgh, on the 13th of September, 1776. As he was one of a family of five sons and two daughters, and as the hereditary estate of the ancient family of the Moncreiffs had lapsed into the possession of a younger branch nearly two centuries previous, James, the subject of the present memoir, was destined to a life of active industry, for which purpose his education was commenced at the high school of Edinburgh, and afterwards continued at the university of Glasgow. At the latter institution he was so fortunate as to obtain one of its exhibitions to Baliol College, Oxford—an appointment which secured to him for ten years a complete course of literary and professional training at the same seminary which has produced, for many generations, the master-spirits and leading intellects of Europe. Sir James, however, found that, even in Oxford, the attainment of this high distinction depended more upon a diligent course of self-training than the parental care of his new alma mater, whose monastic institutes, worn out with old age, could no longer be screwed up to the full coercive pitch. That happy reformation had not yet commenced under which Oxford has assumed a new life, and commenced a fresh history, that promises to be more glorious than its old. In spite, however, of the prevalent looseness which at that time characterized the discipline of these colleges, and the facility with which their pains and penalties could be eluded or confronted, he became an accomplished scholar, and was enabled to prepare for active exercise those high intellectual qualities for which he was so distinguished in the course of his future career.

As Mr. Moncreiff had selected the law for his profession, and the Scottish bar for his place of occupation, his studies at Oxford had been chiefly directed to this effect; and on the 26th of January, 1799, he was admitted a member of the faculty of advocates at Edinburgh. At first, his progress as a barrister was slow, and his prospect of advancement unpromising; but for this, the solid, substantial character of his mind, which required longer time for full development, was a sufficient excuse. A profound, reflective lawyer, seldom starts into full maturity at the age of twenty-three, or even gives large promise of his future excellence. But a still greater obstacle to early success might be found in Mr. Moncreiff’s politics, which were by some years in advance of the period; they were those uncompromising, independent principles which he had learned, from the example of his venerated father, to cherish and avow, in spite of Tory ascendency and government patronage; and in this way Mr. Moncreiff, instead of having the tide at its height to bear him onward, was obliged to confront it in its rise, and when it was set full against his progress. Like his illustrious contemporary, Jeffrey, he adopted the losing side in politics when there was least hope of its obtaining the ascendency. [His early adoption and avowal of Whig politics, is thus commemorated in Cockburn’s "Life of Lord Jeffrey":--"The public meeting in 1795, for attending which Henry Erskine was turned out of the deanship, was held in the Circus, which their inexperience at that time of such assemblages had made them neglect to take any means to light, and Erskine was obliged to begin his speech in the dark. A lad, however, struggled through the crowd with a dirty tallow candle in his hand, which he held up during the rest of the address, before the orator’s face. Many shouts honoured the unknown torch-bearer. This lad was James Moncreiff, then about sixteen."] But both were finally no losers by their disinterestedness. In the meantime, Mr. Moncreiff held onward perseveringly in his course, and the first distinguished token of his growing success occurred on the 7th of February, 1807, when he was appointed sheriff of the united counties of Clackmannan and Kinross. This fortunate rise, by which his income was doubled, and a fresh starting-point attained, occurred during the short-lived administration of Lord Grenville. In the following year (1808) he married Ann, daughter of Captain George Robertson, of the royal navy.

The career of an advocate at the bar is not an eventful one: it is simply a history of pleadings and their results, with which none but the parties concerned can be expected to feel any interest. On this account it is enough to state that every year increased Mr. Moncreiff’s professional reputation; and at a period when the most illustrious of our Scottish pleaders were at the full height of their fame (Jeffrey, Cranstoun, Cockburn, Clerk), he held a rank inferior to none. Some of them, indeed, might excel him in ready or persuasive eloquence; but this inferiority was more than counterbalanced by the depth and accuracy of his legal knowledge, and his power of turning it to the best account. In this way his professional character is thus summed up by one of that illustrious confraternity who knew, and could well appreciate his merits:—"Though a good thinker, not quick, but sound, he was a still better arguer. His reasoning powers, especially as they were chiefly seen concentrated on law, were of the very highest order. These, and his great legal knowledge, made him the best working counsel in court. The intensity of his energy arose from that of his conscientiousness. Everything was a matter of duty with him, and therefore he gave his whole soul to it. Jeffrey called him the whole duty of man. Simple, indifferent, and passive when unyoked, give him anything professional or public to perform, and he fell upon it with a fervour which made his enemies tremble, and his friends doubt if it was the same man. One of his cures for a headache was to sit down and clear up a deep legal question. With none, originally, of the faculties of speaking which seem a part of some men’s nature, zeal, practice, and the constant possession of good matter, gave him all the oratory that he required. He could in words unravel any argument, however abstruse, or disentangle any facts, however complicated, or impress any audience with the simple and serious emotions with which he dealt. And for this purpose his style, both written and spoken, was excellent—plain, clear, condensed, and nervous." In another sketch, by a different writer, we have a view of all these intellectual equipments in full vigorous action, at the time when Moncreiff was in the prime of his manhood, as well as professional reputation: "He has a countenance full of the expression of quick-sightedness and logical power, and his voice and manner of delivering himself are such as to add much to this, the natural language of his countenance. He speaks in a firm, harsh tone; and his phraseology aspires to no merit beyond that of closeness and precision. And yet, although entirely without display of imagination, and though apparently scornful to excess of every merely ornamental part of the rhetorical art, it is singular that Mr. Moncreiff should be not only a fervid and animated speaker, but infinitely more keen and fervid throughout the whole tenor of his discourse, and more given to assist his words by violence of gesture, than any of the more imaginative speakers whom I have already endeavoured to describe. When he addresses a jury, he does not seem ever to think of attacking their feelings; but he is determined and resolved that he will omit no exertion which may enable him to get the command over their reason. He plants himself before them in an attitude of open defiance: he takes it for granted that they are against him, and he must and will subdue them to his power. Wherever there is room to lay a finger, he fixes a grappling-iron, and continues to tear and tug at everything that opposes him, so that incredulity is glad to purchase repose by assenting to all he demands. . . . His choleric demeanour gives a zest to the dryness of the discussions in which he is commonly to be found engaged. His unmusical voice has so much nerve and vigour in its discords, that after hearing it on several occasions, I began to relish the grating effect it produces upon the tympanum." ["Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk."]

From these two delineations, although the latter is somewhat overcharged, a distinct idea may be formed of James Moncreiff in his professional character and bearing. These also had won their way to such just estimation, that on the 22d of November, 1826, he was elected dean of faculty, although the senior, and in some respects superior claims of Jeffrey to the office were against him. But in Jeffrey himself, with whom he had fought many a hard legal tournament, he found that best of all friends—a generous, openhearted antagonist--and the great critic and eloquent barrister not only maintained Mr. Moncreiff’s claims as superior to his own, but seconded his nomination. While he held this office, the dean showed his upright disinterested love of justice in a case where many in similar circumstances would have quailed. This was in reference to the West Port murders, and the trial of their infamous perpetrators, Burke and Hare. So deep was the popular abhorrence over the whole of England and Scotland on the detection of this hideous system of Thuggism, and so overwhelming was the outcry for justice—for vengeance—that it was thought no advocate could be so hardy as to plead the cause of these assassins, who were already tried and doomed by universal acclamation. It was then that several leading advocates of the Scottish bar, with Mr. Moncreiff as dean, at their head, stepped forward in defence of truth and right against the universal cry, and while the storm was at the wildest; and through their exertions the two malefactors obtained a fair dispassionate trial, in which one of them was absolved, when both might otherwise have been torn to pieces without a hearing. The exertions of the dean of faculty in this thankless and most revolting case—his earnestness to vindicate the claims of justice, whether to acquit or condemn, though a whole world might be arrayed against them—and the discriminating talent with which he sifted the evidence of the whole perplexing affair, until it stood out in all its distinct reality—were long afterwards remembered with grateful commendation, not only by his professional brethren, whom the example honoured and encouraged, but the public at large, whose hasty judgments it restrained and rebuked.

By the death of his revered father, on the 7th of August, 1827, Mr. Moncreiff succeeded to the family baronetcy, under the title of Sir James Wellwood Moncreiff of Tullibole; his elder brother, who was king’s advocate in the Admiralty Court of Malta, having died unmarried in 1813. In 1829 Sir James was appointed a lord of session, in consequence of a vacancy in the bench, occasioned by the death of Lord Alloway. This appointment was the more honourable to Sir James, that it proceeded, not from his own party, but his political opponents. They had no occasion to regret their choice, for as a judge he equalled, or perhaps even surpassed the reputation he had won as a barrister. "In the civil court," it is stated in a short notice of his life, "his judgments were admirable for learning and sagacity; and on the bench of the criminal court his dispassionate weighing of evidence, his sound appreciation of the rules of law, the impressive solemnity of his charges on great occasions, carried a conviction, and gained a confidence, which the people of Scotland have not always yielded to their judges." Before his elevation to the bench he had also risen to high public mark and importance, independently of his professional displays, by his speeches at public meetings, on affairs both political and ecclesiastical. This was especially the case at the great meeting held in Edinburgh in favour of Catholic Emancipation; and when Dr. Chalmers and Lord Jeffrey delivered their eloquent and memorable speeches on that important occasion, the first resolution had been previously moved and enforced with great power by Sir James Moncreiff. It was, however, as a member of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland that his great talents for investigation and debate, combined with his well-known integrity, were chiefly valued; so that, on several important occasions, he was called to lead the deliberations of that august body.

So close a connection with the church, and such a hearty devotedness to its interests, which marked the professional career of Lord Moncreiff, is not to be wondered at when we remember his clerical descent through not less than seven generations! Like his father, also, he adhered to that party in the church known by the title of Evangelical, in opposition to the Moderate side, which might be called the Toryism of the Scottish Kirk. While he held the office of a ruling elder, his attendance at church courts was frequent and his aid effectual, and he had the satisfaction to witness the rise, from year to year, of those principles of religious doctrine and ecclesiastical polity with which he was connected. At length, when his party had acquired such strength as to bring their controversy to a decisive issue upon the great question of patronage, he was called, in 1832, to give evidence before a select committee of the House of Commons, which was appointed to inquire into the origin and exercise of church patronage in Scotland. His lordship’s answers to the searching questions which were put to him on his examination, the flood of light which he threw upon this difficult subject, and the simple, earnest, impressive language and manner in which his testimony was delivered, were long afterwards remembered. For a considerable time before the Disruption he had retired from the conflict in consequence of his judicial position; and when at last it occurred, in 1843, his attention was too mournfully engrossed by the death of his lady, which happened at the same period, to allow him to join in the events of that great movement. After the Disruption, although he ceased to be an elder, he continued to hold church-membership in the Free Church of Scotland, with whose leading principles his whole course of life had been identified.

On nearing the venerable age of seventy-five, Lord Moncreiff began to yield to the decay of nature; and for several weeks before he died, the state of his health was such, that although the physicians held out hopes of his recovery, he felt assured that his end was at hand—a result which he contemplated without dismay, and for which he prepared with Christian resignation and confidence. His death occurred at his house in Moray Place, Edinburgh, on the afternoon of March 30, 1851, and his remains were interred in the Dean Cemetery, within a few feet of the grave of his old friend, Lord Jeffrey. His character is thus briefly and emphatically summed up by Lord Cockburn: "I am not aware how his moral nature could have been improved. A truer friend, a more upright judge, or a more affectionate man, could not be."

The family of Lord Moncreiff consists of five sons and three daughters. Of these, the eldest son, Sir Henry Wellwood Moncreiff, is minister of the Free West church of St Cuthberts, Edinburgh; the second, who followed his father’s profession, is now her majesty’s Lord Advocate for Scotland.


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