Henry Erskine

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 2:166-71.

The Hon. HENRY ERSKINE, a distinguished advocate and wit, second son of Henry David, tenth earl of Buchan, and brother of the preceding [Thomas Erskine], was born at Edinburgh, November 1, 1746. He was educated at the universities of St. Andrews, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, and, while prosecuting his legal studies, he attended the Forum debating society established at Edinburgh, where he cultivated with success those powers of extempore speaking which afterwards brought him into such high eminence as a pleader. He was in 1768 admitted a member of the faculty of advocates; and his transcendent talents and great legal knowledge, together with his quickness of perception, playfulness of fancy, and professional tact, soon placed him at the head of the Scottish bar. The forensic eloquence of Scotland was at that period by no means of a high order, and the then forms of court seemed contrived to prevent anything like oratory on the part of the pleaders. Young Erskine, however, rose above all the trammels that bore repressingly on his brethren at the bar, and introduced a style of pleading, animated and graceful beyond anything that had yet been witnessed in the court of session. He and Robert Blair, afterwards president of the court of session, were generally engaged as opposite counsel, as the two most eloquent and able members of the bar; and the clear reasoning and sound law of the latter were not always a match for the wit and felicity of remark of his opponent. The subjoined woodcut represents Erskine in the act of pleading.

In the General Assembly of the national church, then "the best theatre for deliberative eloquence to be found in Scotland," and an arena where Henry Dundas, Lord Melville, trained himself for the debates of the senate, Mr. Erskine had opportunities of displaying his oratorical powers to great advantage. He advocated from principle and with great consistency the interests of the Evangelical or popular party, as it was called, in that court; and in the memorable struggle for the office of its clerk between Professor Dalzell and Dr. Carlisle of Inveresk in 1789, the successful issue in favour of the former gentleman, their candidate — the subject of several humorous caricatures by Kay — was due to his judicious precaution of having it provided, before proceeding to the election, that there should be a retrospective scrutiny of the votes, he had, about ten years previous (1779), nearly achieved for it an earlier triumph in his own person, in the election of procurator of the church of Scotland, when, after a keen contest, William (afterwards Lord) Robertson, son of the eminent historian, his opponent, obtained it by a narrow majority.

At the bar his talents were as much at the service of the poor gratuitously as they were at the command of the rich, who could amply remunerate him for his exertions. He was ever ready to rescue innocence from persecution, and to vindicate the cause of the oppressed. One remarkable instance of this, (but little known to the public,) was on behalf of Donald M'Arthur, a poor Baptist missionary preacher, the pastor of a small congregation at Port Bannatyne in Bute, who was violently seized, on the 20th October 1805, while celebrating divine service, by one of the local magistrates, and sent as an impressed seaman into his majesty's navy. Mr. Erskine not only effected his release, after he had been conveyed with rapidity to Ireland, in order to defeat an interdict obtained in the Scotch courts, and thence to the Downs, in order to frustrate an application for a writ of habeas corpus in that kingdom, by an order from the admiralty served after he had passed from one to another of various ships of war, — but obtained a certificate that he should never again be impressed, and instituted a civil process of damages at his own risk, which resulted in a composition of, it is said, #500 to escape a heavier penalty. To his generous interference in this case, the friends of civil and religious liberty are greatly indebted, as since that time, no one has ventured in Scotland to interfere with the persons of those who are engaged in religious instruction, however humble or unprotected. [Buchanan's Reports, pp. 60-72.] So well, indeed, was this generous trait in his character known, that a poor man, in a remote district of the country, when advised by his solicitor not to enter into a lawsuit with a wealthy neighbour, on account of the expense in which it would involve him, at once replied — "Ye dinna ken what ye say, maister; there's nae a puir man in Scotland need to want a friend, or fear an enemy, while Harry Erskine lives!"

Mr. Erskine, like his elder brother, had early embraced Whig principles, and, on the accession of the Coalition ministry in 1783, he succeeded Mr. Dundas, afterwards Lord Melville, as lord advocate. On the morning of the appointment he had an interview with Dundas, in the Outer House; when, observing that the latter had already resumed the ordinary stuff gown which advocates are in the custom of wearing, he said gaily that he "must leave off talking, to go and order his silk gown," the official robe of the lord advocate and solicitor-general. "It is hardly worth while," said Dundas, drily, "for the time you will want it — you had better borrow mine." Erskine's reply was exceedingly happy — "From the readiness with which you make the offer, Mr. Dundas, I have no doubt that the gown is a gown made to fit any party; but, however short my time in office may be, it shall ne'er be said of Henry Erskine that he put on the abandoned habits of his predecessor." The new administration, however, was soon broken up, when he resumed his station at the bar. Mr. Erskine was succeeded, as lord advocate, by Ilay Campbell, Esq., afterwards lord president, to whom he said, upon resigning his gown, "My lord, you must take nothing off it, for I'll soon need it again." Mr. Campbell replied, "It will be bare enough, Harry, before you get it." In 1786 he was elected dean of the faculty of advocates, but on account of his liberal politics, was defeated in an election for the same office, some years afterwards.

On the return of the liberal party to power in 1806, he once more, became lord advocate, and was returned member for the Dumfries district of burghs, in the room of major general Dalrymple. On the dissolution of the Whig administration soon after, he again lost his office and his seat in parliament. In consequence of declining health, he retired, in 1812, from public life to his beautiful seat of Ammondell, in West Lothian, where he died October 8, 1817, in the 71st year of his age. In early life he had cultivated a taste for poetry and music, and was throughout his long and distinguished career celebrated for his witticisms. Sir Walter Scott said of him, "Henry Erskine was the best-natured man I ever knew, thoroughly a gentleman, and with but one fault — he could not say no, and thus sometimes misled those who trusted him." In person, Mr. Erskine is described as having been above the middle size, and eminently handsome. His voice was powerful, his manner of delivery peculiarly graceful, and his enunciation accurate and distinct. He was long a member of the Scottish Antiquarian Society, founded by his brother, the earl of Buchan, in 1780. One of the members remarked to him that he was a very bad attender of their meetings, adding, at the same time, that he never gave any donations to the Society. A short time afterwards he wrote a letter to the secretary apologising for not attending the meetings, and stating that he had "enclosed a donation, which, if you keep long enough, will be the greatest curiosity you have." This was a guinea of George III. He was universally acknowledged to have been the wittiest man of his time, and his puns and bon mots were so numerous that almost every witticism of the day was sure to be attributed to him. Some of his points were very effective. On one occasion, his namesake, Mr. Erskine of Alva, advocate, afterwards a lord of session, under the title of Lord Barjarg, a man of small stature, was retained as counsel in a very interesting case, in which the Hon. Henry Erskine appeared for the opposite party. The crowd in court being very great, in order to enable young Alva to be seen and heard to more advantage, a chair was brought for him to stand upon. On this Mr. Erskine quaintly remarked, ''That is one way of rising at the bar." The different modes of spelling the name of Erskine formerly used, Ereskin, Areskin, and sometimes Areseskin, seems to have puzzled Voltaire for in his 'Letters on the English Nation.' he writes it Hareskins. A common pronunciation of the name in Scotland is Askin, which gave rise to one of the best repartees of Henry Erskine During the time that he was dean of faculty, a silly fellow, an advocate, not liking a question put to him by the dean, testily said, "Harry, I never meet you but I find you Askin." "And I," re plied the wit, "never meet you but I find an Anser," (the Latin word for goose).

Notwithstanding his liveliness of fancy and gaiety of spirit, his habits were eminently domestic, and he delighted in retirement and country employments. His feelings and desires in this respect are pleasingly depicted in the following lines, written by himself:

"Let sparks and topers o'er their bottles sit,
Toss bumpers down, and fancy laughter wit;
Let cautious plodders o'er their ledger pore,
Note down each farthing gain'd, and wish it more;
Let lawyers dream of wigs, poets of fame,
Scholars look learn'd, and senators declaim;
Let soldiers stand, like targets in the fray,
Their lives just worth their thirteen pence a-day.
Give me a nook in some secluded spot,
Which business shuns, and din approaches not,—
Some snug retreat, where I may never know
What monarch reigns, what ministers bestow;
A book — my slippers — and a field to stroll in—
My garden-seat — an elbow-chair to loll in—
Sunshine when wanted — shade, when shade invites—
With pleasant country sounds, and smells, and sights,
And now and then a glass of generous wine,
Shared with a chatty friend of 'auld langsyne;'
And one companion more, for ever nigh,
To sympathise in all that passes by,
To journey with me in the path of life,
And share its pleasures, and divide its strife.
These simple joys, Eugenius, let me find,
And I'll ne'er cast a lingering look behind."

''These lines," says his relative, Mr. Henry David Inglis, who was allowed to copy them from the author's scrap-book, "were written after Mr. Erskine's second marriage, and refer, no doubt, in the latter part, to his second wife, who proved a most valuable companion and a tender nurse in his declining years. What degree of happiness his first connexion yielded in his early days, I have no access to know; but the extreme nervous irritability, and somewhat eccentric ways of the first Mrs. Erskine, did not contribute greatly to his happiness in her later years. One of her peculiarities consisted in not retiring to rest at the usual hours. She would frequently employ half the night in examining the wardrobe of the family, to see that nothing was missing, and that everything was in its proper place. I recollect being told this, among other proofs of her oddities, that one morning, about two or three o'clock, having been unsuccessful in a search, she awoke Mr. Erskine, by putting to him this important interrogatory, 'Harry, lovie, where's your white waistcoat?'"

In the very interesting account of Mr. Erskine, after his retirement from the bar, written by Mr. Inglis, and inserted in the Edinburgh Literary Journal, we have the following particulars, descriptive of the almost Arcadian simplicity, in which the latter years of the "old man eloquent" were passed: "The mail-coach," says Mr. Inglis, "used to set me down at Ammondell gate, which is about three-quarters of a mile from the house; and yet I see, as vividly as I at this moment see the landscape from the window at which I am now writing, the features of that beautiful and secluded domain, — the antique stone bridge, — the rushing stream, the wooded banks, — and, above all, the owner, coming towards me with his own benevolent smile and sparkling eyes. I recollect the very grey hat he used to wear, with a bit of the rim torn, and the pepper-and-salt short coat, and the white neckcloth sprinkled with snuff. No one could, or ever did, tire in Mr. Erskine's company. He was society equally for the child and for the grown man. He would first take me to see his garden, where, being one day surprised by a friend while digging potatoes, he made the now well-known remark, that he was enjoying "otium cum diggin a tautie," (the Scottish word for potato). He would then take me to his melon bed, which we never left without a promise of having one after dinner; and then he would carry me to see the pony, and the great dog upon which his grandson used to ride. Like most men of elegant and cultivated minds, Mr. Erskine was an amateur in music, and himself no indifferent performer on the violin. I think I scarcely ever entered the hall along with him that he did not take down his Cremona — a real one, I believe, which hung on the wall, and, seating himself in one of the wooden chairs, play some snatches of old English or Scottish airs; — sometimes 'Let's have a dance upon the heath,' an air from the music in Macbeth, which he used to say was by Purcel, and not by Locke, to whom it has usually been ascribed — sometimes, 'The flowers of the forest,' or 'Auld Robin Gray' — and sometimes the beautiful Pastorale from the eighth concerto of Corelli, for whose music he had an enthusiastic admiration. But the greatest treat to me was when, after dinner, he took down from the top of his bookcase, where it lay behind a bust, I think, of Mr. Fox, his manuscript book full of jeux d'esprit, charades, bon mots, &c., all his own composition. Few men have ever enjoyed a wider reputation for wit than the Hon. Henry Erskine; the epithet then, and even now, applied to hum, par excellence, is that of the witty Harry Erskine; and I do believe that all the puns and bon mots which have been put into his mouth, — some of them, no doubt, having originally come out of it, — would eke out a handsome duodecimo. I well recollect that nothing used to distress me so much as not perceiving at once the point of any of Mr. Erskine's witticisms. Sometimes, half an hour after the witticism had been spoken, I would begin to giggle, having only then discovered the gist of the saying. In this, however, I was not singular. While Mr. Erskine practised at the bar, it was his frequent custom to walk after the rising of the courts, in the Meadows; and he was often accompanied by Lord Balmuto, one of the judges, a very good kind of man, but not particularly quick in his perception of the ridiculous. His lordship never could discover at first the point of Mr. Erskine's wit; and, after walking a mile or two perhaps, and long after Mr. Erskine had forgotten the saying, Lord Balmuto would suddenly cry out, 'I have you now, Hairy — I have you now, Harry!' — stopping, and bursting into an immoderate fit of laughter."

When Mr. John Wright, who had been bred a shoemaker, but afterwards became a lecturer on law, applied in 1781, to be admitted a member of time faculty of advocates, some opposition was shown to his admission by the vice-dean of faculty, Mr., afterwards Lord Swinton, and others, which was thought to have originated in their objections to Mr. Wright's humble birth. Mr. Wright, however, was ably supported by Mr. Erskine, and was ultimately, in January 1783, admitted advocate. It was said that Mr. Erskine had bantered the opposition so much that they at last yielded. After listening to their observations — "Well, well," said he, "they say I am the son of the earl of Buchan, — and you (pointing to one) are the son of the laird of —;" and thus going over the whole opposition in a strain of inimitable and biting sarcasm, he wound up the enumeration in his usual forcible manner — "Therefore no thanks to us for being here; because the learning we have got has been hammered into our brains! — whereas, all Mr. Wright's has been acquired by himself; therefore he has more merit than us all. However, if any of you can put a question to Mr. Wright that he cannot answer, I will hold that to be a good objection. But, otherwise, it would be disgraceful to our character as Scotsmen were such an act of exclusion recorded in the books of this Society. Were he the son of a beggar, did his talents entitle him, he has a right to the highest distinction in the land." Mr. Wright was the author of a work on mathematics, which brought him a very considerable sum. This he entered in Stationers' Hall; but as the law then only secured copyrights for seven years, at the end of that period he had the mortification to find his treatise inserted in the Encyclopedia Britannica, without permission sought or obtained. Mr. Wright was so much offended at this appropriation of his property that he seriously contemplated bringing the case before the court of session, but he was dissuaded from this step by his friend Mr. Erskine, who, in his usual strain of pleasantry, told him "just to wait the expiry of other seven years, and then, to retaliate, by printing the whole of the Encyclopedia along with his own work." On the day after Wright's death, which took place in 1813, Mr. Sheriff Anstruther, on meeting Mr. Erskine, said, "Well Harry, poor Johnny Wright is dead." ''Is he?" exclaimed Henry. "He died very poor. They say he has left no effects." "That is not surprising," was the rejoinder, "as he had no causes, he could have no effects."

"The character of Mr. Erskine's eloquence," says one who knew him long and intimately, "bore a strong resemblance to that of his noble brother, Lord Erskine, but being much less diffusive, it was better calculated to leave a forcible impression: he had the art of concentrating his ideas, and presenting them at once in so luminous and irresistible a form, as to render his hearers masters of the view he took of his subject; which, however dry or complex in its nature, never failed to become entertaining and instructive in his hands; for, to professional knowledge of the highest order, he united a most extensive acquaintance with history, literature, and science, and a thorough conversancy with human life and moral and political philosophy. In the most rapid of his flights, when his tongue could scarce keep pace with his thoughts, he never failed to seize the choicest words in the treasury of our language. The apt, beautiful, and varied images which constantly decorated his judicial addresses, suggested themselves instantaneously, and appeared, like the soldiers of Cadmus, in complete armour and array to support the cause of their creator, the most remarkable feature of whose eloquence was, that it never made him swerve by one hair-breadth from the minuter details most befitting his purpose; for, with matchless skill, he rendered the most dazzling oratory subservient to the uses of consummate special pleading, so that his prudence and sagacity as an advocate were as decisive as his speeches were splendid. For many years of his life, Mr. Erskine had been the victim of ill health, but the native sweetness of his temper remained unclouded, and during the painfully protracted sufferings of his last illness, the language of complaint was never heard to escape his lips, nor the shadow of discontent seen to cloud his countenance! 'Nothing in his life became him, like the leaving it.' He looked patiently forward to the termination of his painful existence, and received with mild complacency the intelligence of his danger, while the ease and happiness of those, whose felicity through life had been his primary consideration, were never absent from his thoughts."

Mr. Erskine was twice married; first to Christina, only daughter of George Fullarton, Esq., collector of customs at Leith, by whom lie had three daughters, and two sons, Henry, who succeeded as earl of Buchan, and George; and, secondly, to Mrs. Turnbull, formerly Miss Munro, by whom he had no issue. — Kay's Edinburgh Portraits. — Edinburgh Ann. Register, 1819.