Malcolm Laing was a Scottish lawyer and historian born in Orkney to Robert Laing and Barbara Blaw in 1762. A blue heritage plaque marks the now seemingly insignificant site in Kirkwall.Born at his parents’ Orkney mainland estate of Strynzia, Malcolm received his education at the grammar school in Kirkwall and later went on to the university of Edinburgh where he made his home until 1808.
Trained as a lawyer, he was called to the Scottish bar on 9 July 1785, but his interests lay elsewhere and he spent much of his time devoted to historical study.
Following the death of a local Historian, Dr. Robert Henry, executors requested that Malcolm Laing complete his writings and in 1793, volume six of the ‘History of Great Britain’ was published.
In 1802 Laing published his own work; ‘History of Scotland, from the Union of the Crowns, on the Accession of King James VI to the Throne of England, to the Union of the Kingdoms’.
Laing published a second, four volume, revised edition of his ‘History of Scotland’ in 1804.
The first two volumes concentrated on the ‘Dissertation on the participation of Mary Queen of Scots in the Murder of Darnley,’ His attempts to bring authenticity to the original “Casket letters” and his following conculsion makes for a very strong case against queen Mary.
He also edited ‘The Life and Historie of James VI,’ in 1804 and a year later in 1805, Laing published two volumes on the ‘Poems of Ossian, containing the Poetical Works of James MacPherson in Prose and Verse, with Notes and Illustrations.’
1805 also saw his marriage to Margaret Dempster Carnegie, on 10 September, daughter of Thomas Carnegie and Mary Gardyne. They had no children.
Malcolm Laing represented Orkney and Shetland in Parliament, between 1807 and 1812 as a Liberal politician and did a great deal to improve agriculture in the region.
In 1808, Malcolm Laing returned to his estate in Orkney. He became ill, never leaving the bounds of his estate. When Sir Walter Scott visited him in 1814, he wrote ‘Our old acquaintance, though an invalid, received us kindly; he looks very poorly, and cannot walk without assistance, but seems to retain all the quick, earnest, and vivacious intelligence of his character and manner’ (Lockhart, Life of Scott, ed. 1842, p. 271).
Laing died at his Orkney estate on 6th November 1818. A memorial tablet is situated on the wall of the north nave of Kirkwall Cathedral;
‘Depth, truth, and independence as an historian were,’ says Lord Cockburn, ‘the least of his merits, for he was a firm, warm-hearted, honest man, whose instructive and agreeable companionship was only made the more interesting by a hard, peremptory, Celtic manner and accent.’
Electric Scotland – Significant Scots.
This title remains a valuable work for those studying Scottish history and is available from the Spirit of Orkney secure online book store.