Peter Chiene Lecture. Reminder

This is to remind readers that the Chiene Lecture for 2020 will be delivered by Professor Humfress of St Andrews. The Lecture will be followed by a Reception in the Quad Teaching (formerly Lorimer) Room.

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Rare Book School: Yale Law Library

All legal historians know the importance of the work of Mike Widener in developing greater knowledge about rare books, particularly through the Rare Book School at Yale Law Library. He is offering it again this summer. See the note below:

Rare Book School is now accepting applications for admission to “Law Books: History & Connoisseurship,” which Ryan Greenwood and I will teach here in the Yale Law Library June 7-12, 2020. Enrollment is limited to 12 students. The course description, advance reading list, evaluations from previous students, and a link to the application site are here:

Information on the application process, program costs, etc., is available here:

This intensive, week-long course is about building focused, interesting, and useful collections of historical materials in Anglo-American, European, and Latin American law. It is aimed at individuals and librarians who collect historical legal materials, and the book dealers who supply them, as well as librarians developing collections from existing holdings. Lively discussion and extensive hands-on activities are hallmarks of the course.

This will be my seventh time teaching the course. It will the second time for my co-instructor Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota Law Library. Due to my retirement from Yale in April 2021, future offerings of this course are uncertain. If you have wanted to take the course, and haven’t yet attended, now is the time.

I can answer questions about the content of the course. All questions about applications, registration, tuition, and housing should be directed to the Rare Book School staff, at

Rare Book Librarian
Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School
127 Wall Street, New Haven CT 06511-8918
Phone: (203) 432-4494

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Peter Chiene Lecture

The next Peter Chiene Lecture will be delivered on 31 January by Professor Caroline Humfress of the University of St. Andrews at 17.30 in the Usha Kasera Lecture Theatre in Old College. Her title is “Beyond (Roman) Law and Empire”. See

Professor Humfress is a distinguished legal historian, currently based at the university of St Andrews where she is Professor of Medieval History. She is Director of that University’s Institute of Legal and Constitutional Research. A leading scholar of late antiquity, Professor Humfress is currently working on a monograph entitled Multilegalism in Late Antiquity.

Peter Chiene was an Edinburgh graduate in law and philosophy. He was fascinated with Scottish legal history and after his early death the Chiene Lecture in legal history was founded in his memory by friends and relatives.

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David Armitage: George III and the Law of Nations

The second Berriedale Keith Lecture was delivered in Edinburgh on 5th December, 2019. The lecturer was Professor David Armitage of the History Department at Harvard Professor Armitage talked on “George III and the Law of Nations” The lecture was a tour de force. Starting with the “indictment” of King George in the American Declaration of Independence, arguing that this was based on principles of the law of nations, and in a sense was claiming that George had acted contrary to the law of nations, the lecture explored the king’s attitude to the law of nations. In fact despite the list of grievances, Professor Armitage, drawing on the Royal Archives at Windsor as well as the Royal Library, showed that the king was well-educated in the law of nations, and placed importance on the study of history, the law of nature and nations, the civil law, and the municipal law. He had been prepared and educated for his role as king, and was aware both of his prerogative and of his authority under the law of nations. Some of this reminded me of the education in law his tutor, the Earl of Bute, will have received at Groningen and Leiden. Professor Armitage showed how the young Prince George had assimilated and made his own Montesquieu’s arguments against slavery, leading him to produce in the 1750s an account of the law of nations, under the title, “Of Laws Relative to Government in General” (one of the documents now accessible in the excellent Georgian Papers Online), that incorporated a radical abolitionist argument. Influenced by both Montesquieu and Blackstone, the young king was aware of the foundations of the law of nations in natural law and treaties, while aware that treaties with other sovereigns fell under his prerogative and were a mark of his sovereignty.  The successful (from the British perspective)  Treaty of Paris of 1763 was followed later by the Treaty of Paris of 1783 recognizing the loss of the American colonies and Florida, which was returned to Spain. This was a hard blow for the king, who saw himself as sovereign of all the varied peoples of his Empire. A last interesting act was the protection sought from George by Kamehameha the King of the Sandwich Islands. This led to the Hawaiian flag having the Union flag emblazoned in its top left corner, which it still bears as a state of the U.S.A. In all the paper was a rich and brilliant contribution to the ongoing revision of our understanding of George III.

It is worth saying a little on the lecture series and Arthur Berriedale Keith (1879-1944). Back in the late 1970s, when working on his PhD thesis, your blogger for the first time encountered the extensive Berriedale Keith Collection in Edinburgh University Library. He was too ignorant to know who Berriedale Keith was, but found in the collection material that he needed on Quebec. Subsequently he has become very aware of Berriedale Keith’s importance both as a philologist and scholar of Sanskrit and as a (in reality “the”) legal expert on the history and constitution of the British Empire and Commonwealth. In recent years, your blogger in working on the development of comparative law in Great Britain has had occasion to consult some of Berriedale Keith’s own works to understand the legal nature of the Empire. Ridgway F. Shinn published an excellent biography of Berriedale Keith in 1990, and, with Richard A. Cosgrove, published his correspondence with A. V. Dicey in 1996. Shinn’s biography revealed that in Berriedale Keith’s house in Polwarth Terrace in Edinburgh the professor had the great good fortune to have two studies.

Colleagues in Edinburgh, Dr Harshan Kumarasingham and Dr Asanga Welikala, have established the Keith Forum on Commonwealth Constitutionalism , naming it for Berriedale Keith. Its website states: “The Keith Forum on Commonwealth Constitutionalism aims to harness the reservoir of comparative ideas from the Commonwealth for current UK constitutional debates; and conversely, to benefit Commonwealth states facing similar challenges, from a closer engagement with constitutional developments in the UK.” It adds that “Edinburgh was once the centre of this scholarship through the work of Arthur Berriedale Keith. This project places Scotland at the heart of this global intellectual reengagement.” It inaugural event on 5 November 2018 was the first Berriedale Keith Lecture,  entitled “Things Done in the Dark and in the Middle of the Night’: Nehru, Kashmir, and the Subterfuges of Building Constitutional Democracy”, delivered by Professor Sunil Khilnani, Director of the King’s India Institute. This was linked with a two-day discussion of the history of the Commonwealth’s constitutional experiences, its politics and law.

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Research Students’ Graduation, Centre for Legal History 23 November, 2019

On 23 November, at the winter graduation ceremony in law at the University of Edinburgh, four research students in legal history took their degrees. In alphabetical order they were: Peter Candy, currently Sir John Baker Lecturer and Research Fellow at St Catharine’s College Cambridge,  who graduated Ph.D. with a thesis entitled “The Historical Development of Roman Maritime Law During the Late Republic and Early Empire”; Eva Drommel, who graduated LL.M. by Research, with a dissertation entitled “Marine Insurance in Early -Modern Scotland: A Study of the Emergence and Development of Legal Practice and Doctrine”; Cormack Hickey, who graduated LL.M. by Research, with a dissertation entitled “The Plurality of Laws and Its Effects inMedieval Ireland, c. 1166-1366”: and John Thomas, who graduated LL.M. by Research, with a dissertation entitled “Otto von Bismarck’s Progression Towards a Unified Germany, and a Jurisprudential Prelude to Nazi Germany”. The Centre congratulates them all.

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Session Papers: University of Virginia

Your blogger has been involved in a variety of projects relating to the Session Papers, one of the most important historical sources on Scots law and Scottish history (politics, economic, social). None of these projects has come to fruition through the lack of willingness of any funder to support either their restoration, their microfilming, and now their digitisation. The unfortunate shortsightedness of any such refusal of support must be obvious to anyone familiar with them. Session Papers are an unparalleled resource. One recent attempt to gain funding was to involve collaboration with the University of Virginia. This collaboration was because the University of Virginia Law Library was well embarked on its own project to digitise its set of Session Papers. It is worth the trouble to any reader of this blog to examine the website they have developed and continue to progress, which gives a brilliant impression of what could be achieved with teh necessary resources:

It is therefore a particular pleasure that the Virginia project was the joint-winner of the Mary L. Dudziak Digital Legal history Prize. The prize jury stated:

“The Scottish Court of Session Digital Archive merited the Dudziak Prize because it is an ambitious multi-institutional effort to digitize Scottish session papers from the 1750s to 1840s, which are held by the University of Virginia Law Library and the Library of Congress. The project, which went public in 2018, consists of high-quality scans of approximately 10,000 documents, all expertly tagged using open source and exportable programming. These documents are especially valuable sources because they contain rich narratives of underrepresented groups in the British Atlantic world during the era of the American Revolution. This new archive should help facilitate research on women, enslaved persons, and laborers. Overall, we were impressed by the scholarly significance of this digital archive for the field of British Atlantic studies.”

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Legal Education and the Legal Profession

For most of his academic career, your blogger has been interested in both the legal profession and legal education. The topics are of course closely linked. Two recently published books are worth drawing to the attention of the readers of this blog, to help them get the attention they deserve.

The first is by Robin M. White and is entitled Dundee Law, 1865-1967 (Dundee: Abertay Historical Society, 2018). Your blogger has long been interested in the links between the development of formal lectures in law and local legal professions in Scotland, generally incorporated through the nineteenth century as Faculties of Procurators. It must always be remembered that the Law Society of Scotland was only created in 1949, and was established in large part to manage the legal aid system in Scotland, a task it no longer possesses. Local lawyers joined these local faculties, which still exist and help represent their members interests.

But prior to the creation of the modern law society, there had been attempts to rationalise and control the offering of legal services by acts of Parliament. The topic is not without its complexities, and your blogger will eschew dealing with it here. But one obvious thrust was to ensure that procurators, law agents or writers has received an appropriate level of education. Some acts required attendance at courses in law. This was not consistently preserved, however, though it did give some stimulus to providing classes aimed at lawyers other than the Faculty of Advocates, who had traditionally expected their intrants to have a university-level training in law.

This is the background to the early origins of the Dundee Law School. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, there was an incorporated society for procurators and writers in Dundee, which had a library, and a widows and orphans fund. Soon after Procurators (Scotland) Act of 1865, the local Faculty in Dundee promoted lectures for their clerks. Lectures were given on jurisprudence, civil (i.e. Roman) law, and various other topics. White is surprised at the choice of “civil law”, as it was not required under the act; but no doubt Dundee’s Faculty of Procurators and Solicitors recognised the subjects importance in Scots law. These lectures appear to have been abandoned by 1870.

The late Victorian period saw the establishment of many University Colleges through Britain and the Empire often in fact named for the Queen-Empress. In 1881, University College Dundee was accordingly founded. In 1890, University College Dundee became affiliated to the University of St Andrews. Shortly thereafter lectures on Scots law began, aimed at clerks or apprentices. But it was not an easy road, and the lectures lasted for only three sessions. But from 1899, there were continuous classes, serving the needs of apprentices.

In the late 1930s, a law degree, that of BL was finally established, requiring more teachers; after the War, a Chair in Scots law and a lectureship in civil lawyer established.In 1950 came the degree of LLB and the School of Law further developed, with a Faculty of Law created in 1955. White sees the period between 1955 and 1967 as the period when a modern law school was created in Dundee. Of course,  his dates are fixed by events at Dundee, 1967 being the date of the chartering of the University of Dundee. But in the other Scottish law schools the same period saw the development of the modern degree of LL.B. as a first degree, and the possibility of it being taken with honours, with increasing recruitment of full-time teachers. One important development was that Dundee taught an English-qualifying as well as a Scottish-qualifying degree, a practice now copied by some other Scottish law schools.

A decade after the first, if abortive, lectures in law at Dundee, the American Bar Association (A.B.A.) was founded in 1878. This is discussed in John Austin Matzko’s thorough and entertaining Best Men of the Bar: The Early Years of the American Bar Association, 1878-1928 (Clark, N.J.: Talbot Publishing, 2019). This account of the first fifty years of this voluntary association explores themes shared with some of those in White’s work. Matzko’s overall narrative is that the A.B.A. developed within the reform tradition of the later nineteenth century, with the aim of ensuring proper professional standards for lawyers. In 1921, the A.B.A. adopted standards for legal education, which ultimately developed in 1952 to the system of law-school accreditation. White’s book is a detailed account of an institution; Matzko’s is a more expansive one, focusing on general social development, more of an exercise in intellectual as well as institutional history, engaging with historiographical debates, as well as detailed discussion.

The A.B.A has a conservative reputation as an institution dominated by corporate lawyers.  Matzko’s history both to some extent challenges but also refines that over-simple view. Of course, professionalism can be associated with old-fashioned, “gentlemanly” values; but it does stand for independence in the face of either a capitalist focus, or a state-controlled system.  Matzko’s discussion suggests that in origin the aims of the A.B.A. were professional, gentlemanly, and reformist, even if its members were part of the Amerian elite.

U.S. attorneys are members of their own state bar association, which sets its own tests for admission. This membership entitles them to practice before the federal courts. It was in the early era of the A.B.A. that the practice of setting state bar examinations developed.  It is a testimony to ether success of the A.B.A. that it nonetheless became an effective gatekeeper for admission to practice. It also successfully promoted a focus on professional ethics.

Has the A.B.A. been a success? Was it just a means of elite lawyers oppressing the non-elite? It is not obvious how one would measure success. But one can point out that the status of the bar is secure; and its accreditation of law schools is accepted as legitimate. Matzko’s book, based on his PhD thesis, is an elegant and thought-provoking work, well researched and full of amusing and illuminating detail. Its story begs comparison with professional bodie sin Europe.

Both these rather different books are not only important additions to the literature on the legal profession and legal education, they cover the rise of the modern profession of lawyer, both Scotland and the U.S.A. they are part of a much bigger story than that they individually tell.


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The de la Vergne Volume and the Civil Law – A Celebration

A crucial document in understanding the history of the law in Louisiana after the cession to the United States is known as the de la Vergne Volume or manuscript. Your blogger has discussed it, first in his PhD thesis, and then in a number of articles.* It was compiled by Louis Moreau Lislet, one of the redactors of the first two civil codes of Louisiana, though not in his hand, but that, one suspects, of a clerk. A very early version of it, preserved in Louisiana State University, is, however, almost certainly in Moreau’s hand. Other versions of Moreau’s collection survive. See my article of 2009.

The manuscript was passed down through the de la Vergne family from Hugues de la Vergne, a notary public who became a member of the Louisiana bar, and who had at one stage shared an office with Moreau Lislet. In 1938, Pierre de la Vergne shared knowledge of its existence with Ferdinand F. Stone of the Tulane Law School. In 1941, Mitchell Franklin of the same Law School claimed that in the MS Moreau Lislet provided the “sources” of the code of 1808. This became a relatively settled view.

It was once assumed to show the legal origins or sources of the actual articles of the first Louisiana code, The Digest of the Civil Laws now in Force in the Territory of Orleans with Alterations and Amendments Adapted to its Present System of Government, promulgated in 1808; but modern scholarship, including that of your blogger, has shown that this cannot be the case. Indeed he has demonstrated the close link it bears to the multi-volume Teatro de la legislación universal de España e Indias compiled in Madrid in the 1790s by Antonio Xavier Pérez y López. Moreau Lislet drew very closely on this compilation of Spanish laws, with its excellent introduction, in a whole variety of endeavours, including his translation of the Siete Partidas, the medieval Castilian law book.

This then raises the question: Why did Moreau Lislet compile the volume? What was its purpose?

The references are to Spanish, some French, and some Roman sources, with very occasional references to a Territorial Statute. There is a general list of sources at the beginning of each title; more specific references are allocated to individual articles. As your blogger has shown beyond any doubt, behind the lists in the de la Verne Volume lie the lists Pérez y López provided in his Teatro to equivalent titles of law. Moreau Lislet also compiled these lists AFTER the Digest has been enacted. Moreover, research, including your blogger’s, has shown that the references to Spanish law are generally NOT to the sources of the articles. There can be little doubt but that much of the Digest was drawn from the French Code civil and its Projet, neither of which are ever cited.

One conclusion, argued for over many years by the late Professor Robert Pascal of the L.S.U. Law School, was that the Digest was “Spanish  law” in French dress, with the de la Vergne Volume revealing the “true” sources. But while some provisions of the Digest are indeed of Spanish origin, this is very far from being the case for the Digest as a whole. The late Rodolfo Batiza of the Tulane Law School argued for the origin of most of the articles of the Digest in the French Code. There is much more evidence to support this. The work of Vernon Palmer on obligations and of Asya Ostroukh on property, to pick just two examples, supports this. On the other hand, the book of the Digest that differs most from its French models is that on persons. Your blogger’s PhD dissertation, however, showed that in that book, the  puissance paternelle and puissance maritale were not “Castilian” or “Spanish” but basically northern French in origin, but with some Castilian influence. Moreover, your blogger’s Brendan Brown lecture of 4 April 2019, forthcoming in revised form in the Loyola Law Review, demonstrated significant differences in other areas between the French models and the Digest; but this was not because the Digest was embodying Spanish law in French words. Rather, certain French Revolutionary reforms were not suited to the situation in Louisiana. In fact, as your blogger first argued in his thesis, he remains convinced that, in the Digest, Moreau Lislet and James Brown, drawing on materials available, created a unique and important civil code, which they were attempting to tailor to suit the conditions in Louisiana and its needs, as they understood them. And your blogger is of the view that what they did represented an acceptable interpretation of the instructions of the Territorial Legislature to base the code on the civil laws in force in the Territory, which were indeed the Spanish laws with some amendments.

Your blogger concluded in his thesis that the de la Vergne volume was probably a concordance intended to assist attorneys in linking the texts of articles of the Digest with the Spanish law that the courts revived in practice in some instances. Supporting this is the fact that the material he used in it was also used in his translations of the Siete Partidas, which definitely had that aim. Of course, this is a surmise, but it is in your blogger’s view the most plausible one–more plausible, for example, than the late Hans Baade’s ingenious suggestion that the de la Vergne Volume was prepared to pretend that the Digest was founded on the Spanish laws of the Indies that were definitely in force when the Americans took over the colony.

This blog has in the past mentioned the late Louis de la Vergne, noting his death (see and publishing some photographs of him with the volume that he owned (see Mr de la Vergne was fascinated with the legal history of Louisiana and the part his family had played in it and indeed in the general history of Louisiana. He was a man generous with his time, and endlessly willing to discuss legal historical matters with scholars and learned librarians. He was always very helpful to your blogger, even if he had challenged the view that the volume revealed the “sources” of the Digest. Mr de la Vergne left the volume to his friend Ms Anna Swadling, and she recently generously donated it to the Tulane Law School of which he had been an alumnus.

To mark this, on 6 November, 2019, the Tulane Law School held a “Celebration of the cIvil Law and etc de la Vergne Volume”. Your blogger was fortunate to be invited and to be able to attend. After an introduction by Professor David Meyer, Dean of the Law School, Professor Vernon Palmer gave an elegant presentation on the volume and its role in the legal history of Louisiana, to be followed by discussions by Professors Ronald Scalise and  Sally Brown Richardson, exploring different aspects of the volume, including its role in teaching. Their remarks are available on the Tulane Law School website: Ms Swadling was there, as well as some members of the de la Vergne family, and a descendent of Louis Moreau Lislet, currently a student at the Tulane Law School. It was a suitable event both to mark the memory of Louis de la Vergne and the generous gift of Ms Swadling. There is a good account of it with photographs available at the same website:

Below are some photos of your blogger with an important document relating to the introduction of Spanish law into Louisiana, with Professor Olivier Moréteau of LSU and Dean Meyer, and in animated conversation with Professor Moréteau, all courtesy of Mrs Georgia Chadwick, retired Director of the Law Library of Louisiana.


* See:

  • John W. Cairns, Codification, Transplants and History: Law Reform in Louisiana (1808) and Quebec (1866) (2015)
  • “Spanish Law, the Teatro de la legislación universal de España e Indias, and the Background to the Drafting of the Digest of Orleans of 1808”, in Séan Donlan and Vernon Valentine Palmer, eds., Legal Traditions in Louisiana and the Floridas (2019), pp. 149-99 (reprint of “Spanish Law, the Teatro de la legislación universal de España e Indias, and the Background to the Drafting of the Digest of Orleans of 1808”, Tulane European and Civil Law Forum, vol. 31/32 (2017), pp. 79-120)
  • “Introductory Essay to the Discorso preliminar of Pérez y López’s Teatro”, Journal of Civil Law Studies, vol. 11 (2018), pp. 433-64
  •  “The de la Vergne Volume and the Digest of 1808” Tulane European and Civil Law Forum, vol. 24 (2009), pp. 31-81
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Legal Dress In Scotland

One fascinating historical study is that of the dress of lawyers and judges. In general in all the European countries lawyers have historically worn some type of robe to demonstrate their status and judges have worn robes specific to their work. In the British Isles, the fashionable wigs of the eighteenth century also came to be attached to the dress in court of members of the bar. it is a topic that has never been properly researched in Scotland.

These remarks are provoked by the approach made to your blogger by Scottish Legal News aout the recent Practice Note on Legal Dress issued by the Lord President, Lord Carloway. See . This was picked up by The Times on 5th November.

Courts are hierarchical, with dress indicating position and authority. The only judges who traditionally did not wear robes for hearing cases were those of the House of Lords, because they sat as peers as a committee of the House of Lords. This was a practice continued in the new Supreme Court, where it has also become the rule that whether counsel wear gowns and wigs is at the option of those appearing. One understands that there is social pressure from some counsel, who see themselves as “modern” and “social democrats”, not to wear wigs and gowns before the Supreme Court. This means that those who prefer to be robed and wigged are put under pressure to conform to a new set of “norms”, or be identified as fusty for not “getting with the programme”.

Of course, hierarchies are not much to the modern taste; but they exist. It will always be evident who is in charge in the court, the woman or man sitting on the bench. But dress reinforces and eases identification of the roles played by each person. It defines identity. Getting rid of dress does not suppress hierarchy, it just makes it more obscure and difficult to identify.

When it was decided in 2014 that judges would no longer wear wigs and gowns in the Inner House of the Court of Session, and would no longer require that counsel wear wig and gown, the Faculty of Advocates decided that their members would nonetheless continue to wear wig and gown in addressing the Inner House.

The new practice note issued by the current Lord President means that judges, except when hearing witnesses testimony, will not be robed in the Outer House, nor will they require that counsel wear wig and gown. A poll conducted by Scottish Legal News indicates that lawyers are overwhelmingly opposed to the change. See  According to The Times on 5 November, Gordon Jackson, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, has stated that advocates could still continue to wear court dress if they liked. If he is correctly reported, one can foresee that the practice will progressively vanish, even though we know that in 2014, the majority of the Faculty of Advocates wished to retain court dress.

In 2014, the then Lord President was quoted by the BBC as stating that to no longer wear robes for civil appeals “makes sense in this day and age”. But this is no argument. If a student wrote this in an essay, one would ask: What do you mean? What do you mean by “making sense”? In what way does it make sense? and so on. It is in fact rather meaningless. One is left to assume that, somehow, not wearing robes is more modern; but perhaps it makes sense in a way your blogger does not see. No better explanation is offered for the new development. But what is vague is always questionable.

Dress in court is part of the corporate if diverse identity of the legal profession. As far as your blogger is aware, in most of Europe lawyers and judges were robes; some considerably more elaborate than those used in the British Isles. One friend f your blogger’s is always proud that in court he always wore the judicial robe of his grandfather. It marks continuity in structures, the type of continuity that permits development and change, without dislocating ruptures and stress. In this it is like the law itself, routed in the past to permit future development.

Scots law is backward-facing; it develops incrementally by precedent, with some statutes when necessary, and all lawyers know that statutes are far from offering a panacea. Adam Smith was wise when he wrote about the evils of men of system. One also thinks of Walter Scott’s character, Vitruvius Whigham, who ends up destroying what he wishes to reform. While one would not wish to exaggerate, it is difficult to know where such reforms end or what their consequences can be, particularly when the reasons for them are so unclear. If not robes, then why suits? Why not tracksuits and trainers – comfortable, functional and modern?

There are many factors and social practices that give authority to the law. Interfering with them is arguably dangerous and not to be entered into lightly. With our unwritten constitution, recently rather abused,  it is important to have respect for the institutions of the past. Without them, we are without foundation, or, to change the metaphor, become rudderless. These are the institutions on which depend the liberty of the subject and cultural security.

Walter Scott was all too aware of this when, in response to proposed Whig reforms in 1807, he told Francis Jeffrey: “little by little, whatever your wishes may be you will destroy and undermine, until nothing of what makes Scotland Scotland shall remain.” Perhaps he exaggerated; but these are words to ponder








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Armada chests and legal documents: Anderson Strathern

Most law firms have antecedents back through the centuries. In recent years, there have been many amalgamations, and law firms can end up holding interesting caches of documents that once belonged to clients, or that they acquired in the course of litigation. Also, they can sometimes hold interesting objects, beyond the ubiquitous tin boxes for trust deeds.

Anderson Strathern, a major Edinburgh firm that is the successor to a number of other Edinburgh firms, has found itself with three “Armada” chests. These are wrought iron, often massive, strong boxes with elaborate, and locks in their lid. They were objects of luxury to protect documents from theft and give some level of protection in a fire. The qualifier “Armada” is the product of Victorian romanticism,  formerly they were known as Nuremberg chests.

The firm has employed a young historian, Mr Ewan McCall, to examine and advise on the historic documents that they have in their offices. He found a rich haul of goods and two locked Armada chests. The firm had a ceremonial opening of these chests by a locksmith at a small event where a selection of some of the documents found by Ewan were displayed. One can note a very interesting list of the library of a WS in 1794, who had a good collection of interesting books on Roman law, and a deed signed by Adam Smith when Professor at Glasgow, and interesting disputes over rights to the cargo of a vessel taken in the north east of Scotland. The oldest document was a sixteenth century charter.

Along with you blogger and some other guests, Dr Karen Baston, well-known to this blog, and Mr James Hamilton from the Signet Library, were there to examine the documents and see a locksmith open one of the two locked Armada chests (the other was opened privately in advance). This proved to have been used for storing documents until 1919 or so, judging from the dates of the contents, while the other was empty. Both chests were highly decorative on the inside, one painted on the inside of the lid, the other with an elaborate wrought decorative cover over the oak mechanism.


Of course, it is now a question, as it is for other law firms, about what do with such historic material.

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