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The Great Historic Families of Scotland
The Leslies


THE founder of the Leslie family was a Hungarian named Bartolf, or Bartholomew, who is said to have come to Scotland in the train of Edgar Atheling and his sisters, one of whom (the Princess Margaret) became the wife of Malcolm Canmore. Bartolf seems to have been a man of vigorous intellect as well as of great bodily strength—qualities highly prized in an age when might too often made right. He became a great favourite at the Scottish Court, and obtained in marriage the hand of one of Malcolm’s sisters, along with the governorship of Edinburgh Castle and extensive grants of land in Aberdeenshire, Angus, and Fife. As is the case in regard to most of our old Scottish families, there are various traditions respecting the origin of the name which the descendants of the founder of the house assumed, and of the family arms and motto; but there is every reason to believe that the Leslies derived their patronymic from the lands of Lesselyn, in the district of Garioch, in Aberdeenshire. Here they erected their first seat, the Castle of Leslie, on the banks of the Gaudy, at the back of the celebrated hill of Bennachie. So numerously did the cadets of the house cluster around their ancestral domain that, in the words of a fine old song—

‘Thick sit the Leslies on Gaudy side,
At the back of Bennachie.’

Along with the Lindsays, Ogilvies, and other new settlers whom the policy of Malcolm Canmore encouraged to take up their residence in Scotland, they formed a powerful barrier against the incursions of the Highland and Island clans, who at that time attempted to maintain an independent sovereignty in the northern and western districts of Scotland. The Leslies were a stalwart race, strong in body and mind, and in these days of ‘rugging and riving’ contrived to obtain a large share both of territory and influence, not only in Scotland but in several Continental countries. No Scottish surname, indeed, has been more widely known than theirs, or more famous, on the Continent. Five generals of the name of Leslie commanded the armies of Scotland, Germany, Sweden, and Russia about the same time. Two counts of the Balquhain Leslies were field-marshals in the service of the Emperor of Germany. A junior member of this branch was a field-marshal in the army of Gustavus Adolphus. A member of the Rothes line, after serving under the same monarch, was a lieutenant-general in the army which the Scottish Parliament sent to the assistance of the English Parliament against Charles I. Major-General David Leslie contributed greatly to turn the tide of battle on Marston Moor, and at Philiphaugh he avenged on Montrose the series of defeats which the great Marquis had inflicted on the Covenanters at Alford, Turriff, and Kilsyth. Another Leslie became a general in the Russian service, and was made Governor of Smolensko. The Leslies were distinguished as men of the gown as well as men of the sword. John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, was eminent for his historical ability, and still more for his devoted adherence to the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots. William Leslie, of the Warthill branch, was Prince-Bishop of Laybach and a Privy Councillor of the Empire. No fewer than four members of the Wardis and Rothes branches were bishops of the Irish Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Charles Leslie, son of one of these bishops, and a ‘reasoner,’ as Dr. Johnson said, ‘who was not to be reasoned against,’ was the author of the celebrated ‘Short and Easy Method with Deists,’ and other works on the evidence of Christianity, which have been pronounced on high authority ‘the best books of their kind.’ Sir John Leslie, the well-known Edinburgh Professor, enjoyed a European reputation as a mathematician and a philosopher; and Charles R. Leslie was one of the most eminent painters of the present day.

SIR NORMAN, the fifth in descent from the Hungarian Bartolf, appears to have been the first of the family who assumed the surname of Lesselyn, or Leslie. Previous to this time, the usual designation of their chief was the ‘Constable of Inverurie.’ Sir Norman’s name is found in the ‘Ragman’s Roll,’ and in other documents connected with the Scottish War of Independence. His son and grandson were staunch adherents of Robert Bruce and David II., and shared in their perils and privations, and ultimate success of their struggles with the Baliols and their English supporters. DAVID, the fourth in succession to the barony of Leslie, joined one of the Crusades towards the close of the fourteenth century, and was so long absent in Palestine without any intelligence of him having reached home, that he was given up for dead, and a distant kinsman, Sir George Leslie of Rothes, was installed in his ancestral castle and estates. But scarcely had Sir George taken possession of the family mansion of Leslie, when the long-lost heir unexpectedly returned to Scotland and recovered his patrimonial estates. He, however, confirmed the entail executed by his father in favour of his kinsman, and at his death, forty years later, the principal property of the family passed to Norman de Leslie, son of Sir George, while the remainder was inherited by his own daughter and only child, Margaret, wife of Alexander Leslie, a son of the Baron of Balquhain, who assumed the designation of Leslie, or, according to the Scottish phrase, of ‘that ilk,’ though he was the head only of a minor branch of the family.

The Leslies of Rothes and Balquhain became henceforth the principal representatives of this ancient house. The Leslies of Balquhain still possess their ancestral estates. The Rothes Leslies exist in the female line, but the Leslies of that ilk were compelled to dispose of their patrimony about the beginning of the seventeenth century, owing to the imprudence and improvidence of George Leslie, the eighth baron. Their ancient castle of Leslie, erected by Bartolf, the founder of the family, which, like Balquhain, stands near the ‘Hill of Bennachie,’ was inhabited up to the beginning of the present century, but is now a ruin. So is the castle of Balquhain, ‘a stern, simple square block, as destitute of decoration or architectural peculiarity as any stone boulder on the adjoining moor,’ in which Queen Mary was hospitably entertained on her northern progress in 1562. It remained the main seat of the family till 1690, when they removed to Fetternear, an old summer residence of the Bishops of Aberdeen, beautifully situated in a finely wooded domain on the banks of the Don, which still remains their principal residence. The district of Garioch, in which these interesting baronial mansions stand, is associated with not a few historical incidents and remains of antiquity. The chapel of Garioch was endowed by Christian Bruce for the celebration of religious services for the souls of her brother, King Robert, and of her husband, Sir Andrew. Moray, his brave, companion in arms; and by the Countess of Mar, widow of William, Earl of Douglas, for the performance of similar services for the souls of her husband, her brother, and her son, the hero of Otterburn. About a mile from the church is the battlefield of Harlaw, where another chaplaincy was founded by the widow of Sir Andrew Leslie of Balquhain for the souls of her six sons, who fell on that fatal field, and of her husband, who was killed at Braco in 1420.

There is a curious chapter in the memoirs of these old Leslies which has an important bearing on the ancient history of Scotland. WALTER, fourth son of Sir Andrew Leslie of Leslie, by his wife, one of the co-heiresses of the powerful family of Abernethy, served with great distinction in the Imperial army under the Emperors Louis IV. and Charles IV. (1346—1378) against the Saracens, and was so remarkable for his humanity, as well as his bravery and military skill, that he was styled the ‘Generous Knight.’ His brilliant exploits against Edward III. of England were rewarded with a liberal grant from Charles V. by a patent dated 1372. On his return to Scotland the fame of his valour and courtesy gained him the heart and hand of Euphemia, eldest daughter and heiress of the Earl of Ross, one of the most powerful magnates in the kingdom, and who had repeatedly aspired to independent sovereignty. Walter Leslie assumed the title of Earl of Ross in right of his wife, and their only son, Alexander, after his death became eighth Earl. He married Isabel Stewart, daughter of Robert, Duke of Albany, the ambitious Regent of Scotland during the long captivity, in England of his nephew, James I. Their only child, Euphemia, on the death of her father in 1411, succeeded to his titles and estates, and being under age and small of stature and deformed, was induced by her unscrupulous grandfather, the Regent, to become a nun, and to resign her right to the earldom of Ross in favour of his son, John Stewart, Earl of Buchan. But Donald, Lord of the Isles, who had married the aunt of the young Countess, asserted his claim to the earldom in right of his wife, and resolved to vindicate his pretensions by force of arms. At the head of an army of 10,000 men he marched through Moray into the Garioch, intending to attack the city of Aberdeen. He was encountered at Harlaw, on the Urie, by Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, at the head of the chivalry of Aberdeenshire, Angus and Mearns, together with the Provost and a troop of the stoutest burgesses of the city of Aberdeen, numbering altogether, however, only one to ten of the hostile force. The battle was long and obstinately contested, and was indecisive in its immediate results, but six sons of Sir Andrew Leslie were left among the slain, along with the Provost of Aberdeen, the Sheriff of Angus, the Constable of Dundee, and the principal gentry of the district. It was justly said that—

‘Baith Hieland and Lowland rnournfu’ be
For the sair field of Harlaw.’

There is reason to believe that the fate of the Baron of Balquhain, who commanded the van of Mar’s army in this famous battle, was before the mind of Sir Walter Scott when he depicted one of the most thrilling scenes he ever wrote—the description of old Elspeth’s talk and ballad in ‘The Antiquary’ respecting the fall of the Earl of Glenallan in that sanguinary encounter, and that the novelist had the Leslies of Balquhain in his eye when he makes Elspeth say that the Glenallan family always buried their dead at night and by torchlight, ‘since the time the great Earl fell at the sair battle o’ the Harlaw, when they say the coronach was cried in ae day from the mouth o’ the Tay to the Buck of the Cabrach. But the great Earl’s mother was living; they were a doughty and a dour race, the women o’ the house o’ Glenallan, and she wad hae nae coronach cried for her son, but had him laid in the silence o’ midnight in his place o’ rest, without either drinking the dirge or crying the lament. She said he had killed enow that day he died for the widows and daughters o’ the Highlanders he had slain to cry the coronach for them he had slain and for her son too; and sae she laid him in the grave wi’ dry eyes and without a groan or a wail.’

In later times the Leslies sent not a few stout men-at-arms to take part in the long and bloody wars of the seventeenth century. Walter, a younger son of the Baron of Balquhain, was created a Count by the Emperor Ferdinand III., and subsequently became a Field-Marshal and a Knight of the Golden Fleece. He served with great distinction in the Thirty Years’ War, and held some of the highest offices in the empire; but he tarnished his fame by the prominent part he took in the assassination of Wallenstein, under whom he had long served with brilliant reputation, and has in consequence been branded with infamy by the great German poet, Schiller, in his drama of Wallenstein. His nephew, James, who succeeded to his hereditary honours and to his lordship of Neustadt, gained a worthier reputation in the famous defence of Vienna against the Turks in 1683.


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