Saturday musings: in praise of Henry Cockburn

Today is the 240th anniversary of the birth of Henry Cockburn of Bonaly, Lord Cockburn – ‘Cocky’ to his friends. He entered the Faculty of Advocates in 1800 and ultimately became one of the leaders of the Whig party in Scotland. On the formation of Earl Grey’s ministry in 1830, he became Solicitor General for Scotland and drafted the First Scottish Reform Bill. In 1834 he was raised to the Court of Session with the judicial title of Lord Cockburn

So why, I hear you ask, is any of this remotely interesting?

Cockburn’s principal claim to fame, in my view, is not his legal career or even his record as a leading supporter of electoral reform, but his writings on his professional and personal life. Stumbling across his Circuit Journeys in a second-hand bookshop, I was immediately hooked and sought out Memorials of his Time and its sequel, his Journal.

The Times once described the Memorials as “a Scottish classic, with its incomparable evocation of Edinburgh legal and social life” – which could equally well be applied to the other two. All are full of random aperçus on the foibles of his fellow-countrymen: he notes, for example, that on his first Circuit at Stirling, with Lord Moncreiff:

“On Sunday we went in procession to church, guarded by part of a regiment of the line, but without music, an omission which would have been deemed Jacobinical a few years ago, but which the modern notions of Sunday require. The pious have, within these six or eight years, taken his music even from His Majesty’s Commissioner to the General Assembly” [Circuit Journeys].

Cockburn had very little enthusiasm for the Presbyterian distaste for beauty in religion just for its own sake:

“The Scotch despise, if they do not even abhor, ornamented churches; because the devotion of the place is all that they respect, and they waste none of their reverence on stone and timber. They have neither the consecration of religion nor of affection for churchyards. Any field will do. Because provided the soul be safe, why misapply a sigh over the dust it animates no more? Accordingly, there are probably not now one hundred modern tombs in all Scotland that are even decent; not fifty that are much above mere decency, and not twenty or even a dozen that are beautiful and beautifully kept; and these almost wholly among the Episcopalians. We are a pious and affectionate people, no doubt, but if I were required to produce the tribe of men most regardless of their dead, I would turn to my countrymen” [Circuit Journeys].

Indeed, he gave a strong impression of distaste for “enthusiasm” of any kind whatsoever:

It is remarkable that though all these female Nestors were not merely decorous in matters of religion, but really pious, they would all have been deemed Irreligious now. Gay hearted, and utterly devoid of every tincture of fanaticism, the very freedom and cheerfulness of their conversation and views on sacred subjects would have excited the horror of those who give the tone on these matters at present. So various are the opinions of what constitutes religiousness.” [Memorials]

“The Quakers alone excepted, no sect has the remotest idea what toleration means, Their mutual ferocity is disgraceful, and I hope the time will come when it will be incredible. The law, fortunately, does not permit them to massacre and torture each other, but in their hearts, their reciprocal hatred is as bitter, and its reasons as absurd, as it ever has been in any country since the Reformation. Sectarians, whether established or not, are agreed only in their taste for persecution” [Journal].

And as to the religious squabbles of the Disruption:

“In addition to its former Catholic and Establishment temples, there is now a Free Kirk. I am told that, with true religious spirit, according as religion is too often practised, each sect lives in orthodox hatred of its brother. One spirit to be everything and matter nothing” [Circuit Journeys].

In spite of the fact that his old friend Lord Moncreiff (on whose death he wrote in his Journal, “after forty years of unbroken friendship it is a pleasure to record my love of the man”) joined the Free Church at the Disruption in 1843, Cockburn remained exceedingly doubtful about it:

“Erastianism and patronage being odious to the people, the Free Church, which opposes these, has more Whiggism in it than Toryism; but being founded purely on religious, and not at all on political, principles, it has plenty of both, and it is distinguished from all past or existing sects of Scotch Presbyterian Dissenters in this —that its adherents are not almost entirely of the lower orders … This is the first time that our gentry are not only not ashamed of Presbytery, but not ashamed of it with the additional vulgarity of unendowed dissent. But the narrowness of its opinions and the intolerance of its spirit cannot be denied. In politics it is better than the Church it has left; in fanaticism, it is worse. But, indeed, what a fanatical age we live in!” [Journal].

In short, Cockburn was very much a product of the Scottish Enlightenment: judicious, rational and with a dry humour and a strong sense of the ridiculous. More unusually, however, he could also write in a way that still grabs one’s attention – or, at any rate, grabbed mine. Very few Victorian diarists come alive off the page. For me, however, Henry Cockburn does just that.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Saturday musings: in praise of Henry Cockburn" in Law & Religion UK, 26 October 2019,

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