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Significant Scots
Sir Robert Spotswood


SPOTSWOOD, (SIR) ROBERT, president of the court of session, was the second son of archbishop Spotswood, and was born in the year 1596. He was educated at the grammar school of Glasgow, and, at the age of thirteen, was sent to the university of that city, where, four years afterwards, he obtained the degree of master of arts. From Glasgow he was removed to Exeter college, Oxford, and studied under the celebrated Dr Prideaux. Honourable mention is made of Sir Robert in the "Athenae Oxonienses." On the completion of his studies, he made the tour of France, Italy, and Germany, studying the laws of those countries, as well as the civil and canon law, and also theology, in which last he was deeply versed. When king James commanded archbishop Spotswood to write the history of his native kingdom, he procured, through Sir Robert’s exertions, the ancient MSS. and records of the church, but especially the famous "Black Book of Paisley," which he recovered at Rome. Sir Robert was also able to redeem a number of other manuscripts, which had been carried abroad from Scottish monasteries at the Reformation; but unfortunately they were destroyed by the covenanters. On his return from the continent, after an absence of nine years, Sir Robert was most graciously received at the court of England by king James, to whom he gave such a good account of the laws, customs, and manners of the countries where he had been travelling, that the king appointed him one of the extraordinary judges of the court of session. On his receiving this appointment, the archbishop purchased and bestowed on him the barony of New-Abbey, in Galloway, and he assumed the title of Lord New-Abbey. He continued to be an extraordinary lord during James’s reign; but, on the accession of Charles I., who deprived the judges of their commissions, and re-appointed some of them, Sir Robert was nominated an ordinary lord of session, or judge, on the 14th of February, 1626. On the death of Sir James Skene, in November, 1633, he was chosen president of the College of Justice. He disposed of the lands of New-Abbey to king Charles, who bestowed it on the newly erected bishopric of Edinburgh, and assumed the title of Lord Dunipace, from an estate he had purchased in Stirlingshire.

As the father now occupied the highest office in the state, and the primacy in the church, while the son filled the first judicial station in the country, no greatness under that of monarchy itself, could have appeared more enviable than that which was enjoyed by the family of Spotswood. It was greatness, however, dependent on mere court favour, and altogether wanting the only firm basis for official elevation, the concurrence and good-will of the nation. On the contrary, the Spotswoods had risen in consequence of their address in rendering up the liberties of their country into the hands of the king; and, however endeared to him, were detested by the great mass of their fellow citizens. Hence, when the Scots came to the point of resistance in 1637, and assumed the entire control of their own concerns, the Spotswoods vanished from before the face of their indignant countrymen, leaving no trace of their greatness behind, except in the important offices which they had left vacant.

Sir Robert Spotswood now became a close adherent of the king’s person; and, with other obnoxious individuals in the same situation, proved the means of preventing that confidence in the sincerity of the monarch’s concessions, which operated so much to his disadvantage. When Charles was in Scotland, in 1641, the estates presented him with an address, in which they beseeched that the late president of the court of session might be moved from his person and councils; and with this request the king was obliged to comply. At a late period in the civil war, (1645,) Charles recalled Sir Robert, and appointed him secretary of state for Scotland, in place of the earl of Lanark. In this character, Sir Robert signed the commission of the marquis of Montrose as commander-in-chief of the forces in Scotland; and, being appointed to convey this to the victorious general, he took shipping in the island of Anglesey, and, landing in Lockaber, joined the marquis in Athole. He marched southward with the army, maintaining, however, a strictly civil character, and was taken prisoner at Philiphaugh, where, it is said, he had only his walking cane in his hand. He was carried, along with some other prisoners of distinction, to St Andrewa, and tried before the Parliament, on a charge of high treason. His defence was allowed to have been masterly, but a conviction was inevitable. He was condemned to be beheaded by the maiden, which was brought from Dundee for the purpose. "In his railing discourse to the people on the scaffold (says Row in his life of Robert Blair), among other things he said that the saddest judgment of God upon people at this time was, that the Lord had sent out a lying spirit in the mouths of the prophets, and that their ministers, that should lead them to heaven, were leading them the highway to hell. Mr Blair standing by him, as he was appointed by the commission of the Kirk, in answer to this, only said, ‘It’s no wonder to hear the son of a false prophet speak so of the faithful and honest servants of Jesus Christ;’ which did so enrage the proud and impertinent spirit of Spotswood, that he died raging and railing against Christ’s honest and faithful ministers, and his covenanted people." It was in declining the offer of Blair to pray for his soul that Sir Robert used the language which provoked the covenanter’s stern rebuke, pointed with a sarcasm which might certainly have been spared on such an occasion. But the reproach and the retaliation illustrate the spirit of the times. Spotswood’s biographer says his last words were—"Merciful Jesu, gather my soul unto thy saints and martyrs, who have run before me in this race." This writer accuses "the fanatical minister of the place" of having incited the provost to prevent Sir Robert from addressing the people on the scaffold. A similar story is repeated in the Spottiswoode Miscellany, where, however, it is stated that Sir Robert "inveighed much against the Parliament of England," which is not consistent with the assertion that he was prevented from speaking to the spectators. The execution took place at the cross of St Audrews, January 17, 1646. Other two prisoners suffered along with Spotswood, namely, Nathaniel Gordon, who recanted his episcopacy, and died as a member of the Kirk, and Andrew Guthrie, "who died stupidly and impenitently." Of Spotswood and Guthrie, Row observes characteristically, "These two were bishops’ sons;
mali corvi malum ovum."

Sir Robert Spotswood was well skilled in the Hebrew, Chaldaic, Syriac, and Arabic languages, besides his acquaintance with most of the modern European tongues. He was a profound lawyer, and an upright judge. Piety was a conspicuous feature in his character; though, according to the spirit of his age, it was debased by the exclusive and bigoted feelings of a partizan. He was the author of "The Practicks of the Law of Scotland;" a work which was only superseded by the more elaborate work of Stair.

His remains were honourably interred in the parish church of St Andrews, by Sir Robert Murray of Melgun, and other friends, among whom was Hugh Scrimgeour, a wealthy citizen of St Andrews, who had formerly been one of archbishop Spotswood’s servants, and who took the execution of his old master’s son so much to heart, that seeing the bloody scaffold still standing some days afterwards, he fainted on the spot; and, being carried home, died on the threshold of his own door.


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