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Significant Scots
Sir William Grant

GRANT, SIR WILLIAM.—This able lawyer was a descendant of the Grants of Beldornie, a sept of the parent clan. His father, originally a farmer, was afterwards appointed collector of customs in the Isle of Man, an office which he held till his death. His son William, the subject of this notice, was born at Elchies, in Morayshire, in 1754, and was educated at the grammar-school of Elgin, along with his younger brother, who afterwards became collector at Martinico. William did not forget, when he had attained distinction, the place in which he had been trained, so that, thirty years afterwards, when the school was to be rebuilt, he was one of its earliest contributors. His education was completed at the old college of Aberdeen. In the choice of a profession, which was that of law, he was directed by the advice of his uncle, a merchant, who had been so successful in England, that he was enabled to purchase the estate of Elchies, on which he had been born. After the usual course of study at Aberdeen had been finished, William Grant went to London, and was entered at Lincoln’s Inn. At the age of twenty-five, although he had not yet been called to the English bar, he was considered competent for colonial practice, and was appointed attorney-general of Canada. In this new office his professional talents soon brought him into universal esteem. He also showed that he understood the adage of tam Marti quam Mercurio; for on Quebec being besieged by the American army under Montgomery, the attorney-general became a bold and active captain of volunteers, and continued to perform military duty until the siege was ended.

[Note: Sir William was in fact the first Grant to live at Beldornie. He bought the estate of of Beldorney from Thomas Buchan of Auchmacoy, who had bought it in 1807 from Charles Gordon of Wardhouse, who was last of line of Gordon of Beldorney. (Source: MS by Lord Caithness). Sir William is said to have descended from the Grants of Ballindalloch. Best regards Richard Hodgson]

After this he continued to discharge his civil duties for several years; but finding the position of Canada too critical, as well as colonial practice too limited for his aspirations, he resigned his office of attorney-general; and on returning to London, he entered with full ardour upon a more favourable arena in the courts of Westminster, after having been commissioned in 1787 to practise as an English barrister. His commencement, however, was so unpropitious as to bring all his energy and resolution into full exercise, and nerve them with double vigour; for however eminent he had been at the bar of Quebec, he found himself an utter stranger in London, while his shy retiring habits gave little promise that such a difficulty would be easily obviated. Fortunately, one of those incidents occurred by which the reserve of modest merit is often broken through, and the possessor dragged out to the sphere which he ought to occupy. Mr. Grant, after having gone the circuit year after year without obtaining a single brief, happened at length to be retained in some appeals from the Court of Session in Scotland to the House of Lords. He discharged his duty so ably on this occasion, and evinced such legal talent and force of reasoning, as to extort the highest approbation from the stern Lord Chancellor Thurlow, a man by no means profuse in compliments. He eagerly asked the name of the speaker; and having learned it, he said to a friend, "Be not surprised if that young man should one day occupy this seat." It is thought that Grant might ultimately have fulfilled this prediction had he been willing to encounter the responsible duties of the chancellorship. Thurlow’s approbation did not end in empty compliment; he interested himself in the fortunes of the talented but unbefriended stranger, and in consequence of his advice, Grant left the practice of common law for that of equity, as being better fitted for his studies and habits.

From this period his career was one of honour and success, and his first step was a seat in parliament, having been returned for Shaftesbury at the general election in 1790. On entering the House he made no attempt to attract notice as a political orator; his forte rather lay in private consultations and committees, where his sagacity, good sense, and extensive knowledge, were seen and appreciated by the most eminent of his colleagues. Of these especially was Mr. Pitt, of whom he was a firm and effective supporter. On one occasion, in the year 1791, his colonial experience was of great service to the premier. The subject before the House for discussion was a new code of laws for the province of Canada, and on this question he enforced the proposal of Pitt with such incontrovertible arguments, drawn from his own knowledge and practice as attorney-general of the colony, that even Fox was gratified, and all but convinced. Another occasion on which Grant signalized himself in the House of Commons occurred in the following year, when he defended the measures of the ministry upon the subject of the Russian armament. At the beginning of 1794 he was returned to parliament by the borough of Westminster, and at the same time appointed solicitor-general to the Queen, and in 1796 he was chosen knight in parliament for the county of Banff. In 1798 he was appointed chief-justice of Chester, and in the year following he was made solicitor-general, on which occasion he received the usual honour of knighthood. In 1801 he was honoured with his last and highest promotion of master of the rolls. This steady rise was owing, not to his support of the predominant party in the state, but the high character which he established for himself as lawyer and judge, in which all parties coincided. He continued to represent the county of Banff until 1812, when the Parliament was dissolved, and to fill the office of master of the rolls till 1817, at which period, he was anxious to retire from public life before age had unfitted him for its duties, or impaired his intellectual vigour. On the 24th December, therefore, he fulfilled this resolution of self-denial by tendering his resignation of the mastership, on which occasion he received, among other well-deserved eulogiums, the following from the bar of the court, through Sir Arthur Pigott, the speaker appointed for the occasion—"The promptitude and wisdom of your decisions have been as highly conducive to the benefit of the suitors, as they have been eminently promotive of the general administration of equity. In the performance of your important and arduous duties, you have exhibited an uninterrupted equanimity, and displayed a temper never disturbed, and a patience never wearied; you have evinced an uniform and impartial attention to those engaged in the discharge of their professional duties here, and who have had the opportunity, and enjoyed the advantage of observing that conduct in the dispensation of justice, which has been conspicuously calculated to excite emulation, and to form an illustrious example for imitation."

During the sixteen years of life that were still continued to him, Sir William Grant abstained from public affairs, devoting himself wholly to intellectual recreations, and the society of congenial company, in the neighbourhood of Walthamstow, and during the two last years of his life at Barton House, Dawlish, the residence of his sister, the widow of Admiral Schanck. He was never married. His death occurred on the 25th of May, 1832, when he had reached the age of seventy-eight years.

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