Sunday, May 20, 2012

Blair, then Melville


‘As I was walking along Maitland-street on the evening
of the 20th of May, 1811, I met Sir Harry Moncreiff,
who asked me with great agitation, if I had heard what
had happened?  He then told me that President Blair
was dead. He had been in court that day, apparently
in good health, and had gone to take his usual walk
from his house in George Square round by Bruntsfield
Links and the Grange, where his solitary figure had
long been a known and respected object, when he was
struck with sudden illness, staggered home, and died.

It overwhelmed us all. Party made no division about
Blair. All pleasure and all business was suspended. I
saw Hermand that night. He despised Blair's absti-
nence from the pollution of small politics, and didn’t
know that he could love a man who neither cared for
claret nor for whist; but, at near seventy years of age,
he was crying like a child. Next day the court was
silent, and adjourned. The Faculty of Advocates, has-
tily called together, resolved to attend him to his grave.
Henry Erskine tried to say something, and because he
could only try it, it was as good a speech as he ever
made. The emotion, and the few and broken sentences,
made this artless tribute, by the greatest surviving mem-
ber of the profession to the greatest dead one, striking
and beautiful.

The day before the funeral, another unlooked-for oc-
currence deepened the solemnity. The first Lord Mel-
ville had retired to rest in his usual health, but was found
dead in bed next morning. These two early, attached,
and illustrious friends, were thus lying, suddenly dead,
with but a wall between them. Their houses, on the
northeast side of George Square, were next each other.

The remains of Blair were taken to the grave with all
the civic pomp that Edinburgh could supply. But the
most striking homage was paid in the solemn and im-
pressive silence and respectfulness of the people. There
were no soldiers, and scarcely a dozen of police officers.
Yet the procession moved to the Greyfriars churchyard
through a mass of orderly populace, all as still as if they
had been his family. When the sod was laid, his rela-
tions, as usual, took off their hats. So did the judges,
Who stood next: then the magistrates: the faculty and
their legal bodies; the clergy; and all the spectators in
the churchyard; beyond whom it ran over the sky lines
of people ridged on all the buildings, and on the south-
ern edge of the Castlehill — all stood for a moment silent
and uncovered. ‘

Lord Henry Cockburn’s discussion of Robert Blair’s death is found in “Memorials of his Time”.  Blair, the Lord  Avontoun, was Lord President of the Court of Session from 1808 to May 20th, 1811, when he died.  Sir Walter Scott writes of the deaths of Blair and Lord Melville in a letter he sent to John Morritt on July 1st, 1811.  This letter is published in Lockhart’s “Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott”:

‘Edinburgh, July 1, 1811

‘TO JOHN B. S. MORRITT

MY DEAR MORRITT-I have this moment got your
kind letter just as I was packing up Don Roderick for
you-a flying copy which be [sic] the assistance of an office
frank will reach you far sooner than Murrays heavy quarto.
This patriotic puppet show has been finishd under wretched
auspices-poor Lord Mellvilles death so quickly succeeding
that of president Blair, one of the best and wisest judges that
ever distributed justice broke my spirit sadly. My official
situation placed me in daily contact with the President
and his ability and candour were the source of my daily
admiration. As for poor dear Lord Mellville
'Tis vain to name him whom we mourn in vain.
Almost the last time I saw him he was talking of you in the
highest terms of regard and expressing great hopes of again
seeing you at Dunira this summer where I proposed to
attend you. Hei mihi! quid hei mihi! humana perpessi
sumus ! His loss will be long and severely felt here and
envy is already paying her cold tribute of applause to the
worth which she malignd while it walkd upon earth.
There was a very odd coincidence between the deaths
of these eminent characters, and that of a very inferior
person a dentist of this city named Dubuisson.1 He met the
Presidt. the day before his death, who used a particular
expression in speaking to him-the day before Lord
Mellville died he also met Dubuisson nearly on the same
spot and to the man's surprize used the Presidts. very
words in saluting him. On this second death, he
expressd (jocularly however) an apprehension that he
himself would be the third-was taken ill and died in an
hours space. Was not this remarkable ?
 I am quite delighted with your account of your journey 1
and would be most happy if I could promise myself
the pleasure of seeing you in Yorkshire this season.
But as the French Ambassador told the King wishing to
show that he understood the vernacular idiom and
familiar turn of the English language, " I have got some
fish to fry." You must know that my lease of Ashestiel
being expired I have bought a small farm value about
150 yearly with the intention of " bigging myself a
bower " after my own fashion. The situation is good as
it lies along the Tweed about three miles above Melrose
but alas ! the plantations are very young. However I
think if I can get an elegant plan for a cottage it will look
very well, and furnish me amusement for some time before
I get everything laid out to my mind. We stay at
Ashestiel this season, but migrate the next to our new
settlements. I have only fixd upon two points respecting
my intended cottage one is that it shall stand in my garden
or rather kail yard-the other that the little drawing
room shall open into a little conservatory in which
conservatory there shall be a fountain-these are
articles of taste which I have long determined upon.
But I hope before a stone of our paradise is begun we
shall meet and collogue about it. I believe I must be
obliged to my English friends for a few good acorns as
I intend to sow a bank instead of planting it and we do
not get them good here.
I will write to you again very soon being now busied
in bundling off my presentation copies of Don Roderic.
Charlotte joins in kindest respects to Mrs. Morritt our
little folk are all indebted to your kind remembrance, and
I am ever yours, W. S.’

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