Moreland Cottage – Charles Maclaren (1782-1866)

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Charles Maclaren

Charles Maclaren (1782-1866) moved to Moreland Cottage from Northumberland Street in the New Town of Edinburgh around 1851, and he lived there until his death at the age of 84, in September 1866.

Maclaren worked for most of his life as the editor of the Scotsman newspaper, which he launched with William Ritchie in 1817. As a young man, Maclaren had been much interested in technological advance, setting up a workshop in his mother’s attic, where he ‘made experiments with electrical machines; with gas, which was at that time beginning to attract notice as an illuminating power; and with the screw as a means of propelling vessels. The Agricultural Society of Midlothian having about this period offered a premium for the best model of a reaping machine, Mr Maclaren constructed one and sent it in for competition…’i He wrote a series of articles on the development of the railways, in 1824. These were highly influential, and were republished in America and translated into French and German. Maclaren was also an authoritative geologist. He published ‘The Geology of Fife and the Lothians’ in 1839. In 1840, he led the great Swiss geologist, Louis Agassiz, to the rock in Blackford Glen which shows signs of ancient glacial action, helping to prove that Scotland was covered in ice in prehistoric times. He visited the plain of Troy and published an illustrated work in 1863, ‘The Plain of Troy Described’, where he identified the site of the ancient city.

When Maclaren died in 1866, the Scotsman published an obituary, which displays great admiration. The author wrote:

Very few persons can now form any adequate idea of the magnitude of the work which in 1817 Charles Maclaren set himself to do, and how much of it he did – for very few persons are now alive who remember what Scotland and Edinburgh were, politically and socially, half-a-century ago. Corruption and arrogance were the characteristics of the party in power … a cowering fear covered all the rest. The people of Scotland were absolutely without voice either in vote or speech. Parliamentary elections, municipal government, the management of public bodies – everything was in the hands of a few hundreds of persons. In Edinburgh, for instance – and the capital was even too favourable an instance – the member of Parliament was elected and the government of the city carried on by thirty-two persons, and almost all these thirty-two took their directions from the Government of the day, or its proconsul. Public meetings were almost unknown, and a free press may be said to have never had an existence… Efforts at reform and liberation were suppressed, either by an abuse of the law, as in the cases of [Thomas] Muir, [Joseph] Gerrald, and others, or more generally and effectively by a rigorous social persecution – the man who questioned whether all things were for the best was socially, professionally, and commercially discredited. The Whig [Liberal] landed gentry, a small but powerful body, and a brilliant band of Whig lawyers, almost alone maintained a good testimony…

The Scotsman was a missionary to the many unconverted. Notwithstanding its success, however – a political rather than a commercial success – the Scotsman may be said to have been, up to the era of the Reform Bill [in 1832, enlarging the electorate], the only Liberal paper in Edinburgh or almost in Scotland. When the sun came round to that side of the hedge, there was, of course, no lack, in the press or any other department, of zealous recruits, seeking to make up by violence and extravagance in the hour of prosperity and safety, for their cowardice, servility, or desertion in the hour of adversity and danger. In less than twenty years after the commencement of his labours, Charles Maclaren saw his principles triumphant and his prophecies fulfilled; and, though he never boasted, he could not have been wholly unconscious of the truth that, as to Scotland, he had been enabled, by his ability, his honesty, and his courage, to set his mark upon his times…ii

Maclaren was a key figure in the radical shift in power represented by the Reform Bill, which encouraged and promoted the interests of new people, advancing public intelligence and development in a far wider field. ‘By the death of Charles Maclaren the country has lost a man who did great and brave service in evil times…’ concluded the Scotsman: ‘While one of the least demonstrative, he was one of the warmest and truest of friends; his smile cheered every face on which it shone; his cordial greeting, his quiet jest, his kindly allusion – every trait of his admirable character – will long be cherished in the fond remembrance of all who had the honour and the happiness to call themselves his friends.’

This last comment makes it all the stranger that Maclaren was engaged in the last duel in Scotland.iii In 1829, there flared up a quarrel between the owner of the Scotsman, William Ritchie, and Thomas Allan, the editor of the Caledonian Mercury – the established Tory newspaper – over words he had published. Ritchie challenged Allan to a duel, but his mediator was unconvinced about the insult and the two men were bound over legally not to fight. Maclaren took up the quarrel in print, and Thomas Allan challenged him to a duel. Their seconds were Alexander Peterkin, a lawyer and church historian as well as a journalist, and the sculptor, Lawrence Macdonald. Part of the insult was apparently a criticism of Macdonald’s sculpture – a unique example of a duel being fought over an art review. iv

Maclaren and Allan met in a field by Ravelston Road west of Edinburgh at 7 a.m. in November in the cold light of dawn. Robert Liston attended as the surgeon for Allan and James Syme for Maclaren. Peterkin, who had long legs, strode out twenty paces between the men and gave them loaded pistols.

They fired almost simultaneously, and both missed. A sheep may have been injured.

The seconds promptly (and I suspect determinedly, given that the stray bullets needed to go somewhere) agreed that both men had ‘conducted themselves with calmness and courage and like gentlemen’. They declared that nothing further was necessary, and the opponents were not required to shake hands.

This duel was a seriously anti-social act committed by two responsible middle-aged men – the event, which could have been fatal, was risible. Perhaps Maclaren was wound up by the frustration of twelve years of passionate but ineffective writing – the Reform Bill was still three years away. But it is unlikely that he gained any satisfaction from the event.

Five years after her husband’s death, his wife herself died at Morelands, and left £2,550 to found a scholarship at Edinburgh University in her husband’s name, from ‘my great love for him, and respect for his memory’.

Sara Stevenson, November 2018

i Obituary, The Scotsman, 12 September 1866.

ii Obituary, as above.

iii Mark Fraser, ‘Scotsman and Mercury: The Editors’ Disagreement of 1829’, Edinburgh University Journal, 2001, vol 40, p. 89.

iv John Wilson’s daughter, Mary Gordon, sardonically commented that it was ‘One of those pleasant little incidents of those agreeable times, when it was considered necessary that the editors of the Scotsman and the Caledonian Mercury should exchange shots to vindicate a fine-art criticism.’ Mary (Wilson) Gordon’s ‘Christopher North,’: A Memoir of John Wilson, Late Professor of Moral Philosophy, 1862, p. 323.