LAING, Malcolm (1762-1818), of Strenzie, Orkney.
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Family and Education
b. 1762, 1st s. of Robert Laing of Strenzie. educ. Kirkwall g.s.; Edinburgh Univ.; adv. 1785. m. 10 Sept. 1805 Margaret, da. of Thomas Carnegie of Craigo, Angus s.p. suc. fa. 1803.
Laing made little headway at the Scottish bar, where his speeches were delivered ‘with an almost preternatural rapidity and in harsh and disagreeable tones’. Yet Henry Cockburn believed that ‘his speech in 1794 for Gerald, charged with sedition, was the best that was made for any of the political prisoners of that period’. As Cockburn went on, Laing’s ‘heart was little in a profession for which he was not well qualified, and from which he was allured by the more congenial pursuits of literature and history’. In 1793, he completed volume six of the late Dr Henry’s History of Great Britain, and in 1800 he published his own History of Scotland covering the period from 1603 to 1707. His accompanying exposure of the delusion concerning the poems of Ossian caused considerable indignation in Scotland. Sir Walter Scott’s friend Robert Gillies wrote of him:
In private life he was kind, hospitable, simple, and unaffected in his manners, delighting most in the comforts of his own study, and a ménage suitable for a country gentleman of moderate fortune ... In his literary capacity, Mr Laing had one leading principle—the mainspring of his activity—namely, he must be at war, or he could not move at all. His pen would drop lifeless on the paper unless there were some object to be battled for with bitterness.1
Laing was a member of the Association of the Friends of the People, joined the Whig Club in 1796 and gave Fox some assistance with his own historical work. He took over the management of Lord Dundas’s electoral interest in Orkney in 1794 with his friend and mentor Gilbert Meason, and at the election of 1796 supported Robert Honyman, brother of William Honyman of Graemsay (later Lord Armadale SCJ), who obtained from Henry Dundas a promise that Laing would be made sheriff of Orkney on the first vacancy. Dundas broke his pledge in 1801, whereupon Armadale promised to bring Laing in for Orkney whenever he signified a wish to take the seat, but in 1802 he concurred in Honyman’s re-election. In October 1805 Fox, contemplating an approach to Lord Stafford to bring Laing in for Tain Burghs, wrote to Lord Lauderdale: ‘I am sure I need not tell you how very much I should like to have Laing in Parliament, whom I agree with you in thinking likely to be very useful as well as creditable’.2
Nothing came of this. In March 1806 Lauderdale, writing to Fox about their plans for the redistribution of Scottish offices under the new regime of the ‘Talents’, reminded him:
Your friend Mr Laing ought not to be forgot. All our friends in Scotland look at the situation of baron of exchequer ... for him ... I think it not only incumbent upon us to press his appointment at as early a period as a vacancy can be arranged; but I can assure you that till we have an active friend in that situation it is impossible for the government either to put an end to jobbery, or to get to the bottom of all the jobs that have been practised.
With this appointment in prospect and with Meason currently averse to his entering the House, Laing agreed to support Armadale’s son at the next election. He initially concurred in Honyman’s candidature when Parliament was dissolved, while insisting that his own right to take the seat when it suited him should be recognized, but at the last minute found Meason keen to have him come in and demanded immediate fulfilment of Armadale’s pledge. Armadale jibbed at this and the dispute was referred to William Adam, but to prevent an unseemly wrangle Laing gave way, reserving his right to insist on Armadale’s keeping his promise at the earliest opportunity. At the general election of 1807 Armadale, under pressure from Whig leaders, returned Laing.3
He divided with opposition on the address, 26 June, the state of the nation, 6 July 1807, and the Copenhagen incident, 3 Feb. 1808, and was in the pro-Catholic minorities on the Maynooth grant, 29 Apr. and 5 May, Duigenan’s appointment, 11 May, and the Irish Catholic petition, 25 May 1808. He spoke in favour of a pension for Lord Cullen, 2 July, opposed the Glasgow royalty extension bill, 21 July, sought to ameliorate the Irish insurrection bill, 24 July 1807, spoke briefly on Copenhagen, 25 Feb., and in his last reported speech, 5 May 1808, argued for an increased grant to Maynooth. Soon afterwards a nervous collapse forced him to retire completely from public life, though he did not surrender his seat until 1812.
Two years later Sir Walter Scott visited him at Kirkwall:
Our old acquaintance, though an invalid, received us kindly; he looks very poorly, and cannot walk without assistance, but seems to retain all the quick, earnest, and vivacious intelligence of his character and manner.4
Cockburn wrote of him:
Depth, truth and independence as a historian were the least of his merits, for he was a firm, warm-hearted, honest man, whose instructive and agreeable companionship was only made the more interesting by a hard peremptory Celtic manner and accent.5
Laing died 6 Nov. 1818.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: David R. Fisher
- 1. Edinburgh Annual Reg. (1818), ii (1), 249; Cockburn, Memorials ed. Miller, 330; Gillies, Mems. of a Literary Veteran, i. 242.
- 2. Blair Adam mss, ‘Statement for Mr Laing’, 5 Nov. 1806; Add. 47564, f. 249.
- 3. Add. 51469, f. 38; Blair Adam mss, ‘Statement’, 5 Nov., Laing to Adam, 9 Nov. 1806, Lauderdale to same, Tues. [Apr.]; Fortescue mss, Armadale to Grenville, 1 May 1807.
- 4. Lockhart, Scott (1842), 271.
- 5. Cockburn, 331.