21 September 2010

Boozing judicial quotation of the day...

Whiggish Scots lawyer Henry Cockburn (1779 - 1854) is in many respects a neglected figure, as are the sorts of characters he represents. To my mind, the semoitics of Scotland are rather distorted by the assumption, after Edwin Muir that "although Edinburgh is Scottish in itself, one cannot feel that the people who live there are Scottish in any radical sense" (from his Scottish Journey of 1934).

Of all of Scotland's domestic elites, this anglicising assumption marks the Scottish Bar and the nation's Supreme Courts most of all. This seems to me unfortunate, not least because I don't see the attribution of all oppression to English overlords as terribly productive, concealing as it tends to, the effective operation and implications of Scotland's own "domestic" class stratifications and institutional preserves. That's a matter for another day. For now, I wanted to mention one of Cockburn's curious observations about the judicial conduct of his day and those immediately preceding, which includes the infamous Braxfield and his drinking cronies. Further to this morning's post on the Scottish judiciary's new website, today Lord President Hamilton gave a speech to assembled legal worthies marking the onset of a new Legal Year. Today will also have seen the "Kirking of the Court" in the grey fastness of St Giles High Kirk on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, just around the corner from Parliament House and across the largely unmarked grave of John Knox. Bizarrely, this year has apparently seen a small stooshie about sheriffs' precedence in this clownishly coloured legal parade. In a rare moment of restrained levity, Lord Hamilton wryly laments the disappearance of old Scots legal traditions. These included getting blotto on the bench. He quoted Cockburn's posthumously published Memorials of His Time (1856) thus:

“At Edinburgh, the old judges had a practice at which even their barbaric age used to shake its head. They had always wine and biscuits on the bench, when the business was clearly to be protracted beyond the usual dinner hour… Black bottles of strong port were set down beside them on the bench, with glasses, carafes of water, tumblers and biscuits; and this without the slightest attempt at concealment. The refreshment was generally allowed to stand untouched, and as if despised, for a short time, during which their Lordships seemed to be intent only on their notes. But in a little, some water was poured into the tumbler, and sipped quietly as if merely to sustain nature. Then a few drops of wine were ventured upon, but only with the water; till at last patience could endure no longer, and a full bumper of the black element was tossed over; after which the thing went on regularly, and there was comfortable munching and quaffing to the great envy of parched throats in the gallery. The strong headed stood it tolerably well but it told plainly enough on the feeble. Not that the ermine was absolutely intoxicated, but it was sometimes affected. This was so ordinary with these sages, that it really made little apparent change upon them. It was not very perceptible at a distance and they all acquired the habit of sitting and looking judicial enough, even when their bottles had reached the lowest ebb”


  1. The ancient quaffing habits of the judiciary extended to the Law Officers - I am reminded of the explanatory note appended by Sir Walter Scott at the end of 'Guy Mannering', under the heading 'CONVIVIAL HABITS OF THE SCOTTISH BAR' - I paraphrase as follows -

    "The account (in the novel) was taken from a story told me by an aged gentleman….(it had been thought very desirable to obtain the then Lord Advocate's assistance in the drawing of a (civil) appeal)…….the solicitor employed for the appellant, attended by my informant acting as his clerk, went to the Lord Advocate's chambers in the Fishmarket Close. It was Saturday at noon, the Court was just dismissed, the Lord Advocate had changed his dress ….and his servant and horses were at the foot of the close to carry him to Arniston. It was scarcely possible to get him to listen to a word concerning business.

    The wily agent, however, on pretence of asking one or two questions…drew his Lordship, who was no less an eminent bon vivant than a lawyer of unequalled talent, to take a whet at a celebrated tavern…..dinner was ordered, the law was laid aside for a time, and the bottle circulated very freely…..

    At nine o'clock, after he had been honouring Bacchus for so many hours,….paper, pen and ink were brought,…. the Lord Advocate began to dictate the appeal case – and continued at his task until 4 o'clock in the morning. By next day's post, the solicitor sent the case to London, a chef-d'oeuvre of its kind – it was not neccesary on its revisal to correct five words……"

  2. Ha! Excellent almax, excellent! I'm sure Elish would never dream of doing anything remotely similar these days *ahem hem*. I dimly recall having heard or read this anecdote before. Was the Law Officer in question not one of the ubiquitous legal Dundases?

  3. I'm sorry to return to this subject after such a long interval, but today I happened to be glancing through Ian McIntyre's 'Life of Robert Burns' when I saw a portrait of Lord Newton (a Senator of the College of Justice) who was a contemporary of Burns in the drinking club, the Crochallan Fencibles.

    Lord Newton was definitely one of those judges who got wellied into the bottle of port during the forenoon sitting of the Court. Indeed his portrait is accompanied by a genuine biographical quotation from him, viz -

    "Drinking is my occupation, law my amusement"

  4. Almax,

    A splendid motto, and if I may say so, demonstrating an admirable sense of priorities...