John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century by James Buchan - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

Law by Name, Lawless by Nature

John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century


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James Buchan gives his life of John Law the subtitle ‘A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century’. ‘Adventurer’ is a more polite term than some that have been applied to Law: fantasist, scoundrel, con man and crook, for example. Others, more generously, have called him an idealist, a financier of genius and an economist ahead of his time. There is a case to be made for any, even all, of these descriptions. While there were times, reading this wonderfully rich and entertaining, if also demanding biography, I found myself comparing Law to John le Carré’s con-man father, Ronnie Cornwell – so daring in his schemes, so fertile in invention, so extraordinarily resilient – there were others when it was John Maynard Keynes, someone who addressed questions of political economy with uncommon penetration and virtuosity, who came to mind.

The outline of Law’s life may be given briefly. He was born in 1671 in Parliament Close, Edinburgh, a few yards from the High Kirk of St Giles. His father was a master goldsmith who did so well that he went into property development and private banking (in other words moneylending). He bought a small estate between the city and the Firth of Forth, so that in time John Law was able to call himself Law of Lauriston, though he would spend all his adult life away from Lauriston and Scotland.

Like many ambitious young Scots even before the 1707 Act of Union, Law went south to London in search of fortune. He travelled with a cousin, John Campbell, who flourished as a goldsmith and banker, his business eventually growing into the famous bank Coutts & Co. Buchan admits

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