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Significant Scots
Alexander Forbes

FORBES, ALEXANDER, lord Pitsligo, was the only son of Alexander, third lord Pitsilgo, and lady Sophia Erskine, daughter of John, ninth earl of Marr. He was born on the 22nd of May, 1678, and succeeded his father in his title and estates in 1691, while yet a minor. He soon after went to France; and during his residence in that country, embraced the opinions of madame Guion to whom he had been introduced by Fenelon. On his return to Scotland, he took the oaths and his seat in parliament, and commenced his political careeer as an oppositionist to the court party. He joined the duke of Athole in opposing the union; but on the extension of the oath of abjuration to Scotland, he withdrew from public business. A jacobite in principle, he took an active part in the rebellion of 1715; but escaped attainder, though he found it expedient to withdraw for a time to the continent, after the suppression of that ill- judged attempt. In 1720, he returned to his native country, and devoted himself to the study of literature and the mystical writings of the Quietists, at his castle of Pitsligo, in Aberdeenshire. His age and infirmities, as well as experience, might have prevailed upon him to abide in silence the result of prince Charles’s enterprise in 1745; but, actuated by a sense of duty, he joined the enterprise, and was the means, by his example, of drawing many of the gentlemen of Aberdeenshire into the tide of insurrection; no one thinking he could be wrong in taking the same course with a man of so much prudence and sagacity. Lord Pitsligo arrived at Holyroodhouse some time after the battle Prestonpans, and was appointed by prince Charles to command a troop of horse, chiefly raised out of the Aberdeenshire gentry, and which was called Pitsligo’s regiment. He accompanied the army through all its subsequent adventures, and having survived the disastrous affair of Culloden, was attainted by the government, and eagerly sought for by its truculent emissaries. The subsequent life of this unfortunate nobleman was a very extraordinary one, as will appear from the following anecdotes, which we extract from a memoir of his lordship, published in connexion with his "Thoughts on Man’s Condition;" Edinburgh, 1829:— "After the battle of Culloden, lord Pitsligo concealed himself for some time in the mountainous district of the country, and a second time experienced the kindly dispositions of the country people, even the lowest, to misfortune. The country had been much exhausted for the supply of the prince’s army, and the people who gave him shelter and protection were extremely poor; yet they freely shared their humble and scanty fare with the unknown stranger. This fare was what is called water-brose, that is, oatmeal moistened with hot water, on which he chiefly subsisted for some time; and when, on one occasion, he remarked that its taste would be much improved by a little salt, the reply was, ‘Ay, man, but sa’t’s touchy,’ meaning it was too expensive an indulgence for them. However, he was not always in such bad quarters; for he was concealed for some days at the house of New Miln, near Elgin, along with his friends, Mr Cummine of Pitullie, Mr Irvine of Drum, and Mr Mercer of Aberdeen, where Mrs King, Pitullie’s sister, herself made their beds, and waited upon them."

"It was known in London, that about the end of April, 1746, he was lurking about the coast of Buchan, as it was supposed, with the view of finding an opportunity of making his escape to France; and it required the utmost caution on his part, to elude the search that was made for him. To such an extremity was he reduced, that he was actually obliged on one occasion to conceal himself in a hollow place in the earth, under the arch of a small bridge at Craigmaud, upon his own estate, about nine miles up into the country from Fraserburgh, and about two and a half from where New Pitsligo now is, which was scarcely large enough to contain him; and this most uncomfortable place seems to have been selected for his retreat, just because there was little chance of detection, as no one could conceive it possible that a human being could be concealed in it. At this time, he lay sometimes in the daytime concealed in the mosses near Craigmaud, and was much annoyed by the lapwings flying about the place, lest they should attract notice to the spot, and direct those who were in search of him in their pursuit.

As yet, the estate of Pitsligo was not taken possession of by government, and lady Pitsligo continued to reside at the castle. Lord Pitsligo occasionally paid secret visits to it in disguise. The disguise that he assumed was that of a mendicant, and lady Pitsligo’s maid was employed to provide him with two bags to put under his arms, after the fashion of the Edie Ochiltrees of those days. He sat beside her while she made them, and she long related with wonder how cheerful he was, while thus superintending this work, which betokened the ruin of his fortune, and the forfeiture of his life.

When walking out in his disguise one day, he was suddenly overtaken by a party of dragoons scouring the country in pursuit of him. The increased exertion, from his desire to elude them, brought on a fit of asthmatic coughing, which completely overpowered him. He could proceed no farther, and was obliged to sit down by the road-side, where he calmly waited their approach. The idea suggested by his disguise and infirmity was acted upon, and, in his character of a mendicant, he begged alms of the dragoons who came to apprehend him. His calmness and resignation did not forsake him, no perturbation betrayed him, and one of the dragoons stopped, and, with great kindness of heart, actually bestowed a mite on the venerable old man, condoling with him at the same time on the severity of his cough.

On another occasion, lord Pitsligo had sought and obtained shelter in a shoemaker’s house, and shortly after, a party of dragoons were seen approaching. Their errand was not doubtful; and the shoemaker, who had recognized the stranger, was in the greatest trepidation, and advised him to put on one of the workmen’s aprons and some more of his clothes, and to sit down on one of the stools, and pretend to be mending a shoe. The party came into the shop in the course of their search; and the shoemaker, observing that the soldiers looked as if they thought the hands of this workman were not very like those of a practised son of king Crispin, and fearing that a narrower inspection would betray him, with great presence of mind, gave orders to lord Pitsligo, as if he had been one of his workmen, to go to the door and hold one of the horses, which he did accordingly. His own composure and entire absence of hurry, allayed suspicion, and he escaped this danger. He used afterwards jocularly to say,—‘he had been at one time a Buchan cobbler.’

"One of the narrowest escapes which he made from discovery, when met in his mendicant’s dress by those who were in search of him, was attended with circumstances which made the adventure singularly romantic and interesting. At that time, there lived in that district of the country, a fool called Sandy Annand, a well known character. The kindly feelings of the peasantry of Scotland to persons of weak intellect are well known, and are strongly marked by the name of ‘the innocent,’ which is given to them. They are generally harmless creatures, contented with the enjoyment of the sun and air as their highest luxuries, and privileged to the hospitality of every house, so far as their humble wants require. There is often, too, a mixture of shrewdness with their folly, and they are always singularly attached to those who are kind to them. Lord Pitsligo, disguised as usual, had gone into a house where the fool happened to be at the time. He immediately recognized him, and did not restrain his feelings, as others did in the same situation, but was busily employed in showing his respect for his lordship, in his own peculiar and grotesque manner, expressing his great grief at seeing him in such a fallen state, when a party entered the house to search for him. They asked the fool, who was the person that he was lamenting thus? What a moment of intense anxiety both to lord Pitsligo and the inmates of the house! It was impossible to expect any other answer from the poor weak creature, but one which would betray the unfortunate nobleman. Sandy, however, with that shrewdness which men of his intellect often exhibit on the most trying occasions, said, ‘He kent him aince a muckle farmer, but his sheep a’ dee’d in the 40.’ It was looked upon as a special interposition of Providence, which put such an answer into the mouth of the fool.

"In March, 1756, and of course, long after all apprehension of a search had ceased, information having been given to the commanding officer at Fraserburgh, that lord Pitsligo was at that moment in the house of Auchiries, it was acted upon with so much promptness and secrecy, that the search must have proved successful, but for a very singular occurrence. Mrs Sophia Donaldson, a lady who lived much with the family, repeatedly dreamt on that particular night, that the house was surrounded by soldiers. Her mind became so haunted with the idea, that she got out of bed, and was walking through the room in hopes of giving a different current to her thoughts before she lay down again; when, day beginning to dawn, she accidentally looked out at the window as she passed it in traversing the room, and was astonished at actually observing the figures of soldiers among some trees near the house. So completely had all idea of a search been by that time laid asleep, that she supposed they had come to steal poultry; jacobite poultry yards affording a safe object of pillage for the English soldiers in those days. Under this impression, Mrs Sophia was proceeding to rouse the servants, when her sister having awakened, and inquired what was the matter, and being told of soldiers near the house, exclaimed in great alarm, that, she feared they wanted something more than hens. She begged Mrs Sophia to look out at a window on the other side of the house, when, not only soldiers were seen in that direction, but also an officer giving instructions by signals, and frequently putting his fingers on his lips, as if enjoining silence. There was now no time to be lost in rousing the family; and all the haste that could be made was scarcely sufficient to hurry the venerable man from his bed, into a small recess behind the wainscot of an adjoining room, which was concealed by a bed, in which a lady, Miss Gordon of Towie, who was there on a visit, lay, before the soldiers obtained admission. A most minute search took place. The room in which lord Pitsligo was concealed did not escape. Miss Gordon’s bed was carefully examined, and she was obliged to suffer the rude scrutiny of one of the party, by feeling her chin, to ascertain that it was not a man in a lady’s night-dress. Before the soldiers had finished their examination in this room, the confinement and anxiety increased lord Pitsligo’s asthma so much, and his breathing became so loud, that it cost Miss Gordon, lying in bed, much and violent coughing, which she counterfeited in order to prevent the high breathings behind the wainscot from being heard. It may easily be conceived what agony she would suffer, lest, by overdoing her part, she should increase suspicion, and, in fact, lead to a discovery. The ruse was fortunately successful. On the search through the house being given over, lord Pitsligo was hastily taken from his confined situation, and again placed in bed; and as soon as he was able to speak, his accustomed kindness of heart made him say to his servant, ‘James, go and see that these poor fellows get some breakfast, and a drink of warm ale, for this is a cold morning; they are only doing their duty, and cannot bear me any ill will.’ When the family were felicitating each other on his escape, he pleasantly observed, ‘A poor prize, had they obtained it—an old dying man?’"

After this, he resided constantly at Auchiries, overlooked, or at least unmolested by the government, till the 21st of December, 1762, when he breathed his last in peace, in the 85th year of his age. He left behind him a work entitled, "Thoughts concerning Man’s condition and duties in this life, and his hopes in the world to come,"—the production evidently of a calm and highly devotional mind, but nowise remarkable in other respects.

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