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Significant Scots
George Keith


KEITH, GEORGE, fifth earl Marischal, founder of the Marischal college of Aberdeen. The period of this nobleman’s birth is unknown; his father was William lord Keith, (eldest son of the fourth earl Marischal,) a person known in history as having been taken prisoner into England in 1558, and released for a ransom of 2000. This individual married Elizabeth Hay, daughter to the earl of Errol, by whom, at his death in 1580, he left, besides the subject of our memoir, three sons and four daughters. [Douglas’ Peerage, 193.] George succeeded his grandfather in the year 1581, and we find him towards the end of the year following, doing his duty in parliament. [Act. Parl. Iii. 326.] We are led to understand, that, previously to his succeeding to the title, he had spent some time among the seats of learning on the continent. As with all men who have been remarkable in advanced life, it was recollected of him after his death, that in youth he showed an extreme desire for knowledge, and a facility in its acquisition. We are informed that he studied at the King’s college of Aberdeen, [Middleton’s account of the King’s college of Aberdeen and of the great men there, MS. Bib. Ad. M. 6, 15.]and that at the age of eighteen he was an adept in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, and in the studies of antiquities, history, and literature when, discontented with the scope allowed in his own country, he resolved to study in France.On this journey, it is said that he was courteously received by the Landgrave of Hesse, (the chief among the descendants of that celebrated tribe of "Catti," from which the fabulous historians have traced the family of Keith,) along with the other noble youths of the age. While he was accumulating knowledge, he did not forget the opportunities afforded him in France, of perfecting himself in the knowledge of arms, and the feats of athletic jugglery then in vogue. After some time, Keith left France, preferring a residence in Geneva, with the illustrious Theodore Beza, by whom he was instructed in divinity, history, and the art of speaking. During his residence there, an accident of a melancholy nature happened. His younger brother, William, who had accompanied him on his journey, and had apparently, with high promise of future eminence, shared in his studies, was killed in a tumult, during an excursion into the country. His eminent master, along with Gaulter and. Andrew Melville, have celebrated the memory and talents of this young man. Beza, in the dedication of his "Icones virorum doctrina et pietate illustrium," to king James, mentions, with much satisfaction, the circumstance of having been intrusted with the education of pupils so illustrious. After the death of his brother, Keith left Geneva, and visited the courts of Europe, where his rank and great wealth admitted his making a considerable figure. It is said that, even in this employment, presumed to be full of gayety, he was a grave and accurate student: that he indulged in the splendour of courts more for the purpose of acquiring historical knowledge, than of pursuing pleasure, and that he travelled less for the purpose of recreation and variety, than for the acquisition of correct knowledge of the various countries of the world, having seldom seen a country of which he did not show his acquaintance, by embodying his knowledge in a map. [Oration Funebris ut sup.] He returned to his native country, after an absence of seven years. The Scottish peer who in the sixteenth century founded a university, and encouraged learning, must have been a man whose penetration and grasp of mind were very different from those of his colleagues in rank, yet he appears not to have been totally exempt from the barbarous habits and feelings of the day.

On the 8th of June, 1585, we find him obtaining a remission under the great seal, for "art and part" of the slaughter of his relative William Keith, apparent of Luduquhairn; [Douglas’ Peerage, i. 103.] and in 1595, he is charged to appear before the king and council, as a person entertaining a deadly feud with the laird of Meldrum. [Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, i. 353.]Soon after his accession to the earldom, the celebrated raid of Ruthven took place, a political movement, as to which it is difficult to discover his view, but with which his connexion seems to have somewhat displeased the king. He was, apparently, not present at the "raid," nor does he appear to have approached so hot a political atmosphere, until the king’s escape from Falkland to St Andrews, whither he repaired, apparently as a neutral person; but he is represented as having retired to his own home in disgust, on the king changing the lenient measure he had at first proposed towards the rebels. [Melville’s Memoirs, 270-74.]The earl was a member of that parliament which, on the 19th of October, 1582, approved the acts of the conspirators, holding their proceedings as legal, and protecting their persons from punishment, by an act which was afterwards expunged from the statute book. [Act. Parl. iii. 326.] It is not without surprise, that, after such a measure, we find him acting as chancellor of the assize of peers, which, with considerable partiality in its proceedings, found the earl of Gowrie guilty of treason, on account of his share in the raid of Ruthven. [Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, i. 116.] It can scarcely be doubted, that in these proceedings he was guilty of inconsistency: it is not likely that any one attended a parliament held under the auspices of the conspirators, for the purpose of voting against them, and it was not customary for the crown to choose assizors who would acquit, while his having acted as chancellor leaves no doubt that he voted for a verdict of guilty! Charity can only palliate this tergiversation, on the circumstance, that Gowrie had, in the interval between these events, been guilty of additional acts of disobedience.

After the singular proceedings on the part of James towards the court of Denmark, in attempting a negotiation of marriage with the eldest daughter of Frederick the II., which terminated in that monarch (not presuming the king of Scotland to be serious in his proposals) marrying his daughter to the duke of Brunswick; the lover, disappointed of one daughter, was resolved to try more consistent plans for obtaining the other, and James proposed to send lord Altry, uncle to the earl Marischal, to Denmark, to make serious proposals to Frederick’s second daughter, Anne. The disposition of the council of Scotland was such as prompted Altry, an old and infirm statesman, averse to engaging in the excitement of politics, to decline the high office, and his nephew, the earl Marischal, showed a desire to officiate in his stead. "Now the earl Marischal," says Sir James Melville in his cautious manner, "was desirous to supply the place of his uncle, my lord of Altry: and his majesty was content that he should be sent thither. Whereupon I took occasion to represent to his majesty, that the said earl was very well qualified for that employment, and that he would go the better contented, if he might have in commission with him some of his own friends and acquaintance. His majesty answered, that it was his part to choose his own ambassadors; that the earl Manischal should have the first place as a nobleman, but," continues Sir James with his usual complacency, "that he would repose the chief handling with the regent and council of Denmark upon me." [Melville’s Memoirs, 357.] It is probable that the great wealth of the earl, who was then the richest nobleman in Scotland, was a cogent reason for appointing him to superintend an expensive expedition. It was the policy of queen Elizabeth to object to the proposed alliance, and the privy council of Scotland showed a disposition to accede to her wishes. In the mean time, the tradesmen of Edinburgh, instigated, it is said, by the secret interference of James, took the matter into their hands, threatening the privy council, and denouncing vengeance against Thirlestane, the chancellor, whom they looked upon as the chief agent of Elizabeth. James had made his resolution, and the earl was finally despatched to Denmark, along with the constable of Dundee, and lord Andrew Keith, whom he had requested permission to take as an associate. Owing to the vacillating policy of James, "his power to conclude was so limited, and his commission so slender, that he was compelled to send back again my lord Dingwall, either for a license to come home, or for a sufficient power to conclude." [Ibid. 358.]Dingwall found the king at Aberdeen, who, as the chancellor and most part of the council were absent, was now in a situation to give more ample powers. The storm which interrupted the voyage of the princess is well known as an amusing portion of Scottish history; in the mean time, the chancellor, who was the deadly enemy of the earl Marischal, had, from his opposition to the measure, sunk in the favour of James, and did not recover his former estimation, without suffering the expense of procuring the handsome fast-sailing vessel, in which the monarch made that voyage to Denmark which has been considered so unaccountably inconsistent with his general character. We shall give, in the words of Sir James Melville, an account of the very characteristic squabbles which took place between the two rival peers at the court of Copenhagen. "The company who were with his majesty put him to great trouble to agree their continual janglings, strife, pride, and partialities. The earl Marischal, by reason that he was an ancient earl, and had been first employed in this honourable commission, thought to have the first place next unto his majesty so long as he was there. The chancellor, by reason of his office, would needs have the pre-eminence. There were also contentions between him and the justice-clerk. The constable of Dundee and my lord Dingwall could not agree about place. George Hume did quietly shoot out William Keith from his office of master of the wardrobe. At length they were all divided into two factions; the one for the earl Marischal; the other for the chancellor who was the stronger, because the king took his part; so that the chancellor triumphed." [Ibid. 363.]The munificence and greati wealth of the earl, prompted him to bear, in the first instance, the expense of the mission; he could not have done a service more acceptable to his sovereign, and it appears to have finally reinstated him in favour. In 1592, the earl received a parliamentary ratification of his acts as concerned the mission, and was at the same time empowered to recover, from a forfeited estate, the expense he had incurred, stated as amounting to 3156 merks. [Act. Parl. iii. 541.]Up to the commencement of the eighteenth century, the debt was, however, unrecovered, [A short relation of the origin of the Keiths in Scotland, with a list of the predecessors of the present earl Marischal of that kingdome, being ane abstract of the history of that noble family, anno Domini, 1690. Aberdeen, x die Aprills, An. Dom. 1700.] and it is not probable that after that period it was ever paid.

In 1583, the earl was one of the commissioners appointed to superintend the "new erection" or alteration in management of the King’s college of Aberdeen; and it is probable that the duties in which he was then engaged, prompted him ten years afterwards, to perform that act of enlightened munificence, which has perpetuated his name as the founder of Marischal college. The charter of the university was granted by the earl on the 2nd April, 1593; it was approved of by the General Assembly of Dundee on the 24th of the same month, after having been submitted to the examination of a committee, and was ratified by Parliament on the 21st of July following. The college was endowed to maintain principal, three regent professors, and six bursars. By the foundation, the languages and sciences appointed to be taught, were, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac, natural history, geometry, geography, chronology, and astronomy. In opposition to the principle previously pursued, by which each professor conducted a class of students through all the branches of knowledge taught in any university, the subjects taught in Marischal college were divided among separate masters, each of whom adhered to his peculiar branch—an excellent regulation afterwards departed from, but resumed in the middle of the eighteenth century. [For a farther account of this matter, vide the memoir of Alexander Gerard in this collection.] Without descending to the particular benefits of this institution, the circumstance that many eminent names are connected with Marischal college, and that its small endowments have cultivated intellects which might have long lain unproductive, are sufficient of themselves to speak to the honour of its noble founder. There are 114 bursaries connected with the college, of the annual value 1150. About 70 of these are open to competition. Two of them are of the annual value of 30 each, and are adjudged for excellence in mathematics to students who have studied that science for two sessions, and are held for two years. The bursaries range in value from 3 to 15 annually—the smaller paying the full fee of the possessor for the four years during which he remains at the university, and the larger frequently forming for a time the chief support of one or two individuals who would otherwise remain uneducated. They are carefully protected, as the rewards of talent and labour, and held by those who gain them as their right, independently of the authority of the officials of the university. The ancient buildings of the university having fallen into decay, the foundation of a splendid new building, in the Gothic style, from designs by Mr Archibald Simpson, architect, was laid, with masonic honours, by the Duke of Richmond, chancellor of the university, on the 18th of October, 1837. The builder’s contract amounted to 21,420, of which sum 15,000, with interest thereon from 1826, was granted by government, the remainder being raised by private subscription. The new buildings were completed in 1842. Several new chairs have been instituted. The average number of students for the last twenty years has been—in arts, 190; in divinity, 120; in law, 35; in medicine, 84.

Within the same year, when Marischal college was founded, we find its patron engaged in other works of public utility. He granted a charter to Peterhead. And by the act 1593, c. 48, we find him empowered to exact a toll of twenty pence for every last of goods entering or leaving a harbour he had attached to that town. [Act. Parl. iv. 35.]At the same period, the secret transactions with the court of Spain, of which some of the northern peers were suspected, and the discovery of those mysterious documents known by the name of "the Spanish blanks," created alarm in the nation, and consternation at court; and by the same act of 1593, the earl Marischal, as a trusty statesman, was empowered to act the part of king’s commissioner in the shires of Kincardine, Aberdeen, and Banff, and to inquire into the conduct of the earls of Errol, Huntly, Angus, and others. [Act. Parl. iv. 44. Pitcairn’s Crim. Trials, i. 283.]A trust of still higher order was reposed in the earl, in June 6th, 1609, when, by commission under the great seal, he was appointed lord high commissioner to the parliament of Scotland.

In the year 1622, in the old age of a well-spent life, the earl felt his last illness come upon him, and he retired to his fortress of Dunnotter, where he is said to have borne his sickness with patience and religious resignation. Dr Dun, one of the professors of his college, attended him as physician, and the disease for a time yielded to medicine, but finally relapsed. [Oratio Funebris ut sup.]The latter days of this great and useful man do not appear to have been permitted to pass in domestic peace, and his death-bed was disturbed by the desertion and crime of an unfeeling wife. The circumstance to which we refer is one of a very singular nature; and as it is impossible at this period to trace all the motives from which it originated, we shall state it, almost verbatim, as it occurs in the criminal record, avoiding antiquated orthography. "On the 3rd of March, 1624, Dame Margaret Ogilvie, countess dowager of Marischal, along with her then husband, Sir Alexander Strauchane of Thornetoun, knight, and. Robert Strauchan, doctor in physic, were accused before the high court of justiciary, of the ignoble crimes of masterful theft and stouthrief, in having stolen from the place of Benholm, belonging, to the earl, certain jewels, silver plate, household stuff, gold, silver, and title deeds, in October, 1622, a little before the said earl’s decease." On the same day, James Keith of Benbolme was cited to answer for a similar crime, committed at the same time, and in the same place. The two cases are evidently connected together, and the minute in the latter provides us with the following inventory of articles stolen, which is an evidence of the magnificence and wealth of the earl, and an extraordinary feature in the transaction, Of Portugal ducats, and other species of foreign gold, to the avail of 26,000 pounds or thereby; thirty-six dozen gold buttons; a rich jewel set with diamonds, which the deceased earl received as a gift when he was ambassador in Denmark, worth 6,000 merks; the queen of Denmark’s picture in gold, set about with rich diamonds, estimated at 5,000 merks; a jasper stone for stemming of blood, estimated at 500 French crowns; a chain of "equall perle," wherein were 400 pearls great and small; two chains of gold, of twenty-four ounce weight; another jewel of diamonds set in gold, worth 3,000 merks; a great pair of bracelets, all set with diamonds, price thereof 500 crowns; the other pair of gold bracelets at 600 pounds the pair; a turquois ring worth ten French crowns; a diamond set in a ring, worth twenty-eight French crowns, with a number of other small rings set with diamonds and other rich stones in gold, worth 300 French crowns; also 16,000 merks of silver and gold ready coined, which was within a green coffer; together with the whole tapestry, silver-work, bedding, goods, gear, and plenishing within the said place. The case, as regarded the countess, and Sir Alexander and Dr Strauchane, was postponed by a royal warrant to the 2nd of July, from thence to the 27th of July, and from thence to the 8th of December, of which date no entry appearing, the lord advocate seems to have been prevailed with to give up the pursuit; Keith of Benholme, who seems to have occupied, or been steward of, the house so strangely dilapidated, was outlawed for not appearing. [Pitcairn’s Crim. Trials, iii. 562.]

The earl died at five o’clock on the morning of the fifth day of April, 1623, and a monument with a poetical inscription was erected to his memory. The funeral oration so frequently referred to, was read at Marischal college on the 30th June, 1623, by Ogston, the professor of moral philosophy; it compares his death to an earthquake, and sundry other prodigies of nature—heaps too great a load of virtues on his shoulders for mankind to bear with comfort, and in detailing the perfections of the dead Mecaenas, the author does not neglect those of the living Solomon. A book of "Tears" was also published to his memory, chiefly composed by Massy and Alexander Wedderburn. The lady already so equivocally mentioned was his second wife, a daughter of James, sixth lord Ogilvie; he had previously married Margaret, daughter of Alexander, fifth lord Hume, [Douglas’ Peerage.] and by both he had several children.


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