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OLIPHANT. Sir William of Newton

OLIPHANT, Sir William (1551—1628) of Newton, Advocate, son of William Oliphant, of Newton, in the parish of Forgandenny, Perthshire, was admitted to the Scottish Bar on 20 October, 1577.

Five years later (14 Oct. 1582) he was appointed a Justice-Depute, and in 1604 he acted as AdvocateDepute for Sir Thomas Hamilton, King’s Advocate. In the same year a Commission was chosen to discuss the question of union with England, and Oliphant was added as one "best affected and fitted for that eirand. (2) He was also a commissioner (1607) for reforming the teaching of grammar in the schools, which had fallen into disrepute by the "curiositie of divers maisters . . . taking upon thaim efter thair fantesie to teache such grammar as pleases them." (3) His reputation at the bar meanwhile advanced: he appears in many of the leading cases. (4)

He was chosen with Thomas Craig, to defend the six Ministers in 1606; but he gave up his brief on the eve of the trial, on the plea, as Palmerino explained, that the King’s promise of leniency, provided they acknowledged their offence, did not justify their obstinacy. (5) He thereby won the King’s favour, and was soon amply rewarded. In 1608 the Council, in a letter to the King, named him first of four who were "the most learned and best experienced of their profession".(6) In November 1610 he appears as a Justice of the Peace for Perthshire and the stewartries of Strathearn and Menteith. (7)

He was elevated to the bench in January 1611, in succession to Sir David Lindsay of Edzell, one of the lords-ordinary. Thereupon the Privy Council wrote a long letter to the King in which they declared how popular had been the election of one "whose bipast cariage is and hes bene onlie forceable to hold him in Your Majesteis remembrance." (8) Next year (19 June) he was nominated in a royal letter as King’s Advocate in succession to Hamilton, who had been appointed Clerk of Register. On 9 July following he was admitted to the Privy Council as Lord-Advocate, and was knighted by the Chancellor in conformity with a mandate from the King. He retained his seat on the bench. (9) Parliament ratified his appointment in October, and granted a pension of one thousand pounds for life, which the King had intimated to the Council in a letter of 8 April, 1611.

He played a prominent part in the political stir of the closing years of James’ reign: the sederents of the Privy Council show that he was present at almost every meeting. In December 1612 he was one of a select commission of five for the settling of controversies, between burgh and landward Justices of the Peace (10); in August 1613 a commissioner for the trial of the Jesuit Robert Philip, in December 1614 for the trial of Father John Ogilvie, and in June 1615 for that of James Moffat; in December 1615 he was appointed a member of the reconstructed Court of High Commission, and in May 1616 one of the Committee to report on the book "God and the King", which James had determined to introduce into Scotland as he had done in England and Ireland. On 17 December 1616 Oliphant was elected a member of the financial committee of the Council known as the "Commissioners for the King’s Rents".

As King’s Advocate he appears in all the great political trials, notably those of Gordon of Gicht and Sir James Macdonald of Islay. He had the care too of putting into force the new acts against the sale of tobacco, and the carrying of hagbuts: and the numerous prosecutions which he carried out testify to his activity.

The Parliament of 1621 ratified the possession of the family lands to him and his sons. James and William, in fee. (12) Charles l’s proclamation, prohibiting the holding of an ordinary seat in the court of session by officers of state and nobles compelled him to leave the bench (February 1626).

He died on 1 (137) April 1628 and was buried in the Greyfriars’ Churchyard at Edinburgh.

To Oliphant is due the present procedure of examining witnesses in the hearing of the jury. Hitherto evidence had been taken by deposition, and the duty of the jury had been to examine the indictment in the light of this evidence. The change was effected in the trial of one Liston, accused of the murder of a certain John Mayne. (13)

Diet. of Nat. Biog. Vol. 12. G. Gregory Smith 1895.


(1) Pitcairn 1. 101.
(2) Reg. of Privy Council VII 157.
(3) Acts of Parl. IV. 374.
(4) Pitcairn. Reg. of Privy Council passim.
(5) ib. VII. 478.
(6) Denmylne Mess. A. 2. 39. No. 66.
(7) Reg. of Privy Council IX. 78.
(8) ib. IX. 592.
(9) ib. IX. 403.
(10) ib. IX. 503.
(11) ib. X 676 Balfour, Annals, ii 65.
(12) Acts of Parl. IV. 662.
(13) Pitcairn
Register of Privy Council of Scotland: Acts of Parliament of Scotland; Retours.
Denmylne Mss.
in Advocates Library, passim.
Brunton and Haig’s Senators of the College of Justice.
Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials.
Anderson’s Oliphants in Scotland. 1879 p. 156.

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