Laing, Malcolm (DNB00)

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LAING, MALCOLM (1762–1818), Scottish historian, son of Robert Laing, of an old Orkney family, and elder brother of Samuel Laing [q. v.], was born at the paternal estate of Strynzia in 1762. He received his education at the grammar school of Kirkwall and the university of Edinburgh, and was called to the Scottish bar on 9 July 1785. Of the art of oratory he knew nothing, and his speeches in the court were ‘uttered with an almost preternatural rapidity and in harsh and disagreeable tones’ (Edinburgh Annual Reg. vol. ii. pt. i. p. 249). Lord Cockburn nevertheless states that ‘his speech in 1794 for Gerald, charged with sedition, was the best that was made for any of the political prisoners of that period.’ His practice, however, was never great, and he devoted much of his time to historical studies. On the death of Dr. Robert Henry [q. v.] he, at the request of that historian's executors, undertook to complete vol. vi. of Henry's ‘History of Great Britain,’ which with a short life of Henry appeared in 1793. In 1802 Laing published a ‘History of Scotland from the Union of the Crowns, on the Accession of King James VI to the Throne of England, to the Union of the Kingdoms. With two Dissertations, Historical and Critical, on the Gowrie Conspiracy, and on the supposed authenticity of Ossian's Poems.’ Though somewhat awkward and ungainly in style, the thoroughness of its research still renders it of considerable value. The dissertation on Ossian's poems is a somewhat merciless exposure of the Ossian delusion, and caused much perturbation and no little indignation in the highlands. In 1804 Laing published a second and corrected edition of his ‘History of Scotland’ in four volumes, the first two being occupied with a ‘Dissertation on the participation of Mary Queen of Scots in the Murder of Darnley,’ and appendices of original papers connected therewith. He attempts to establish the authenticity of the Casket Letters, and his dissertation is an able statement of the case against the queen. In the same year he edited ‘The Life and Historie of James VI,’ and in 1805 published in two volumes the ‘Poems of Ossian, containing the Poetical Works of James MacPherson in Prose and Verse, with Notes and Illustrations.’

Laing was a liberal in politics, a friend of Charles James Fox, and from 1807 to 1812 he represented Orkney and Shetland in parliament. In 1808 he finally removed from Edinburgh to his estate in Orkney. Latterly nervous weakness necessitated the discontinuance of all work, and he never left the bounds of his estate. Sir Walter Scott describes a visit paid to him there in August 1814. ‘Our old acquaintance,’ he writes, ‘though an invalid, received us kindly; he looks very poorly, and cannot walk without assistance, but seems to retain all the quick, earnest, and vivacious intelligence of his character and manner’ (Lockhart, Life of Scott, ed. 1842, p. 271). He died on 6 Nov. 1818.

Laing married Miss Carnegie of a Forfarshire family, but left no issue. There is a tablet to his memory on the wall of the north nave of Kirkwall Cathedral. ‘Depth, truth, and independence as an historian were,’ says Lord Cockburn, ‘the least of his merits, for he was a firm, warm-hearted, honest man, whose instructive and agreeable companionship was only made the more interesting by a hard, peremptory, Celtic manner and accent’ (Memorials, p. 349).

[Edinb. Ann. Reg. vol. ii. pt. i. (1818) pp. 249–251; Lord Cockburn's Memorials, 1851; Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondence, 1873, ii. 194–210; Lockhart's Life of Scott; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen.]

T. F. H.