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Issue 59 - The Poet Chief

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011


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The Poet Chief

James Irvine Robertson looks at the colourful history of Alexander Robertson

During the eighteenth century and far into the nineteenth, no class of men lived more apart from the common orders of society than the Highland Lairds. Their dignity was immeasurable. The position of Athole, or Breadalbane, or Airlie could be defined with mathematical precision, but who could set limits to the lofty grandeur of The Macnab, or Lochiel, or Struan, or MacLean of Aros? A Highland chieftain was the consummation of all human magnificence. You could only touch the hem of his garment.’ wrote Peter Drummond in 1879.

Such men owed nothing to anyone. They lived on their estates largely beyond the reaches of the law surrounded by people to whom they were little short of gods. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, it is impressive that so few of them succumbed to its temptations.

The Poet Chief, Alexander Robertson, 13th of Struan and chief of Clan Donnachaidh, was arguably the most colourful of them all. A devout and tolerant Episcopalian, a poet and savage satirist, a soldier, he was unique in having taken a prominent part in the three great Jacobite Risings on behalf of the banished Stuart kings. His political opponents ‘accused of him of every vice and denied him almost all the qualities of humanity’ but nobody ever questioned his integrity or suggested that he acted from any motive other than principle. His humour, his conviviality, his gentlemanly manners and cultured wit created strong and instant friendships across the social classes and the political divide. He had charm in abundance, an elusive quality which is hard to appreciate after its possessor has been dead for 250 years. At the same time he wrote verse of startling obscenity and his dissipated lifestyle was considered remarkable in an age when dissipation was almost the norm.

Born in 1670, he was the second son, studying to become an Episcopalian parson at St Andrews University when his elder brother, in the service of William of Orange, died in London. Within the month his father, too, was dead and Alexander became chief of his clan. He was 18 in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution when King James VII of Scotland and II of Great Britain abandoned the throne, driven out for fear he was founding an absolutist Roman Catholic dynasty.

Viscount Dundee raised the Stuart flag to start the first Jacobite rebellion. Alexander was given a commission to raise to Troop of Horse by King James and he initiated the first conflict of the Rising when he led a charge against his fellow students when they were gathered to hear the William of Orange proclaimed king.

After the Battles of Killiecrankie and Dunkeld, the Rising fizzled out. Struan was captured and charmed the Duke of Argyll into freeing him. He didn’t offer parole and so rejoined the rebellion in its dying months.

He was declared a traitor, his estate was confiscated and he escaped to join the exiled King James at Paris. He was 19 and ‘Louis XIV pronounced him the most accomplished gentleman in his court.

Indeed he went under the name of the Scottish Gentleman. The readiness of his wit and the elegance of his manners surpassed most of those who frequented that polite court.’ He became famous in Jacobite circles and infuriated the authorities thanks to his outpouring of scurrilous satirical poems against King William. One discreetly censored morsel reads ‘James was but ill disposed, whose fruitful cods, Scatter’d a generous race of demi-gods, While t’other unperforming puny prig, Could only with his page retire and fr—.’ These should have been the best years of his life but he was stuck in France with little money and little to do.

Women and the bottle were his consolations. He managed to return home after 14 years. Although he was still forbidden to hold property because he would not swear an oath of loyalty to the new regime and his estates were handed back to his mother and sisters, he took them over as if he’d never been gone. The law was one thing in Edinburgh but another in the remote Perthshire Highlands when Alexander had the best part of a thousand swords at his bidding.

His female relations drove him demented. He faced legal actions by them for 30 years. The courts always ruled against him and the unfortunate messengers charged with delivering the writs would usually find himself assaulted by Alexander’s clansmen and thrown into the river Tummel. He deliberately kept the roads into his country bad to discourage intruders. When his sister made it through supported by soldiers and officers of the law, he evaded them and had her kidnapped and taken to Pabbay in the Outer Hebrides and there she languished for nine months until she escaped and returned to Perthshire.

She found the country embroiled in the Rising of 1715. Alexander brought out 800 of his clan and fought at Sheriffmuir where he was captured by dragoons and rescued by his followers. He continued to lead his regiment until the Pretender left Scotland. Afterwards he was arrested and, while on his way under guard to Edinburgh for trial and almost certain execution, his escort stopped for the night at the inn at Amulree. His long-suffering sister arrived. She congratulated the troops on their capture of her dreadful rebel brother and rewarded them with money. Of course they became drunk.

Their captive escaped and made his way back to exile in France.

Seven years later his sister petitioned King George in London ‘so closely, and threw herself in his way with such persevering obstinacy, that he at last exclaimed in a transport of impatience, “For God’s sake, give that woman back her lands and let me have peace”. Alexander with a nod and a wink from the authorities slipped back to Scotland. He was still unpardoned and the clan lands were controlled by Government supporting trustees, but he took them over once more and continued to use his clansmen to repel the agents of the law. He rarely left for fear of arrest or debt collectors.

He beautified his estate, wrote his poetry and played host to his enormous selection of friends.

He was as happy drinking brandy - lots of brandy - with a barefoot passing messenger as with a duke.

His pardon was eventually delivered through the offices of General Wade but Alexander had too grim a hangover to make the appointment. When he eventually bothered to meet the general, the latter said ‘If you will accompany me to London, and allow me to present you at Court, I will engage that all your troubles shall be at an end, simply upon your kissing the King’s hand.’ Alexander replied ‘I’d sooner kiss his arse’. The general soon became another close drinking companion.

By the time Prince Charles landed in 1745 Alexander was in his mid-seventies. He met the prince as he entered Perthshire and the prince embraced the old man. He brought his clan into the rebel army and was present at the battle of Prestonpans. He passed over command of the clan regiment to his lieutenant and returned home in the government general’s captured carriage and wearing his gold chain and wolf skin coat. The last few miles were off road so the wheels were removed from the coach and his clan escort carried it and him home on their shoulders.

His lands were raided and his houses torched after Culloden but he was allowed to live out his last years in peace. On his death in 1749, 2,00 men walked the 15 miles behind his coffin to the burial at the clan church at Struan.

His legacy was debt, his poems - many of them too shocking to be read by the Victorians who ripped the offending pages from his book - and the reputation of being a man one would have loved to have met at a dinner party.