It is time now to leave the Jacobite cause and to return to Peter Gordon the eldest son of Captain Charles and Rachel Gordon. This Peter was to become the eleventh laird of Abergeldy.
Peter Gordon the eleventh laird was born circa 1691 and entered Marischal College in 1706. In his short life, he married three times, and completely replenished the Abergeldy farms. Yes Peter the eleventh was apparently a man of vigour and did much in his forty years on this earth. He had at least six children all but one of whom were daughters. It is not clear to which of Peter’s three wives the children were born, though it is most likely that most were born to his second wife, Elizabeth Gray, daughter of Lord Gray.
The Gray Family were well known feudal superiors of Broughty Ferry & Benvie. The father of Elizabeth Gray (born c1695) was Lord John Gray, the ninth Laird of Liff. He was for sometime resident ‘in Aberdeenshire’ (his name appears in a 1670 testimonial) but subsequently received a charter of lands of Benvie from James, Earl of Panmure in 1713 and began to build the house of Gray at Nethertoun in 1714.
It should not seem curious to you that Abergeldy’s affairs had drifted so far away from home reaching out to the southern most aspect of Angus. For all of the previous century there had been a communal arrangement involving Angus. Peter’s grandfather Alexander Gordon, the eighth laird of Abergeldy, had married Euphemia Graham of the great family of Morphie. This was to be the first broach into Angus, as Morphie sat on the border beside the river North Esk. The castle of Morphie has long gone but a standing stone, at least ten foot tall, stands resolute amidst the busy mechanical goings-on of the present farm. Euphemia Graham of Morphie, later Lady of Abergeldy, had maternal roots in Angus as her mother was Elizabeth Ogilvy born at Inverquharity Castle on the ridge of Gask. This brought the family into the realms of Airly and Cortachy.
Before this diversion, rehearsal was made of the many wives of Peter Gordon the eleventh laird of Abergeldy. It was at the most beautiful and elegant House of Gray, that in the high summer of 1717, Peter Gordon married Elizabeth Gray.
“Peter Gordon younger of Abergeldy, Eldest Lawful son to Charles Gordon of Abergeldy in ye parish of Crathy in the shire of Aberdeen & Mrs Elizabeth Gray, third lawful daughter to ye Right Honourable John Lord Gray in this parish were contracted.”
House of Gray, in the country environs of Dundee, took Lord Gray just two years to build and had only just been completed when it celebrated the marriage of Lord Gray’s second youngest daughter Elizabeth. It must have been a wedding of utter splendour for young Peter Gordon and have warmed his heart, after the early loss of his first wife, Margaret Strachan.
It seems surprising to me that more has not been made of Gray House. Artistically, it is as far from its name as seemingly possible, being a manor house of grace and mirrored proportion. With its facing ogee towers it sits sublimely in its two hundred acres of Woodland Park. I would regard it as the undiscovered treasure of Liff.
Liff became a bolt-hole for later generations of small glen Gordons. Both children, and grandchildren, of Camlet John and Camlet Joseph, ended up in the parish. Indeed it was in Liff parish, at North Binn farm that John Gordon (1816-1899) my great-great-grandfather raised his family. One assumes, rightly or wrongly, that there had been the helping hand of Abergeldy in this flit from the small glen.
It is worth rehearsing that the Gray family played a part in the history of the small glen. Within Register House there is a short Will and Testament dated 1746 of James Gray of Spittal Glenmuick (next to Inchnabobart) with the executor his son John Gray. I would suggest that this James Gray of Spittal, who died 1746, was the brother of Elizabeth Gray (second wife of Peter Gordon the eleventh laird.) If so this James Gray can be found in the Liff Parish Birth Register of September 1685. Furthermore I would suggest that his son (& executor) John Gray was the one at Bovagli mentioned in the parish register of 1737:
1737 John Gray in Bovaglick.
1737 Alex Gray & Isobel Donald in Bovaglick
In all we know of six children of Peter the eleventh laird. The first was his only son Charles Gordon who was to succeed his father to Abergeldy, as twelfth laird in 1737. This Charles carried both the spirit and name of his grandfather Captain Charles and devoted his married life to the improvement of his Deeside estate.
The next five of Peter’s children were all daughters. It was during this period of time that the Hunter family of Burnsyde married into Abergeldy with Peter’s, first and last child, selecting spouses from this family.
Burnsyde (by Rescobie loch and Restenneth) was an estate glowing in attributes and was to prosper well beyond Abergeldy. Burnsyde will be briefly returned to later in this chapter when illuminating the life of Charles Gordon, twelfth of Abergeldy.
Elizabeth Gray, Peter’s second wife, and mother of most of his children, died young. In the late 1720’s the eleventh laird married for the third and last time. His new wife Margaret Foulis was the daughter of Sir George Foulis of Dunipace, and sister of Sir Archibald Foulis, who assumed the name of Primrose and was executed as a Jacobite on bonfire night 1746 at Carlisle at the same time as the laird of Terpersie:
“That you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure.”
This laird is my namesake and as such I hope you may excuse a moment of reflection. Looking into Peter’s eyes I feel a steely determination. He was at the time of sitting aged 38 years, the exact same age as I am now. I like to think that I have fared better than my namesake!
Within four years of the portrait, September 1733, Peter was dead. He left his widow as his executrix. His will was confirmed in November 1735, with his brother Joseph Gordon in Birkhall as cautioner. The testament lists items sold at a roup at Mains of Abergeldy. The sale was incredibly thorough and emptied Abergeldy almost entirely of livestock. It was prevailed over by the Crathienaird Gordons (Thomas Gordon Portioner of Crathienaird and John Gordon his Son.) In retrospect the roup highlights just how much Peter had invested in his Abergeldy farms. This was a hands-on laird, of that there can be no doubt, and well would he have been familiar with his small glen tenants, at both the Camlet, and Bovagli.
Peter the eleventh laird’s estate was valued at £1,660 Scots; apart from the value of his land. There were many debts owing to him and these were principally arrears in rents. Tilfogar cotterfolk seem to have been particularly behind, but The Camlet and Lynvaig also seems to have struggled.
Peter had extensive livestock, particularly black cattle, which along with hundreds of sheep, were sold at the roup, securing over £775 for his widow. That is truly quite an incredible sum and would equate Peter the eleventh laird with a millionaire farmer of today. The farm crops for the year 1733, despite ‘the High Country being for the most pairt very bad’ were also sold at a great profit of £250.15s.
Certain items were listed for a specialist roup and sold, including a bay riding horse ‘being Abergeldy’s best horse’ which raised £108. Peter’s other horse, a gray riding horse ‘fell immediately ill and quite wrong by a sudden distemper’ that rendered him ‘almost useless’ and was sold for the drop-down fee of six pounds. A later Eik to the testament, delayed for some reason by seven years, by which time Peter’s widow had remarried to Lumsden the Laird of Cushnie, described a third horse, a yellow stallion sold for her gain at £9. It confirms to us just how good Abergeldy’s best horse was – to have sold at £108!
It was like a bolting stallion that ‘Mosstown’ appeared in the affairs of Abergeldy. I have, ever since the first day I heard of ‘Peter Gordon first laird of Mosstown,’ considered it no accident that he carried forward the name of the eleventh Abergeldy laird. Peter Gordon the first laird of Mosstown died exactly sixty years after the eleventh laird. The question we must ask was Mosstown an illegitimate son of Abergeldy? Dr John Bulloch was captivated by the mysterious first Laird of Mosstown and simply could not understand how his vast wealth had come about:
‘When a man starts life at zero and ends it as the owner of a landed estate with over a hundred and fifty of his fellows in his debt, curiosity is piqued, especially in a generation which regards the accumulation of money with enormous admiration on one hand and the gravest doubt on the other. That is why Peter Gordon of Mosstown is interesting; one only wonders why he and his should not have been passed in review before.’
In his article in the Buchan Observer of 1911, Dr Bulloch comments that Peter Gordon first of Mosstown, had ‘family tradition’ that connected him with the Gordons of Bovagli. The Mosstown laird was said to have made money by sheep farming, and it was that which brought him down to Buchan, for the wintering of his flocks. I must say that I am decidedly unconvinced of this! Such a meteoric rise of a small glen cotterboy seems implausible to me.
What then do we know of Peter Gordon first of Mosstown? Well he was born in 1714 in Deeside (at that date Peter the eleventh would have been twenty three years) and married twice. He was at Ballaterach in Deeside when he married his first wife Elizabeth Michie in 1754. Here that mirror reflects a family pattern: The Mosstown laird had five children to Elizabeth, but only the first, Charles, was a son. That pattern matches exactly the family of the eleventh laird. However, in the case of Mosstown, the only son and heir, Charles Gordon predeceased his father.
It was not until the 23rd of December 1767 that Peter Gordon acquired the estate of Mosstown in Logie Buchan from John Duncan Provost of Aberdeen. This date is especially significant and has been overlooked by every single Deeside Detective. It was at exactly this date that Charles Gordon, twelfth of Abergeldy was finally served heir to his grandfather, Captain Charles. The delay, one might speculate, was due to wrangling of brothers and brought to a head by the death of Joseph of Birkhall. Charles succeeded to Abergeldy, and here I would suggest, Peter the ‘outcast brother’ was left to create his own dynasty at Mosstown. Let us then return to the words of Dr Bulloch:
“Perhaps Peter imagined, like Scott, that he was to found a family of lairds of his name. But like Scott, he was disappointed. In the first place, his only son Charles died: in the second, some of his daughters made “improper” marriages. So on the 9th of February 1788, he made his will and executed a deed of entail.”
Peter Gordon, first of Mosstown appointed as the trustees of his entail, Charles Gordon of Abergeldy, and the latter’s sons – together with the Rev. Thomas Gordon of Crathienaird. His will was proved at Aberdeen in March 1794, the executors being the aforesaid Charles Gordon of Abergeldy and his son Peter.
The deed of Entail contained the condition that each heir on succeeding should take the name of ‘Gordon’ and the designation ‘of Mosstown.’ Peter’s appreciation of contingencies was wise, for heir after heir failed, until it was broken by Peter Ettershank Gordon, fifth of Mosstown in 1896.
Nothing is so interesting about Peter Gordon’s story as the large number of loans he had made and perhaps bad debts he had accumulated. The inventory of his will contains the names of an extraordinary list of 150 debtors. This man was a benefactor to the common folk of Deeside and his reach of compassion saw no limits – at his death, four decades after the majority had been granted, most of the loans had not been repaid. This suggests Peter had not sought reimbursement from the folk he felt kindred. All this adds to the speculation that Peter of Mosstown was the displaced laird of Abergeldy?
It should be recorded here that at least two of the Deeside Detectives have suggested an alternative theory – that Peter Gordon was a son of Crathienaird. That, I would suggest is plausible but unlikely. Dr Bulloch recorded in 1911 that descendants in Aberdeen had a portrait of Peter Gordon, first of Mosstown. I would love find this and to look closely for those steely eyes, for that, just might, confirm my view: in Mosstown we have Abergeldy.
Whatever the circumstances I still tip my hat to the Mosstown laird. He was a man of benevolence of that there can be no doubt. He epitomized the dichotomy of being ‘Peter Gordon’: to seek a place in history but to be remembered for goodness and compassion of heart. I guess that I aspire likewise in an uncanny coalition of spirit. A coalition separated by the long span of two centuries. Mosstown was founded by Peter Gordon in 1767 and this writer was born in 1967. Sometimes fate conspires to celebrate anniversaries in such unexpected ways – and there could be no better example than this.
It is time to return to the established Abergeldy pedigree and to explore the crossover between Abergeldy in Deeside, and Burnsyde in Rescobie. There was indeed a long tradition between these houses grasping upper Deeside and taking it into the clasp of Angus. The patriarch of this generation was Charles Gordon (1724-1796) twelfth laird of Abergeldy. He was the boy tutored by Alexander of Aldihash, and who succeeded his father (Peter the eleventh) in 1735 and his grandfather (Captain Charles) in 1768.
In 1749, Charles Gordon married Alisone Hunter of the great family of Burnsyde. Together they had seven of a family born between 1751 and 1762. Alisone Hunter was a cousin of Charles Gordon and it seems that this was through the Graham family of Morphie.
In Glenmuick churchyard there is an obelisk raised to Charles and Alisone with a marble plaque stating that:
“They lived together nearly half a century on this part of Deeside. The best parents, giving good example in every way and serving to the utmost of their power all who stood in need.”
Charles and Alisone Gordon devoted themselves to Abergeldy and it certainly appears that they tried to protect their tenants from the relentless wave of Clearance that was sweeping the Highlands during their reign. Inevitably however the farm-towns on the estate did witness ‘renewal’ and many of the small glen folk were enticed by the promise of a new life overseas particularly to Australia and New Zealand. There was also considerable movement within Scotland and Lady Gordon (Alison Hunter) in particular appears to have helped loyal tenants find new beginnings in Angus.
That Burnsyde bond was tight. Nine years before Charles married Alisone Hunter, his younger sister, Barbara Gordon married David Hunter seventh Laird of Burnsyde.
This Burnsyde laird was an ardent Jacobite. David Hunter the seventh laird served as Captain of Prince Charles’ lifeguards from Preston to Culloden. Together with Lord Elcho and Lord Ogilvy he joined the ‘45 rebellion and fought at Culloden. David Hunter of Burnsyde escaped after Culloden with Lord Ogilvy and Forbes of Pitsligo in a party of twelve or thirteen persons. After hiding in Buchan, they fled to France by boat, and were taken prisoner and imprisoned at Bergen by the King of Norway. They escaped and fled to Denmark and walked to Paris, arriving in a sorry state. David lived in Venice for some time, and was killed fighting a duel over a lady in 1758.
It is worth pointing out that David, Lord Ogilvy of Airly was a companion of David Hunter of Burnsyde and both suffered greatly after Culloden in 1746. This bond of friendship may have explained how Joseph Gordon of the Camlet family was introduced to the service of Airly.
David Hunter, Seventh Laird of Burnsyde, sold land at Burnsyde to George Dempster prior to leaving to fight in the ‘45 Rebellion but retained half of Restenneth Priory as the burial ground for his family. The Jacobite cause was to prove the true worth of our Abergeldy quine, Barbara Gordon, or Lady Burnsyde as she had become, as she was left in the unenviable position of overseeing the Hunter estate whilst her husband was in exile. The sad truth of all this is that women in the eighteenth century did not generally have such responsibility in law; fortunate then, that General David Hunter reckoned on his wife’s guile. History proved him right. Barbara was truly a woman of substance and without whom the Hunter estate would have been forfeited after the defeat of the rebellion at Culloden.
It is interesting to note that the Missive signing over General Hunter’s estate to his wife Barbara, written at Forfar on the 4th April 1746, was witnessed by Charles Gordon of Abergeldy and William Gordon, sadler in Dundee. This would indicate that Charles Gordon (twelfth of Abergeldy) had Jacobite leanings. Furthermore one wonders if the William mentioned was his brother? As you may have gleaned from what has already been written, particularly on the Mosstown laird, I have long considered it likely that Peter the eleventh of Abergeldy, had more than one son. Perhaps he also had William?
The Hunter family archive has been catalogued and transcribed, from its original two deed boxes by the Graham Hunter Foundation. It is kept safe at Restenneth library by Rescobie and as such is lodged in the heart of the old Hunter estate. The Restenneth papers highlight the business acumen of Barbara, Lady Burnsyde.
The Hunter archive describes how the Burnsyde estate was originally known as Dod. The papers also underline the extended family bond with Lord Gray of Crichie (page 102.) The reader may recall that the mother of Lady Burnsyde was Elizabeth Gray. A portrait of Barbara Gordon, ‘Lady Burnsyde’ was in the possession of her sister Janet Gordon who died in Edinburgh in 1813. I would love to see her portrait and wonder, if just perhaps, she had those ‘steely eyes’ of her father (Peter the eleventh of Abergeldy.)
12th February 1740
Discharge by John, Lord Gray for the love and regard which we have and bear for Mrs Barbara Gordon our cousin german do by there presently exoner and freely discharge the said Mrs Barbara Gordon of all that we can ask claim or cleave of her for her Board aliment and education in the family of Gray.
Lady Burnsyde lived in the House of Grange, Monifieth, but her oldest son Charles Hunter (1740-1802) returned the family to the Burnsyde estate and built, for his wife and family of eleven, the mansion house of Burnsyde on Dod Hill. It is this Charles Hunter, eighth of Burnsyde, that is the central focus of the Hunter archive. An account of Charles is well beyond the reach of this book but he was, by a stretch, the greatest of the Burnsyde family. His sons ventured all over the world. Their letters provide fascinating snapshots of colonial life in the Far East and the New World.
John the youngest son of Charles Hunter apparently caused much scandal after he eloped in the autumn of 1794 with Elizabeth Ballingall. It was the talk of the district and a bundle of letters survive to tell of the disquiet. A member of the Gordon family, deliberately identified as only ‘Mr Gordon’ was apparently present at the Inn when the marriage ceremony took place. One of the staff of Burnsyde, Mr Milroy, was targeted as having facilitated the marriage and paid by his instant dismissal. The father of the runaway bride, Colonel Robert Ballingal of Drumgley, was furious, as his daughter’s act of love had estranged him from his feudal superior and despite her wish for reconciliation with her father, he simply ‘abandoned’ his daughter to her fate.
The Hunters of Burnsyde commissioned the Architect David Neave to draw up a feuing scheme for the eastern reach of Broughty Ferry. This was completed in December 1823 and the original lithograph plan is kept safe within the Dundee University Archive. The plan included Hunter Square ‘for Charles Hunter of Burnsyde’ and new streets with housing. You may be interested to learn then that Camlet Joseph came to Broughty Ferry and died there in 1850. Perhaps he had help from the Burnsyde, indicating that Camlet Joseph was closer to Abergeldy than anyone has previously realized.
It is time to return to the older brother of Lady Burnsyde and heir supreme to Abergeldy, Charles Gordon the twelfth Laird. He seems to have led a quiet life devoting himself to the improvement of his property and the restoration of Abergeldy Castle. He was also able to extend and consolidate his lands, getting in 1750, from the Earl of Aboyne, the Forest of White Mounth and Haugh of Achallie in Glenmuick, and exchanging with James Farquharson of Invercauld, Dalliefour, Broghdow and Glencallater for Toldhu, Tombreack and Aultonrea in Glenmuick. He wrote several letters to Lord Fife, and his factor William Rose, which have been preserved and which throw some light on conditions in the Crathie district in his time.
The first dated 10th November 1783, to Lord Fife, reads:
“I shall at any time be ready to inquire after your wood stealers. ….the weather is surprisingly fine, work of all kind going on very briskly, particularly ploughing and planting. Peter (his son) and I will want some meal if your Lordship can spare 40 or 50 bolls and send it to Glenbucket any time in the spring or beginning of summer. We will take it at the price you sell your farm meal at, and it will save us application to others….”
This insight would seem to confirm that Abergeldy had farmland not just on the upper reaches of the Dee. In 1783 Glenbuchat was still in the day to day affairs of Abergeldy. I have recorded already, that Captain Charles, grandfather of the twelfth laird, brought, in the early years of the eighteenth century, much of his estate workers from the Buchat.
Charles Gordon the twelfth Laird, like his father and grandfather before him, devoted all to farmland husbandry. His cattle in particular brought his true concern. That farming passion has echoes to me of the current and twenty-first Laird, John Howard Seton Gordon. Here then is a fragmentary moment of my visit, with son Andrew, to Abergeldy in July 2004:
“…what one really could not escape were the piles of paperwork – all in assorted piles occupying much of the floor space of the room. ‘My passports’ the laird told us – and then beckoned Andrew over. Do you see this pile – that is from 1998, for each cow on my farm. He opened up the passport and pointed out to Andrew how you could tell which of his cows it was, who its parents had been, and the various veterinary stamps required. He was so passionate about this and brought it all to life for Andrew. The tales of a farmer.”
Let us then kaleidoscope back in time to November 1784 and the reign of the twelfth laird. Here, in a letter to Lord Fife, Charles has equal passion for his beast.
“We have had very inconstant weather. Sometimes snow, frost or rain; a good deal of cows are still out on the late and glen places. Mine has been all safe got in a month ago. I hear a good deal is still out in the mearns and Angus and in the low part of this country, but in general a good crop.”
However it is the comment made by Charles regarding the whisky tax that really stands out amidst the letters. You must understand that Upper Deeside, and the small glen in particular, were industries of liquor. To survive, Abergeldy tenants, almost certainly to the full knowledge of their laird, worked their sma’ stills. There was in the late eighteenth century growing antipathy to such distant Parliamentary interference which constantly threatened new and greater taxes. As a result a smuggling trade blossomed with ‘thirteen smuggling brothers’ harbouring in the small glen. This was finally put a stop to in 1826, when a further Act of Parliament gave the Excise Officers (and their Dragoon Guard) powers of Enforcement which allowed them to financially penalize the Laird. Prior to this date enforcement was patchy and was usually just a small fine to the smuggler himself.
“I approve much of the resolutions of the different countrys regarding Licences for distilling. I think the Act of Parliament as it presently stands is oppressive and hope the Scots members will be unanimous in endeavouring to get it altered….”
Aged 72 years, Charles Gordon, the twelfth laird of Abergeldy, died in March 1796 at Birkhall.
Charles Gordon the twelfth laird of Abergeldy and his wife Alison Hunter had seven sons and one daughter.
The eldest son Captain Peter Gordon succeeded his father as thirteenth laird in 1796. However with stewardship came trouble and the following year he was attacked and severely injured by some men from the Braemar district who resented the passing of the Militia Act. On the 17th September, Lord Aboyne wrote to the Lord Advocate:
“I am sorry to acquaint you that, so far from the spirit of tumult and disorder having subsided, the men yesterday at the head of this county (known by the name of the Braemar men) rose in large numbers to the amount, I am told, of five or six hundred, and proceeded to the place where they supposed the Deputy Lieutenants were assembled. We had fortunately postponed our meeting in order to give time for the circulation of certain printed papers explanatory of the Act issued by the Duke of Gordon. Consequently, they were disappointed in their object. On their return, they went to the house of Mr Peter Gordon of Abergeldy, one of the Deputy Lieutenants, maltreated him exceedingly, and with some difficulty allowed him to escape with his life.”
Permanent lieutenancies had been established in 1794 by a royal warrant which ordered the development of volunteer forces for the defence of Scotland. For Aberdeenshire the lord lieutenant appointed by the monarch was Lord Aboyne. It was Aboyne who had appointed Abergeldy as one of his deputies. The duties of lieutenants included provision for the protection of their counties in the event of invasion, threat or civil uprising. They directed volunteer forces and, after the 1797 Militia Act were empowered to raise militia forces. Captain Peter Gordon, thirteenth laird of Abergeldy, was astute enough to realize that to carry the Militia Act into effect he would need military assistance. Sadly for him it arrived too late. He was beaten to within an ‘inch of his life and with effusion to his head.’ He was, by accounts of the day, never the same again.
Captain Peter, the thirteenth laird of Abergeldy married in 1782 the same year as Camlet John. Indeed the parish register for Crathie, has their oaths sitting together. After his marriage Peter drew-up a deed of entail settling Abergeldy on his male heirs. He need not have bothered, neither his first wife Mary Forbes, nor his second wife, Elizabeth Ann Leith of Freefield, had any sons. Indeed Peter had only one daughter Katherine who died in London aged just 18 tender years.
A.T. Devis painted a portrait of the fresh faced Peter the thirteenth laird. It hangs in the dining room of Abergeldy castle overlooking the ‘cow passports.’ It is my belief that Peter would have been happy at this, for it was who continued to run the Estate farms up until his premature death in 1819.
It was in Peter the thirteenth’s time that Sir Robert Murray Keith wrote in 1811:
“Abergeldy abounds in so many natural beauties as are seldom to be met with in one place; and it is at least doubtful whether the present venerable mansion would not in this Highland district be preferred by a person of taste and sensibility to a modern house of the most correct architecture.”
Sir Robert Murray Keith ‘the brilliant Ambassador at Vienna’ was a man of letters, and corresponded not just with Peter, but also with Peter’s two brothers, William and Charles. He visited the family at the castle and was clearly besmitten. This was indeed Abergeldy’s finest hour, producing two soldiers, in William and Charles, both intrepid and brave. The influence of Burnsyde, from their mother Alisone Hunter, had served them well. Dr Bulloch wrote a marvelous piece on William Gordon (1765-1793) but gave it an understated title: ‘An Enterprising Aberdeenshire Officer.’
Twenty letters sent by William Gordon to Sir Robert Murray Keith, between 1783 and 1786, have been preserved in the archive of the British Museum at Bloomsbury. The only living person to have read them, other than Sir Keith, was Dr Bulloch. His enthrall was not misplaced:
‘The letters have all the qualities of the best correspondence. They are full of good gossip, which is never cruel. They breathe the spirit of a man who missed nothing wherever he was, and present vivid sketches of the moment in Germany, Holland, London, Scotland and Ireland. They show that Gordon had a fine sense of gratitude and his charming reference to his “old father and mother,” lonely at Abergeldy, while their sons sought fortune throughout the world, are among their most pleasant qualities.’
Sir Robert Murray Keith was described by William Gordon as his ‘cousin’ though the exact relationship has never been fathomed. Sir Robert descended from the Keiths of Craig in Kincardineshire and his sister, Anne Murray Keith, was a favourite of Sir Walter Scott. Indeed in the forward to his Chronicles of the Cannongate, Walter Scott explained that Mrs Bethune Balliol was:
“. . . the interesting character of a dear friend of mine, Mrs. Murray Keith, whose death occurring shortly before, had saddened a wide circle, much attached to her, as well for her genuine virtue and amiable qualities of disposition, as for the extent of information which she possessed, and the delightful manner in which she was used to communicate it. In truth, the author had, on many occasions, been indebted to her vivid memory for his Scottish fictions, and she accordingly had been, from an early period, at no loss to fix the Waverley Novels on the right culprit.”
It is possible that the Keith family had seeded into Deeside from Kincardine. Quite possibly, though far from established, Captain Charles Gordon may have enticed his friends over the mounth whilst regenerating his Abergeldy estate. In the spring of 1747 in Glen Gairn a George Keith married an Ann Gordon.
However there is another theoretical family bond between Abergeldy and Sir Keith. Peter the thirteenth laird’s youngest sister, Margaret Gordon married in 1769 Dr George Skene, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College. He was the youngest ever Philosopher of his day and he was even to influence Darwin. All from the cold grey reach of Aberdeen! At around this time the Reverend Dr. Alexander Keith, one of the Ministers of the 1843 Disruption had two sons: George Skene Keith and Thomas Keith. These two brothers became eminent surgeons and set up a private hospital in Great Stuart Street, Edinburgh. It has never been established why one of the Reverend Keith’s son was called ‘George Skene.’
For the above reasons I have found myself wondering if there was a family bond between Dr George Skene, the brilliant philosopher (husband of Margaret Gordon of Abergeldy) and Sir Robert Murray Keith.
George Skene Keith was a pioneer photographer, a prominent member of the Photographic Society of Scotland and a keen daguerreotypist. He was also a member of Sir James Young Simpson’s Research Team that pioneered the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic.
The narrative has drifted again. You may recall that it was the correspondence between Sir Robert Murray Keith and William Gordon our young enterprising Abergeldy soldier that was under scrutiny. Sir Robert Murray Keith (1730–1795) was appointed major in the Highland Foot Regiment which had recently been raised for the war in Germany, and though composed entirely of raw recruits, they and their young commander gained great distinction by their conspicuous gallantry in the campaigns of 1760 and 1761. It was for his long and successful diplomatic career, however, that Keith was chiefly noted. In 1769 he was appointed by William Pitt as British Envoy to the Court of Saxony. Two years later he was transferred to the Court of Denmark, and was fortunately residing at Copenhagen when the Danish Queen Caroline Matilda, sister of George III, was made the victim of a vile conspiracy, and would in all probability have been put to death but for Keith’s spirited interference.
William Gordon was born at Abergeldy in 1765 and was a tertian and magistrand at Marischal College between 1778 and 1780. Then he entered the King’s Royal Rifles. He was captured on the 19th October 1781 at the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, where he commanded his light infantry company.
The Scots Magazine recorded:
“It was owing to Major Gordon’s gallant conduct at the head of the storming party composed of a small column of light infantry, who dashed into the enemy’s walls and forced the commandant to surrender at discretion, that the island of Tobago was captured.”
On returning to London in 1785, after his long tour abroad, young Gordon tells the Ambassador all about the wonderful ‘Talking Pig’ which could spell out the word Nebuchadnezzar. In one of his letters to Sir Keith, young William recounted (partly in German and partly in Greek) an unusually salacious story about the Prince of Wales and Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon. So revealing was William’s account of the young Prince, and heir to the throne, that Dr Bulloch, even after the passing of so many years, felt he could not publish it. However, rather enticingly he did let slip that Jane Maxwell, the Duchess, ‘came out of it in a very favourable light.’ Given that Jane Maxwell was the original wild child that leaves us to consider much about the future King and his behaviour! The Duchess was evocatively described by Rosemary Baird in her book ‘Mistress of the House’
‘Her parties never finished before 6am. In a society bound by class and shackled by social respectability, she laughed in the face of convention. In her lusty Scottish accent, she was cheeky to kings and compassionate to commoners. Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon, was a one-off.’
Jane Maxwell is worthy of diversion of narrative. Although the daughter of a baronet, Jane Maxwell had a rather unfortunate childhood as her parents separated when she was very young and she and her sister went to live with their mother in a second-floor tenement in a dank Edinburgh Close. This must have been a far cry from the genteel elegance of the emerging New Town. Jane and her sister enjoyed nothing better than the rough and tumble of play, and were often to be found riding on the backs of pigs being driven to market! One day Jane lost a finger in a game which involved jumping from one cascading cart to another.
Nevertheless, Jane’s potential was seen from a very early age and a judge, and family friend, Lord Kames, took her education in hand. Jane had an innate drive to better herself and quickly demonstrated that she was a girl of formidable intelligence.
Jane blossomed into a true beauty, with a fresh face, and brown beckoning eyes. She was widely admired but in 1766, aged just seventeen, caught the loving attention of a young army officer and was soon engaged to be married. However her suitor was sent to fight in America, and within the year reported missing in action, presumed dead.
Jane turned down a stack of aching-hearted admirers before she was invited to a ball hosted by Charles Gordon for his young relation Alexander, the fourth Duke of Gordon. A shy and reserved 24-year-old, the Duke insisted that he had nothing suitable to wear, and no-one to dance with, but Charles had taken care of that. He produced a suitable outfit and a blind date: Jane Maxwell. Rosemary Baird comments that “she was beautiful and the Duke was transfixed.”
As the daughter of minor nobility who had fallen on hard times, Jane had married well. Jane and the Duke had only just completed their honeymoon, and were on their way back to the marital home in Gordon Castle, near Fochabers in Morayshire, when Jane received a letter in her maiden name. The young soldier had returned from war and wanted to marry her. Jane read the letter and was ‘found prostrate with grief.’ That lost love cast a long shadow over her marriage to the Duke, but nevertheless Jane threw herself into her new role as ‘Lady.’ She and the Duke undertook improvements together on the immense Gordon Estate. In 1776, when they decided that the village of Fochabers was too close to their castle, and they arranged to move it further away!
Jane had the first of her seven children, and seems to have loved nothing better than to make the great house reverberate with guests. One neighbour described her as “the life of all circles she entered”. Her own children were joined by several of the Duke’s illegitimate offspring – he had nine – who were welcomed by Jane. Two sons, both named George, were differentiated warmly as “my George” and “the Duke’s George”. Jane has since been renowned for her own affairs but in truth, it must be recorded, she was never as unfaithful as her husband. In later life, when attempting to arrange a marriage for her daughter Louisa to the Marquess Cornwallis, the issue of hereditary madness in the Gordon family was raised. Ever frank, the Duchess pronounced that there was “no need to worry about Louisa, she doesn’t have a drop of Gordon blood in her!” Yet it is clear that Jane also had compassion and for this she was deeply loved. She has emerged as a character as kind as she was unconventional. There is a lot of evidence that she particularly liked people who weren’t grand, that they were amazed at how long she spent talking to them and how kind she was.
Jane, with flamboyant and joyful energy, took seriously her role as mistress of the house and applied this not only in Morayshire but also to the Duke’s residences in Edinburgh and London. Yet that joyous naivety was ridiculed in the papers of the day – one scathing rhyme went: “The Duchess triumphs in a manly mien – Loud is her accent and her phrase obscene.” In Edinburgh, Rabbie Burns was a guest at her supper parties and was invited to Gordon Castle in 1787, when he described her as “charming, witty and sensible”.
However there was more to the candescent Jane than simple joi de vivre. In London, she was especially popular, and the Tory leader, William Pitt the Younger, admired her for her ‘political adeptness.’ Her London home became a centre for Tory activity. She charmed the London socialites by encouraging the dancing of Scottish reels, and made it fashion to wear tartan. She rarely waited to be asked to dance, as would have been expected of a lady, but requested the pleasure of the man of her choice.
As the mother of five daughters, Jane considered it her duty – very like Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice – to find her girls respectable husbands. Jane aimed high, and though she failed to bag William Pitt, and the son of the Empress Josephine, she succeeded in attaining three Dukes, a Marquess, and a Baronet!
George, the eldest son of George III, was born in 1762 and had rebelled against his father’s strict discipline. At the age of eighteen he became involved with an actress, Mrs. Perdita Robinson. This was followed by a relationship with Lady Melbourne. By the 1780’s the Prince of Wales had become a gambler, a womanizer and a heavy drinker. He was deeply in debt and when Parliament agreed to increase his allowance, George III remarked that it was “a shameful squandering of public money to gratify the passions of an ill-advised young man.”
This brings us to Jane Maxwell entertaining George, Prince of Wales at Gordon Castle and how our Abergeldy soldier William was to record greater scandal never rehearsed in public till now!
By the early 1790s, Jane Maxwell and the Duke were spending more and more time apart. He had installed his mistress, Jane Christie, at Gordon Castle, who had borne him a son. Soon, Jane announced her intention to build a separate residence at Kinrara, near the Spey, south of Inverness, and spent increasing amounts of time there, first in an old farmhouse, then in an elegant new house which she had built to her instructions.
Even in her final years, with her eyesight failing, Jane found parties irresistible. At Kinrara she was not at all tamed. All her parties went on till six in the morning. She liked to have masses of people to stay, sometimes sleeping on the floor. In this respect one simply has to agree with Rosemary Baird, Jane Maxwell ‘was always extraordinary, unconventional.’
Jane was ultimately reduced to living in hotels, and she became increasingly eccentric. She was involved in an acrimonious dispute with her estranged husband over money, and she died in 1812 at Poultney’s Hotel, Piccadilly, London. Her hearse was drawn by six black horses all the way to Kinrara and she was buried at the old Celtic Chapel by the banks of the Spey. There her husband carried out her final wish and erected a monument to her on which were recorded the marriages of her children.
The narrative has drifted from Abergeldy once again, but as in the case of Jane Maxwell, very often the true chatelaines of the estate were the wives.
Rachel Gordon, tenth of Abergeldy, may not have had the passion of Jane Maxwell, but she as clearly resolute, and matched her husband Captain Charles step-by-step; without Rachel Abergeldy would have been lost and the estate left behind ruinous. Lady Barbara Gordon of Burnsyde demonstrated equal fortitude; her business acumen, and legal where-with-all, were outstanding and she was unenviably placed at the helm of the vast estate whilst her husband was in exile after the rebellion of 1745.
Burnsyde returns us to our two Abergeldy soldiers, William and Charles. The former was under discussion before the diversion into the affairs of Jane Maxwell, ‘Duchess of the North.’ Let us recap. William Gordon was born at Abergeldy in 1765. His father was Charles the twelfth and his mother Alisone Hunter of Burnsyde. In 1780 William entered the army and sailed for America, only to get fever and ague ‘my old friends,’ as he called them, and to find himself a prisoner with his elder brother David, and the rest of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown in October 1781. It was around this time that he met Sir Robert Keith Murray in Vienna and so started a special correspondence with William writing from all quarters of the continent.
Sir Robert Keith found that his young protégée was eloquent and gifted and willing to exchange views on the political affairs of the outside world. William nearly always found a story to tell the Ambassador, and was clearly not a creature of home, he was rather too intrepid for that, and he wrote from Abergeldy in November 1785 that “it is rather a difficult matter to find the subject for a letter in the Highlands of Scotland.” All the letters, however, betoken a youth (he was just in his twenties) of remarkably quick perceptions, and present a living picture of his ‘wanderjahre.’ William wrote to Ambassador Keith from Dresden, Strasburg and Metz. He complained bitterly that despite being the youngest Captain in his regiment he had been reduced, whilst on his leave of absence, to half-pay. William thus considered seriously the advice of Sir John Stepney to go to the West Indies.
Metz was a favourite rendezvous of William Gordon. The presence of his countrymen there made him remember his nationality. “The French officers,” he wrote “always plague me by saying – ‘Il y a beau d’Anglais,’ and upon my telling them there is not but several ‘officiers Britannique,’ they reply ‘c’est egal.” The note of criticism, and the fact that the commandant did not invite the Scots to dinner, did not deter William from “going over once more a course of military mathematics” with the Professor of the College Royale. A little later he was back in Scotland, hoping that all his brothers would be able to sit round this family table at Abergeldy where they, had not been for 18 years. These sentiments were the last recorded by William, as in 1786 the letters to Ambassador Keith come to an end.
The last days of William’s brilliant career were spent in the West Indies. It has already been told how young William captured the island of Tobago on the 14th April 1793. William, basking in glory was then commissioned to capture Martinique, and set sail from Barbados, where he had proved such a success that the House of Assembly presented him an ‘elegant sword’ and the people stocked the man-of-war, in which he sailed, ‘with every kind of refreshment.’ He reached the Leeward Islands, where he displayed ‘intrepid spirit’ by pushing six miles inwards, exposed to the enemy’s fire, and despite the incessant rain and long spells of starvation. Then he went on to Dominica, arriving there on the 6th of July 1793, where he succumbed in a few hours to the fever which decimated the troops. The brilliant Abergeldy loon was dead and Martinique did not fall till the next March.
It was an untimely, almost an inglorious end to such a promising career, for he had accomplished so much in his eight and twenty years that the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ declared that ‘by his death His Majesty and the service have lost as valuable and brave an officer as Great Britain ever could boast.’
Charles Gordon was given the epitaph ‘the most distinguished of the Abergeldy Gordons.’ However I would say that he should share this honour with his brother William. Charles was born in 1756 and aged nineteen years he entered the Army, and with the Fraser Highlanders went to America arriving in New York in July 1776. Fraser’s Highlanders wore short red coats faced white, topped by the traditional highlander’s bonnet as they were at the Battle of Brandywine. Trousers were considered more practical than kilts for service in America. Their leather waist belts with single frogs for bayonet were black, unusual for British troops.
Fraser’s entered the war in the summer of 1776 as the largest British regiment that served in the American Revolution, but suffered enormous casualties before returning to England in late 1783. When this regiment was disbanded, Charles Gordon looked for other foreign military appointments, and soon found himself serving for the Prussians under the Duke of Brunswick.
In 1787 the Prussians invaded Holland and Charles Gordon had the pivotal role in the capture of Amstelveen, which was the key defence of Amsterdam. It was recorded of Charles that ‘he possessed a perfect acquaintance with the topography of Holland and spoke several continental languages.’ As an attack to the front of Amsteleeven was impossible the Duke determined to take the enemy in the rear. To determine if this was possible, Charles Gordon, “who had acted as a volunteer throughout the expedition, was directed to proceed in a boat along the Harlem Meer and make as accurate a survey as possible of the ground behind Amstelveen. This dangerous but important service was executed with courage, ability and success, and our countryman passed several of the enemy’s batteries” Charles’ intrepid gallantry won favour with the Duke and he was rewarded with command of the attack. Under the direction of Charles Gordon not one boat was overset, nor one man lost.
The Duke of Brunswick never forgot Charles Gordon. The Duke was a great soldier, but was also wise, economical, prudent and kindly. He fought in the Seven Years War for the King of Prussia and was at pains to make his regiment a model one. He became a recognized master of warfare of the period, was a cultured and benevolent despot, and later married Augusta, a sister of George III. Brunswick’s ‘clean sheet’ was significantly tarnished however by his actions during the French Revolution. His first act was to issue the ‘Brunswick Proclamation’ given at Coblenz in July 1792, threatening war and ruin to soldiers and civilians alike, should the Republicans injure Louis XVI and his family. Intended to threaten the French public into submission, it had exactly the opposite effect. It helped begin the French Revolutionary Wars.
The Duke of Brunswick returned to command the Prussian army in 1806 (aged 71) but was routed by Napoleon’s marshal Davout at Auerstedt. Galloping at the head of his troops, he came too close to French sharpshooters and a bullet struck through his left eye. The Duke died three weeks later from his wound.
For his gallantry in the capture of Amsterdam Charles Gordon was to be awarded the Prussian Order of Military Merit. He was at the time the only foreigner on whom this decoration had ever been conferred. The King of Prussia gave Charles Gordon ‘the strongest letters of recommendation to the Sovereign of his country’ and Charles was subsequently knighted by the King. Charles Gordon then went to Ireland from where he wrote to Sir Keith and complained bitterly of the dryness of his duties. Charles was desperate for the excitement of military campaign and was ever keen to prove himself as the best soldier of his day.
In 1793 a large expedition (4,891 strong) went to the West Indies under Sir Charles Gray and Admiral Jervis. Charles Gordon was one of the three brigadiers who commanded the attack on Martinique. He was then instrumental in the capture of St. Lucia and was made Governor of the island. Difficulties and disputes as to prize rights in property in the captured islands led to the charges of confiscation and extortion against the commanders of the expedition. Charles Gordon was court-martialled. He survived his dismissal more than forty years Mr. Hugh Gordon, the seventeenth laird of Abergeldy, recalled “him visiting at my father’s house at Blackheath, when I was a boy, as a fine, upright old gentleman, and I have a good portrait of him painted some years earlier.”
It is time to leave behind our intrepid Abergeldy soldiers Charles and William. Certainly, I hope you agree, it has been a fascinating insight into their careers spent so far from the fresh pine forests of Abergeldy.
The narrative has been widely embracing and so it seems an appropriate juncture to recap.
The soldiers were the sons of Charles Gordon twelfth of Abergeldy and his wife Alisone Hunter of Burnsyde. At Birkhall, in the spring of 1796, Charles the father died and Abergeldy passed to his son, the handsome and fresh-faced Peter. Within a year of his inheritance Peter was attacked and severely injured by the ‘Braemar Men’ who resented the passing of George III’s Militia Act. Peter survived, but only just, and continued as thirteenth laird up until his death in December 1819. He had two wives but only one child, Katherine, and she died aged just eighteen. Peter’s second wife, Elizabeth Anna Leith of Freefield was Godmother to two of the Camlet bairns. It has never been established why.