Saturday, 30 January 2016

Elephants in Glen Esk (Yes, you read that correctly)

There is a rule of thumb about the believability of a supposedly true story and how old it is supposed to be.  Those who are mathematically minded could doubtless draw up elegant equations to express it, but I’ll have to put it like this:  even if you think a story is far-fetched, if it was recorded long ago or has been verified by oral tradition or the scrutiny of experts, you have to accept it at face value.  What do we do then with a scrap of folklore that is less than a hundred years old, which seems as bogus as anything, but is too good to simply throw away?  Why, we repeat it here.
    Glen Esk has been popularised by many royal and noble visitors since Queen Victoria strayed over the hills from Deeside, but the most remarkable (if we are to believe the story) came here in 1929.  In that year the Maharajah of Alwar came to the glen as a shooting tenant and made a lasting impression.  There may exist somewhere a sober account of his coming, but word of mouth (coloured by the attitudes of the time) paints a more lurid picture.  Locals are said to have reported that the maharajah and his entourage appeared in Glen Esk one moonlit night, a party that included a string of elephants and an entire harem.  During his stay the maharajah is said to have slaughtered sixty-five stags.  One of his peculiarities was that he did not set out for the hills until late in the afternoon and he continues to stalk until one or two in the morning, guided by torchlight.  Those not in his immediate retinue had to stumble around in the dark and take good care not to shoot each other instead of the local wildlife.  So much for that.

Elephants journeying towards Glen Esk.  (Note Brechin in the background.)  Rumour states that some elephants escaped and their descendants still infest the Angus glens (especially Glen Mark).
   As it happens, the Maharajah of Alwar was a real person:  Jai Singh Prabhakar, ruler of the Indian princely state lived from 1882 to 1937.  Like many of his peers he spent much of his time abroad, including periods in England.   In a famous tale, which captures some of charisma and might even be true, the Indian was once browsing incognito in a Rolls-Royce showroom in Mayfair, dressed rather shabbily.  When he asked about one of the motors he was swiftly shown the door.  Back in his hotel he dressed himself up in full princely regalia and asked a servant to call the showroom and inform them that the Maharajah of Alwar was interested in purchasing a few motors.  He showed up and was given the full red carpet treatment and bought half a dozen cars at full cost.  These were shipped back to India, but horrifically (or comically), the ruler decided what he thought of English snobbishness by using the vehicles as bin lorries, collecting the rubbish in the towns.  Rolls-Royce became a laughing stock throughout the sub-continent and the company became so alarmed that they offered the prince six free cars, along with a grovelling apology and a plea to stop using their prestige cars as garbage trucks.  Seeing that they were sufficiently mortified, the maharajah retired his vehicles from refuse collecting.
   Do we believe this story?  I think we should, even if there is a variant of it which casts doubt on its authenticity.  This alternative version insists that the maharajah, still incognito, said he wanted all seven Rolls which were on display in the showroom, but only on condition that the unctuous salesman accompanied them as they were shipped back to his homeland.  The salesman unsurprisingly did not refuse.  But he was crestfallen, not to say heartbroken, when the pride and joy vehicles were transformed into bin lorries before his disbelieving eyes.
  Jai Singh Prabhakar was a charismatic and intelligent ruler, famous as any rock star during his day - the stories reflect his personality and have something of Keith Moon about them, I think.  Due to his disagreement with aspects of British colonial rule he was exiled for a long period to Paris.  But a small valley in Angus remembers him still.

Jai Singh Prabhakar

   Meanwhile, for more local elephantine lore, head over to the very excellent Dark Dundee website and see the tale of another long dead mega beastie!

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