Gordon, George (1637-1720) (DNB00)

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GORDON, GEORGE, first Earl of Aberdeen (1637–1720), born 3 Oct. 1637, was the second son of Sir John Gordon, bart. [q. v.], of Haddo, Aberdeenshire, by his wife Mary, daughter of William Forbes of Tolquhon in the same county. He was at school in Old Aberdeen on 19 July 1644, when his father met his death on an Edinburgh scaffold at the hands of the covenanters, and his father's property was confiscated. He graduated M.A. at King's College, Aberdeen, in 1658, the best scholar of his year. His professor, Dr. John Strachan (a very learned man, who afterwards 'went abroad, and turned popish'), 'unable to live with the covenanters,' demitted office, recommending his pupil as his successor, and Gordon was accordingly 'admitted regent, i.e. professor, the next day after he was graduated Master of Arts.' He taught a class in the university for four years. His father's forfeiture was rescinded at the Restoration, and he was no longer dependent on his professorship. In 1663 he threw up his appointment and studied law. He was on the continent studying when in March 1667 his elder brother, Sir John, died without male issue, and the baronetcy and estate devolved on him. Next year (February 1668) Gordon was admitted an advocate at Edinburgh. He practised with growing reputation, but although he had abundance of clients, and many of them 'persons of the first rank in the nation,' he took no fees (Crawfurd, Lives of Officers of State). In later life he did not escape the charge of covetousness, and even of rapacity. Elected (1669) a commissioner for the shire of Aberdeen to the Scottish parliament, Gordon signalised himself by his opposition to a proposal made in the king's letter for a union of the Scottish and English parliaments. He pointed out that in the event of the family of James VI dying out, the succession to the two crowns would devolve on different persons. Sir George continued to sit in the sessions of 1670, 1672, 1673, and the Convention of Estates, 1678. In the latter year (11 Nov.) he was nominated of the king's privy council for Scotland, and in 1680 was raised to the Scottish bench with the title of Lord Haddo. When the Duke of York (afterwards James II) succeeded Lauderdale as governor of Scotland, Haddo became one of his chief advisers, and probably contributed something to the success of an administration which Burnet admits was at first both moderate and just. At the opening of the parliament of 1681 Gordon was one of the lords of the articles, and through its whole course was a leading speaker on the government side. The same year, on the resignation of Sir James Dalrymple of Stair [q. v.], consequent on his refusal of 'the test,' Haddo was promoted to be president of the court of session (14 Oct. 1681). A higher dignity still, the chancellorship of Scotland, vacant by the death of John Leslie, duke of Rothes [q. v.], was reserved for him, but the appointment of one not of noble birth was likely to be unpopular with the Scottish peers, and it was not intended to be made public till the Duke of York's return from London, where Haddo had joined him. However, on their voyage north they were shipwrecked off Yarmouth, and Haddo falling into the sea in an attempt to leap from the ship into the boat, James called out, 'Save my chancellor,' thus intimating how the dignity had been disposed of. On their reaching Edinburgh, James laid before the council the king's letter, dated 1 May 1682, appointing Haddo lord high chancellor of Scotland, and shortly afterwards (30 Nov. 1682) he was raised to the Scottish peerage as Earl of Aberdeen, Viscount Formartine, Lord Haddo, Methlic, Tarves, and Kellie. He was also appointed sheriff-principal of the shires of Aberdeen and Midlothian. His administration was firm, not to say severe. 'All people saw,' says Burnet, 'that they must either conform'(to the established episcopacy) 'or be quite undone. The chancellor laid down a method for proceeding against all offenders punctually, and the treasurer [Queensberry] was as rigorous in ordering all fines to be paid.' The parish churches were better filled than they had been since the re-establishment of prelacy. But Aberdeen was not severe enough for those who employed him. He saw, says Burnet perhaps unfairly, that he was losing favour at court, and 'intended to recover himself a little with the people; so he resolved for the future to keep to the law, and not to go beyond it.' He would not hear of a proposal by the privy council to stretch the law so as to make husbands and fathers answerable by fine or imprisonment for their wives and daughters attending conventicles. Charles II accordingly dismissed him, and on 23 June 1684 gave the chancellorship to Drummond, fourth earl of Perth [q. v.] Aberdeen by this time had grown very rich: he had made much out of the fine imposed on Charles Maitland of Haltoun, the brother and heir of Lauderdale. In 1683 he bought 'lands, fishings, and tenements in Aberdeen to a large extent,' and he much increased his ancestral property. Though out of office he continued to take an active part in the Scottish parliaments of 1685 and 1686; but after the landing of the Prince of Orange he retired to the country, nor did he emerge from his seclusion till after the accession of Queen Anne, when for the first time he took the oaths to the revolution government. Unlike many of his party, and much to the disgust of Lockhart, he supported in 1705-6 the treaty of union. This was his last public act. He died at Kellie on 20 April 1720, aged 82. He married, while yet Sir George Gordon, Anne, eldest daughter of George Lockhart of Torbrecks, and by her had two sons and four daughters. Of his sons, the elder, George, lord Haddo, died in the lifetime of his father; the younger, William, became second earl of Aberdeen. To a love affair of his old age has been referred the humorous song 'Cauld Kail in Aberdeen' (R. Chambers, Songs of Scotland prior to Burns).

In person Aberdeen was crooked; 'his want of a mine [mien]or deportment for that honourable office' was alleged against his appointment as chancellor; but he is described by Mackay as 'a fine orator, speaks slow but strong; he is very knowing in the laws and constitutions of his country, and is believed to be the solidest statesman in Scotland' (Mackay, Memoirs of the War, 1689-90).

[The more important documents connected with his administration were either seized by his enemies at the time of his dismissal, or destroyed by himself; but a number of letters addressed to him, 1681-4, were published at Aberdeen for the Spalding Club in 1851, and a full memoir of him is given by way of introduction; Burnet; Lander's Historical Notices of Scottish Affairs; Crawfurd's Lives of the Officers of State; Wodrow; Kirkton's Secret and True History; Sir George Mackenzie's Memoirs of Affairs in Scotland; Aberdeen Burgh Records; Orem's Old Aberdeen; Records of the University and King's College, Aberdeen, &c.; Brunton and Haig's Senators of the College of Justice, pp. 408-10; Foster's Members of Parliament. Scotland, p. 151.]

J. C.