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Significant Scots
Thomas Dalyell


Thomas DalyellDALYELL, THOMAS, an eminent cavalier officer, was the son of Thomas Dalyell, of Binns, in west Lothian, whom he succeeded in that property. The lairds of Binns are understood to have been descended from the family afterwards ennobled under the title of earl of Carnwath. The mother of the subject of this memoir, was the honourable Janet Bruce, daughter of the first lord Bruce of Kinloss, a distinguished minister of James VI., and who, with the earl of Marr, was chiefly instrumental in securing the succession of that monarch to the English crown. Thomas Dalyell, who is said to have been born about the year 1599, entered the service of Charles I., and had at one time the command of the town and garrison of Carrickfergus, where he was taken prisoner by the rebels. He was so much attached to his master, that, to testify his grief for his death, he never afterwards shaved his beard. In the army which Charles II. led from Scotland, in 1651, he had the rank of major-general, in which capacity he fought at the battle of Worcester. Being there taken prisoner, he was committed to the Tower, had his estates forfeited, and was himself exempted from the general act of indemnity. However, he made his escape, and seems to have gone abroad, whence he returned, and landed with some royalists in the north of Scotland, in March, 1654. Supported by a small party, he took possession of the castle of Skelko, and assisted in the exertions then made for the restoration of Charles, who soon afterwards transmitted the following testimony of his approbation:—

"TOM DALYELL,

"Though I need say nothing to you by this honest bearer, captain Mewes, who can well tell you all I would have said, yett I am willing to give it you under my own hand, that I am very much pleased to hear how constant you are in your affection to me, and in your endeavours to advance my service. We have all a harde work to do: yett I doubt not God will carry us through it: and you can never doubt (fear) that I will forgett the good part you have acted; which, trust me, shall be rewarded, whenever it shall be in the power of your affectionat frind,

"Colen, 30th Dec. 1654. CHARLES R."

All hope of an immediate restoration being soon after abandoned, Dalyell obtained recommendations from his majesty for eminent courage and fidelity, and proceeded to Russia, then an almost barbarous country, where he offered his services to the reigning czar, Alexis Michaelowitch. He seems to have entered the Muscovite service as a lieutenant-general, but soon was elevated to the rank of general. In these high commands, he fought bravely against the Turks and Tartars. After active employment for several years, general Dalyell requested permission to return to Scotland, whereupon the czar ordered a strong testimony of his services to pass under the great seal of Russia. Part of this document was conceived in the following terms:

"That he formerly came hither to serve our great czarian majesty: whilst he was with us, he stood against our enemies, and fought valiantly. The military men that were under his command he regulated and disciplined, and himself led them to battle; and he did and performed every thing faithfully, as a noble commander. And for his trusty services we were pleased to order the said lieutenant-general to be a general. And now having petitioned us to give him leave to return to his own country, we, the great sovereign and czarian majesty, were pleased to order, that the said noble general, who is worthy of all honour, Thomas, the son of Thomas Dalyell, should have leave to go into his own country. And by this patent of our czarian majesty, we do testify of him, that he is a man of virtue and honour, and of great experience in military affairs. And in case he should be willing again to serve our czarian majesty, he is to let us know of it beforehand, and he shall come into the dominions of our czarian majesty with our safe passports, &c. Given at our court, in the metropolitan city of Muscow, in the year from the creation of the world, 7173, January 6."

On his return to Scotland, Charles II. manifested a better sense of his promises towards him than was customary with that monarch. "Tom Dalyell" was appointed commander-in-chief of the forces, and a privy councillor, in 1666; subsequently, he represented the county of Linlithgow in parliament, his estates being now restored. In the year just mentioned, general Dalyell suppressed the ill-starred insurrection of the covenanters. By a bold march across the Pentland hills, he came upon the insurgents by surprise, and, on the evening of the 28th of November, gained a complete victory over them. In this year, also, he raised a regiment of foot; but its place in the military lists is not now known. It is known, however, with historic certainty, that some years afterwards, he raised the distinguished horse regiment called the Scots Greys, which was at first composed exclusively of the sons of the cavalier gentry, and was intended to keep down the sturdy children of the covenant. The letters of service for raising the Greys are dated the 25th of November, 1681. The commission of general Dalyell was intermitted for a fortnight in June, 1679, when the duke of Monmouth was entrusted with his office, in order to put down the Bothwell Bridge insurrection. It was generally believed, that, if he had commanded at Bothwell instead of Monmouth, there would have been sharper execution upon the insurgents. Being offended at the promotion of Monmouth, the old man resigned all his employments, but was quickly restored to them, and an ample pension besides. Some years before this period, he had received a gift of the forfeited estate of Muir of Caldwell, who was concerned in the insurrection suppressed by him in 1666; but his family complain that they were deprived of this by the reversal of Muir’s attainder after the Revolution, and that they never received any other compensation for an immense sum expended by their ancestor in the public service.

An individual who rode in Dalyell’s army, has left the following graphic account of him:— 

"He was bred up very hardy from his youth, both in diet and clothing. He never wore boots, nor above one coat, which was close to his body, with close sleeves, like those we call jocky coats. He never wore a peruke, nor did he shave his beard since the murder of king Charles the first. In my time his head was bald, which he covered only with a beaver hat, the brim of which was not above three inches broad. His beard was white and bushy, and yet reached down almost to his girdle. [The comb with which he used to dress this ornament of his person is still preserved at Binns. It gives a vast idea of the extent of the beard, and of the majestic character of Dalyell in general – being no less than twelve inches broad, while the teeth are at least six inches deep.] He usually went to London once or twice in a year, and then only to kiss the king’s hand, who had a great esteem for his worth and valour. His unusual dress and figure when he was in London, never failed to draw after him a great crowd of boys and other young people, who constantly attended at his lodgings, and followed him with huzzas as he went to court or returned from it. As he was a man of humour, he would always thank them for their civilities, when he left them at the door to go into the king; and would let them know exactly at what hour he intended to come out again and return to his lodgings. When the king walked in the park, attended by some of his courtiers, and Dalyell in his company, the same crowds would always be after him, showing their admiration at his beard and dress, so that the king could hardly pass on for the crowd; upon which his majesty bid the devil take Dalyell, for bringing such a rabble of boys together, to have their guts squeezed out, whilst they gaped at his long beard and antic habit; requesting him at the same time (as Dalyell used to express it) to shave and dress like other christians, to keep the poor bairns out of danger. All this could never prevail upon him to part with his beard; but yet, in compliance to his majesty, he went once to court in the very height of fashion; but as soon as the king and those about him had laughed sufficiently at the strange figure he made, he reassumed his usual habit, to the great joy of the boys, who had not discovered him in his fashionable dress." Memoirs of Captain Creichton, by Swift.

On the accession of James VII, in 1685, Dalyell received a new and enlarged commission to be commander-in-chief; but the tendency of the court to popery offended his conscience so grievously, that it is not probable he could have long retained the situation. Death, however, stepped in, and "rescued him," to use Creichton’s language, "from the difficulties he was likely to be under, between the notions he had of duty to his prince on one side, and true zeal for his religion on the other." He died about Michaelmas, 1685. A contemporary historian informs us, that "after he had procured himself a lasting name in the wars, he fixed his old age at Binns, his paternal inheritance, adorned by his excellence with avenues, large parks, and fine gardens, and pleased himself with the culture of curious flowers and plants." His estate was inherited by a son of the same name, who was created a baronet of Nova Scotia, and was succeeded by a daughter Magdalene, who marrying James Menteith of Auldcathy, transmitted the property and title to her son, Sir James Menteith Dalyell, great-grandfather to the present representative. Through this alliance, the family now claims to represent the old line of the earls of Menteith.

General Dalyell, as might be expected, is represented by the presbyterian historians as "a man naturally rude and fierce, who had this heightened by his breeding and service in Muscovy, where he had seen little but the utmost tyranny and slavery." There are two ways, however, of contemplating the character of even so blood-stained a persecutor as Dalyell. He had, it must be remarked, served royalty upon principle in its worst days; had seen a monarch beheaded by a small party of his rebellious subjects, and a great part of the community, including himself, deprived of their property and obliged to fly for their lives to foreign lands; and all this was on account of one particular way of viewing politics and religion. When the usual authorities of the land regained their ascendancy, Dalyell must naturally have been disposed to justify and support very severe measures, in order to prevent the recurrence of such a period as the civil war and usurpation. Thus all his cruelties are resolved into an abstract6 principle, to the relief of his personal character, which otherwise, we do not doubt, might be very good. How often do we see, even in modern times, actions justified upon general views, which would be shuddered as if they stood upon their naked merits, and were to be performed upon the sole responsibility of the individual!


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