Edinburgh Bookshelf

Kay's Originals Vol. 1


B I 0 G RA P H I CA I, S KE T C H E S. 167 No. LXXI. ROBERT M'QUEEN OF BRAXFIELD, LORD JUSTICE-CLERK. THIS eminent lawyer and judge of the last century was born in 1722. His father, John M'Queen, Esq. of Braxfield, in the county of Lanark, was educated as a lawyer, and practised for some time ; but he gave up business on being appointed Sheriff-substitute of the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire. He was by no means wealthy, and having a large family, no extravagant views of future advancement seem to have been entertained respecting his children. Robert, who was his eldest son, received the early part of his education at the grammar-school of the county town,' and thereafter attended a course at the University of Edinburgh, with the view of becoming a Writer to the Signet. In accordance with this resolution, young M'Queen was apprenticed to Mr. Thomas Gouldie, an eminent practitioner, and, during the lat+er period of his service, he had an opportunity of superiiitending the management of processes before the Supreme Court. Those faculties of mind which subsequently distinguished him both as a lawyer and a judge were thus called into active operation ; and, feeling conscious of intellectual strength, he resolved to try his fortune at the bar. This new-kindled ambition by no means disturbed his arrangement with Mr. Gouldie, with whom he continued until the expiry of his indenture. In the meantime, however, he set about the study of the civil and feudal law, and very soon became deeply conversant in the principles of both, especially of the latter. In 1744, after the usual trials, he became a member of the Faculty of Advocates. In the course of a few years afterwards, a number of questions arising out of the Rebellion in 1745, respecting the forfeited estates, came to be decided, in all of which M'Queen had the good fortune to be appointed counsel for the crown. Nothing could be more opportunely favourable for demonstrating the young advocate's talents than this fortuitous circumstance. The extent of knowledge which he displayed as a feudal lawyer, in the management of these cases-some of them of the greatest importance-obt,ained for him a degree of reputation which soon became substantially apparent in the rapid increase of his general practice. The easy unaffected manners of Mr. M'Queen also tended much to promote success. At those meetings called consultations, which, for many years after his admission to the bar, were generally held in taverns, he " peculiarly shone" both in legal and social qualifications. Ultimately his practice became so great, especially before the Lord Ordinary, that he has been repeatedly The grammar-school of Lanark was at this period in considerable repute. was Thomson, a relative of the author of " The Seasons," and married to his sister. The teacher'a name
Volume 8 Page 237
  Enlarge Enlarge  
168 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. known to plead from fifteen to twenty causes in one day. Some idea of the influence and high character to which he had attained as an advocate may be gathered from the couplet in the " Court of Session Garland," by Boswel1:- '' However of our cause not being ashamed, Unto the whole Lords we straightway reclaimed ; And our petition was appointed to be seen, Because it was dram by Robbie M'Queen, On the death of Lord Coalston, in 1766, Mr. M'Queen was elevated to the bench by the title of Lord Braxfield-an appointment, it is said, he accepted witth considerable reluctance, being in receipt of a much larger professional income. He was prevailed upon, however, to accept the gown, by the repeated entreaties of Lord President Dundas,' and the Lord Advocate, afterwards Lord Melville. In 1780 he was also appointed a Lord Commissioner of Justiciary; and in 1787 was still more highly honoured by being promoted to the important office of Lord Justice-clerk of Scotland. Lord Braxfield was equally distinguished on the bench as he had been at the bar. He attended to his duties with the utmost regularity, daily making his appearance in court, even during winter, by nine o'clock in the morning ; and it seemed in him a prominent and honourable principle of action to mitigate the evils of the " law's delay," by a despatch of decision, which will appear the more extraordinary, considering the number of causes brought before him while he sat as the Judge Ordinary of the Outer House. As Lord Justice-clerk, he presided at the trials of Muir, Palmer, Skirving, Margarot, Gerald, etc. in 1793-4. At a period so critical and so alarming to all settled governments, the situation of Lord Justice-clerk was one of peculiar responsibility, and indeed of such a nature as to preclude the possibility of giving entire satisfaction. During this eventful period Lord Braxfield discharged what he conceived to be his duty with firmness, and in accordance to the letter and spirit of the law, if not always with that leniency and moderation which in the present day would have been esteemed essential. The conduct of Lord Braxfield, during these memorable trials, has indeed been freely censured in recent times as having been distinguished by great and unnecessary severity ; but the truth is, he was extremely well fitted for the crisis in which he was called on to perform so conspicuous a part, ; for, by the bold and fearless front he assumed, at a time when almost every other person in authority quailed beneath the gathering storm, he contributed not a little to curb the lawless spirit that was abroad, and which threatened a repetition of that reign of terror and anarchy which so fearfully devastated a neighbouring country. But if the conduct of his lordship in those trying times was thus " Mr. M'Queen had contracted an intimacy with Mr, Dundas, afterwards Lord President of the Court of Session, and his brother, Lord Melville, at a very early period of life. The Lord President, when at the bar, married the heiress of Bounington, an estate situated within a mile of Braxfield. During the recesses of the Court, these eminent men used to meet at their country seats and read , and studied law together. This intimacy, so honourable and advantageous to both, continued through life."
Volume 8 Page 238
  Enlarge Enlarge