Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Robertson, James Patrick Bannerman

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ROBERTSON, JAMES PATRICK BANNERMAN, Baron Robertson of Forteviot (1845–1909), lord president of the Court of Session in Scotland, born in the manse of Forteviot on 10 Aug. 1845, was second son of Robert John Robertson, parish minister of Forteviot, Perthshire, by his wife Helen, daughter of James Bannerman, parish minister of Cargill, Perthshire. He was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, of which he was 'dux,' or head boy, in 1860, and at Edinburgh University, where he specially distinguished himself as a political speaker in college debates, graduating M.A. in 1864. He became a member of the Juridical Society in 1866 (librarian 1868–9, president 1869–70), and passed to the Scottish bar on 16 July 1867. His progress was slow at first, but he gradually acquired a large practice. His interests were more in politics than law. 'Westminster seems to have been his real goal from the first' (The Times, 3 Feb. 1909). Early in life he lost sympathy with his presbyterian surroundings. At the disruption of the Scottish church (1843) his father had remained in the establishment, while his mother went out with those who formed the Free Church. Robertson himself, on attaining manhood, joined the Scottish episcopal communion. He was the best speaker of his day at the bar. An ardent admirer of Disraeli, he did much to promote a conservative revival in Scotland, and at the general election of 1880 contested Linlithgowshire against Peter Maclagan, the sitting member, but lost by a large majority. He became Q.C. in 1885, was appointed solicitor-general for Scotland in the short-lived Salisbury government of 1885, and was returned for Buteshire at the general election of that year, but lost office when the liberals came in, in Feb. 1886. On the defeat of Gladstone on home rule in June 1886 and the consequent dissolution of parliament, he was re-elected for Buteshire. In Salisbury's second administration he became again solicitor-general for Scotland.

Robertson made his mark in the House of Commons at once. On 13 April 1887 he spoke with effect in support of the criminal law amendment (Ireland) bill. His speech, a defence of the bill on the analogy of the Scottish criminal law, was published under the title of 'Scotland and the Crimes Bill.' In 1889 he was appointed lord advocate, succeeding John Hay Athole Macdonald, who was made lord justice clerk, and he was sworn of the privy council. As lord advocate he carried the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1889 (52 & 53 Vict. c. 60), by which 250,000l., derived from probate and license duties, was to be annually applied to the relief of fees in elementary public schools, thus establishing free education in Scotland. In 1890 he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Edinburgh University, of which three years later he became lord rector.

In 1891 Robertson succeeded John Inglis [q. v.] as lord president of the Court of Session, and in 1899, on the death of William Watson, Baron Watson [q. v. Suppl. I], he became a life peer, as Baron Robertson of Forteviot (14 Nov.), with a seat on the judicial committee of the privy council. He was elected an honorary bencher of the Middle Temple (24 Nov. 1899-18 Jan. 1900). As a judge in Scotland, Robertson had often shown that he found his position there uncongenial; but on the broader ground of the two final courts of appeal—the House of Lords and the judicial committee of the privy council—his acute and penetrating intellect had wider scope. In the privy council he was not infrequently charged with the duty of delivering the judgment of the board, especially in appeals from those parts of the empire where Roman-Dutch law prevails (The Times, 3 Feb. 1909). In the House of Lords, on the appeal Walter v. Lane, he dissented (6 Aug. 1900) from Halsbury (Lord Chancellor) and other judges, and held that 'The Times' had no copyright in Lord Rosebery's speeches published by Lane in book-form from 'The Times' reports (Law Reports, Appeals, 1900, pp. 539-61). In 1904 he was one of the judges who heard the appeal by the minority of the Free Church of Scotland against the decision of the Court of Session in the litigation which followed the union (1900) of the Free Church and the United Presbyterians; and his judgment in favour of reversing the decision, and giving the property of the Free Church to the objecting minority, is a masterly statement of that side of the question (Law Reports, Appeals, 1904, pp. 515-764; see Shand (afterwards Burns), Alexander, Baron Shand, Suppl. II).

Robertson was chairman of the Irish University commission, and author of its report (1904), which, while recognising that the ideal system for Ireland would combine all creeds, recommended a virtually catholic university as the only practicable solution of the problem. He remained a keen politician to the last, but refused to follow Mr. Balfour on the fiscal question. He spoke in the House of Lords on the Duke of Devonshire's motion against Mr. Chamberlain's tariff proposals (22 July 1905). Describing himself as 'a loyal member of the tory party,' he attacked the Birmingham policy, which he predicted would ruin the party, and severely censured the tactics of Mr. Balfour, the conservative leader, whom he accused of mistaking 'cleverness' for statesmanship. As the tariff policy developed Robertson's hostility increased. He died suddenly at Cap Martin on 2 Feb. 1909, and was buried at Elmstead, Kent.

Robertson married on 10 April 1872 Philadelphia Mary Lucy, daughter of W. N. Fraser, of Tomaveen, Aberdeenshire (d. 27 Jan. 1907). By her he had two sons—Robert Bannerman Fraser (b. 14 Feb. 1873), barrister-at-law (Middle Temple), who served in the imperial yeomanry in South Africa, and entered the army (capt. 21st lancers); Hugh (b. 27 Sept. 1879), who entered the army (14th hussars), and died in South Africa on 1 Feb. 1900—and one daughter, Philadelphia Sybil. A small sketch in oils of Robertson, which represents him addressing the House of Commons, is in the possession of his son.

[Scotsman, and The Times, 3 Feb. 1909; Records of Juridical Society; Roll of Faculty of Advocates; Hansard, 3rd ser., vol. 150 pp. 847-63; 4th ser., vol. 150, pp. 500–11.]

G. W. T. O.