Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Erskine, William (1769-1822)

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ERSKINE, WILLIAM, Lord Kinneder (1769–1822), friend of Sir Walter Scott, son of the Rev. William Erskine, episcopalian minister of Muthill, Perthshire, was born in 1769. He was educated at the university of Glasgow, and while attending it was boarded in the house of Andrew Macdonald, episcopalian clergyman and author of ‘Vimonda,’ from whom, according to Lockhart, he derived a strong passion for old English literature. He passed advocate at the Scottish bar 3 July 1790, and became the intimate friend and literary confidant of Scott. In 1792 Erskine, with Scott and other young advocates, formed a class for the study of German. According to Lockhart the companionship of Erskine, owing to his special accomplishments as a classical scholar and acquaintance with the ‘severe models of antiquity,’ was highly serviceable to Scott as a student of German drama and romance. Lockhart represents him as being mercilessly severe on ‘the mingled absurdities and vulgarities of German detail.’ It was Erskine who negotiated for Scott's translation of ‘Lenore’ in 1796. In 1801, while in London, Erskine happened to show the volume to ‘Monk’ Lewis, who thereupon ‘anxiously requested that Scott might be enlisted as a contributor to his miscellany entitled “Tales of Wonder.”’ Soon after Scott began his great career as an author, he resolved to trust to the detection of minor inaccuracies to two persons only, James Ballantyne and Erskine, the latter being ‘the referee whenever the poet hesitated about taking the advice of the zealous typographer.’ The friends joined in keeping up the delusion that Erskine and not Scott was the author of the portions of the ‘Bridal of Triermain,’ and wrote a preface intended to ‘throw out the knowing ones.’ Scott dedicated to Erskine the third canto of ‘Marmion,’ which was published in February 1808. Erskine was appointed sheriff depute of Orkney 6 June 1809, and in 1814 Scott accompanied him and other friends on a voyage to those islands (see chaps. xxviii–xxx. vol. ii. of Lockhart's Life of Scott). Lockhart ascribes to Erskine the critical estimate of the Waverley novels included in Scott's own notice in the ‘Quarterly Review’ of ‘Old Mortality,’ in answer to the sectarian attacks of Dr. Thomas M'Crie against his representation of the covenanters. By Scott's unwearied exertions on his behalf Erskine was in January 1822 promoted to the bench as Lord Kinneder. The charge against him of an improper liaison, a groundless and malignant calumny, which Scott said ‘would have done honour to the invention of the devil himself,’ so seriously affected his health and spirits that, though it was proved to be utterly groundless, he never recovered from the shock caused by the accusation. It ‘struck,’ said Scott, ‘into his heart and soul;’ he became nerveless and despondent, was finally attacked by fever and delirium, and died on 14 Aug. 1822. Lockhart states that he never saw Scott ‘in such a state of dejection’ as when he accompanied him in attendance upon Kinneder's funeral. At the time George IV was paying his memorable visit to Edinburgh, and Scott, owing to his grief, plunged into the gaiety of the moment with an aching heart. ‘If ever a pure spirit quitted this vale of tears,’ wrote Sir Walter to a friend, ‘it was William Erskine's. I must turn to, and see what can be done about getting some pension for his daughters.’ Lockhart thinks that Erskine was ‘the only man in whose society Scott took great pleasure, during the more vigorous part of his life, that had neither constitution nor inclination for any of the rough bodily exercise in which he himself delighted.’ If, as Erskine supposed, Redmond in ‘Rokeby’ is meant for a portrait of himself, Lockhart must have exaggerated Erskine's effeminacy. Erskine wrote several Scotch songs, one of which is published in Maidment's ‘Court of Session Garland’ (1888), p. 110.

Kinneder had two daughters by his wife, Euphemia Robinson, who died in September 1819. She was buried in the churchyard of Saline, Fife, where there is an epitaph on her tombstone written by Scott.

[Haig and Brunton's Senators of the College of Justice; Sir Walter Scott's Works; Lockhart's Life of Scott. A Sketch of Lord Kinneder, by Hay Donaldson, to which Scott contributed some particulars, was printed for private circulation shortly after his death.]

T. F. H.