12 AUGUST 1882, Page 17

HENRY ERSKINE AND HIS TIMES.* THE man whom Jeffrey openly

admitted to be his political and legal model, and of whom it was said that, while he lived, no poor man in Scotland need want a friend or fear a foe, must have been something more and better than a table-wit and concocter of good puns and indifferent verses, or even than a lion of Edinburgh society. ,The chief, and, indeed, the only important, fault we have to find with the author of this volume is that he has evidently thought it incumbent upon him to give great prominence to the lighter, and to keep somewhat in the background the more serious, side of the character of Henry Erskine. The temptation to do so has, no doubt, been strong. There are no materials ready to hand such as letters of the "from heart to heart" character, for the preparation of a thor- oughly good biography. Erskine, like his much more remarkable younger brother Thomas, who became Lord Chancellor, was a busy lawyer, and, with all his sociableness and gaiety, had much of the national Scotch virtue—leaning sometimes, per- haps, to:the side:of vice—of secretiveness, and Colonel Fergusson has not been able to give his readers a single letter which shows us Erskine at his deepest and best. On the other hand, there is—rather, let us hope, there was—a great demand for "good stories" about the Edinburgh of last century, and the writer of a book upon a man who played a prominent part in that Edinburgh may have felt himself almost forced to explore the mine from which Dean Ramsay and Robert Chambers, and the thousand and one historians of the Scotch capital, have obtained what they and their readers are pleased to consider and chuckle over as wealth. It may be heresy or Puritanism to say so, but we confess to being a little tired of that eighteenth- century Edinburgh, whose annals seem to have been as much stained with claret as the annals of a still older Edinburgh are stained with blood. Colonel Fergusson holds, with George Eliot, that we cannot reform our ancestors. True, but why reopen the grave of oblivion that hides their weaknesses P Why revive those sad and barbarous old days, when Scotch judges and counsel adjourned from the Parliament House, to the tavern and from the tavern to the Parliament House P Why bring back the memory of the " blue " talk, the hard drinking, the brutal, practical jokes of the " Beggar's Benison," and the Crochallan Fencibles P Are we much the wiser for knowing that " saving the ladies," in Edinburgh, meant drinking the health of a partner. at a ball, in oceans of punch P Would not Colonel Fergusson have been much better employed in giving us something like a clear view of the state of Scotch politics during the dominancy of Dundee, than in detailing how Scotch ladies disposed of oranges at their assem- blies P Where, after all, is the rich humour of the famous retort P—

"Drink the port, the claret's dear, Erskine, Erskine! You'll get fou on't, never fear, My jo, Erskine !"

Besides, it seems to involve a calumny. The ordinary, certainly the "serious" reader, would infer from these lines that the great object of Erskine—the champion of the poor, the representative of Reform and Evangelicalism, the pioneer of the Edinburgh Reviewers—in going into society was to " get fou," and that he preferred claret to port, because, as Dr. Johnson said of brandy, it " did its work quickest." Yet, as his biographer tells us, in his peculiar and antiquated style, which sometimes verges on pomposity, "Mr. Erskine was very 'moderate' in his habits, even to the extent of what was considered abstemious, in those days of free living. His son has stated that at home his only stimulant was a good glass or two of the old Edin- burgh ale, that excellent and potent beverage, which is, unfortunately, now almost unknown. This was the nepenthe which strengthened and invigorated, and enabled him to with- stand the brazen weapons of James Boswell, Robert Blair, and * The Honourable Henry Erskine, Lord-Advocate for Scotland, with Notices of Certain of his Kinsfolk and of his Times. By Lieuteuant.Colonol Alexander Fergie:sou. Edinburgh and London Blackwood and Sous. 1882.

others, his adversaries at the Bar." This is quite credible,— indeed, when one thinks of the hard work of various kinds which Erskine accomplished in his time, and remembers that he lived to beyond threescore and ten, nothing else is credible. It is true that he was a man of the world, that he neither " sinnered it " nor " sainted it " very much, and that as regards " the pleasures " of Edinburgh society, his rule was, "Where the bee sucks, there suck I." But while he cracked his joke and took his " good glass or two," he kept his head cool and his heart open. This being the fact, we wish Colonel Fergusson had recognised it more, and in the best way, by keeping the musty claret and forgotten revels of the Edinburgh of a century ago more in the background, if not altogether to himself.

Henry Erskine belonged to a remarkable Scotch family. Colonel Fergusson's weak—or rather strong—point is genealogy and he is able to show how the three brothers, of whom his hero was the second, had French and Italian blood in their veins, and how on one side they were connected with the Royal Stuarts, and on another with the legal Dalrymples. The eldest of the three, David, the famous and eccentric Earl of Buchan, claimed kinship with Washington, on the ground that both were descended from the English Fairfaxes. The Erskines were also closely associated with the religious life of Scotland. The well-known " Seceder " divines, Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, be- longed to a branch of the family. Thomas Erskine was a soldier and sailor before he went to the English Bar, and in the former capacity occasionally preached sermons which seem to have been almost as dull as his " social essays " and verses. How dull the last must have been is proved by some lines of the Lord Chancellor on his dog " Phoss," in which he propounds his theory of the immortality of the souls of animals. Lady Anne Erskine, whose warm attachment to her brothers is indicated by several letters here published, was the Scotch counterpart and personal friend of Selina, the famous Countess of Huntingdon. Henry himself won his spurs as a pleader in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and was the legal champion of the " Highflying " or earnest party there, whose ultimate developments were Dr. Andrew Thomson, Dr. Chalmers, and the Free Church. In- deed, it was mainly owing to Henry Erskine's skill and energy that the " Highflyers " won their great victory over their opponents, the " Moderates," by defeating Dr. " Jupiter " Carlyle, of Inveresk, their candidate for the Clerkship of the Assembly. N or, inveterate joker though Erskine was, and identi- fied as his name has been with the frivolities of Edinburgh society, does he ever seem to have allowed his fancy to wander into irreverence. Indeed, oue of his best "hits " as given in this volume was directed against a Hugo Aruot, a "character," and disciple of David Hume, who had sneered at him for attending church. Perhaps this religious earnestness, which formed the basis of the character of the Erskines, may help to account for the unsatisfactory mystery which rests on the rela- tions between them and Burns. They welcomed with sufficient heartiness the poet's first appearances in Edinburgh as "the ploughman-portent ;" and Burns replied, both in prose and verse, with warmth,—with, in the case of the Earl of Buchan, too much warmth for his taste. Yet Henry Erskine " did " little more for Burns than Dundas himself. Possibly there was no real under- standing or sympathy between the legal champion of the " Evangelicals " and the literary champion of the " Moderates." Or, like Mrs. Dunlop, Erskine may have been alienated from Burns by reports as to his free living.

The life of Henry Erskine was a highly honourable and successful, but not an eventful one. He was the second son of Henry David, tenth Earl of Buchan, and was born in November, 1746. The Buchan family was not in very opulent circumstances, but Colonel Fergusson shows, on the other hand, that it was not in such poverty as one would infer it must have been from Campbell's Life of Thomas Erskine. At all events, Henry Erskine had a smooth school and college career, and was called, to the Scotch Bar in 1768. He was not a profound lawyer, any more than was Thomas, some of whose decisions have been declared to be absolutely "apocryphal." But he had a gift of eloquence and wit uncommon in Scot- land at the time. He had a good ecclesiastical and social connection. He knew how to use, without abusing, the little world of Edinburgh. After the fashion of the period, too, he showed his talents and his knowledge of the Classics by writing original verses and translations, sonic of which may be best described in the language of the school inspectors as " fair." He lyrically

worshipped and finally married Christian Fullerton, a girl of a somewhat lackadaisical style of beauty and a taste for music, who turned out a gentle mother and a good housekeeper, full of ailments and anxiety as to her husband's buttons. He had a natural turn for punning, assiduously cultivated it, and became a kind of walking Joe Miller, whom the judges implored not to be " brief " in his pleadings, on account of the entertainment he afforded them. Altogether, while Thomas Erskine was cruising adventurously among the professions, reduced, according to legend, to one suit of clothes and tripe suppers, and having no sheet-anchor in life except an Irish wife, as tactical as she was charming, his brother, Henry, was acquiring an extensive practice in the Assembly Hall and the Parliament House of Edinburgh, and a commensurate popularity through- out Scotland. In 1783 he succeeded Henry Dundas as Lord-Advocate, but held the office only for a short time Three years later he became Dean of Faculty, or leader of the Scotch Bar. He was subsequently ejected from the office, but his defeat was more honourable than any victory would have been, for he provoked it, by having the courage to announce his convictions on the subject of political reform. On Pitt's death, in 1806, Erskine became once more Lord-Advocate, and sat in Parliament for the Dumfries Burghs. In 1812 he retired from the Bar, to his seat of Ammondell, in West Lothian, and there he died, in 1817. The one disappointment of his life—and it was a perfectly legitimate disappointment—was his not having been offered a seat on the Scotch Bench. The main fact in Erskine's career is his having espoused and firmly stood by the cause of progress and reform, when it was personally and professionally perilous to do so, although his fidelity to principle was not so severely tested as was that of his brother Thomas, whose conscience compelled him to defend Paine and Horne Tooke, and even to incur displeasure and disgrace at the hands of his patron the Prince of Wales. Over and above this, Henry Erskine was a warmhearted man, who hated cruelty and oppression, sympathised with poverty and distress, and was courageous enough to let his instincts have free scope. Hence the high reputation which still clings to him as the friend and guardian of the poor man in Scotland ; hence also, perhaps, his willingness to do his best even for that curious Edinburgh burglar and hypocrite, Deacon Brodie. His fond- ness for animals—this also he had in common with his brother —and even that hilarity which manifested itself in the whole- sale manufacture of puns, were simply the overflow of a generous nature.

Of the lighter or " old Edinburgh " portion of Colonel Fergusson's book, nothing more need be said than has been conveyed in our opening expostulation. Colonel Fergusson seems to us to have been unnecessarily chary about repro- ducing Erskine's performances as what the Americans com- prehensively style a " jokist." No doubt, many of these have been published before, and the paternity of others is disputed. But when one is in for a penny in the shape of such "revivals," it is well to be in for a pound. We shall conclude with giving one or two plums from the Colonel's pie. Condoling with an Edinburgh solicitor of the name of Kettle on the decline of old families, Erskine said, " Your great ancestor, Pan, was looked on as a god in the time of the Romans ; and now here you are, Kettle, only an Edinburgh writer." At a Bar dinner given by Lord Karnes, famous as a Judge and a metaphysician, but also for his economy in the matter of wine, "Sundry hints, increasing in breadth as the evening wore on, had been given that claret would be acceptable. Lord Kames, at a loss how to give one more turn to the conversation,' addressed Mr. Erskine, expecting to get some support from the pleasant-spoken young man. ' What,' said his lordship, can have become of the Dutch, who, only the other day were drubbed off the Doggerbank by Admiral Parker P' The young advocate, with the sweetest smile, replied, I suppose, my lord, they are like ourselves, confined to port !' " Erskine had occasion to dine with an incorporated society of tailors, whose counsel he was. Before he left the room, his health was drunk. He felt called upon to reply, and " he rose to do so, and chancing to notice that there were exactly eighteen of his entertainers, the tailors, at the table, he concluded his, speech by wishing Health, long life;and prosperity to both of you!' But before the meaning of the allusion had dawned upon them, Mr. Erskine had vanished from the room." A similar arithmetical jocosity is attributed to Sheridan.