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Significant Scots
James Keith


KEITH, (the Honourable) JAMES, commonly called marshal Keith, the younger son of William, ninth earl Marischal, and lady Mary Drummond, daughter to the earl of Perth, was born in the year 1696. His aptness for learning seems to have been very considerable, since he acquired in after-life a reputation for letters scarcely inferior to his military renown; a circumstance which was possibly in no small degree owing to his having had the good fortune to receive the rudiments of his education from the celebrated bishop Keith, who was allied to his family by consanguinity, and who officiated as tutor to himself and his elder brother, the tenth earl Marischal.

Mr Keith was originally designed for the law, and with the view of making it his profession, he was sent to Edinburgh to complete his studies. It was soon discovered, however, that he entertained a much stronger predilection for the camp than the bar;—he seems indeed to have been very early attached to the military profession. His language, when the subject happened at any time to be alluded to, was always full of martial enthusiasm, even while yet a mere stripling. "I have begun to study the law," he said, "in compliance with the desires of the countess of Marischal, (his mother,) but commend me, gentlemen, to stand before the mouth of a cannon for a few minutes; this either makes a man in an instant, or he dies gloriously in the field of battle:" Such was the spirit in which the young soldier entered on his career of fame.

The earl Marischal, elder brother of the subject of this memoir, was one of those Tory noblemen who signed the proclamation of George I. The party being disappointed in their hopes of office under the new dynasty, he returned in a state of high irritation to Scotland, and at York met his brother James, who was on his way to London for the purpose of asking a commission in the army. The two young men returned home together, burning with resentment, and on the commencement of the insurrection of 1715, they were incited at once by their own feelings, and by the advice of their mother, who was a catholic, to declare for the Pretender. The meeting held by the earl of Mar, (who was their cousin,) under the semblance of a hunting match, was attended by the two brothers, and they continued, throughout the remainder of the campaign, to act a bold and conspicuous part under that unfortunate leader. The immediate subject of this memoir is said to have manifested a degree of resolution and conduct which attracted much attention, and inspired hopes of his future fortune. On the final dispersion of the rebel army at Ruthven in Badenoch, they had no resource but to make the best of their way to a foreign land, where they might be safe from the consequences of their enterprise. They proceeded, in company with many other Lowland gentlemen, to the Western Isles, where they designed to wait till a vessel could be procured to convey them to France. While in the isles, where they were detained nearly a month, the fugitives were frequently alarmed by reports of their retreat having been discovered, and that an armament had been despatched in quest of them; and on one occasion they were informed that three frigates, with two battalions of foot on board, were within ten miles of them. They, however, were not molested. On the 20th of April, a ship which had been despatched from France for the purpose, arrived at the island on which they were concealed. Losing no time, they, along with about a hundred companions in misfortune, embarked on board of this vessel, and arrived in safety at St Paul de Leon in Brittany, on the 12th of May, 1716. On their arrival at this port, the greater part of them proceeded immediately to wait upon the Pretender, who was then at Avignon; the others, amongst whom was Keith, went straight to Paris, where the latter had at that time several relations residing. On reaching Paris, Keith waited upon the queen-mother, by whom he was most graciously received, and who, amongst other flattering things, said, that she had heard of his good services in her son’s cause, and that neither of them should ever forget it. Keith now proposed to the queen-mother to visit the king, by which he meant the Pretender, and asked her permission to do so. She, however, dissuaded him from taking this step, saying that he was yet but young, and had better remain in Paris and recommence his studies, and concluded by proposing to bear the charge of his future education. Notwithstanding this flattering reception, a whole month elapsed before Keith heard any thing further from the queen-mother, and, in the mean time, he was reduced to great straits for want of money, living principally by selling horse furniture, which military officers were at this period in the habit of carrying about with them, and which, being sometimes richly ornamented with silver, was a very valuable article. There were many friends of himself and his family in Paris, who would readily have afforded him any pecuniary assistance he might have required, but, as he himself says, in a MS. memoir of his life, written with his own hand, to which we have access, "I was then either so bashful or so vain, that I would not own the want I was in." His wants, however, of this kind were soon amply provided for, and from various unlooked for sources. The queen-mother at length sent him 1000 livres, and much about the same time a Parisian banker waited upon him, and informed him that he had instructions from Scotland to supply him with money, and an order from king James to pay him 200 crowns a-year, with an apology for the smallness of the sum, as it was all that his (the king’s) circumstances enabled him to do. Relieved now from his pecuniary difficulties, be betook himself to study, to which he devoted the whole of the remaining part of the year 1716, and a great part of the following year. Previous to this, and while pursuing his studies, he received a commission as colonel of horse in the service of the king of Sweden, who entertained a design of making a descent on Scotland in favour of king James. The project, however, was discovered long before it could be carried into execution, and thus both the intended invasion and Keith’s commission fell to the ground. Another opportunity, although equally fruitless in its results, presented itself to the young soldier, now in his twentieth year, of pushing his fortune with his sword. This was the appearance in Paris of Peter the first, emperor of Russia. Keith made every effort to obtain admission into the service of that potentate, but without effect, he himself supposes on account of his not having employed the proper means. In the following year, 1718, learning that there was an intention on the part of Spain, similar to that which had been entertained by the king of Sweden, viz, to attempt the restoration of king James by invading Scotland—Keith and his brother the earl Marischal set out for Madrid, with the view of offering their services in the proposed expedition. These were readily accepted, and the two brothers, after repeated interviews with cardinal Alberoni, then prime minister of Spain, were furnished with instructions regarding the intended descent, and with means to carry that part of it which was intrusted to them into execution. By previous appointment, Keith and his brother the earl Marischal were met at Havre de Grace, the point at which they had fixed to embark for Scotland, by several of the Scottish leaders in the rising of 1715, who were still lurking about France. All of them having been advised of the undertaking, were furnished with commissions from the king of Spain, to apply equally to the Spanish forces which were to be sent after them, and to those which they should raise in the country.

The co-operation in this enterprise which they were led to expect was the landing in England of the duke of Ormond with an army, which it was proposed should immediately take place. Two frigates, with Spanish troops on board, were also to follow them within a day or two, to land with them in Scotland, and enable them to commence their operations in that kingdom. On the 19th of March, the expatriated chiefs embarked on board a small vessel of about twenty-five tons, and after encountering some stormy weather and running great risk from some English ships of war which they fell in with, they reached the island of Lewis on the 4th of April. They were soon afterwards joined by the two frigates, and a debarkation on the main land was immediately determined upon. In the expectation of being joined by large bodies of Highlanders, they proposed to march forward to Inverness, from which they hoped to drive out the small force by which it was garrisoned.

The whole enterprise, however, hurried on to a disastrous conclusion. The duke of Ormond’s fleet was dispersed: the Highlanders refused to embark in the desperate undertaking; a very few only joining the invaders, and these showing little enthusiasm in the cause: and to complete their ruin, they were attacked and defeated by a body of troops which had been despatched to arrest their progress. They were, however, not so completely routed but that they were enabled to retire in partial order to the summit of some high grounds in the vicinity of the scene of action. Here a council of war was held during the night, in which it was resolved that the Spaniards should on the next day surrender themselves prisoners of war, that the Highlanders should disperse, and that the officers should each seek his safety in the best way he could.

Thus Keith found himself placed in exactly the same desperate circumstances in which he was after the rising of 1715,—an outlawed fugitive, without means and without a home. After lurking some months in the Highlands, during the greater part of which, to add to his misfortunes, he was in bad health, he found his way to Peterhead, where he embarked for Holland, whither his brother had gone before him. Being here joined by the latter, they both proceeded to the Hague, and sometime afterwards to Madrid. Here Keith’s pecuniary difficulties became as pressing and infinitely more desperate than they were in Paris on his arrival there in 1715. "I was now," he says, " as the French have it, au pie de la lettre sur le pave. I knew nobody and was known to none, and had not my good fortune brought rear-admiral Cammoek to Madrid, whom I had known formerly in Paris, I don’t know what would have become of me; he immediately offered me his house and his table, both which I was glad to accept of." Thus shifting, together with the aid of some arrears of pay which he received from the king of Spain, he remained the greater part of the year 1720, and, with the exception of some short absences, all the year 1721, at Madrid. He then removed to Paris, where he lived for the next three or four years, receiving the pay of a Spanish colonel, but without being attached to any regiment. At the end of this period Keith again returned to Spain, and was employed in active service up to the year 1728. Thinking himself, however, rather overlooked he in this year addressed a letter to the king, soliciting his patronage, and requesting that he might be appointed to the command of the first Irish regiment which should become vacant. The answer of his majesty to this application was, that so soon as he knew that he was a Roman catholic he should not only have what he asked, but that his future fortunes should be cared for. Finding all hopes of promotion in the Spanish service thus cut off on account of his religious belief, Keith solicited a recommendation from his Spanish majesty to the court of Russia, where he now determined to try his fortunes. The recommendation which he sought was at once granted, and forwarded to the emperor of Russia, who soon after intimated to him his admission into his service as a major-general. On Keith’s leaving Madrid for Moscow, the king of Spain presented him with a douceur of 1000 crowns, and soon after his arrival in Russia he was promoted to the command of a regiment of guards, an appointment of great trust, and which had hitherto been bestowed on none but especial favourites of the sovereign. He was further named one of three inspectors of army details, and awarded as his department the frontier of Asia, with the country on both sides of the Volga and Don, together with part of the frontier of Poland. About this time one of his early instructors, a Mr Morton, hearing of his good fortune, wrote to him a letter of congratulation on his prosperity. The general’s reply partook of his nature; it was kind and unaffected. "I am a true Scotsman indeed," he said amongst other obliging things, "wise behind the hand; for had I been more careful to imbibe the excellent instructions I received under your inspection, I had still made a better figure in the world." Hitherto the general, though he had proven himself at once a zealous and an able officer in the discharge of his military duties, had had no opportunity of exhibiting his talents for active warfare. Such an opportunity, however, at length offered. On the death of the king of Poland, that unhappy kingdom was entered by a Russian army to overawe, or rather control the election of a new king. On this occasion the general was despatched into Poland with six battalions of foot, 600 dragoons, and 4000 Cossacks. While on this service he was ordered by the commander-in-chief, prince Schahofskoi, to ravage the country. With a feeling of humanity and in a spirit of honour which reflects much credit on his character, both as a soldier and a man, he endeavoured to evade the painful, and as he felt it, dishonourable duty. Finding that no dictates of humanity would weigh with the commander-in-chief, he tried the effects of interested considerations; representing to him, that if the system of devastation was continued, not only would the inhabitants, but the Russian army also be reduced to a state of absolute starvation. This had the desired effect. The general was immediately ordered to desist from further spoliation. During the whole of this war the general conducted himself with a degree of judgment and gallantry, and in short, discovered throughout such a possession of the best and most valuable qualities of the soldier, as now ranked him indisputably amongst the first captains of the age. He was severely wounded in the knee in this service at Ocrakow. The injury was of so serious a nature that the Russian surgeons recommended that the wounded limb should be amputated, and the general at once gave his consent to the operation being performed. But his brother, who had gone to visit him on this occasion, would not listen to the proposal. "I hope," he said, "James has yet more to do with that leg, and I will not part with it so easily, at least not until I have the best advice in Europe." In the spirit of brotherly affection which these expressions bespeak, he immediately removed the general to Paris, to procure the advice of the surgical skill of that city, and the result was highly favourable. The French surgeons, doing what those of Russia had neglected, laid open the general’s knee, and extracted some pieces of cloth which had been driven into the wound by the shot, and had all along prevented that cure which was now soon effected.

The military fame of general Keith was now spread over all Europe, and had attracted in a particular manner the notice of the warlike Frederick of Prussia, who lost no time in inviting him into his service, offering him the rank of a field marshal and the governorship of Berlin, with ample means to support the dignity of these situations. These offers were too tempting to be refused. The general accepted them, and immediately proceeded to the Prussian court. His affable manners and military genius soon won him the personal esteem of his new master, who not only admitted but invited him to the most familiar intercourse, travelled with him throughout his own dominions and those of the neighbouring states, and acknowledged him as an adviser in matters of military business, and as his companion in his hours of relaxation. For some time after his arrival in Prussia the marshal enjoyed a respite from military service, Frederick happening then to be, we cannot say at peace, but not at actual war with any of the European powers. This leisure he devoted to literary pursuits, entering into and maintaining a correspondence with some of the most eminent politicians and philosophers of the day, all of whom bear testimony to the great talent and ability with which he discussed the various subjects on which he wrote, and not the smallest portion of their praise was bestowed upon the elegance and felicity of language which his correspondence exhibited.

Frederick’s, however, was not a service in which much repose of this kind could be expected. He, of whom it is said, that he looked upon peace only as a preparation for war, was not likely either to remain long idle himself, or to permit such a man as marshal Keith to be so.

The outrageous conduct of Frederick in repeated instances had long given great umbrage to many of the European powers, but none of them had dared to come to open hostilities with him. At length, however, they fell upon the plan of combining their efforts for the chastisement of the warlike monarch, whom none of them would venture to face singly.

Austria, Russia, Germany, and France, all took the field against the Prussian monarch. During the vicissitudes and operations which ensued in attacking at one time and resisting at another, the various efforts of his numerous enemies, Frederick intrusted the most important, next to those which he himself assumed, to marshal Keith, whose military talents and sound judgment he found during the arduous struggle which followed, had not been over-rated. When summoned by the prince of Saxe-Hildburg to surrender Leipsic, which Frederick had left him to defend with 8000 men, the gallant soldier, then upwards of 60 years of age, replied to the messenger, "Let your master know that I am by birth a Scotsman, by inclination as well as duty, a Prussian, and shall defend the town in such a manner that neither the country which gave me birth nor that which has adopted me shall be ashamed of me. The king my master has ordered me to defend it to the last extremity, and he shall be obeyed." Early on the following morning, the marshal summoned the magistrates of the town together, told them of the communication which he bad from the enemy, and advised them to wait upon the prince, and beg of him, for their own sakes and that of the inhabitants in general, to refrain from proceeding to extremities against the city; "for," said he, with a tact which showed the consummate soldier, "if he proceeds in this resolution, I will myself begin to set fire to the suburbs, and if that be not sufficient to oblige the enemy to desist from his enterprise, I will go further, and not spare even the city itself;" and with many expressions of reluctance to have recourse to such dreadful measures, to which he said necessity alone could compel him, he dismissed the terrified citizens, who instantly despatched a deputation to wait upon the prince. All, however, they could obtain from the latter was a modification of the terms of the original summons. Another was sent, in which the Prussians were offered the liberty of marching out of the town without molestation. This summons marshal Keith rejected with the same determination as the former, to the great provocation of the prince, who, in his resentment at the tone of defiance assumed by the Prussian commander, declared that if the latter carried his threat into execution regarding the burning of the town, he would lay Berlin or Potsdam in ashes. The extremities which were thus threatened on both sides were, however, prevented by the approach of the Prussian monarch, who arrived in the neighbourhood of Leipsic with a large force, and averted the destruction of the city by bringing on the celebrated battle of Rosbach, in which he was completely victorious. Soon after this, marshal Keith marched into Bohemia with an army, and laid that kingdom under contribution, having previously dislodged the Austrians from the mountains of Saxony, where they had been strongly posted. The brilliant career, however, of this soldier of fortune was now about to close for ever; the death which became him awaited him, and was close at hand.

Frederick had taken up a position in the village of Hochkirchen, which he was particularly desirous of retaining, and which the enemy were equally desirous of possessing. The consequence was, that this point was attacked during the night following its first occupation. On the first alarm of the enemy’s motions, marshal Keith mounted his horse, and hastily collecting what troops were in his immediate neighbourhood, marched towards the village. On arriving there he found it already in the hands of the enemy. Charging, however, at the head of his troops, he drove them from the position. Fresh bodies of the enemy came up, and the marshal was in turn forced to retire. Again he returned to the combat, leading on his men, and cheering them as he advanced; and again he cleared the village of the enemy. Determined on possession of the position, the latter once more returned with increased numbers, until latterly the whole flower of the Austrian army were concentrated on this sanguinary spot, defended by a handful of Prussians. At eight o’clock in the morning, and while the combat was yet at the hottest, although it had now lasted several hours, the marshal received a severe and dangerous wound. He refused, however, to quit the field, but continued to conduct the desperate encounter with unabated enthusiasm and gallantry. At nine o’clock, an hour after he had received his first wound, a second shot passed through his breast, and instantly stretched him lifeless on the ground. His body was stripped by the Austrians, who had now driven the Prussians from the field, and was thus left exposed until it was recognized by count Lasci, who had been one of his pupils in the art of war. That nobleman immediately gave orders for its interment; but this having been done with little reverence, it was shortly afterwards taken up by the curate of Hochkirchen, and again committed to the earth, with every mark of decency and respect. The remains of the marshal were, by the special orders of the king, finally removed to Berlin, and buried there with all the honours which a nation and a great monarch could pay to splendid talent and great moral worth.

If any thing were wanting to complete the illustrious character of this great man, it is to be found in the circumstance of his death having been nearly as much lamented by the Austrians, then the enemies of Prussia, as by the Prussians themselves. His humanity was ever on the alert to protect even those against whom he fought from any unnecessary violence, and the Austrians had, in a thousand instances, been indebted to this ennobling trait in a character admirably calculated in all its parts to gain the esteem and admiration of mankind. Marshal Keith died in the sixty-third year of his age. He was never married, but to whatever chance this was owing, it does not appear to have proceeded from any want of susceptibility, for, while in Paris in 1718, on being first urged by some of his friends to offer his services to the court of Spain, which he was then informed meditated some designs on Sicily, he says, "But I was then too much in love to think of quitting Paris, and, although my friends forced me to take some steps towards it, yet I managed it so slowly, that I set out only in the end of that year; and had not my mistress and I quarreled, and that other affairs came to concern me more than the conquest of Sicily did, it’s probable I had lost many years of my time to very little purpose--so much was I taken up with my passion." Of the final result of this attachment we are not informed; but it does not appear that he ever formed another.

Some years after his death, a monument was erected in the church-yard of Hochkirchen to the memory of the marshal, by his relative Sir Robert Murray Keith. It bore an inscription, composed by the celebrated Metastasio.

The earl Marischal, elder brother of marshal Keith, also deserves some notice in the present work, as an enlightened and distinguished man. Attainted for his share in the insurrection of 1715, his fate continued for some time identified with that of his younger brother; till, in 1750, he was appointed by Frederick II. of Prussia as ambassador extraordinary, to the court of France. He afterwards served the same sovereign as ambassador to the court of Spain, and in this capacity had an opportunity of reconciling himself to his native court. Having discovered the secret of the family compact, by which the different princes of the house of Bourbon had bound themselves to assist each other, he communicated that important intelligence through Mr Pitt, to the British government, to whom it was of the highest importance. The consequence was a pardon extended by the king to earl Marischal, and an act of parliament to enable him to inherit property in Great Britain.

After this happy event, he proceeded to London, and was introduced to the king (George II.) who received him very graciously. It afterwards was discovered that, by this movement, he escaped a very considerable danger, for within thirty-six hours of his departure from Madrid, notice was received by that court of the communication he had made. The reconciliation of the earl to the house of Brunswick appears to have given great offence to the relics of the Jacobite party, who, it is needless to mention, still retained all their pristine antipathy to that family. Among the papers of bishop Forbes of Leith, is an anecdote to the following effect: "It had been a constant practice in the parish of Langside in Aberdeenshire, to have bonfires, and even to ring the parish bell, on the 2nd of April, O.S., the birthday of earl Marischal. On Thursday, the 12th February, being a general fast throughout Scotland, when the bellman was ringing the first bell, the news came to Langside, containing the accounts of the earl Marischal having taken the oaths at London; and at that very instant, the said bell rent from the top downwards, and then across near the mouth, and that soon after the bell had begun to ring.

"A gentleman," continues this curious memorial, "walking in his garden, about a quarter of a mile from the church of Langside, asked a man passing by, what the matter was with the bell, in stopping so suddenly. The answer being that she was rent, ‘Well,’ said the gentleman, ‘do you know what the bell says by that ?—even, the deil a cheep mair sail I speak for you, earl Marischal!" [The worthy bishop gives this anecdote as one related at his table by the celebrated Mr John Skinner, Episcopal minister at Langside.]

The earl resided in Britain for several years, purchased back some of his family property, and intended finally to settle for the remainder of his life in Scotland. The king of Prussia, however, pressed him so warmly to return to his dominions—saying, in one of his letters, "if I had a fleet, I would come and carry you off by force,"—that he once more became an exile from his native land. He spent the rest of his life in Prussia, on the most intimate terms of friendship with its extraordinary monarch, and the enjoyment of every pleasure that a cultivated mind and a virtuous course of life can secure for mortals. Frederick had discovered that the earl was sincerely attached to his person, and he therefore bestowed upon him in return more of his own friendship than was ever experienced by any other individual. The earl was also the friend and correspondent of Hume, and other literary men of his own country, besides the European literati in general. He died at Potsdam, May 28, 1778, in the 86th year of his age,—two days before Voltaire, who had nearly attained the same age, expired at Paris. An "Eloge de My-lord Marischal," by the celebrated D’Alembert, was published at Berlin in 1779.


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