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Lord Cockburn: A Bicentenary Commemoration 
edited by Alan Bell.
Scottish Academic Press, 204 pp., £6, December 1980, 0 7073 0245 5
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Henry Cockburn’s writings make him a vital historical source for the study of Scotland in what he called ‘the last purely Scotch age’. They cover the spread of the new industrial world and Georgian architecture, assaults on woodland and ancient monuments, the adaptation of refined society in Edinburgh to Evangelicalism, the threat of radical revolt, closer connections with England. It was a world of new styles in politics and architecture: the First he held with, the second deplored. As Alan Bell remarks, Cockburn’s ‘experience was almost exclusively Scottish’, yet one journey abroad, a Classical education and the experience of Scotland in its greatest days of self-esteem, when it could be believed that the answers to the social and moral problems of the new world of steam power and voting power might well be found there – all these enabled him not so much to transcend his geographical limitations as to use them as a basis for a general culture. The Scottish legal system enabled him to earn a comfortable income by working hard at the law for half the year, leaving the other half for the cultivation of friendship, politics, writing and the countryside. He has left writings that are as much a part of Edinburgh life as the buildings he tried to protect – both have suffered heavy loss from vandals who should have known better. Essential for an understanding of the Scottish scene, he is little known elsewhere, which is both the loss and the limitation of those out with Scotland.

This book follows the diverse interests of the man, and is irrigated by the recent liberation of some papers which escaped his own decision to maintain the privacy of his friends by destroying their private letters, and similar onslaughts by his descendants in the interests of propriety, indolence and solemnity. Alan Bell himself discusses Cockburn as a viewer of the land, a letter-writer and compiler of the volumes, the Memorials etc, which we still have and use. He reproduces Cockburn’s own account of the Friday Club, which lets us in on Cockburn’s close group of political friends. Iain MacIver shows his complicated personal involvement in the great storm in the Scottish Church, John Pinkerton discusses his place as a lawyer, and Karl Miller the evidence his preferences give for the changing literary taste of the day.

Before the proliferation of central government departments and local administrative bureaucracies the judges in Scotland were at the heart of politics. It was a time when law was openly made by their judgments, usually in the interests of the dominant social class of landowners, to which they belonged. The great church issue showed each side, Evangelicals and Establishment, trying to change the law: naturally the Establishment won in the courts, but it lost in the break-up of the Church. Yet even here the Evangelicals did not carry through the Disruption with the dominance they had expected. The crash of the Church took both sides partially by surprise and scarred Scotland with sectarian bitterness. Cockburn, as MacIver shows, had sympathy with both sides, but felt not only that the judges were intemperate but also that basically the law ought to back the Church.

Here he was following an emotional pull towards what he saw as an issue of patriotism and liberty, even while he disliked the extreme Evangelical language. Evangelicalism to him was heir to the Covenanters, and the Covenanters were linked to principles of civil liberty: the historiography of the early 19th century had spread this fog over the past. An earlier generation, such as Hume’s, knew better. Yet Cockburn was right to believe that the lay power could not afford to stand out against popular sentiment on religion, even if that sentiment embodied false history. This essay is an exploration of the whole issue of great subtlety and depth, showing the illogic of the various parties and the difficulty of making the political system respond to the needs of the situation. The Whig party was more tied to property than to reform when the crunch came, and its aristocratic structure made it insensitive both to popular need and to new ideas. MacIver enlarges our understanding, not only of Cockburn on an issue where he stood away from the prejudices of his class and profession, but also of this central event in the political decline of Scotland.

The shorter essay by John Pinkerton is less enlightening. Cockburn was not a great lawyer, and his grasp of the technicalities of land law has already been shown as flawing his Reform Act. Pinkerton also criticises him for an old-fashioned penal policy, for failure to grasp the principles of the constitution, at least as they were seen by his political opponents, and for having made decisions, particularly on entails and on the poor law, which were soon to be reversed by legislation. Legal judgment cannot be assessed as if it were horse racing, by the backing of eventual winners. Cockburn’s poor law decision in the Ceres case was directly in line with a long stream of cases, however socially deplorable. Perhaps it is inappropriate for a historian to suggest that a lawyer does not know his cases, but those from Paton vs Adamson, a line of Whig decisions, are on Cockburn’s side. Pinkerton holds that Cockburn’s writings on the sedition trials of 1794 onwards failed to appreciate ‘the position of the Tories and their judges that the miseries of France in turmoil would not be repeated in Scotland.’ I do not share Mr Pinkerton’s belief that Tory partisanship made better law than Whig, and though panic is understandable for 1794 it simply will not do as a justification for the refusal to consider any readjustment in the representative system for more than thirty years. Mr Pinkerton sees conservatism as always based on constitutional principle: those who wish for change have first to show that they grasp these principles. But the issues were issues of politics, and law was the instrument of a conservatism dangerously set in its ways. The sedition trials were, as were Cockburn’s own views in poor law matters, designed to maintain a social and political hegemony which new economic forces were making out of date. Cockburn could see this in the one case, not in the other.

It is difficult to assent to a rather rosy view that Mr Pinkerton has of the Scottish past. ‘Certain societies are naturally litigious, each man disputing with his neighbour every infringement of territorial rights … and others take such matters in their stride. The Scottish have always tended to the latter course.’ This is offered for the period soon after the House of Lords had been brought almost to a standstill by the mass of appeals from Scotland, all of which had already had several airings in the Court of Session. When in the 17th century law rather than violence became an acceptable way of settling disputes and doing down rivals, the Scots had taken to it with all the enthusiasm of recent converts.

Karl Miller’s essay is based on Cockburn’s own poetry and on a commonplace-book anthology put together by him and his friends. These show a taste for a countryside of hills and rivers, romantic associations and leisure. The compilation spans a period when taste is considered to have changed drastically, but here the change is blurred and, as Professor Miller shows, ‘an interest in solitude gave way to an interest in solitude.’ The country was seen as a place of recreation and recuperation, which is odd since these compilers were enjoying life and work in one of the most exciting, compact and dramatic cities in Europe at the height of its fame. It is suggested that the shift of taste to contemplative nostalgia, individualism and romantic sentiment was deep enough to include those who might be regarded as old-fashioned and classical. This essay reminds us that taste and culture are built up on a structure of efficient domestic service, so that comfort could be taken for granted. Without someone else for the hard work the countryside is not a place of leisure. House fabrics have to be maintained, food has to be provided and prepared, communications have to be kept open. Only a sophisticated economy can take for granted a level of comfort in the country as well as in the city.

Mealy-mouthed descendants have for too long deprived readers of the full taste of Cockburn’s comments. The book ends with several long pieces of what Cockburn really wrote, which bring home the brilliance of his style, and especially his careful choice of adjectives. Lord Eskgrove with his ‘red visage, indecent nose, sly edging walk and a constant muttering of his lower lip … the very portrait of a superannuated Satyr’; Lord Braxfield – ‘Party politics, Scotch law and obscenity, were the full range of his conversation, and of his thoughts’: George IV in a kilt – ‘Whether the Royal legs – the very skin of the legs – was displayed, or not, is now doubted, and I cannot say: for the agitation of kissing a king’s hand for the first time generally disqualifies the kisser from examining other parts’.

Cockburn was a sprightly, but, on principle, a detached observer. The detachment usually enhances, but can sometimes weaken his writing. Here he is on the great fire in Edinburgh’s Parliament Close in 1824, when the Tron Kirk burnt.

It was like a piece of hellish phillagree. The highest stage of it, with a radiant and long triumphant cock on its summit, at last bent inwards and made a glorious plunge into the flaming gulf below. The handle of the clock was pointing at a quarter from twelve, and of course stood horizontally. When the heat destroyed the muscular power of its machinery, the handle fell, suddenly and silently, so as to stand at half past eleven. There was something awful in the cessation of its powers …

Compare Pepys on the great fire of London, when he

saw the fire grow; and as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in Corners and upon steeples and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fire flame of an ordinary fire … we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill, for an arch of above a mile long. It made me weep to see it.

Indeed it would. The emotional content, held back by Cockburn, is evident. Cockburn was watching a splendid scene, Pepys was burying his parmesan cheese and other treasures in expectation that his home would be destroyed. He was a participator. Cockburn was a participator in political change for a short spell in the 1830s, but it is as an observer, an eye, an ear, a pen, that his busy life impresses itself on us today.

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