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Reading for pleasure

14 April 14

A special "Pick of the Month" heads this month's selection, along with the usual choice of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor

by Robert Shiels, David J Dickson

Mirth, Madness & St Magnus and the eccentric Sheriff Thoms

Paul J Sutherland

(The Kirkwall Press: £15.50)

In many ways this is a rather deceptive book. At first glance at the cover it might be thought of as an entirely ecclesiastical tale of interest only to the reader of books about Orkney. In reality, there is in it something substantial for many people and, while there is much good humour, the underlying themes are very serious, and these are the strengths of the book.

The substance must be of interest to historians of the modern Scottish legal system, those who teach advocacy, medical historians, and social historians generally. The events recounted will be of real interest in particular to solicitors who draft wills in circumstances in which facility and circumvention might later be alleged. George Hunter Thoms was born in 1831 and educated at Dundee High School and then at the University of Edinburgh. He was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1855. He followed a predictable course as a member of the bar, during which he was an advocate depute when the appointment was a political one. In 1870 he was appointed Sheriff of Caithness, Orkney and Zetland. In practice he was the sheriff principal.

In office the sheriff was by no means inefficient or lacking in imagination, but there were plenty of stories of a certain glib humour from the bench as well as a generally cavalier attitude in court. These anecdotes suggest that the sheriff displayed a disconcerting swing from jokey familiarity to pompous remonstrance. Personally, the sheriff was thought of as being odd in behaviour. He was an eccentric, "a little peculiar and very vain". He liked deference and he was "touchy and pretentious". However, the author seems to have found a proper balance in his assessment: the local solicitors frequently appealed the sheriff, but his decisions were "not invariably wrong", and those solicitors who were most critical of the sheriff were said to be in some ways rather like him.

There was of course more to all this than old court stories: the detailed descriptions of the underlying medical condition of the sheriff make for grim reading, and his well-recorded physical deterioration took place over years. Thereafter, his last will was described as "something like his eighty-fifth testamentary writing, including codicils", and, moreover, he completed eight codicils within a period of five months and four days.

The challenge to the testamentary intentions of Sheriff Thoms was from relatives who were concerned amongst other things that the major bequest was to the Provost and Magistrates of Kirkwall for the purpose of restoring St Magnus Cathedral. The estimated value of his gift in 1903 was between £50,000 and £60,000, equivalent to anything between £6-12 million today. Much of the book is taken up with an entertaining and instructive description of the proof in the Court of Session, which featured several leaders of the bar who went on to high judicial office.

The author, as an Orcadian and a solicitor, has told this complicated and interesting story with real insight. He has relied on original court documents and shown that within the detail of local events there are real lessons of wider importance.

Robert Shiels


Warsaw 1944 – The Fateful Uprising

Alexandra Richie

(William Collins: £25; e-book £10.91)

This year has seen and will see many commemorations on the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Many books have been written. However this year also sees the 70th anniversary of a significant event in the history of Poland, the embodiment of a Nazi policy almost forgotten – the completion, deliberate destruction of one of the greatest architectural, historic and cultural cities in Europe, Warsaw.

This defiant, courageous, ill judged attempt by the Polish Home Army, the Armia Krajowa, to establish itself as the legitimate government is brilliantly retold in this lucid, erudite and straightforward book. The author places the events of August 1944 in their context and in doing so makes clear why the leadership of the AK were motivated to act as they did. Hitler had been the subject of the attempted assassination by Stauffenberg in July 1944; the Soviets had swiftly and decisively (and brutally) moved through Belorussia towards Poland, and the Nazis were perceived to be retreating. However the German counter offensive "at the very gates of Warsaw" prevented the withdrawal of the Germans, and as such strengthened their position in Warsaw.

At 1700 on 1 August 1944 "the entire city [with a population of 1 million] erupted in waves of explosions, gunfire and movement". The Second Polish Republic was a young nation, having arisen in 1918 after 125 years. The "Kolumbowie", or Columbuses, as the young generation were called, "would do anything for their country, including laying down their lives... they wanted to show the world that they deserved a free and democratic country". The early success of the uprising belied the relative number of fighters and their meagre supply of weaponry. In the first few days the population basked in the new found freedom after five years of brutal German occupation. However, with Hitler and Himmler's order that called for "every citizen of Warsaw... to be killed... Warsaw has to be levelled to the ground in order to set a terrifying example to the rest of Europe", and without any external support, while the fight continued for 63 days, it saw the destruction of 95% of the city and 200,000 dead. As history demonstrates, little was achieved and it was to be another 55 years before Poland was able to rise again as an independent and free nation.

Boswell’s Edinburgh Journals, 1767-1786

(ed) Hugh M Milne

(John Donald, first published 2001, revised edition 2013: £20)

James Boswell attained fame in particular for an account of his travels, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson LLD, and a biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson. The latter was published in 1791 and yet, as the editor of the present work notes in his introduction, is still regarded as by many as the finest biography ever written in the English language. Recent criticism has been directed at its defects of organization and structure, as well as doubts about its status as a comprehensive interpretation of the life of another person. Even 225 years after publication, the works of Boswell still attract attention.

This paperback volume is a reading edition of the journals kept by James Boswell while in practice as an advocate in Edinburgh from 1767 to 1786. The text of the selected journal entries is taken from a variety of the extensive volumes of the Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell. This volume does not purport to be a complete version of those kept by Boswell when in Edinburgh, but the selection aimed to convey a fair representation of every aspect of Boswell’s life during his 19 years at the Scottish bar.

For those unfamiliar with the context of the journals, the editor has produced a substantial and helpful introduction. The journals, he advises, are to be regarded as “a quite unparalleled account” of the day-to-day life at the Scottish bar. There are of course many impressions of contemporary domestic life and the Edinburgh in which Boswell was born and grew up. Boswell was born in 1740, and in his youth the Act of Union and Jacobite politics were then not matters of history but rather contemporary politics. The inconsistent views held by Boswell on these often mutually exclusive events, a Jacobite supporter who sought to strengthen the Union, it may be speculated were quite common at the time.

The introduction covers in interesting detail Boswell’s attendance at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Leyden, and his very impressive Grand Tour prior to his passing as an advocate. That professional achievement had not been sought from the outset of his academic training: in his youth Boswell had veered widely between possibilities, contemplating becoming a monk, having taken a brief but apparently intense interest in Catholicism, to seeking a commission in the Guards in London. While in London deciding on options, Boswell attended the theatre, and visited taverns and houses of recreation with the necessity thereafter of seeking medical attention. The editor has correctly drawn attention to the hypochondriac state of Boswell and suggested it to be mild clinical depression brought on for no apparent reason. It seems safe to say that the persistent and excessive drinking was not helpful to Boswell’s general health.

The journals are the essence of the volume, and there is no need here to repeat them in detail. The editor has provided generous notes for the start of several of the years, and many footnotes identifying the assembled cast of notables with whom Boswell had dealings. There is ample evidence to support the observations in the introduction. The editor suggests that it would be wrong to say that Boswell ever attained a position as a remarkably profound lawyer. However, it has to be recognised that his merit was his presentational ability and skilful use of the art of persuasion.

The surprise from what is recorded of Boswell’s activities is that he ever managed to get a practice going at all, or that he survived as long as he did. Boswell’s nocturnal adventures and heavy drinking constituted heavy punishment that he applied to himself: in regard to only the latter, he noted, on 5 March 1767, in one of many similar sentiments, that his present misfortune was occasioned by drinking. It appears to be a notable exception to the run of events that he recorded 15 July 1774 as a day of complete sobriety and diligence.

These remarks alone give a false impression, as Boswell was often out dining in the evening, meeting in civilised circumstances important people of the day. Notably, on 17 December 1775 he met David Hume, the philosopher, and thought it odd that such a civil, sensible, comfortable looking man should be known as “The Great Infidel”. Boswell saw him again on 7 July 1776, when Hume was close to death but still able to converse with him. The fascination of the journals lies in quite how many such people he met and the detail of their conversations. It is notable from this volume, however, how few references there were to national affairs of state or politics: on 1 March 1778 there was mention of bills introduced by Lord North arising out of the difficulties in North America.

The editor concludes with an epilogue explaining what happened to Boswell after 1786, and this goes a long way in explaining his partial success in England. Boswell was called to the English Bar and, although he was thrilled at that, he never attained a regular practice there. He was given only occasional work; some of it nevertheless was important and is interestingly described in the epilogue. The move to London facilitated the completion of The Life of Samuel Johnson, and that publication brought Boswell an income. He died in London in 1795 and was buried in Ayrshire.

An appendix describes the lives and careers of some notable judges and advocates at the time of Boswell’s admission as an advocate in 1766. This is a thoroughly interesting volume which is excellent value for the modest price, and it deserves all the generous praise that was given to its first edition and is recorded opposite the title page in this edition.

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