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The Scottish Nation

COCKBURN, HENRY, an eminent judge and eloquent pleader, was born 26th October 1779, either at Edinburgh, or at Cockpen, a small estate about eight miles south of that city, then belonging to his father, but afterwards sold to the earl of Dalhousie. His father, Archibald Cockburn, at one time sheriff of Mid-Lothian, and subsequently also judge-admiral, was, from 1790 till his death in 1809, a baron of the exchequer in Scotland. His mother, Janet Rannie, was one of the two daughters of Captain Rannie of Melville, her sister being the wife of Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville. In 1787 he was sent to the High school of Edinburgh, and in 1793 he entered the university. He studied Greek under Dalzel, logic under Finlayson, moral philosophy under Dugald Stewart, and in 1800 passed advocate. That was a period remarkable in the history of Edinburgh for the dawn of a new epoch of literary, political, and legal talent. He was called to the bar at a time when he had to compete with such men as Moncrieff, Fullerton, Jeffrey, Cranstoun, and John Clerk; and highly gifted as they all were, and each remarkable for some peculiar faculty of his own, in the power of persuasion he soon distanced them all. “Of all the great pleaders of the Scottish bar,” wrote Mr. Lockhart, in 1818, “Mr. Cockburn is the only one who is capable of touching, with a bold and assured hand, the chords of feeling; who can, by one plain word, and one plain look, convey the whole soul of tenderness, or appeal, with the authority of a true prophet, to the higher emotions which slumber in many bosoms, but are dead, I think, in none. As every truly pathetic speaker must be, Mr. Cockburn is a homely speaker … Instead of labouring, as most orators do, to impress on the minds of his audience a high notion of his powers and attainments, this man seems to be anxious about nothing except to make them forget that he wears a gown, and to be satisfied that they are listening to a person who thinks, feels, and judges exactly like themselves. It is not his ambition to be admired; he wishes only to be trusted. He does not, by one word or gesture, show that he aspires to be reckoned a great man; but it is plain that he would give the world that they should believe him to be an honest one. And after he has been allowed to tell his story in his own way for ten minutes, I would defy Diogenes himself to doubt it. His use of the language, and his still more exquisite use of the images and allusions of common Scottish life, must contribute in the most powerful manner to his success in this first great object of all his rhetoric. There is an air of broad and undisguised sincerity in the simple tones and energetic phrases he employs, which finds its way like a charm to the very bottom of the hearts around him. He sees it painted in their beaming and expanding faces, and sees, and knows, and feels at once that his eloquence is persuasive. Once so far victorious, he is thenceforth irresistible. He has established an understanding between himself and his audience – a feeling of fellowship and confidence of communion – which nothing can disturb. The electricity of thought and of sentiment passes from his face to theirs, and thrills back again from theirs to his. He has fairly come into contact; he sees their breasts lie bare to his weapon, and he will make no thrust in vain.”

In 1806 Mr. Cockburn was appointed advocate-depute, but in July 1810 he was dismissed by the lord-advocate of the day, for not being of his party, and voting against him at a faculty meeting. In March 1811, he married, and went to reside at Bonaly, in the parish of Colinton, about three miles from Edinburgh, which continued to be his place of residence till his death.

In 1830, on the accession of the Whig party to power, Mr. Jeffrey became lord-advocate and Mr. Cockburn solicitor-general of Scotland. These two names of Jeffrey and Cockburn had long been linked together as rival leaders at the bar, and they were now to be associated as colleagues. In 1834, they were both elevated to the bench as lords of session, when they respectively assumed the judicial titles of Lord Jeffrey and Lord Cockburn. As a judge Lord Cockburn was careful, patient, and subtle, while as a man he was singularly large-hearted and genial. He possessed humour, wit, and eloquence in a high degree, with ripe observation and inimitable expression, a sound judgment and a kind heart. He died at his house at Bonaly on the morning of April 26, 1854, aged 75.

A patriotic and benevolent spirit induced him to exert his influence for the welfare of Edinburgh and its institutions. Among these the Royal Scottish Academy claimed a large portion of his attention. His love of art, and devotion to the Scottish capital, led him to publish, in 1850, a characteristic pamphlet, entitled ‘The Best Way of Spoiling the Beauty of Edinburgh.’ He also wrote some letters in the newspapers on the same subject, and two articles in the Edinburgh Review on the office of Lord Advocate. In 1852 appeared at Edinburgh his ‘Life of Lord Jeffrey,’ in 2 vols. 8vo, and in 1856 ‘Memorials of His Own Time,’ By Lord Cockburn. Edinburgh, 1 vol. 8vo.

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