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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.