Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Significant Scots
James Keith
from the Daily Mail, Saturday, January 8, 2000
by Alastair Robertson

Field Marshal James KeithIt has long since ceased to be a talking point for the locals though inquisitive children can occasionally be seen swung high in a parent's grip to get a better look at the tall, grey statue erected at the heart of Peterhead, Aberdeenshire. Their gaze travelling upwards, past the riding boots, the three-quarter length coat, the just visible hilt of a sword and onto the square-jawed face they behold the image of Field Marshal James Keith.

Hundreds of miles away on the Continent a similar scene is acted out beneath an identical image which stands in Berlin. Constructed at the request of Wilhelm I of Prussia, it is the image of  aman who, in exile from his native land, had led armies over much of Europe, inspired the lust of one of Europe's most powerful women and was to die, as he had lived, by the sword - the one true constant in his extraordinary life.

Born in 1696, in Invergurie Castle, two miles west of Peterhead, James Francis Edward Keith bore in his name the evidence of the family beliefs that were to force him and his elder brother into exile.Named after James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, the second son of the 9th Earl Marischal was a Jacobite by birth and on the encouragement of his mother Lady Mary followed his elder brother George in a passionate pursuit of a cause to which his family were to lose everything.

Keith spent his youth and childhood at Inverugie Castle, a more welcoming edifice than the Keiths' imposing ancestral pile at Dunnottar, near the fishing port of Stonehaven.

Wealthy with lands across north east Scotland, the Keith family had held sawy over Scotland through the centuries but as Keith grew to adulthood their Jacobite politics cast them as rebels not rulers.

It was George not James who first threw in his lot with the Jacobites. James, destined for a career in law, was less eager to enter the battlefield and stake everything on the dream of another man's power. But his initial reluctance was to turn into a passion which outweighed that of his brother.

Staking everything on the doomed Jacobite rising of 1715 his mother, the Countess Marischal, gathered all the funds she could lay her hands on to help her sons' cause. Years later a tearful George was to hand his nanny a bag of gold coins - repayment for the cow she had sold to help her young wards.

But the hopes with which the brothers and the Jacobite army began their march south through Scotland quickly dimmed.

They got no further than Sheriffmuir, near Stirling, where defeat at the hand of the Hanoverians put the seal on the failure of the rebellion and drove the Jacobites into retreat. The Pretender fled to France in 1716 and Jacobite morale crumbled.

The justice dealt by the Hanoverians was swift and brutal. Lands of sympathisers were confiscated and lives lost. The brothers had no choice but to follow the lead of their 'King' in flight. In March 1716 they sailed to the Western Isles to begin their journey into exile - an exile which for James was strangely glorious.

On the day he set sail from Uist, destined for France, the Keith family were being stripped of their rank, honours, lands and properties. There was to be no going back. Exile in Paris was relatively pleasant for the young James. In what was to become a patern for future years he found favour with a powerful woman - the Queen Mother Maria Beatrix, mother of the Old Pretender.

She, he recorded in his journal: 'Received me very graciously; told me she had already heard how I had behaved myself in her son's service, and assured me that neither of them shou'd ever forget it; in a word, had I conquer'd a kingdome for her she cou'd not have said more. I ask'd her permission to go to the King but she told me I must stay in Paris; that I was young, and that she would put me to the (Military) Academy to learn my excercises'.

In 1717 he gained his first commission as Colonel of Horse. In the years that followed, Jacobite flutterings, failed invasions and an exile's search for fortune led Keith across Europe in a journey which eventually led him to Russia where he found favour with Empress Anna.

Keith recalled modestly: 'I received hundreds of visits from people I have never seen nor heard of in my life and who imagined I must be in great favour at court, in which they were prodigiously deceived'.

The Empress Anna promoted Keith and showered him with honours. After one successful campaign in Europe she gave him a gold-hilted sword worth 6,000 roubles, or 1,500 then.

But when she died in 1740 and was succeeded by Empress Elisabeth, Keith's fortunes were to change forever. For the new Empress was to exert a sort of pressure on the handsome Keith which would hasten his departure from Russia.

Elisabeth was the earthy daughter of Peter the Great who happily took lovers with no thought for court gossip. She spent lavishly on clothes and despite a rather full figure had, according to one British Minister, 'not an ounce of nun's flesh about her'.

She was a gourmand, high-spirited and tempered, an accomplished dancer, stubborn and intellectually unquestioning - she died believing Britain to be a connected part of the European land mass.

She built the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and founded the Academy of Fine Arts at St Petersburg and the University of Moscow. And it was on Keith that the insatiable lust of this powerful woman fell.

Her admiration for the tall Scotsman could never be in doubt. Reserved, decisive, militaryily successful but unimpressed by the glitter of court life, Keith was naturally attractive to women. He was even domesticated, carrying out household tasks normally reserved for servants.

Elisabeth made her designs upon the gallant Scotsman impossible to misconstrue, stating: 'You are the only man alive who can, in time to come, train up a son, if he possess your mind, to execute the plans of Peter the Great under your improvement.

At the time of her succession Keith was governor of the Ukraine - an all too brief tenure as, in the political turmoil which followed the Empress Anna's death, war broke out between Russia and Sweden. On his return from campaigns in Sweden he wrote to the Empress Elizabeth and expressed his regret at feeling impelled to leave her service in the face of 'a royal determination to raise me to a height which would have been both my destruction and her ruin'.

But there was another, more potent, reason why Keith could see no future with Elisabeth. Militarily he was all-conquering. Romantically he was in thrall.

During his successful campaign against Sweden Keith's eye had lit upon the comely figure of Eva Methens, an orphan who, at 15 or 16, was 28 years his junior. She was in a camp with military and civilian prisoners - how she got there is unclear, coming as she did from a respectable family.

Before setting sight on Eva, Keith's interest in women had been limited. many were attracted to him but, possessed perhaps of a natural Scottish diffidence and shyness, the feelings never seemed to have been reciprocated. Now Eva became the sole object of his affections. For Keith it was love at first sight.

Something drew him to her and that something was almost certainly her eyes. Contemporaries describe her eyes as 'forceful'. Not only was she pretty, she was also intelligent with a beauty and charm later matched by her 'stately' figure.

She became his lover and lifelong mistress. Keith became her Svengali. He saw she was educated, learning to speak French and read Latin, although like Keith himself her German was to remain indifferent. She was fond of healthy activities, notably plunging into ice cold water for her morning swim.

Evan was never a stay-at-home woman. She followed Keith on his campaigns, nursed him through bouts of asthma and was involved in almost every aspect of his life. But social differences ruled out the prospect of marriage - this relationship, possibly the most important in Keith's life, was to remain forever illicit. Keith's brother George, the Earl Marischal and now a major figure in European diplomacy, certainly discouraged and wanted him to marry a woman more fitting to his aristocratic station.

In fact the relationship was often strained not simply due to social pressures but Eva's behaviour. Her own flirtatious, not to say libidinous, behaviour became a test of Keith's loyalty. She was lusted after by Prince Henry of Prussia, a man closer to her age than Keith and by whom she was 'admired' and 'highly regarded'. Yet Keith loved her faithfully to his dying day.

He installed his young mistress on his estates at Rannenburg in what is now Lithuania - lands which were a gift from his employer and would-be lover Elisabeth.

Eva gave birth to two sons by Keith and life, for a while, must have seemed sweet however strained. But time was running out for Keith in Russia. Back-stabbing court gossip and Elisabeth's increasing romantic demands upon her favourite general made life in Russia near-impossible.

Driven to frustration Keith chose simply to change sides and move to Prussia. Accompanied by Eva, his sons and black valet Mocho, Keith travelled to Berlin and offered his services to Frederick the Great.

As an all-conquering commander he was feted, showered with money, honours and position, became a close friend of Frederick and, curiously, was put in charge of buying pictures for his master's art collection.

But the love which had driven him from Russia against Empress Elisabeth's wishes - she was to write begging him to return for years to come - once more saw him troubled. Eva, no longer a little girl but a lusty 26-year old was increasingly a source of scandel at court.

In August 1751 Keith was asked to judge a mock military competition between royal princes at a grand carnival. Guests at the festivities came from allied states friendly with Prussia, mixing with Prussian nobility in a colourful, high-spirited occasion where all were intent on enjoyment, feasting, drinking and a touch of debauchery. Some, as Eva was to demonstrate, more than others.

At some point Keith may have retired to bed. Now aged 55 and plagued by a lingering bout of asthma, he may have left his young wife to enjoy the evening.

Quite what happened in the hours between his departure and morning is unclear but by morning Eva's fate had been sealed. It seems that Frederick the Great had tolerated Eva's behaviour with displeasure for some time and whatever she did on the night of the carnival was the last straw. Eva was banished from Prussia and not even Keith's love could save her.

Eva seems to have returned to her birthplace of Riga while, distraught, Keith withdrew from the lavish life he enjoyed at court and retired into self-inflicted exile. He busied himself at home in his garden with war games. With paper cannons and using pins as soldiers he mapped out strategy after strategy, absorbed in his complex games of war chess which used casts of thousands.

When his military duties allowed, Keith put his energies into promoting trade relations between Prussia and Britain, persuading Prussia of the quality of English cloth and helping Scottish merchants who were in the second hald of the eighteenth century trying to establish trade links with the East Indies.

But, having lost the love of his life, war was to be the only true constant in Keith's life. He triumphed ob the battlefields of The Seven Years War, writing once to his brother George: 'We give battles here as others give operas'.

Indeed the relentless nature of these wars ultimately took their toll and, in his last letters Keith seemed to be considereing retirement, writing to his brother: 'I am anxious for peace, for my health can no longer sustain the fatigues of war, especially in the way that we are now forced to make it, against so many enemies'.

Keith's was was not to last much longer. On Friday 13 October, 1757 at the Battle of Hochkirk, he was shot at close range by a Croat as he rallied his flagging troops.

Voltaire, the great French philosopher, was among those to send condolences to Frederick, mourning the loss of a great general and a great man.

Today he lied buried in the Staunsdorf Cemetery in Berlin.

Of the women in his life the Empress Elisabeth died unmarried. Six years after he left Russia she had written to him in yearning terms, colouring her feelings with classical analogy: 'Alas Keith, I am as you well know a woman. So was Zenobia, the wife of Odenatus who was as you were, her general, her hero'.

Eva, the love of his life, married a captain of the Prussian palace guard and died in 1811, but not before an unseemly wrangle over her lover's will with his brother George. Both burnt personal letters and documents from Keith to prevent the other from having them.

In the end all that was left by a man upon whom fortunes and honours had been heaped was 25. But Eva's devotion had not been governed by material gain and in her years of banishment her love for Keith seems to have remained strong.

Frederick was to offer her huge sums of money for one of her few keepsakes - a portrait of the man shge had loved and lost. She refused to sell at any price.

Nothing But My Sword: The Life of Field Marshal James Francis Edward Keith, by Sam Coull, Birlinn Books, is available now price 9.99.

Return to our Significant Scots page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus