• Our collection of the DUMBEST & FUNNIEST THINGS EVER SAID IN COURT is presented over several pages:

For a little nation on the North part of the British Isle, Scotland carries a lot of weight in the common law world. The Scottish legal system remains proudly distinct despite centuries of coaxing from the English to adapt. A unique legal vocabulary awaits any researcher into Scottish legal history (see Scots Law Dictionary). Throw in a dramatic rolling of the r’s and a heightened emphasis on the last syllable of many words, and that unique vocabulary is embellished by a dialect all their own.

[Scotland lion flag]As so it should come as no surprise that Scotland has a great crop of delightful personalities embedded throughout their legal history.

Another quirk: when lawyers were appointed to the bench in Scotland, much like their English counterparts, they were knighted and allowed to change their surname, to add a name indicative of an area of the country dear to them, perhaps their home, and thereafter be stylized Lord Timbuktu, for example. They did not have to own that land. They only had to live with the new surname and title for the rest of their lives.


In his 2001 book The Law's Strangest Cases, Peter Seddon reports on a trial in Scotland in which this exchange occurred:

Judge: Although I find you a fecund liar, I will not send you to prison."

Scottish prisoner: Thank you, Yourrr Honourrr, and you'rrre a fecund good judge!"


David Rae (1724-1804) chose to be called Lord Eskgrove.

[Lord Esgrove]He was not well liked and routinely lampooned and ridiculed by writers. Sir Walter Scott, of (name of book) fame, was a master of imitating Esgrove’s thick Scottish accent and mannerisms. Another Scottish judge, Henry Cockburn wrote of David Rae:

"To be able to give an anecdote of Eskgrove, with a proper imitation of his voice and manner, was a sort of fortune in society.... Yet 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.... The voice was low and mumbling, and on the bench was generally inaudible for some time after the movement of the lips showed that he had begun speaking; after which the first word that was let fairly out was generally the loudest of the whole discourse.... A more ludicrous personage could not exist."1

Esgrove’s pompous, self-important personality came out in a famous rebuke he served up to a shy female witness who sought to keep her shawl on and covering most of her head while testifying in open court. It was an innocent mistake but Esgrove barked:

“Young women, consider yourself as in the presence of Almighty God. Lift up your veil, throw off all modesty and look me in the face.”


Henry Home (1696-1782), attorney, took the lordship name of Kames, as in Lord Kames, when he was appointed to the Scottish bench in 1752.

Historians may better know him as a philosopher and the author of Sketches on the History of Man.

[Henry Home]As a Scottish judge, he was well respected.

One of his jobs was to visit isolated communities to hear cases and deliver justice. He was at Dunkeld when he got lost trying to find the footpath to the ferry. He asked a local to help him out:

“That I will do with all my heart, my lord. Does not your lordship remember me? My name is John. I have the honour to be before your lordship for stealing sheep.”

Kames: “Oh, John, I remember you well. And how is your wife? She had the honour to be before me too, for receiving them, knowing them to be stolen.

John: “Ah, we were very lucky. We got off for lack of evidence and I am still going on in the butcher trade.

Kames: “Then we may have the honour of meeting again.”


John Clerk (1757-1832), in spite of a judgeship-ready surname, chose Lord Eldin as his professional moniker, his wealtty father's title. Clerk had a bad leg and walked with a limp.

He was once before a bench of English judges, the House of Lords, when he concluded his submissions with:

Clerk: “That’s the whole thing in plain English, my lords.”

English judge: “In plain Scotch, you mean, Mr. Clerk?”

Clerk: “In plain common sense, my lords, and that’s the same in any language.”


In their book Law and Laughter, Morton and Malloch write of another episode involving Lord Eldin when he was still known as attorney John Clerk.

[John Clerk]Before the House of Lords, Clerk came face to face with the proud English belief that they, and only they, had a monopoly on the correct pronunciation of the shared language. John Clerk, of course, was Scottish, where many common words have widely different pronunciations. When he pronounced water as watter, he was interrupted.

Judge: “Do you spell water with two t’s in the North, Mr. Clerk?”

Clerk: “No, my lord, but we spell manners with two n’s.”

In another case, Clerk was representing a ploughman. In his remarks to the Court, Clerk pronounced the word enough in the Scottish form, sounding more like enow. The Lord Chancellor took him to task on it and reminded him that the word was pronounced enough in England. Clerk:

“Very well, my lord. My client is a pluffman who pluffs a pluff gang on land in the parish of ….”

He was not bothered again for pronouncing enough enow.


John Clerk is also the hero of our last story of funny things heard in Scottish legal history. A young lawyer made the mistake of innocently mumbling out loud, after hearing reasons for judgment, which ran against his client, his surprise at the decision. The judge overheard the remark and cited the young lawyer for contempt, to be heard the next day. That night the young lawyer sought out Clerk who agreed to stand up for his young colleague the next day. His argument before the Court:

“I am sorry, my lords, that my young friend so far forgot himself as to treat your lordships with disrespect.

“He is extremely penitent and you will kindly ascribe his unintentional insult to his ignorance.

“You will see at once that it did not originate in that: he said he was surprised at the decision of your lordships.

“Now, if he had not been very ignorant of what takes place in this Court everyday, had he known your lordships but half as long as I have done, he would not be surprised at anything you did.”


• Our collection of the DUMBEST & FUNNIEST THINGS EVER SAID IN COURT is presented over several pages:


  • Morton, George and Malloch, D. Macleod, Law and Laughter (Edinburgh: Foulis Press, 1913), pages 160-169.
  • NOTE 1: Cockburn, Henry, Memorials of His Time (1856)