Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Great Montrose

Without doubt, the greatest military genius to have his origins in Angus was James Graham, fifth Earl and later first Marquis of Montrose.  Runner up to Montrose in this rather short list of candidates must be his distant kinsman, James Graham, Viscount Dundee, born later in the 17th century.  Both men were staunch supporters of the monarchy and both also had to resort to turning the Highlands against their native Lowlands.  Each man displayed greatness on the battlefield and their campaigns changed the entire nation, yet neither career was sufficient to save the faltering fortunes of the Stuarts in the long term.  The unforgiving political climate of their age led them to violent and undeserving deaths.  It was partly the manner of their death which kept them alive in legend.
   The birth of James Graham had been long anticipated within his family.  His mother, Lady Margaret Ruthven, had given birth to five daughters, but finally the male heir was born in October 1612 in the family seat of Old Montrose, near the coastal town.  But the delay in his arrival imbued his mother with ongoing concern about his wellbeing and she resorted to consulting an old Angus spaewife to ask about her son's future.  The witch worryingly informed her that the boy would one day give trouble to the whole of Scotland, which turned out to be true enough.  Young James soon gave his parents consternation when, as a toddler, he consumed a live toad.  This apparently family legend is perhaps a folkloric echo of a tale told about Montrose's fiery lieutenant, Alasdair Macdonald, whose nurse allegedly found him eating a toad.  When his grandfather was told about this outrage he exclaimed, 'Give it to him and let the one devil eat the other!'
   At seventeen Graham married a local noblewoman, Magdalene, the youngest daughter of David Carnegie of Kinnaird Castle (Carnegie was created the first Earl of Southesk in 1633).  Magdalene had previously been engaged to Lord James Ogilvy (afterwards the second Earl of Airlie), who became a future ally of Montrose.   This original match was broken off because of an unfortunate superstitious incident when young Ogilvy was riding to Kinnaird to formally propose to his lady.  When his horse came to a roaring burn, his horse refused to cross this running water, so Ogilvy interpreted this as an omen that his journey was ill founded and turned his steed immediately back home.  Poor Magdalene was naturally distraught at this rejection, but her father promised to find her a better husband that Ogilvy, and so Montrose came into the matrimonial picture. 
   Montrose was a staunch Presbyterian who supported the National Covenant in 1638.  His closest ally in his home county of Angus was John Lyon, second Earl of Kinghorne:

                                   God bless Montrose our General,
                                   the stout Earl of Kinghorne,
                                   that we may long live and rejoice,
                                   that ever they were borne.

   But Covenanters were soon cursing Montrose when he changed sides and became a Royalist, a volte-face which was the result of deeply considered meditations rather than a vault sponsored by political expediency.  Readers interested in his career should consult the biography written about him by John Buchan (Montrose,  published in 1928), which,  despite its age and the author's Tory viewpoint, still makes enthralling reading.  The most vivid characterisation  of the great marquis in folklore comes after his Highlanders plundered Aberdeen in 1644.  He immediately became a bogeyman to the city's children, a monster 'wha has iron teeth wi a nail in his nose, an into his wallet wee laddies he throws...'

   Montrose was defeated at Philipaugh in 1659 and was betrayed by Neil Macleod of Assynt for £25,000.  Macleod became infamous for being the only Highlander in history ever to sell a supplicant for gold.  On the long journey south from Sutherland, Montrose was tied up with bandages and led on a garron pony.  A herald walked before the procession, proclaiming, 'Here comes James Graham, a traitor to his country.'  When the sorry cavalcade reached his home territory in May 1650, Montrose was allowed to call at Kinnaird Castle on the 16th of that month and say farewell to his two youngest children.  That night Montrose slept at the Grange of Monifieth, home of the Durham family.  The lady of the house, Jean Auchterlonie, plied his guards with  strong ale and brandy.  When they fell asleep she disguised Montrose in some of her own clothes.  He crept out of the house, but one of the more sober soldiers raised the alarm.  James was found hiding in one of the great yew trees in the garden.  Lady Auchterlonie stated that she was 'heartily sorry [her plan] had not taken effect according to her wished desire'.  The authorities made a feeble attempt to prosecute her, but she was never brought to trial.
    Montrose was hanged in Edinburgh on the 21st May 1650.  Such was his reputation that even the hangman wept.  The crowd which had come to jeer sobbed as he said his final words:  'God have mercy on this afflicted land.'

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