9 April 2011

Memorials of his time...

Henry Cockburn (1779 - 1854) was a Whig, an advocate and subsequently Solicitor General and a judge of the Court of Session. Once before on this blog, I've mentioned Cockburn's candid account of the Scots judicial lushes of his day, who, whether on the bench or in an Edinburgh tavern, seemed habitually surrounded by punished and drained bottles of claret, grogblossom clinging to their craggy features. I've recently been re-reading his Memorials of his time, posthumously published, which is full of interest and detail on the life of a particular segment of Edinburgh society during Cockburn's lifetime. I've a great fondness for historical scenes, however quotidian, which sustain their sense of humour and humanity generations after the event.  The gentle comedy of this account of fobbing off an interfering minister of the Kirk, harassing a poor old fellow on his deathbed, defies time.

“I have known of some peaceful deaths not unlike this; but one that was even more than tranquil was that of Dr. Henry the historian - about 1790, I think. I had an account of it from Sir Harry Moncreiff, who I believe was his favourite younger friend. The Doctor was living at a place of his own in his native county of Stirling. He was about seventy-two, and had been for sometime very feeble. He wrote to Sir Harry that he was dying, and thus invited him for the last time “Come out here directly. I have got something to do this week, I have got to die.” Sir Harry went; and found his friend plainly sinking, but resigned and cheerful. He had no children, and there was nobody with him except his wife. She and Sir Harry remained alone with him for about three days, being his last three; during a great part of which the reverend historian sat in his easy chair, and conversed, and listened to reading, and dozed. While engaged in this way, the hoofs of a horse were heard clattering in the court below. Mrs Henry looked out and explained that it was “that wearisome body”, naming a neighbouring minister, who was famous for never leaving a house after he gone got into it. “Keep him out,” cried the Doctor, “don't let the cratur in here.” But before they could secure his exclusion, the cratur's steps were heard on the stair, and he was at the door.

The Doctor instantly winked significantly, and signed to them to sit down and be quiet, and he would pretend to be sleeping. The hint was taken; and when the intruder entered, he found the patient asleep in his cushioned chair. Sir Harry and Mrs. Henry put their fingers to their lips, and pointing to the supposed slumberer as one not to be disturbed, shook their heads. The man sat down near the door, like one inclined to wait till the nap should be over. Once or twice, he tried to speak but was instantly repressed by another finger on the lip, and another shake of the head. So he sat on, all in perfect silence, for above a quarter of an hour; during which Sir Harry occasionally detected the dying man peeping cautiously through the fringes of his eyelids to see how his visitor was coming on. At last Sir Harry tired, and he and Mrs. Henry pointing to the poor doctor, fairly waved the visitor our of the room; on which the doctor opened his eyes wide, and had a tolerably hearty laugh; which was renewed when the sound of the horse's feet made them certain that their friend was actually off the premises. Dr. Henry died that night.”


  1. I had forgotten that story! Thanks for the reminder. I must reread Cockburn too.

  2. oldnat,

    Its exceedingly entertaining and informative. Particularly I might add, for those of us with some connection to Scotland's legal world. I haven't quoted Cockburn's marvellous descriptions of some of the women of his day. For those of us concerned about women's inclusion in Scottish history, these passages really are worth examining. I may pluck them out and quote them individually on the blog proper in due course. I particularly liked the spirited old wummin who called the Prince Regent a "damned villain", crying "does he kiss and tell!" for yammering publicly about some amorous entanglement with some unfortunate young lady.

  3. Just lifted my copy off theshelf, opened it at random and came across that wonderful description of Charles Hay "a man famous for law, paunch, whist, claret and worth."

    That takes care of my evening!

  4. Cockburn is particularly good at giving an impression of these characters, particularly the more eccentric. For those familiar with his History of Civil Society, the description of Adam Ferguson is exceedingly entertaining, "like a philosopher from Lapland.