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Under Many Flags
Chapter XI. Two Famous Brothers: George and James Keith


Dunnottar Castle is one of the most remarkable strongholds on the east coast of Scotland. In the elevation of its position and the extent of its area it surpasses even Tantallon, the ancient seat of the Douglases. Planted on a steep promontory, which descends to the sea with many a rugged bluff and ledge, it presents in its broken outlines the likeness to a ruined town rather than a feudal fortress. We are told—and as we look round upon the huge remains can well believe— that no other of the Scottish castles covered so wide a space of ground, or was able to accommodate within its circuit so large a garrison. In addition to the old square keep, the original castellum, it is easy to trace the later erections and additions, which tell of “modern wealth and hospitable profusion.” The vestiges of most Scottish fortresses are of “a lean and gaunt aspect,” as if designed to present the smallest possible front to hostile attack; but Dunnottar exhibits all the signs of ample magnificence—the magnificence of a monarch rather than of a subject.

Dunnottar was the home of the Keiths; a noble and distinguished family, of whom the last representatives were two illustrious brothers, who left their names “writ large” upon the records of war, —George Keith, Earl Marischal, and Field-Marshal James Keith, the famous captain of Frederick the Great. Of these adventurous Scots I propose briefly to tell the story.

Let us begin with the elder, as of right. George Keith was born in 1687 or 1692—authorities differ. He took up the profession of arms in his boyhood, was still in his teens when serving under Marlborough, and about twenty, perhaps, when Queen Anne made him a Captain of her Guards. He was a fervent partisan of the Stuarts; and at Anne’s death offered to march his troop down to Charing Cross, and proclaim James Edward King of England; but the Jacobite leaders lost their nerve— the opportunity passed—and the throne passed to the House of Hanover. On the accession of George I., Keith necessarily resigned his position, and retiring to Dunnottar, awaited there, with his brother, the course of events. Their political principles, as well as their close kinship to the Earl of Mar, led them to join the Earl among the foremost when he raised the standard of revolt in 1715. The Earl Marischal was present at the tinchely or great hunting-match at Braemar, on August 26, at which Mar made known his plans, and obtained the promised support of the chiefs of the Highlands. And it was he who proclaimed James VIII. at Edinburgh, “by the grace of God> of Scotland, England, France, and Ireland, King, and Defender of the Faith” After the battle of Sheriffmuir, Keith attended the soi-disant sovereign in his various movements until the Jacobite forces, weakened by internal dissensions, broke up at Perth on January 30, 1716, and began their retreat into the Highlands. The Prince escaped at Montrose on board of a French vessel, which landed him near Dunkirk. The young Earl Marischal and his brother, with some other of the Jacobite officers, then proceeded northward to Aberdeen, where they held a council of war, summoning “all the general officers and chiefs of the Highlands, together with a great many of the nobility and principal gentry” Then it was debated “whether we should continue,” says James Keith, in his Autobiography, “the former resolution of marching to Inverness, assembling all the troops we could there, and fighting the enemy; or if we should march directly to the mountains, and there disperse, and every man to do the best he could for himself.” The decision arrived at was to march on to Gordon Castle and take the advice of the Marquis of Huntly. But it was found that the Marquis would give no advice, and that he intended to offer his submission to the Hanoverian Government. Therefore they advanced to Ruthven in Badenoch as a convenient centre, and hastened to disband their regiments.

“From thence,” continues James Keith, “every one took the road [that] pleased him best. The Low Country gentlemen, who could find no safety in their own country, resolved to keep together till they should get to the west sea, and so take the first opportunity of getting out of the kingdom. The Highland gentlemen, trusting to the inaccessibleness of their hills, resolved to stay in the country, and then endeavour to make their peace with the Government. But before they separated it was resolved to write a letter to the Duke of Argyll, acknowledging their fault and desiring pardon, which was drawn up in so mean terms that few would sign it, and it received the answer it desired, or rather had an answer given it.

“We, who had taken the party to get out of the kingdom, continued our march with Sir Donald McDonald’s and Clanronald’s regiments, who were going home to the West Islands, where we arrived in the middle of March, after much fatigue and the loss of near a company of foot, who were overset in passing a river by overloading the boat, and here we remained near a month without any appearance of escaping, no ship being then on that coast; and the ships we had sent for to several parts in Scotland not daring to come to us for fear of the enemy’s men-of-war; but what troubled us most was the repeated advices we had that the enemy was preparing to attack us; and that two battalions of foot and three frigates were already in the Isle of Skye, not above two leagues from us. At last, about the middle of April, a ship sent by the King [James VIII.] arrived for us from France, in which we embarked to the number of about one hundred officers, April 21, O.S., and, after a very pleasant passage, arrived May 12, N.S.”—I do not understand why the writer so suddenly changes his calendars—“ at St. Paul de Leon in Brittany.”

Such is James Keith’s too brief account of the circumstances which attended his escape from Scotland. It is to be regretted that he does not narrate his adventures in fuller detail, as he must have met with many romantic incidents, and been a witness of not a few striking scenes in the course of his journey to the Western Isles, his detention there, and his voyage to France. But both the Keiths were men of action rather than of words, and loved to do the deeds for other men to write about.

I must now follow the elder Keith, the Earl Marshal or Marischal, who, after wandering for some months among the mountains of Ross-shire and Inverness-shire—with a price set on his head by the British Government—contrived to pass into Spain—a country for which he had a great liking, often remarking that he had many friends there, especially the Sun. Cardinal Alberoni was at that time chief minister; and when the Earl made known to him his desire to draw his sword in the Spanish service, he offered him immediately the high rank of Lieutenant-General. With exceptional but characteristic modesty, the Earl declined it as being above his age and services, and accepted an inferior commission. Spain was then at peace; and our indefatigable Scot wandered on to Avignon, where he was received with open arms by his old friend and commander, the Duke of Ormond. At Rome he was admitted to an audience of the Pope, and afterwards of the Pretender, who bestowed upon him the Order of the Garter; but Keith, knowing it to be a sham, would never wear it, observing, with his usual calm common sense—“One must set aside, under the penalty of ridicule, these empty honours, when he who confers them is in no condition to make them respected.” How much wiser and more dignified was his conduct than that of the hangers-on of the Pretender’s mimic court, who decked themselves out with stars and ribbons that carried neither significance nor distinction!

It has been surmised that while he remained in Rome he was engaged in secret negotiations in the Jacobite interest. I take leave to doubt it. The Earl Marischal seems to me to have been much too shrewd and practical ever to have involved himself in a political game in which his opponents held all the trumps.

In 1733, when war broke out between Spain and the Empire, he wrote to the Spanish sovereign, offering the aid of his sword ; but the offer was rejected on the ground that he was a Protestant, though in the previous year his creed had not prevented him from being employed in a campaign against the Moors in Africa. I suppose the Spanish Government made this nice distinction, that the services of a heretic might lawfully be made available in fighting against infidels, but that the case was altered when the enemy was a good Catholic. Learning that his brother James had been wounded at the siege of Okzakow, he hastened to his assistance, and fortunately arrived in time to prevent him from losing a limb which some ignorant surgeons were proposing to amputate. After accompanying the invalid to the waters of Bareges, he returned to Spain. In 1744, when France was engaged in hostilities against Great Britain, and sought to create a diversion in her favour by kindling the fires of revolt in Scotland, she supplied the Young Pretender, Prince Charles Edward, with the means of disembarking a force on the Scottish coast. The Earl Marischal disbelieved in the success of the expedition, and advised the Prince not to undertake it. His counsel was disregarded; and the result was the ruin of the hopes of the Stuarts on the memorable field of Culloden.

Shortly afterwards, the Earl, on receiving some slight from the Spanish Ministry, withdrew to France, where he occupied his leisure with study, and the society and conversation of men of letters.

His younger brother, the Field-Marshal, having entered the Prussian service, pressed him to come and live with him at Berlin. He assented; and his abilities as well as his scrupulous integrity being recognized by Frederick the Great, he was appointed Prussian Ambassador to the Court of the Tuileries. In this capacity the Earl spent several years in Paris, which he liked as warmly as he disliked his diplomatic position. “Alas!” he would say, “one requires for this vocation a finesse—a subtlety—which I have not, and do not wish to have!” His probity was never doubted; and from the impression it produced probably won more diplomatic victories than the most ingenious state-craft could have achieved.

He was dispatched, later on, as Ambassador to the Court of Madrid; whence he secretly sent intelligence to the great Earl of Chatham, of whose genius he was an admirer, of the nefarious Family Compact between the two branches of the House of Bourbon, which was intended to secure for it the supremacy of Anjou. The British Government, however, treated the information with contemptuous neglect, in order to mortify the illustrious statesman who towered so high above their mediocrity; and thus, by their petty but ruinous jealousy, plunged Europe into a protracted, sanguinary, and useless war.

The Earl Marischal’s attainder having been reversed, he found himself at liberty to return to Scotland. It is recorded, as a striking proof of the esteem in which he was held by his countrymen, that when he attended in person the public sale of his estates with the view of buying them in, no one would bid against him. He did not long reside, however, amid the patrimonial groves. The coldness of the Scotch climate was too much for his delicate constitution ; and the fastidious habits of life he had acquired did not agree with the rougher ways of the Highland lairds. He made haste to return to the milder temperature and more cultivated society of Berlin; but he did not long profit by either. Towards the close of April 1778 he was seized with a fever, which in the course of a few weeks proved fatal, carrying him off on May 25. He was then in his eighty-eighth or ninety-first year, according as we believe him to have been born in 1687 or 1692.

Throughout his illness he maintained a remarkable composure. On one occasion he said to his physician—“I do not ask you, sir, to make me live, for you do not pretend apparently to take fifty off my sum of years; I simply beg you, if it be possible, to shorten my pains. After all, I have never been ill before. I must needs have my share of the miseries of humanity, and I submit to this decree of Nature.” Two days before his death, he sent for Mr. Elliott, our Minister at the Prussian Court, and addressed him with his customary liveliness—“I have sent for you because there is something pleasant in a Minister of King George-receiving the last sighs of an old Jacobite. Besides, you may have, perhaps, some commissions to give me for my Lord Chatham [who had died about a fortnight previously]; and as I count upon seeing him to-morrow or the day after, I shall with pleasure take charge of your dispatches.”

The Earl Marischal was a good conversationalist, and told a story with infinite grace and point. He was also an adept in correspondence; concise, terse, elegant. This is the introduction to a friend at Neufchatel which he gave to Boswell—Johnson’s Boswell—

“A Monsieur, Monsieur le Colonel, Chaillot.

“Monsieur,—II vous plaira payer a M. Boswell une bonne Truite du Lac, avec une bouteille de votre meilleur vin.

“Pour votre Serviteur,

“Marischal.”

[Please pay to Mr. Boswell one fine lake trout, with a bottle of your best wine, for your servant. Marischal.]

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this trifle is, that it has survived the chances and changes of more than a century.


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