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Rae receved his law degree from Edinburgh University and had a long, distinguished career as a solicitor.

Too bad the same can not be said of his career as a judge.

He was already 58 when appointed to the bench in 1782.

He became chief justice of Scotland (Lord of Justiciary) in 1790 and took the British habit of a change in surname coupled with a declaration that he was a "lord"; resulting in his better-known name of Lord Eskgrove, named after a small piece of land he owned.

Eskgrove might have been very regrettably forgotten had it not been for the book by Henry Cockburn, Memorials of His Time (1856) who described Eskgrove as a "considerable lawyer".

But as a judge, Cockburn's description's of Lord Eskgrove was much less flattering:

"(Eskgrove) was a avaricious, indecent old wretch, whose habits and appearance supplied all Edinburgh with ludicrous and contemptuous anecdotes..

"When I first knew him he was in the zenith of his absurdity. People seemed to have nothing to do but to tell stories of this one man. To be able to give and anecdote of Eskgrove, with a proper imitation of his voice and manner, was a sort of fortune in society.

"His nose was prodigious; the under lip enormous, and supported on a huge clumsy chin, which moved like the jaw of an exaggerated Dutch toy.

"Never once did he do or say anything which had the slightest claim to be remembered for any intrinsic merit. The value of all his words and actions consisted in their absurdity."

Cockburn was elevated to the Scotland Court in 1834, and had plead before Eskgrove. As a member of the Scottish Bar, would have been privy to Eskgrove's antics.

Forbes wrote of Eskgrove:

"His character, so far as we know it, does not heighten one's estimate of human nature."

Nicknamed Esky by the Scottish Bar, he died in 1804, at the age of 79. He is buried in Inveresk, Scotland.

Some of his famous utterances are:

In condemning a person for murdering a soldier by stabbing:

"And not only did you murder him, and whereby he was bereaved of his life, but you did thrust, or push, or pierce, or project or propel the lethal weapon through the bellyband of the regimental breeches which were His Majesty's."

Upon sentencing persons for break and entering Luss House and assaulting, amongst others, James Colquohoun:

"All this you did ... and God preserve us! .. just when they were sitten down to their dinner."

In one case, a young woman who thought she was so beautiful that she tried to testify wearing a veil, Esky shot off:

"Young woman, you will now consider yourself in the presence of Almighty God, and of this High Court. Lift up your veil, throw off all modesty and look me in the face."

Upon delivering a death sentence:

"Whatever your religious persuasion may be, or even if, as I suppose, you be of no persuasion at all, there are plenty of reverend gentlemen who will be most happy for to show you the way to eternal life."

In one case, a lawyer based his client's claim on a cow coughing. Esky didn't believe it could be so and interjected:

"I have had plenty healthy cow in my time but I never heard of one of them coughing. A coughing cow!? That will never do."

He sat on the bench during the famous Scottish sedition trial of Thomas F. Palmer who simply promoted universal suffrage. In the openings of the Queen v Palmer, Eskgrove showed his bias by declaring, before any evidence was even received by the court:

"All nations are liable to have bad men among them. I am little obliged to strangers who, coming here under the pretense of preaching what they call 'the gospel', should preach sedition among the people."

In the trial of William Skirving, Eskgrove again held that to demand universal suffrage was sedition:

"... to establish that every living man in this country is to have a vote to choose a representative in Parliament - a thing that never did obtain, and does not now obtain, and that never can obtain, in this country."

Both Palmer and Skirving were convicted by a court which included Eskgrove, and sentenced to transportation to Australia, Palmer for 7 years and Skirving for 14. Both died without ever returning to Scotland.

Eskgrove stands as no tribute to Scottish law but in a field so dry and colourless as the law, it is reassuring, with the comfort of time, to know the bench has it's eccentrics.

REFERENCES:

  • Cockburn, Henry, Memorials of His Time 123 (1856)
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, The Law's Hall of Fame
  • Forbes, Gray, Some Old Scot Judges (New York: EP Dutton, 1915), pages 152 on.
  • McNamara, M. F., 2,000 Famous Legal Quotations (New York: Aqueduct Books, 1967), pages 200-201.