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Issue 63 - A Profound Impact

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


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A Profound Impact

Roddy Martine looks at the parallels between two heroes

I was recently delighted to discover that John F. Kennedy was an admirer of James Graham, fourth Earl and first Marquis of Montrose, who also happens to be one of my heroes. Apparently, the American President came across this 17th century Scottish soldier and poet in John Buchan’s admirable biography published in 1928 and, according to my source, considered him to be something of a role model.

In many ways there were parallels. Both were strikingly handsome and charismatic. Both rose to prominence when young. Kennedy was assassinated at the age of 46; Montrose was hanged at the age of 38. The deaths of both men made a profound impact on the centuries in which they lived, and thereafter.

Moreover, whichever side you are inclined to support in Scotland’s Covenanting Wars or subsequent engagement with the English Civil War, nobody emerges from the snake pit of contemporary betrayal and intrigue with more dignity than Montrose.

These thoughts were firmly in my mind when I heard that members of The First Marquis of Montrose Society were planning a series of celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth this year; kicking off with a memorial service at St Giles Kirk in Edinburgh, where his remains were eventually laid to rest 11 years after his execution.

James Graham inherited his earldom from his father at the age of 14 and was an early signatory of the Scottish National Covenant which opposed the religious dictates of Charles I. Although he led the Covenant troops in the Bishop’s War of 1639, he realised that it was little more than an opportunity to undermine the authority of the monarch, and in a dramatic turn-around, he surrendered to Charles I who commissioned him to raise a Royalist army in Scotland.

This he proceeded to do and, as the English Civil War gained momentum between 1644 and 1645, he won a string of remarkable victories until he was ultimately defeated. Escaping to Europe, it says it all that he was offered the rank of Field Marshall in the armies of the King of France, the Holy Roman Empire and the King of Sweden. But Charles I having in the meantime been executed by the English parliament in 1649, he chose instead to return to Scotland to mobilise support for Charles II.

Alas, he was comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Carbisdale in Sutherland and hastily condemned to death. When he was taken from the Edinburgh Tolbooth to be executed on 21st May 1650, the crowd which had been paid to shout abuse at him by his great enemy the Marquis of Argyll, stood silent, their heads bowed in respect.

Montrose’s head was placed upon a stake at Edinburgh Castle for 10 years. His limbs were displayed in Glasgow, Stirling, Dundee and Aberdeen, and his other remains buried in a felon’s grave. On the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Charles II ordered a State Funeral at St Giles’s Kirk, with the recovery of all body parts.

Among Montrose’s admirers was his nephew’s wife Lady Napier who was promised his heart.

This was embalmed and placed in a small steel case inside a gold filigree box and later deposited in a large silver urn.

The Napiers departed Scotland for Holland where the urn remained until it was brought back to Merchiston Tower by their great-grandson. It was then passed to his daughter Hester who travelled to India taking the urn. In Madura it sat upon an ebony table where it was said to possess magical powers, probably why it was stolen. 20 years passed until, Hester’s son Alexander, now in his twenties, was invited on a sporting excursion by an Indian prince who, as it transpired, had bought the urn, unaware of its provenance.

He handed it back but when the family returned to Europe through France in 1792, it was feared that it might be confiscated at Le Havre. The urn was handed for safekeeping to a Mrs Knowles, an English lady resident in Boulogne.

Soon afterwards, war broke out between Britain and France and the fate of the precious urn remains unknown. How wonderful it would be if it were to miraculously re-appear.