Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Auld Dubrach, Jacobite Soldier and Survivor?

Never trust the stories of an old soldier.  Well, that maxim certainly applies to the modern world which seems to be full of fake veterans who are exposed as fantasists who never served in the armed forces.   But what about centuries ago when people were more honest (and no one locked their doors)?

Step forward Auld DubrachPeter Grant, known sometimes as Dubrach after the Aberdeenshire farm he once tenanted, died in 1824, just four years after he was ‘rediscovered’ as an ancient Jacobite relic and survivor of the Battle of Culloden at his daughter’s house in Glen Lethnot in Angus.  His tombstone in the churchyard of Invercauld near the castleton of Braemar gives a brief summary of his remarkable life:

† Erected to the memory of Peter Grant, sometime farmer in Dubrach, who died at Auchendryne the 11th of Feb., 1824, aged 110 years. His wife Mary Cumming, died at West-side, parish of Lethnot, in Forfarshire, on the 4th Feby., 1811, aged 65 years, and lies in the churchyard of Lethnot.

   Grant, the alleged last combatant Jacobite, lies not far from the farm of Dubrach (An Dubh-bhruach) in Deeside (where he was born), in the graveyard at Braemar.  His biography runs as follows.  Apprenticed as a weaver and tailor, Grant took up arms with the rebels in the ’45 uprising (serving in Monaltrie's and Balmoral regiment) and was made a sergeant following his outstanding bravery at the Battle of Prestonpans.  After the disaster of Culloden, where he is said to have killed a dozen men, he was captured by Hanoverian forces and imprisoned at Carlisle Castle, but he somehow managed to escape by scaling the castle’s walls and he walked all the way back to Deeside.  There he enjoyed a quiet life, once again employed as a tailor, and in 1763 married Mary (or Marion) Cumming(s). He is said to have made the cap in which Mary was christened, and indeed even attended the actual christening. They had six children:  sons John, Peter, and William, and daughter Jean, Annie, plus one other whose name has been lost.

   Later Peter Grant tenanted the farm of Dubrach, reputedly the highest farm in Scotland, until the lease was about to run out.  Then he moved with his wife and son John to the steading of Westside, in Lethnot parish, Angus, where his wife died.  Little is known about his initial years in Angus, but while there he was pleased to greet the new minister, Rev Alex Symers, whose wife Clementine was a Carnegie of Panbride and related to Dubrach’s old army commander.

   Fame came to the old campaigner in 1820, at the ripe age of 106.  Two gentlemen named Smart, who were Montrose corn merchants,  were rambling through Glen Lethnot in hunting season when they stumbled across this astonishing looking survivor at his cottage door.  Dubrach invited them into his cottage and regaled them with tales about his Jacobite past, sung the rebel song ‘Wha Widnae fecht for Charlie’,  and swung about his broadsword in an impressive manner.  According to the account of Andrew Jervise (in Land of the Lindsays):

Interested in the patriarch, one of the gentlemen (Mr George Smart, now in Montrose), waited on the parish minister, and suggested that something might be done for the comfort of Grant, were his history laid before the King.  The suggestion was cordially received, and a petition, containing an epitome of his history, was immediately drawn up and signed by Grant himself, as ‘His Majesty’s oldest enemy,’...and being presented to George IV., he was graciously pleased to command that a pension of a guinea a week should immediately be given to old Grant during the remainder of his life, remarking... 'that there was no time to lost in the matter.'  But, as was to be expected, the gift did not in the least abate his Jacobite ardour...

  The two men were staying with their sister at Drumcairn farm and William Smart of Cairnbank (near Brechin) interceded with William Maule (1771–1852), who later became Lord Panmure.  One version of events states that Maule presented the king with the petition when he visited Edinburgh in 1822.  Part of the supplication reads:

Educated a Roman Catholic, and in all the prejudices of the times, he drew his sword on behalf of another family, and fought with all the energy of a Highlander; but time and experience have corrected his views. Under the mild administration of your royal predecessors, he has seen the nation flourish, and its glory upheld by their wise, able, and vigorous measures. With equal zeal, then, would he gladly draw the sword in defence of that monarch, who now tills the throne, and who he trusts in God, for the good and happiness of his people, will continue to do so for many years to come! But, alas! my royal sire, though the soul of the aged Highlander is still ardent, the frost of age has chilled his vigour. He who in former times had experienced all the luxury of a comfortable independence, is now, in the evening of his age, reduced to poverty and want; for he has not even strength left to travel in search of his daily bread: and to aggravate his distress, to one affectionate daughter, Ann, the only solace of her aged and surviving parent, your petitioner can only bequeath poverty and rags. May it, therefore, please your majesty to take your petitioner’s case into your royal consideration, and to grant such relief as his circumstances may seem to merit; and your petitioner shall ever pray. 
   An alternative story has the unlikely scenario of the ancient man making it to Edinburgh himself in August 1822 and encountering the head of the House of Hanover face to face.  According to this, the king made a friendly gesture by exclaiming, ‘Ah, Grant, you are my oldest friend.’ And Dubrach is reported to have replied,  ‘Na, na, your majesty, I’m your auldest enemy.’  The delighted king awarded him a pension of 52 guineas.

  William Maule commissioned the Brechin born artist Colvin Smith (1795–1875), R. S. A., to paint a portrait of Peter Grant, which is now in the National portrait Gallery of Scotland.  It shows an old man to be sure, but someone who looks a lot younger than a hundred  plus years old. Two articles in the periodical Caledonia (collected in 1895)  give details of Auld Dubrach.  The first is by an old lady, above ninety, who remembered Grant at the time he was having his portrait painted in the studio in Pearce Street, Brechin, sixty-eight years previously.  The sitter was residing at the time in Airlie Street in the town, in a house belonging to a joiner named John Chalmers.  She often met Peter Grant and enjoyed having a crack with him.  She also visited the ‘neat’ cottage in Lethnot which he shared with Ann, though she coukld not remember whether Anne was Dubrach’s sister or wife.  (Anne, to be fair, must have been over sixty at the time.)  This article mentions only two children from the marriage of Mary Cumming and Peter Grant, Peter and Anne, plus then detail that the family only moved back to Dubrach some time after the marriage.

   The first article in Caledonia has Maule trying to dress up the old veteran in respectable garb, though the old curmudgeon refused and wore his old fighting apparel before the astonished and frightened king in Edinburgh.  In almost pantomime fashion the Hanoverian king asked Dubrach, ‘Are you now sorry that you were so very foolish and disloyal in your young days as to enter the service of the Pretender?’

   King or no king, it was the wrong thing to say.  Dubrach’s eyes flashed with fire.  His chest heaved with emotion.

   ‘Be ma faith, sir,’ he exclaimed, ‘I wad fecht for him yet:  and yell ne’er be a man like bonnie Prince Charlie.’

   It is almost a pity that such an encounter did not in fact happen.

   The second account in Caledonia is also the more credible.  It mentions the fact that William Maule was presented to King George IV in Edinburgh on 20th August 1822, and there is no mention in the comprehensive records of the king’s visit that the astonishing Dubrach put in an appearance.  Furthermore, the writer states that Auld Dubrach was not a giant of a man as described in other accounts, but rather small, though still striking in appearance.  Another valid point made in this second account is the supposed fact that Dubrach still had his ‘genuine’ Highland garb seventy-odd years after Culloden.  Even more remarkably, how did this blatantly attired rebel escape capture dressed like that all the way back to Aberdeenshire from Carlisle after his cunning escape?  While there is not enough evidence to convince that Auld Dubrach was a Jacobite fake, some elements of the story he wove about himself seem open to question.

   Another jarring fact about Dubrach is that he was surprisingly well travelled in his very last years, at a great age, even though he might not have made it to Edinburgh.  Lord Archibald Campbell, in researching his Records of Argyll in 1883, asked John Campbell what he knew about Auld Dubrach.  John had encountered the old man in the Glendaruel district in 1822 and had published a piece in the Oban Times about this.  His own father was under-gardener at Dounans in 1822, and Peter Grant, son of Auld Dubrach was head-gardener,  Shortly after receiving his pension, the old man visited Peter for some weeks in Argyll and would spend several hours each day in the Campbell household.  John Cambell describes him:
He was about six feet in height, stout and well formed, with small feet but large hands, a fine open brow and dark piercing eyes, and long hair, which hung in curls...and was as white as the snow on his native mountains.  The dress he had on him...was the same as that he wore at Culloden...I well remember that he exhibited an air of independence; his spirit would not brook opposition of any kind, and his whole bearing was majestic and heroic-like.
   For the servants of the local houses, Dubrach happily sang and acted out his experiences at Culloden.  Interestingly, his performance may have been inspired or at least enhanced by two books he carried with him.  One was a full account of Prince Charlie’s time in Scotland; the second was a volume of Jacobite rebel ballads.  Several letters from John Campbell to Lord Archibald concentrate on the detail and correctness of the old gentleman’s Highland dress.  He also states that Dubrach received a warm welcome at Dounans because the Fletcher family who owned the house were also Roman Catholics and Jacobite sympathisers. The veteran reacted with explosive rage when a piper played the tune, ‘The Campbells are Coming’, because it reminded him that so many of that clan fought on behalf of the Hanoverians.

   After Dubrach moved back north from Angus  to his native region and the steading of Dubrach now farmed by his son, his daughter Anne Smith lived on in Lethnot.  Jervise states that she had to rely on the charity of her neighbours, but she later had her father’s pension continued to her.  Lord Panmure later built a house for her near the bridge of Lethnot (Bridgend Cottage).  But fame and money turned her head and she became, to herself at least, Lady Anne.  She reluctantly accepted the company of her fellow parishoners, remarking ‘There’s nae body but the minister’s folk near me worth mindin’, an’ although it be sair against my wull, i doubt I’ll hae to mak them a kind o’ cronies.’   She died in 1840 and was buried alongside her mother in the kirkyard of Lethnot.

   When Dubrach himself died on 11th February 1824, his funeral was attended by upwards of three hundred people, who consumed over four gallons of whisky.  Three pipers played the Jacobite tune 'Wha Wadna Fecht For Charlie'. A stone near his grave is inscribed; ‘The old, loyal Jacobite was at peace. He had kept faith with those whom he thought were his rightful Monarchs all of his life, a hero and man of honour to the last.’ 

Dubrach's grave.

   Dubrach’s son William Grant for a time tenanted the farm his father had occupied and was therefore also known as Dubrach.  He appears rather briefly in literature, in his old age, when he was encountered by the father of the author of Oor Ain Folk, walking unsteadily towards him and two friends at Ballater Fair:  ‘He was, under certain circumstances, rather a quarrelsome man, and sometime brought no little trouble on his friends by his boastful vauntings and vapourings.’ The three men feared Dubrach would lead them into drinking, then a challenge of strength or combat that would inevitably lead to a fight.  So they decided to teach him a lesson by clasping his hand in as strong a handshake as each could muster when he drunkenly accosted them.  Up he staggered, ‘with his unkempt hair flaunting in tawny  locks over his broad shoulders’.  The three men each gripped his hands so mercilessly that his face was contorted in pain by the last greeting and he left them in peace.

   But even here, with the son, the Dubrach legend is confused and contrary.  The anonymous writer of the first account in Caledonia magazine states that the youngest boy,William, was the son who most resembled his father, although he ‘possessed neither his father’s piercing eye, nor his force of character, being a quiet,canny man’.  Perhaps time and circumstances altered William Grant of Dubrach considerably.

   Whatever truth there was in the legend of Auld Dubrach, he was well remembered in his own district of Deeside.  Folklorists Calum Maclean and Dr John MacInnes a local man, John Lamont, in 1959 and he recounted details of the hero as if he was a current day character.


Caledonia, A Monthly Magazine of Literature, Antiquity, and Tradition, Mostly Northern, ed. Alexander Lowson, Aberdeen,1895, pp. 55-76.

Land of the Lindsays, Andrew Jervise, Edinburgh, 1853, 109-10.

Oor Ain Folk, James Inglis, Edinburgh, 1894, 75-77.

Records of Argyll, Lord Archibald Campbell, Edinburgh & London, 1885, 456-462.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Forgotten Sons of Angus: The Strange Avenues of Hector Boece

The intellectual reputation of Hector Boece (1465–1536) has been in low esteem for a long, long time.  Within a century of his death his major work, Historia Gentis Scotorum (History of the Scottish People), was heavily criticised for its inaccuracy and invention.  More on that later.

A Family of Many Names

   The historian’s kin had longstanding links with the parish and barony of Panbride (anciently Balabride).  An ancestor, Hugh de Boath, is supposed to have been granted these lands (though marriage with the heiress)  by the crown following his bravery at the Battle of Dupplin in 1332. King David II appointed a council at Perth to reward those loyal men who had served him at Dupplin and the Battle of Hallidonhill. This barony grant, prompted by military courage, may in fact be a Boece family myth as the barony was in the hands of the Meaden family for much of the 15th century.  The first record of a member of the family here is in a charter from the Earl of Huntly in 1492, which mentions Alexander Boyes as a part proprietor of Panbride.  The family of Boece were still landowners of some part of the parony in the middle of the 16th century, though the records are confusing.  Local historian Alexander Warden states that someone called Ramsay married the Boece heiress in 1495, though this is likely only to relate to a portion of the family’s lands (Angus or Forfarshire, vol. 5, 71).

   Hugh de Boath’s grandson was the historian and the family history is complicated by the variety of spellings which the surname had, including Boath, Boiss, Boyis, Boece, Boyce.  He may have Latinised his name as Boethius as a nod to Roman writer similarly called who was executed in 524 AD.  Yet another variation was Boys, which someone in the family may have conjured up because of a similarity to the French work bois, wood.  There is record of a certain Alexander Boys of Panbride, whose seal is appended to a charter of the noble Panmure family in 1505. Like the pretensions of other native families, the supposed French origin may be a conceit.

Education in Dundee, Aberdeen and Paris, Work in Aberdeen

   Hector was, by his own admission, born in the burgh of Dundee:  ‘the toun quhair we wer born’, reputedly in a place in the Overgate beside the Long Wynd (known in the 15th century as Seres Wynd).  He also received his earliest education in the burgh where his father Alexander Boyis was a burgess of the town.  Afterwards Boece styled himself Deidonanus as a reference to his origins.  His education continued at Aberdeen, then he went abroad to study philosophy at Paris, becoming Bachelor of Divinity.  Also there, in 1497, he became a professor of philosophy at the College of Montacute (Montaigu).  A measure of his esteem among his contemporaries is that he gained the friendship of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the most brilliant continental scholar of his time.  In 1509, or earlier, Boece accepted the invitation of Bishop Alexander Elphinstone to return to Scotland and become the Principal of King’s College, Aberdeen.   As a new foundation, the financial rewards of the office were limited (forty merks a year), but his income was bolstered by income from a canonry at Aberdeen and of the vicarage of Tullynessle.  In 1527 he was granted a pension of £50 by the Sheriff of Aberdeen, which was later increased.  The following year he became a Doctor of Divinity and was voted a most likely welcome gift by the magistrates of Aberdeen:  a tun of wine when the new wines should come into port, or, should he choose, the sum of £20 to purchase bonnets.  One of Boece’s closest associates at Aberdeen was his fellow Angus native and former schoolfriend, William Hay, who had also studied with Boece at Paris. Hector’s own brother Arthur was also employed at the fledgling university.  (Arthur Boece had been Chancellor of the Cathedral of Brechin and became Chair of Canon Law at King’s College, and in 1535 he became a judge of the Court of Session.)
   At Aberdeen Boece gave lectures on medicine and on divinity.  Towards the latter part of 1534 he was appointed Rector of Tyrie, and he died in Aberdeen two years after that. He was buried before the high altar at King's College, beside the tomb of his patron Bishop Elphinstone.


Major Literary Works and Reputation

   Following Elphinston’s death in 1514, Boece started his first major work, published in Paris in 1822.  It was a history of the bishops of Murthlac and Aberdeen, written in honour of his patron, and entitled Vitae Episcoporum Murthlacensium et Aberdonensium. Although the accounts of the earlier bishops are deemed unhistorical, the work is valued as a source for the life and works of Elphinstone.   His second work, also written in Latin and published in Paris, was the Scotorum Historiae a prima gentis origine cum aliarum et rerum et gentium illustratione non vulgari (Scotorum Historiae), a seventeen book work which first appeared in 1526, giving the story of Scotland until the year 1438.  (The second edition, published in Paris in 1574, contained a continuance of the work - to the end of the reign of King James III - by the Italian scholar Giovanni Ferrerius.  The Scots translation by John Bellenden appeared in 1536.).  Precursors and influences of Boece in writing the history of his country include John Mair or Major, a tutor of the Sorbonne, and principal of the college of St Salvadore at St Andrews, whose history of Greater Britain, in six books, was published at Paris in the year 1521. The Chronica Gentis Scotorum of John of Fordun and Walter Bower’s version called  the Scotichronicon were further examples, as was the Chronykil of Scotland by Andrew Wyntoun prior of Lochleven,  in the early 15th century.

   In the immediate decades after the publication of his history, Boece had a considerable influence over other historians.  Polydore Vergil utilised Boece for his 1534 Historia Anglica. David Chalmers of Ormond in his Histoire abbregĂ©e (1572), and Ralph Holinshed heavily relied on him, as did the Scot George Buchanan  in his Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582).  But early critics of Boece soon came to the fore, including the historians Humphrey Lhuyd and John Twyne, while the Scotsman Thomas Innes virtually demolished his historical credibility in the 18th century.  Lord Hailes reckoned that the Scots were reformed from popery, but not from Boece, and John Pinkerton also despised the blatant inventions of incidents and speeches which abound in Boece’s book.  But to dismiss the History out of hand is to misunderstand his intention, which was to follow the path of the Latin master Livy and construct a great patriotic national epic.  Such a reminder of the glorious story of Scotland was much needed in the wake of the shattering event of Flodden.  Some- but by no means all – of the criticism levelled at Boece came from Englishmen who scoffed at the supposed glories of the Scottish past.
   A more telling castigation comes from the great modern Scottish historian A A M Duncan, who divines Boece's motives for composing both his major literary works: the Lives of the Bishops of Aberdeen he calls 'the first insurance policy taken out for his own advancement'; the History is called a book  written 'to bring himself to the notice of the king and the archbishop of St Andrews and to benefit from their patronage'. ('Hector Boece and the Medieval Tradition,' in Scots Antiquaries and Historians, 1-11, Abertay Society, Dundee, 1972.)

Angus in the History.  Iona and Restenneth

   A major historian might be expected to have some insight, or at least access to local traditions about his native area.  But unfortunately Boece’s mentions of Angus are hardly more credible than any other part of his early history.  Boece relates, for instance, that the town of Forfar had a castle at the time of the arrival of the Roman general Agricola in the first century AD.  Similarly, his account of the (fictitious) Pictish king Caranach fighting the invaders and barricading himself in his castle at Dundee seems more than dubious.  Further shadowy Scottish and Pictish luminaries such as Galdus, Alpin and also assorted Danes, romp across the hills and plains in Boece’s imagination and pages.  By the time of the Wars of independence his work settles down into semi-believability, but by then the damage is done.

   Hector Boece might be forgiven for his well-intentioned inventions, but there is a more serious question about whether he deliberately misled his readers and claimed sources which did not exist. The historian claimed to have secured certain lost histories from the island of Iona, passed to him by the Earl of Argyll and his brother, John Campbell of Lundy.  Among these fabled texts was a Latin history of Scotland composed by the Spaniard Veremund(us), archdeacon of St Andrews in the 11th century.  No trace of this history exists and its author is not mentioned by John of Fordun, who might be expected to have used such a source for his own history if it had been available.   Should Boece have invented this history of Veremundus it would put him in the company of Geoffrey of Monmouth who claimed as a source for his historical work a certain old book written in the ancient British tongue, which almost certainly did not exist.  Weighed against the accusation is the statement of the esteemed Erasmus who stated that his friend Boece ‘knew not what it was to tell a lie’.

     Linked with the claims of a false source are Boece’s strange tales about the lost library of the monks of Iona.  On the prompting of Bishop Elphinstone the books from Iona, together with the history of Veremund, were brought via the Campbell sources to Aberdeen in 1525.  Some of the ancient written treasures unfortunately crumbled away to nothing.  Another intriguing tradition links these documents, or some other books rescued from the holy island, with the ancient priory of Restenneth in Angus.  It is plausible that Restenneth was originally founded in the 8th century, though actual records of the place do not mention it until centuries later.  Boece uses the locality in his work as the scene of a great battle between Picts and Scots, in which the Pictish overlord Ferideth was slain.  In his preface to the history of the bishops of Aberdeen, Boece weaves the story that the Scottish king Fergus II was present as an ally or mercenary in the army of Alaric the Goth at the sack of Rome in 409 AD.  While other barbarians busied themselves looting as much gold and portable artefacts that they could carry, Fergus carted away a library of ancient books which he took back with him and deposited in Iona.  Centuries later, for the sake of convenience and access, King Alexander I transported this whole library to Restenneth.  King Edward I of England is rumoured to have maliciously torched this priceless collection at the end of the 13th century.

   Belief in the lost or hidden literary treasures was allegedly famous far and wide, so that when the papal legate Aeneus Sylvius (who later became Pope Pius II) visited Scotland in the 15th century he aimed to journey to Iona to find the lost books of Livy which he heard were deposited in the library there.  The search for these lost literary treasures was resumed by Boece and he was at least partially successful, according to himself; and though it seems unlikely, the tale may contain some element of truth.  The lure of the lost books was still so tantalising that there was a faint hope during the 1950s, during excavation of the Treshnish Islands, that a horde of manuscripts, hidden by monks in the Viking age, might be rediscovered.  But alas, no such treasure was found.  Would a similar archaeological dig be justified at Restenneth, I wonder?

Heckenbois Path

  We are on firmer ground (pardon the pun) when we consider a more tangible, though still mysterious trace of the historian  which still exists faintly in the Angus landscape, as reported by the Old Statistical Account for the parish of Arbirlot in the late 18th century:
It is confidentially reported, that a road was made through part of this parish, by Hector Boethius, the Scotch historian, which still bears his name, though somewhat corrupted. It is called Heckenbois-path.

    Hector Boece is said to have constructed the road soon after his return from Europe to Scotland, when he inherited the barony of Panbride.  His intention was to link the coastal parish with the maim arterial road running between Dundee and Aberdeen.  Traces of the ancient route were evident in the 19th century to the north of Panbride, on the Moor of Arbirlot (some state it was most obvious on the moor between the farms of Fallaws and Kellyfield) , and it was known as Heckenbois or Heckenboys Path, apparently a corruption of its maker’s name.  On the north side of the same moor is the farm called Hunter’s Path, which was formerly Hector’s Path.  As pointed out to surveyors of the Ordnance Survey in the Victorian age, the sourthern end of the path in Arbirlot parish was distinct and measured twelve links wide, though in some parts arable farming had obliterated it.  Locals pronounced it Eck-en-bow.

   According to David G. Adams in The Ha'ens o' Panbride (1990), the route of the path likely continued past Guynd (and Hunter's Path farm), north of Panbride, northwards via Redford and Cononsyth, meeting the King's Great Road near Milldens.

   One tradition states that Boece worked in conjunction with – or at least gained the consent of – the barons of Carmyllie and Panmure to create his highway.  Such construction had an obvious economic benefit and the tradition may reflect a laudable, prosaic truth.  But the motif of scholars leaving superhuman, sometimes supernatural marks on the landscape is an older one still and reflects a time when scholars were thought of as bona fide magicians.  The path may have existed in some rudimentary form at an earlier period as there are records of routes in this area in the charters of Arbroath Abbey.

Woodcut from Boece's History