Laing, Samuel (DNB00)

LAING, SAMUEL (1780–1868), author and traveller, younger brother of Malcolm Laing [q. v.], born at Kirkwall, Orkney, on 4 Oct. 1780, was educated at Kirkwall grammar school and the university of Edinburgh. Leaving the university without a degree about 1800, he spent eighteen months at Kiel in Schleswig-Holstein, studying German. In 1805 he entered the army as an ensign in the staff corps stationed at Hythe, with which he saw service under Sir Arthur Wellesley and Sir John Moore in the Peninsular war. Returning to England after the battle of Corunna (16 Jan. 1809), he retired from the army, and through his brother's influence obtained employment as a manager of mines at Wanlockhead, in the south of Scotland. In 1818 he returned to Orkney to organise for a London firm the herring fishery on the coasts of the island, an enterprise in which he was completely successful. His brother dying the same year, he succeeded to his heavily encumbered estates, resided at Kirkwall, of which he was for some years provost, and engaged in the kelp trade. At the general election of 1832–3 he unsuccessfully contested Orkney and Shetland as a radical against the whig candidate, George Traill, and publicly accused Jeffrey, then lord advocate, of interfering with the freedom of election in Traill's interest (Address to the Electors of Scotland by Samuel Laing of Papdale, Edinburgh, 1833, 8vo). Reduced to comparative poverty by the failure of kelp, which ruined so many of the west highland and island proprietors, he left Orkney in 1834, and travelled in Norway and Sweden, studying the economic and social condition of the inhabitants. The results of his observations he gave to the world in two works which were much read, not only by the general public, but by economists and political thinkers. These were—(1) ‘Journal of a Residence in Norway during the years 1834, 1835, and 1836, made with a view to inquire into the Moral and Political Economy of that Country and the Condition of its Inhabitants,’ London, 1836, 8vo; and (2) ‘A Tour in Sweden in 1838: comprising Observations on the Moral, Political, and Economical State of the Swedish Nation,’ London, 1839, 8vo. The former work was little less than an unqualified panegyric upon Norway, whose free, industrious, and enterprising peasant proprietors Laing, a strong and somewhat doctrinaire radical of the old school, painted as patterns of native virtue; in the latter he denounced the union of Sweden and Norway as a flagitious act, inveighed against the privileged nobility and priesthood of Sweden as destitute alike of public spirit and private virtue, and denounced the entire nation as the most immoral in Europe. This elicited from Count Björnstjerna, Swedish ambassador at the British court, a pamphlet ‘On the Moral State and Political Union of Sweden and Norway, in Answer to Mr. Laing's Statement,’ London, 1840, 8vo, to which Laing published a trenchant rejoinder in the ‘Monthly Chronicle,’ reprinted in the preface to his next work, ‘Notes of a Traveller on the Social and Political State of France, Russia, Switzerland, Italy, and other parts of Europe during the Present Century,’ London, 1842, 8vo; 2nd edition the same year. About half of this book is devoted to Prussia, whose system of ‘functionarism’ Laing severely criticised, prophesying the success of the French in the next war. A German translation of this part, by Adolph Heller, appeared in ‘Preussen der Beamtenstaat in seiner politischen Entwickelung und seinen social-ökonomischen Zuständen. Dargestellt durch Benjamin Constant und Samuel Laing,’ Mannheim, 1844, 8vo. The whole was reprinted between 1851 and 1854, with the ‘Residence in Norway,’ in the ‘Traveller's Library,’ vol. iii. London, 8vo.

Laing's most considerable work was a translation of the Icelandic chronicle known as the ‘Heimskringla,’ published as ‘The Heimskringla, or Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, translated from the Icelandic of Snorro Sturleson, with a preliminary Dissertation,’ London, 1844, 3 vols. 8vo. The ‘Dissertation’ undoubtedly exhibits less judgment than enthusiasm, and the translation is more vigorous than accurate, but is interesting as a first attempt to familiarise Englishmen with the life, beliefs, and achievements of their Viking ancestors, and was the principal source of Carlyle's ‘Early Kings of Norway.’ A revised edition by Rasmus B. Anderson, LL.D., United States minister to Denmark, appeared in London, 1889, 4 vols. crown 8vo. The ferment caused at home by the Maynooth grant, and abroad by the pilgrimage to Trèves in 1844, elicited from Laing, who was opposed to the grant, ‘Notes on the Rise, Progress, and Prospects of the Schism from the Church of Rome called the German Catholic Church, instituted by Johannes Ronge and I. Czerzki in 1844, on occasion of the Pilgrimage to the Holy Coat at Trèves,’ London, 1845, 8vo (reviewed by W. R. Greg [q. v.] in a pamphlet entitled ‘The German Schism and the Irish Priests’). Resuming his travels on the continent, Laing published a second and third series of ‘Notes of a Traveller,’ entitled ‘Observations on the Social and Political State of the European People in 1848 and 1849,’ London, 1850, 8vo, and ‘Observations on the Social and Political State of Denmark and the Duchies of Sleswick and Holstein in 1851,’ London, 1852, 8vo. In the former of these works he showed an appreciation of the better sides of some English institutions, and of the disadvantages of peasant proprietorship, and was reproached with inconsistency by J. S. Mill, who had founded part of his argument in favour of that mode of land tenure upon Laing's ‘Residence in Norway’ (see J. S. Mill, Political Economy, 6th ed. book II. chap. vi. § 3, and chap. vii. § 5 note). The same tendency towards conservatism is equally marked in the work on ‘Denmark and the Duchies.’ For the rest of his life Laing resided principally in Edinburgh, where he died at the house of his daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Baxter, on 23 April 1868. He was buried in the Dean cemetery.

Laing married, in March 1809, Agnes, daughter of Captain Francis Kelly of Kelly, Devonshire. By her, who died in November 1812, he had issue the daughter above mentioned and a son, Samuel, formerly M.P. for Orkney, both of whom still live.

[Information kindly supplied by S. Laing, esq.; introduction to Anderson's edition of the Heimskringla; Army List, 1806; Observations on the Social and Political State of Denmark and the Duchies of Sleswick and Holstein in 1851, p. 33; Blackwood's Edinburgh Mag. x. 728; Foster's Members of Parliament (Scotland), 1357–1882, p. 207 note; Edinburgh Review, lxxxii. 267 et seq., lxxxiii. 100 et seq.]

J. M. R.