Review of 'SERIOUS MINDS: the History of the HALDANES' by Richard McLauchlan (2022)

Review by William W C Scott © 2nd January 2023.

This book, by Richard McLauchlan of Haddington, is one of the most important I ever came across in several decades close involvement with education in many fields. Yet it is all new to me. That should be impossible, surrounded here by 200 yards of shelves, until Magnus Linklater's article in The Times a week ago.

The family origins are in the 15th century. Two Haldanes living near Gleneagles, are knighted and killed in battles at Flodden (1513) and Dunbar (1650). But the family of special interest begins when Robert Haldane of Cloan, a farmhouse near Auchterarder, married Mary Burdon Sanderson, his second wife, a well-connected English woman whose father won the Newdigate poetry Prize at Oxford, was a fellow of Oriel (1813), included some Lord Mayors and an estate with a colliery near Newcastle. Mary's great uncle was Earl of Eldon, Lord Chancellor (1801-1806 and 1807-1827). Her father, Richard Burdon Sanderson, 'never knew what fear was': educated out of him p15. Unable to reconcile his religion with the practices of his profession he resigned both his Secretaryship and his Commissionership in Bankruptcy. As Mary reflected, 'my father was not one to flinch, even if the sacrifice cost him almost his life.' Lord Eldon, hearing the news, did not come out of his room for three days. R B Sanderson suffered so badly that his family moved to Tunbridge Wells to regroup. Mary's younger brother John Burdon Sanderson became an FRS and Professor of Physiology at Oxford.

Robert Haldane and Mary Burdon Sanderson had five children: Richard (Viscount Haldane) who became Lord Chancellor of England, 1912-1915, 203-4, appointed OM and PC, Geordie (the 'genius' who died, aged sixteen, of diptheria), Johnnie, Elizabeth and Sir William Stowell. They had six children: Jack (headboy at Eton), Naomi (Mitchison) who wrote 85 books. Seven children of Naomi (all Mitchisons) who spawned twenty more (in an open marriage), plus a round dozen on the Sanderson line.

Six became Fellows of the Royal Society in 4 generations and the ladies earned great distinction in public positions: often being put in charge because they were the first to argue for change and campaign for it.

What we have here is an aristocracy, loaded with honours, male and female, both, created in half a century. The key is Mary Burdon Sanderson who infused all her children and grandchildren with the love of Truth, religious piety and the ideal of public service. The cultivation of a high culture was the permanent aim, not making money or being showered with honours. How was it possible?

The family deny (some at least) that it can be understood from nature v nurture. However, it does look as if the genes of the Haldanes and the Sandersons, allied to their children's habits of mind under the careful guidance of Granniema (Mary) were decisive. Life in that family at Cloan was to be part of an all day tutorial group with high culture as its object. Mary read Voltaire in French to some and would have had other languages including the staples, Latin and Greek (which her mother Elizabeth had) as well as Italian. Dickens she loved: all would have been imbued with his good works and characters. Naomi reveals herself on p137, 'I have this devil of personal ambition biting at me, and I know I have not got him down yet. I like power, and I know only too well that while I am using it I am apt to forget that I must not use it for my own satisfaction.' A value that would come from Mary.

By 1866, within about ten years of their marriage, the farmhouse at Cloan was transformed into a baronial castle with a fine tower. It gave them status and they knew its value in the upward moves expected of everyone. How was that possible? Probably because of Mary's money. Thereafter, began a constant procession of the great and the good to Cloan to visit principally Mary herself who increasingly, as she aged, scarcely left her bed. Around it, the family would assemble and Mary would exert her influence over the whole group. Thus there would be a constant reinforcement of family values which every member paid close attention to. There was a fine library, constantly added to, especially with scientific and literary periodicals in which they often published (Richard produced 400 papers. For him and his brother, no activity was as important as 'thinking').

A house at 17 Charlotte Square was acquired which would mean Richard could attend Edinburgh Academy, just as James Clerk Maxwell did from 14 India Street 20 years before. Gloag would have been teaching maths there to JCM and Richard Haldane. That house was sold by the Haldanes probably because of the cost of education and travel which came first. Was it all intellectual ambition? No, it was physical power too. P60 The older boys did a walk of 73 miles from Cloan to the top of 4,000 ft Ben Lawers that was not uncommon for them. Once they did it in 23 hours. Another from Ballater to Cloan: 101 miles, took 30 hours 50 minutes.

They disapproved of games like bridge (because of the waste of time: thinking time), though scrabble was enjoyed by Naomi who would, much later, invite large numbers for lunch at her Carradale estate between Campbeltown and Tarbert, east side. Mainly, the talk came first: like the endless tutorials they grew up competing in, hungry for knowledge. Naomi and John are described walking together, quoting reams of poetry, each capping the other in turn.

Richard too had some fine houses. 28 Queen Anne's Gate, London, was his address when Lord Chancellor (it might have been a Grace & Favour house, even then). Einstein is photographed with him when staying over. In c2014, the house was sold for about £20 million.

The family were widely known and had connections all over the world which will have been invaluable ever since. They visited Neils Bohr in Copenhagen and would have known many of the leading intellectuals of the age. Cloan was sold recently to Neil Mitchison. The children were brought up to fear nothing and not to think of themselves but the good of others. This is why Richard was known to be content with two hours sleep or seven; anything between. He was ready for action when needed. An invaluable quality in a subordinate, easily rising in society because of it. They were very friendly, would keep secrets and be careful not to make enemies.

Mary eclipsed them all. Writing to his mother, Richard wrote: 'You inspire your children, & lift them to a high level by what you say to them. You have grown of late in personality... & that is the secret of your influence. You have more personality than any of us.'

In 1889, Richard wrote to her 'It was a very happy week at Cloanden & I look back on it much. I love the being near you, & the library... & the atmosphere, physical and moral of the whole place.' P102

I feel blessed to have read this book. It is like a lighthouse that sends out light in every direction showing us the way to go and what we can become. It answers the questions we all ask when we marry and children arrive. What is the best we can do for them? This book, this brilliant family, has the answers because they worked it all out and will be evolving further, no doubt. Of course the genes were good. Of course there was money to pay for education of the very best kind. Of course they soon had connections all over which would have been a huge support in time of difficulty. Amazing to realise that after Edinburgh Academy aged ten, Richard (and John) attended Edinburgh University, taking a term off to attend classes at Gottingen and Jena (respectively) c 1870, before returning to finish at Edinburgh and go on to a place in the law almost unsurpassed p108.

In time, Richard and John deviated from the religion of their parents. P80 'God, in their view, was no transcendent being beyond the world, no, God was completely immanent to the world as we know it, totally at one with it. The Infinite God worked himself out through the multiplicitly of finite human minds. When an individual mind acts in accordance with reason and shapes the world before it in a reasonable manner, then that individual mind is a finite expression of the infinite reality of God. No two human minds will view the tree identically of course, but this plurality of perspective is indicative of God's infinity.' Even so, they managed to go along with their parents views and the family held together.

The motto of the Haldanes is 'Suffer'. At seventeen, the idea of attending Gottingen occurred to Richard armed with a testimonial in Greek from Professor Blackie. There he met Prof Hermann Lotze, the greatest living metaphysician. Richard learnt from the German authors that 'happiness could be found not so much in a settled assortment of dogmas but more in an attitude of inquiry.' P63 But suffer he did. Returned from Gottingen fluent in German and full of Kant, Hegel and Goethe, he had come to admire the German culture more than his own because they were against exams and prizes and this meant that they really learned what they studied. Cramming they did not believe in. As a minister in government by this time, Richard was sent to Germany just before WWI in an effort to stop the war. He was deemed to have acted against his own country because of his known preference for the enemy. He had to resign his Lord Chancellorship. War fever made people believe and say anything. How he suffered for it! It was so grossly undeserved. As minister for defence before the war, it was he and he alone who organised the army so that it could respond to a war breaking out on the continent.

Many parents will have sent their children to private schools, the fees for which for one child far exceeds what many earn. Five now would cost about £200,000 a year. Unthinkable for all but a few. The funds were available to the Haldanes in 1860. That was crucial. Naomi shone at Oxford and made friends with Aldous Huxley among many other first rate minds. Part of it is the family tutorial which made them all drive the argument onward. They were all outgoing and knew lots of serious minds, from all of whom they would strike sparks. Yet, the Haldane tradition will be continuing for sure. There is a discernible driving force and proven methods for its advancement. They do know how and they will find the means.

Is this possible within a comprehensive school? I used to think so, mine was unusually successful. Having the best possible schooling and universities is a great advantage plus the stimulus of very many able and energetic minds devoted to intellectual success.

© William Scott, BA,BSc,MEd,FIMA,FSAScot