Henry Cockburn

Henry Cockburn, who towers over the early nineteenth-century Scottish legal profession, and whose Memorials are irresistibly quotable for the historian of Edinburgh in this period, needs no introduction here. Yet this thesis may be of interest to historians of Cockburn in that it considers him in a different context: not as a lawyer, or whig, or participant in Presbyterian church politics, but as a man who brought his many children to be baptised in an Episcopal chapel, where many of the men with whom he worked on projects to improve Edinburgh were also connected. He is also one of the small and undistinguished school of Charlotte Chapel amateur poets (see below), and reading his verse in the context of this group shows it in a new light.

Archibald Cockburn 1738-1820, Baron of the Exchequer, son of Archibald Cockburn, merchant, Edinburgh
Janet Rannie daughter of David Rannie of Melville.
36 George Street from 1804, 14 Charlotte Square from 1813.
Political views
Whig. Cockburn's Memorials describe Edinburgh from the perspective of a member of the Whig party in this period: for example: 'In July 1810 I had the honour of being dismissed by the Lord Advocate [Archibald Campbell] from being one of his Deputes. The grounds of divorce were, that I had never been adequately of his party, and that I had voted against him at a Faculty meeting a few days before... He said... he and the relatives to whom I had owed it, had deemed my scruples "a mere youthful fervour," which was expected to wear off' (5 p.240). In 1820 when the proprietor of the Black Bull Inn sued J.G.Lockhart over a passage in Peter's Letters, Walter Scott tried to suggest whom to employ as Council: 'Cockburn is a good hand for a jury but he is Master T'otherside and it is a case in which I should distrust even a man of honour where his feelings and his professional duties were working different tacks.' (4, vol.6 p.281)
Religious views
When Cockburn's 200th birthday was celebrated in 1979 the debate which interested historians was whether or not he was a believing Christian (eg 7). Since then religion has come back into fashion in history, as Cockburn says it came back into fashion in his society (5, p.40) and, reading Cockburn's writings now, it seems strange that this was ever in doubt. More interesting for this study is Cockburn's relaxed attitude to denomination. While having a succession of children baptised in Charlotte Episcopal Chapel, he was heavily involved in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He was a great friend and ally of Sir Henry Moncrieff-Wellwood, minister of St Cuthbert's and member of the 'Evangelical' party in the Kirk. Like Archibald Campbell, Ranald Macdonald, Walter Scott, Thomas Maitland and Thomas Hamilton Millar he was a regular delegate to the Church of Scotland General Assembly, an important forum for partisan debate on national issues.
Advocate. Advocate-depute 1806-1810, Solicitor General 1830-31, Lord Rector Glasgow 1831. Principal drafter of first Scottish reform bill 1831. His name continually appears as a formidable counsel in trial reports in the Caledonian Mercury.
Wealth at death
Assessed taxes 1811
His house had 14 windows and a rental value of £45. He had one general male servant and one clerk or book-keeper.
In 1823 he was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Academy, where (perhaps to avoid dwelling on his reformist politics) he is chiefly remembered for his geneality. The history of the school quotes an obituary from the Edinburgh review (January 1857): 'one of the most popular men north of the Tweed. his was not the popularity of a great name... It was good, honest, personal liking... Nor was this popularity confined to Edinburgh. He was known to all classes over Scotland; and from Aberdeen to Wigtown no assemblage of Scotsmen, young or old, could be gathered, in which his lineaments were not known and recognised, or in which his approach was not a signal for a vociferous welcome.' The school historian Magnus Magnusson adds, 'he believed passionately in the freedom of the spirit, and "detested all that was finical and prudish"... even as Lord Cockburn the judge, he could be found careering along the pavement slides in winter, and "giving as much countenance to a snowball 'bicker' as a well-disposed citizen might decently do'. He took special delight in "leading the liberated urchins to shouts" when the Academy broke up for the summer holidays.' (8 p.32-33)
Chapel connection
1812 (baptism)
Married on
18 March 1811
Elizabeth McDowall
Margaret Day (1812), Jane (1813) Archibald William (1814), James Macdowall (1816), Graham (1817), George Ferguson (1818)
Friend of the merchant Leonard Horner, with whom he helped found the Edinburgh Academy. Henry Cockburn was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Lancasterian Schools, along with Archibald Campbell Colquhoun, Archibald Primrose, William Forbes, Daniel Sandford, Charles Scott, John Tod, Charles Douglas and Robert Cockburn. Cockburn wrote of the school,
The Lancastrian School was a symptom and a cause of the advance of popular education, and was therefore a vital event, and a bold experiment at this time. It was the achievement of the Whigs and of the pious; and though not openly opposed, was cordially hated by all true tories, who for many years never ceased to sneer at and obstruct it. And when its success seemed certain some of the established clergy disgraced themselves by trying to prevail on the Presbytery of Edinburgh to crush it indirectly; and in aid of this Presbyterian effort the Bishop of Meath, who happened to be residing here, was easily persuaded by the Episcopalian illiberals to preach an ignorant and insolent sermon against it. On this we discharged Sir Harry at him; who considerably improved the funds by a sermon which, as he spoke it, trampled on his lordship in a triumphant and contemptuous refutation. (5, p.262).
Presumably Daniel Sandford, who was praised by Cockburn's Whig friend Jeffrey for the great support he had given the schools, appears to be classed in the category of 'the pious' rather than the 'episcopalian illiberals'.

Characature by Kay


  1. Registers of Charlotte Chapel (NAS CH12/3)
  2. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1818
  3. The Faculty of Advocates in Scotland 1532-1943, with genealogical notes, ed Sir Francis J Grant (Edinburgh: Faculty of Advocates, 1944)
  4. H.J.C. Grierson, Letters of Sir Walter Scott (London, Constable and Co. 1932)
  5. Henry Cockburn, Memorials of his time (T.N.Foulis, Edinburgh and London 1909), available online
  6. Karl Miller, Cockburn's Millenium (London: Duckworth, 1975)
  7. Iain F. McIver, "Cockburn and the Church" in Lord Cockburn, a bicentenary commemoration (Scottish Academic Press: Edinburgh 1979) ed Alan Bell p.68-103
  8. Magnus Magnusson, The Clacken and the Slate: the story of the Edinburgh Academy 1824-1974 (Collins, London, 1974)
  9. Assessed taxes for the Burgh of Edinburgh year ending at Whitsunday 1811, NAS E327/51

Cockburn's poetry

Cockburn's biographer Karl Miller reproduces a collection of Cockburn's poetry (6). One example is The Linn:

Thou source of the stream where my infancy flew!
Long dreamt of in fondness, and vainly explored;
Discovered at last amidst friendships so true,
Oh hallowed retreat, be thou ever adored!

How long have these mosses gleamed rich in thy dew;
This Elm, thy companion, thrown o'er thee its shade;
The wonder-struck Pilgrim stood still at thy view;
And the Sun shone in peace on thy lonely cascade

And here hast thou perished, oh! Desolate stanger,
Nor given thy dust to thy own garden grave!
But sunk amidst objects thy memory knew not,
And struck by the hand that had promised to save!

Thy ambition still proud with its youthful designs!
And exile, endearing the freedom to be!
And the scene of thy infancy kept all unchanged,
By a mother beholding an Image of thee!

Miller reads this as a political opponent's parody of, and friendly homage to, Scott's Helvellyn, which romantically commemorated a hiker killed in an accident, attended in death by his faithful terrier. The later verses of Cockburn's Linn are an outraged whig's commentary on a jingoistic murder. Charles Cotier was a captured Napoleonic soldier who in 1807 was killed in the nearby Glencorse barracks by a possibly drunk ensign ordering a soldier to fire at random into a barrack-room where a light had been seen.

Yet The Linn is different from Scott's poetry in more ways than its political message. It shows Cockburn as, unlike Scott, a writer of the classical enlightenment. It has strong echoes of Horace's Ode Fons Banduisae:

O Bandusian fountain, brighter than crystal,
worthy of sweet wine, not lacking in flowers,
tomorrow we'll honour you
with a kid, whose brow is budding

With those horns that are destined for love and battle.
All in vain: since this child of the playful herd will
darken your ice-cool waters,
with the stain of its crimson blood.

The implacable hour of the blazing dog-star
knows no way to touch you, you offer your lovely
coolness to bullocks, weary
of ploughing, and to wandering flocks.

And you too will be one of the famous fountains,
now I write of the holm oak that's rooted above
the cave in the rock where your
clear babbling waters run down.

It is a good example of some of the different influences -- whig and tory, enlightenment and romantic, Scottish and international -- which can be found amongst the members of Charlotte Chapel congregation, all of which will be explored in this research.

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