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Great Scot

Cockburn’s Millennium

by Karl Miller
Duckworth (London), 322 pp., £14.00

The Act of Union of 1707 joined the Scottish and English parliaments, but left Scotland her own legal system (and her Kirk). Politicians were drawn to London; lawyers stayed in Edinburgh, a resident aristocracy. Into this elite was born Henry Cockburn, in 1779. He is one of Scotland’s cherished characters.

As a young lawyer he chose to be a Whig when—in the years after the French Revolution—even the gentlest Liberal was apt to be labeled Jacobin, and no Whig lawyer could expect preferment. His Whiggery meant opposition to his stern Tory father, and to his uncle Henry Dundas, the autocrat who managed Scotland for the government in London. He was a close friend of Francis Jeffrey and the young Whigs who ran the Edinburgh Review (lawyers with time on their hands for literature). He fought for Parliamentary Reform, and drafted the Scottish Reform Bill of 1832. He was made a judge—“benchified” was his word for it. He cared about Edinburgh—her old buildings, her new monuments, her greenery, her dignity. Much of the city you see today has Cockburn’s mark on it: he fought to keep one side of Princes Street open toward the Old Town and the Castle; he helped to found the Botanic Gardens and the Royal Scottish Academy; the street named after him winds steeply up from Waverley Station to the High Street, appropriately linking Old Town and New.

Born into the Scotland of Adam Smith and the Enlightenment, he lived into the Scotland of railways, Irish immigrants, and industrial slums (he died in 1854). His brothers founded the firm that produces Cockburn’s Port. One of his great-great-grandsons was Evelyn Waugh (whose view was that “Lord Cockburn was ennobled for practical reasons. I would like to be descended from a useless Lord”). In his Memorials and Journals he left a wonderfully lively picture of his Scotland. He was racy, forthright, and gregarious. Walter Scott, his political enemy and lifelong friend, considered him “a very extraordinary man.”

And now Karl Miller, who delights in Cockburn, has made him the focus of a complex, many-layered book. “Considered as a biography,” he warns, “the result is a little peculiar,” for it is also “about fathers and sons, about obedience and disobedience, peace of mind and pugnacity, solitude and fame, pleasure and duty. And it is a book about the beautiful and mysterious Pentland Hills.” And it is also an autobiography at one remove of Karl Miller, Edinburgh-bred, Cambridge-educated, London editor and professor: an exploration by a Scot who has become a Southerner of the country and culture that shaped him.

It is a catch-all of a book whose contents are held together by Mr. Miller’s passionate involvement in all these matters, and by the energy of his writing. He expects his readers to work hard too. When he tells us on page 282 of his mother’s father coming from Miletus, it is no use thinking (as I for some seconds did) that his grandfather was a Greek; you’re expected to remember that on page 128 a contemporary of Cockburn’s called Ireland “Miletus, which is the green island of the sea.” He relishes words and plays with them; he likes to pair them off alliteratively—“paragons and panjandrums,” “pleaders and pleasers,” “serenity and security,” “a banisher and a brandisher”—a device much favored by the Covenanting writers.

To Cockburn, “the eighteenth was the final Scotch century”; to Carlyle, Cockburn was “the very last of that peculiar species, the Scotch gentleman.” There is nostalgia in Cockburn’s memories of the Scotland of his youth, there is nostalgia in our regard for him. At a time when national feeling is on the upsurge, he is cherished particularly for his Scotchness—in voice, manner, prejudices, and loyalty to the past. He has become a pattern of an old Scotch worthy; a comfortable national ancestor. But Mr. Miller—who has seen unpublished letters, and passages left out of published works—thinks there has been too much “cosification” of Cockburn; he discovers a richer and more complex character:

Contemptuous and compassionate, demure and frivolous, eminent and vagrant, an iconoclast who revered the past, to which, as to his hills, he turned for refuge, he was the kind of man without whom the best societies would never come about, and without whom they would die.

Cockburn’s “obstinate and active Whiggery,” self-confessed, went with a conservative and romantic nature. “The Scotch Millennium seems to me to have arrived,” he wrote when the Whigs came to power, Reform was around the corner, and Jeffrey and he were given advancement; he foresaw “the last links of the Scotch feudal chain dropping off.” But there were firm limits which this enthusiast for reforming Parliament, for emancipating Catholics, for freeing slaves would put to change. One limit was set by fear of the mob; the people to be enfranchised were not the proletariat. Reform was a step away from, not toward, revolution. “The great thing is to avoid Radicalism.” Another limit was set by his Scotchness. (For Cockburn, and Mr. Miller, it is always Scotch and not Scots or Scottish; I shall try to follow them.) Like Walter Scott, he accepted the Union of 1707, but cherished all that made Scotland different from England. He wished to improve Scotland, but he wished even more to save her; he was forever tugged two ways.

Improved harbours, railroad stations, better trade, and larger masses of migratory people have succeeded; and those who prefer this to the recollections of the olden time will be pleased. My reason is with the modern world, my dreams with the old one.

Contraries abounded. The man who had defended the weavers and their right to strike had no sympathy with immigrants from Ireland; the fighter for Reform looked sadly back on so much that the reforms had destroyed.

Mr. Miller looks far back and deep down for the source of such contraries. Cockburn himself says little about his father, Sheriff of Midlothian and Baron of Exchequer; from the Memorials we learn that he kept his children at a distance, that he and his Tory cronies “hated Liberty and the people,” that on his estate by the Firth of Forth he improved his farm but neglected his house and garden. Mr. Miller has unearthed a granddaughter’s letter that tells us more: “He shouted so and brandished his stick when one came near him, that we children were terrified”; and he plausibly argues that Henry Cockburn’s playfulness, politics, and devotion to trees and flowers and ancient buildings might be “an expression and confirmation of domestic tensions.” So Cockburn’s Whiggery, learned in the University’s debating societies, was a blow against his father; and the father in Scotland was a formidable figure, his authority within the family reinforced by a religion that stressed God the Father and not Mary the mother. No light matter to defy him—as Boswell discovered a generation earlier with his judge-father. Cockburn wounded his father, and came to be sorry for it. Here Mr. Miller projects his speculations well beyond the available evidence. Cockburn may have felt thus; it is certainly what Karl Miller, looking into his own feelings, would like him to have felt.

Cockburn was 41 when his father died. This is a period of life when a man will often have to face his father’s death, when he may make fresh efforts (Scott started writing novels in his forties) or lose heart, when his children may start to challenge him. He may catch sight of his own death in that of his father. And he may come close to the father he has fought.

So while the rebel in Cockburn sped on the Reform Bill—“that insult to the Braxfields and Baron Cockburns of his youth”—the repentant son atoned by starting on the Memorials, in which his father’s world lives again. And he lived to see his sons rebel—in the shape of running up debts which forced him to sell his house in Charlotte Square.

Cockburn was ambivalent in his attitudes to public matters because his mind was only half on them. In 1833, when he held a legal office under the Whig government, he wrote to his Highland friend Dick Lauder:

His Majesty’s Solicitor General is a decorous person—arrayed in solemn black—with a demure visage—an official ear—an evasive voice—suspicious palate—ascetic blood—and flinty heart. There is a fellow very like him, who traverses the Pentlands in a dirty grey jacket, white hat, with a long pole. That’s not the Sol. Gen. that’s Cocky—a frivolous dog.

When he married in 1811 he rented the farmhouse of Bonaly on the Pentlands—the hills that start from the city’s edge and end in wild country twenty miles on. At once he began to build a peel-tower, “unabashedly Gothic and feudal” as against the classical elegance of his town house in Charlotte Square, his base for the fighting life of the law. Bonaly and the hills “gave me to myself once more,” as he put it in one of the poems Mr. Miller has unearthed. And gave him to his friends; every year he would summon them to a great Pentland picnic at Habbie’s Howe (favored spot of the poet Allan Ramsay) where they feasted on cold veal pie and broiled salmon hot, washed down by tea and whisky—then home to Bonaly and bowls, “then to a riotous dinner—then to bowls again.”

Bonaly was Cockburn’s Eden: “Human nature is incapable of enjoying more happiness than has been my lot here.” So frequent are his identifications with the places of Paradise—and of Paradise Lost—that Mr. Miller thinks Cockburn must have seen himself at times as a fallen angel. Milton’s angels fell down to Pandemonium—a word which Cockburn uses to describe the Town Council of Edinburgh, pattern of public life. “In his original capacity of renegade (or rival), Cockburn was expelled from Eden, and in his capacity of rememberer and recluse he was able to regain that Paradise.”

The pattern of Cockburn’s double life—alternating Charlotte Square and Bonaly, Parliament House and Habbie’s Howe, judge’s robes (particularly fine in Scotland) and dirty gray jacket, aggressive business and relaxing pleasure—has become a commonplace; and most of his friends had their Edens too. But Cockburn pursued this second life with an altogether uncommon energy and dedication. There was nothing negative about his retreat. Bonaly was not just the place where he didn’t work, it was where he positively enjoyed. And in his musings on what the place meant to one man, Mr. Miller is throwing light on what such retreats can mean to all urban men. “His two selves demanded their respective seasons, duty and deracination alternating with bliss.”

Mr. Miller has a lot to say about double lives, and the Scot’s addiction to them and fascination by them: whether historical characters like Deacon Brodie (model burgher by day, thief by night) and Major Weir (elder of the Kirk and warlock), or imaginary like Hogg’s Justified Sinner and Stevenson’s Jekyll-and-Hyde. Such doubles are maleficent, disreputable; Cockburn’s was beneficent, making for balance and health, ensuring “that a problematic life never became a problem.” For all his part in the Reform Act, Cockburn’s most lasting benefit to his countrymen may well be his demonstration of our need to lead double lives, our need to be frivolous dogs.

The book is full of people—judges coarse and learned, sportive and humane; political managers and Edinburgh Reviewers; eccentric lairds and sharp-tongued ladies. For me, besides Cockburn himself, there are three main presences: Robert Louis Stevenson, Karl Miller, and the Pentland Hills.

Stevenson is here for likeness. Born just before Cockburn died, in his youth he traveled much the same road. He went to the Edinburgh Academy (of which Cockburn, who had not been happy at the Royal High School, was a founder); he debated in the Speculative Society of the University; he was called to the Bar, though he never earned more than £10 as an advocate; he rebelled against his father; he found comfort in the Pentlands in his stormy youth, and lifted his eyes to them from his exile in the South Seas:

The tropics vanish, and meseems that I
From Halkerside, from topmost Allermuir,
Or steep Caerketton, dreaming gaze again.

And in his last fine novel, Weir of Hermiston, written in Samoa, he went back to this war of father and son, and to the hills. His tyrant-father Weir was firmly based on Lord Braxfield, friend of Cockburn’s father, a man “like a formidable blacksmith” whose conduct as a criminal judge Cockburn could not condemn “too gravely, or too severely.”

Karl Miller is here for likeness and unlikeness. He too grew up in and near Edinburgh, went to the Royal High School, and found comfort in the Pentlands; but he was born on, so to speak, their shady side, in the lessfavored terrain of the Lothian coalfields east of the hills, whose workers in Cockburn’s day and ours have little to do with classical or romantic Edinburgh, Enlightenment or Festival: it is the country of a bleak and powerful film by Bill Douglas, My Ain Folk.

Like Cockburn when he started his Memorials, “in which his father’s Scotland is commemorated and his quarrel with that Scotland rehearsed,” Karl Miller is in his forties as he surveys both Cockburn’s Scotland and the one that shaped his own and his parents’ lives. He too has troubled thoughts about his father (though here we have to guess, as much by what he leaves out as by what he tells; it seems that he grew up away from his parents, and he calls himself an orphan). In a moving passage about a visit to his mother in a hospital looking out on the hills, he considers the limitations of those Whig reforms, and thinks of all those throughout industrial Scotland for whom there was no Millennium. “There has been no bright track of happiness for my mother.”

Finally, the Pentlands are here because they are the solid hills—Caerketton, Carnethy, Scald Law, the Kips—that Cocky traversed with his long pole, and picnicked among in glee; and because they are metaphors for areas of feeling in Cockburn, as they have been for many another. Hills are in a Scot’s life—you can see them even from the center of Glasgow, from a high window—as they were to the people of Palestine. Phrases familiar from the Bible—the hills stand about Jerusalem, the mountain of Zion—can be embodied in his own landscape. (Mr. Miller is very good on the shaping of Cockburn’s sensibility by the Bible and by Scotland’s other Bible, Paradise Lost.) The Pentlands were Cockburn’s sure stronghold, where he could find maternal comfort; they were “feminity and fecundity.”

I too love the Pentlands. My parents lived their last years at Balerno and could lift up their eyes to these tranquil and comfortable shapes. And though I’m not ready to follow Mr. Miller on all his Freudian excursions (much too much is made of that long pole), I know that on the femininity of such hills he is on sure ground. He quotes Auden—“By landscape reminded once of his mother’s figure” (and Auden also wrote a play about a man finding his mother on top of a mountain). I think also of Henry Moore, whose reclining female figures echo the points, declivities, and ridges of a range like the Pentlands; and of all those unknown people the world over who have seen mountains as maidens and mothers, and called them so, from the Jungfrau of the Alps to Arran’s Cioch na Oighe, the Maiden’s Breast; from the Grand Tetons of Wyoming to the Paps of Jura.

Cockburn’s Edinburgh was a convivial city. This is a convivial book, which invites the reader to join the conversation, as I have just done, and ponder on the tissue of work, place, country, family, nature, imagination, affections, and the past that goes to shape a human life. This is not a tidy book, it can be confusing (a better index would have helped), it is fearfully expensive—but it is bursting with life, original, and invigorating as a walk across the Pentlands on a frosty day with curlews crying and, suddenly, Edinburgh spread out below.

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