ERSKINE, Hon. Henry (1746-1817), of Almondell, Linlithgow.
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Family and Education
b. 1 Nov. 1746, 2nd s. of Henry David, 10th Earl of Buchan [S], by Agnes, da. of Sir James Steuart, 1st Bt., of Goodtrees, Edinburgh, solicitor-gen. [S]; bro. of Hon. Thomas Erskine*. educ. by Richard Dick at St. Andrews; St. Andrews Univ. 1760; Glasgow Univ. 1764; Edinburgh Univ. 1766; adv. 1768. m. (1) 30 Mar. 1772, Christina (d. 9 May 1804), da. and h. of George Fullerton of Broughton Hall, Edinburgh, comptroller of customs at Leith, 2s. 2da.; (2) 7 Jan. 1805, Erskine, da. of Alexander Munro, merchant in Glasgow, wid. of James Turnbull, adv., of Edinburgh, s.p.
Ld. advocate Aug. 1783-Jan. 1784, 1806-7; adv. and state councillor to Prince of Wales [S] 1783-1806, state councillor 1812-d.; dean of faculty [S] Dec. 1785-Jan. 1796; commr. of inquiry, administration of justice [S] Nov. 1808; dir. (extraordinary) Bank of Scotland 1789-91, 1795-8, 1810-d.
The leading light of the Scottish bar and the white hope of Scots Whigs, Erskine was in ‘universal requisition’, and as Lord Cockburn recalled, ‘Nothing was so sour as not to be sweetened by the glance, the voice, the gaiety, the beauty of Henry Erskine’. ‘He reasoned in wit’ and his name ‘suggests ideas of wit’. All this was lost on Westminster, where he appeared only for a year, late in life, as lord advocate. He had held the same appointment in the coalition ministry of 1783, but went out of office unprovided with a seat in Parliament. Subsequently he was the chief inspiration of the Independent Friends, as the Scottish Whigs demurely styled themselves, and leader of their campaign to redeem their plight. He remained the Prince of Wales’s advocate in Scotland and his professional situation was further enhanced by his election to succeed Henry Dundas as dean of faculty in 1785, but in political management he was easily outmanoeuvred by Dundas, who left no stone unturned to thwart him. Had his friends returned to power in the Regency crisis, he was to have been restored as lord advocate and was confident that in close co-operation with Sir Thomas Dundas* he could lead the Scottish Whigs to victory. The political survey of Scotland drawn up for his use by Lawrence Hill, WS, in 1788-9 inspired sanguine hopes in him.1 The turning of the tide against the Whigs dashed these hopes: Erskine, who was contesting Fifeshire and exerting himself for his friends in other counties, was obliged to withdraw for want of support before the poll and was disappointed of a burghs seat to fall back on. He consoled himself by supporting the movement for burgh and county reform in Scotland and by presiding over the anti-slave trade movement there.2 Nevertheless he refused to join the Friends of the People in 1792 and assured the Duke of Portland and Sir Gilbert Elliot in June that, while supporting reform in the long run, he thought this ‘the most improper time that such a plan could have been suggested’. He approved the moderate resolutions of the Edinburgh convention later that year, vindicating the case for county reform against Robert Dundas*, but would have no truck with the radicals. He was, as he later put it, ‘a strong aristocrat’.3
Erskine’s leadership of the movement to oppose the treason and sedition bills in Scotland, revealed at a public meeting at Edinburgh on 28 Nov. 1795, brought down on him the wrath of Henry Dundas, to whom reports had been trickling through of his stirring up an opposition in the county of Midlothian. At the annual election for dean of faculty Erskine found himself opposed by Robert Dundas and defeated by 123 votes to 38. Henceforward he was a Whig martyr, cried up by William Adam*, toasted by Fox and acclaimed a member of the Whig Club, 8 Nov. 1796.4 He was not found a seat in Parliament. Dundas feared on the change of ministry in 1801 that Erskine would obtain legal office and made arrangements to thwart it.5 In May 1804 when Pitt was considering a broad-bottomed administration, Lord Moira suggested that Erskine’s being appointed lord justice clerk in succession to Eskgrove would stabilize Scottish legal arrangements and Charles Hope of Granton was prepared to yield to him, but on Eskgrove’s death later that year Erskine refused to consider it, out of party loyalty.6
Erskine’s prospects were changed when his friends came to power in 1806. He wrote to Fox, 13 Feb. 1806, a polite notice that the Scots Whigs would not tolerate the maintenance of Lord Melville’s regime in the interests of ‘political expediency’, and expected ‘a just retribution to individuals’ and the removal of ‘the Melville faction’ from place. Lately he had been reported to be pressing to succeed the allegedly dying Lord Frederick Campbell as lord clerk register, but Lord Frederick had no wish to die and Erskine was destined for the lord advocate’s gown in the Grenville administration, in which his brother Thomas was lord chancellor of the realm. When he kissed hands, the following exchange with the King allegedly took place:
George III: ‘Not so rich as Tom, eh?—not so rich as Tom?’
Erskine: ‘Your Majesty will please remember my brother is playing at the guinea table, and I at the shilling one.’
He still had no seat in Parliament. He had hopes of Linlithgowshire, but not even the Prince of Wales could persuade Lord Moira to espouse his cause there: it was too much of an open confrontation with Lord Melville and would serve as a pretext for a vendetta. Meanwhile Lord Lauderdale made a vacancy for him at Haddington Burghs, the sitting Member being in the West Indies.7
Erskine took his seat on 22 Apr. and voted for the repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806. Soon afterwards he was reported to have set his sights on the city of Edinburgh, whereupon Melville’s ‘romantic’ reaction was, that if no worthy opponent to him could be produced, he was prepared to consider supporting Erskine, ‘if he would come to a clear understanding upon it and not interfere in the interior of town administration or politick’.8 Nothing came of this. Erskine perservered in a contest for Linlithgowshire, with promises of a seat for Dumfries, Dysart, Elgin or Haddington burghs to fall back on. He gave up a hopeless fight for the county and his friends had to fight tooth and nail to secure his election for Dumfries Burghs. He himself was meanwhile ordered to Buxton as a result of ‘flying gout’, which obliged Lord Grenville to turn to William Adam rather than Erskine for the championship of the government interest in the Scottish elections. This was perhaps just as well: Erskine’s ‘facility and political indiscretion’ were causing friction.9 He had arrived in Edinburgh at the end of July with the avowed intention of remodelling the legal establishment of Scotland so as to break Melville’s power, which the latter’s acquittal had shown signs of reviving. This was the scheme he had anticipated in his letter to Fox of 13 Feb. and reiterated to him on 26 Mar., holding out the bait of the discovery of abuses in the revenue departments. In the short term, the plan was to be effected by changes of personnel which he recommended in August, though a dissolution he considered premature prevented any immediate benefits. In the long run it was to be achieved by the reform of the court of session by a bill drawn up by Erskine under Grenville’s aegis, which would make him lord chancellor of Scotland. Erskine also wished to rid Scotland of ‘subordinate’ patronage and make the prime minister the fountain from which all blessings flowed.10
The Scottish judicature bill, introduced by Lord Grenville in the Lords, 16 Feb. 1807, never reached the House. Erskine’s role in debate had been hitherto confined largely to the defence of the ministry’s military plan and its application to Scotland, May-July 1806. His only official exhibition was the Scottish clergy bill, transferring the audition of augmentations from the overloaded court of session to the Exchequer court. His most vehement speech was in favour of a bill to give creditors of the landed gentry their due, 18 Mar. 1807. By then he was ‘sadly out of humour’ with the turn of events against the ministry.11 He voted against their successors in power, 9 Apr. 1807. In debate he spoke against restrictive practices in the calico trade, 23 Apr., and next day in favour of popular education, in which Scotland had set the world an example. He was defeated at the ensuing election for Linlithgowshire, Melville, as he informed Lord Grenville, proving too strong for him.12
This was more or less the end of Erskine’s public career, though he remained a judicial reformer and his Whig friends thought it would be ‘cruel’ to pass over him for lord advocate if they returned to power. In May 1811 William Adam had the Prince Regent’s authority to propose him to Lord Chancellor Eldon as lord president on the death of Blair: Eldon’s reaction was that ‘fitness not politics should be the rule’. The official view of his ‘utter unfitness’ from a professional standpoint ruled out his obtaining either the presidency or the office of lord justice clerk and dictated the promotion of his juniors. Lord Moira commented: ‘Policy forbids party proscription to be avowed as such at any time’, but it was privately admitted.13 Erskine thereupon retired. Not unexpectedly, he declined a contest for Linlithgowshire in 1812.14 In the spring of 1817 his friends again approached government on his behalf, when he was ailing and crippled with debt, to propose that he should succeed Campbell Colquoun as lord clerk register. The latter, who was also reported ailing, recovered and there was no question of Erskine’s replacing him.15 Erskine died 8 Oct. 1817: ‘his amenity left no sting behind’.16
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
Alexander Fergusson, Henry Erskine (1882); see also Brougham, Life and Times, i. 229.
- 1. SRO GD267/1/4, G. to P. Home, 12 Dec. 1788; N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X2/1/730, 765, 800; Pol. State of Scotland 1788, p. 121
- 2. Edinburgh Advertiser, 3-6 Aug. 1790.
- 3. Fergusson, 331; Minto, ii. 56-7; Grey mss, Macleod to Grey, 30 Nov. 1792.
- 4. SRO GD51/5/17; NLS mss 7, f. 78; Edinburgh Advertiser, 12-15 Jan. 1796; Morning Chron. 9 Dec. 1795, 18, 26 Jan., 9 Nov. 1796, 11 Oct. 1797.
- 5. Dundas of Arniston mss, Dundas to Montgomery, 13 Apr.; Sidmouth mss, Dundas to Addington, 9 May 1801.
- 6. PRO 30/8/146, f. 72; SRO GD51/5/480/1; Brougham, i. 236.
- 7. Add. 51468, f. 126; NLS mss 9370, ff. 93-8; 11195, f. 233; Fergusson, 440; Blair Adam mss. Lauderdale to Adam, 4 Nov. 1806.
- 8. SRO GD51/1/195/17; Buccleuch mss, Melville to Dundas, 3 June 1806.
- 9. Blair Adam mss, Grenville to Adam, 18 Oct., Rosslyn to same, 23 Oct., Erskine to same, 27 Oct., Gibson to same, 31 Oct.; Fortescue mss, Rosslyn to Grenville, 21 Oct., reply 24 Oct., Adam to Grenville, 22 Oct., Grenville to Fife, 24 Oct. 1806; Horner mss 3, f. 17; Zetland mss X2/1/1530.
- 10. SRO GD225/34/25, Maule to Hay, 28 July, Mansfield to same, 29 July; Fortescue mss, Erskine to Grenville, 29 July, 6, 18 Aug., 12, 25, 27, 28 Sept., 6, 19 Oct. 1806; Add. 51468, f. 126; 51469, f. 106; Perceval (Holland) mss F53.
- 11. Blair Adam mss, Tierney to Adam, 1 Apr. 1807.
- 12. Fortescue mss, Erskine to Grenville, 17 May 1807.
- 13. Brougham mss 20587; Blair Adam mss, Adam to Clerk, 23 May, to J. Adam, 1 Sept.; Hope to Moira, 21 Oct., Moira to Adam, 25 Sept., 16, 25 Oct. 1811; NLS mss 9, ff. 103, 189.
- 14. Hope of Luffness mss, J. to A. Hope, 14 Sept., 18 Oct.; Edinburgh Advertiser, 20 Oct. 1812.
- 15. Blair Adam mss, Liverpool to Adam, 11 Mar., Bloomfield to same, 30 Apr., Sidmouth to same, 30 Apr. 1817.
- 16. Gent. Mag. (1817), i. 372.