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Issue 73 - Colourful antecedents

Scotland Magazine Issue 73
February 2014


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Colourful antecedents

Roddy Martine looks at the line of a family

In dedicating his novel Catriona to his close friend and advisor Charles Baxter, the author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in 1893: “So, perhaps his eye shall be opened to behold the series of the generations, and he shall weigh with surprise his momentous and nugatory gift of life.” Stevenson fully understood the poignancy of his words. From early childhood he had been mesmerised by the mythology surrounding his own immediate family, a power house of lighthouse builders. Moreover, it was no coincidence that the hero of both Kidnapped and Catriona was named David Balfour, a scion of his mother's family, the Balfours of Pilrig.

I currently have in my possession a large and impressive book dated 1899 which displays the descendants of Alexander Balfour of Inchyre circa 1470 and Collateral Branches from James Balfour of Pilrig 1681.

Discovered in a friend's attic in Argyll, this was given to me for safekeeping until it could be passed on to an appropriate Balfour descendant.

However, what it started me thinking was just how extraordinary it is that “the series of generations” that it catalogues is something every Scot has in common, were they only able to find the time and the energy to make the connections.

In the tapestry that is the Balfour family tree, there are Cunninghams, Melvilles, Gibsons, Thomsons and Buchanans, and other weel-kent Scottish dynasties, Highland and Lowland. Among Balfour kinsmen are a raft of distinguished lawyers and clerics, a famous biologist, academics, novelists and a British Prime Minister.

Moreover, it really isn't all that difficult to prove. Of course, finding out about who your ancestors are might not suit everyone. There are skeletons in all of our cupboards but isn't it as well to know about them? Besides, there can also be some fascinating discoveries to be made.

In 1755, William Kirkpatrick of Conheath in Dumfriesshire married his cousin Mary Wilson and they had 19 children. With such a large family it is to be expected the siblings would disperse and their third son, who having joined his elder brother, a merchant based in Ostende, arrived in Spain as a wine merchant in 1788.

In Malaga, he was appointed American Consul and married Donna Marie Francoise de Grevigne, the daughter of a Spanish grandee. In 1845, their eldest granddaughter Maria Francisca Portocarerra Palafox y Kirkpatrick, 12th Duchess of Pearanda, was betrothed to the 15th Duke of Alba, and 8th Duke of Berwick (an English title originally conferred on the illegitimate son of James VII and II and Arabella Churchill).

In 1853, three years after Robert Louis Stevenson was born, Maria Francisca's sister, María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox Portocarrero de Guzmán y Kirkpatrick, became the bride of Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the last Emperor of the French.

Of course, European society being what it was and is, the popular press had a field day in exposing her humble Lowland Scottish roots . However, as is revealed in
William Kirkpatrick of Malaga by Colin Carlin (Grimsay Press), Eugenie's Kirkpatrick descent and her mother's Kircubrightshire roots, plus the execution of her great great grandfather Robert Kirkpatrick of Glenkiln for having supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 Jacobite Uprising, only added to the glamour.

With the death of her only son Napoleon- Eugene-Louis Bonaparte, fighting in the Zulu War in South Africa in 1979, there are no descendants of this union, but to this day the Alba dynasty of Spain takes pride in its Scottish ancestry. Closeburn Tower remains in the possession of Spanish descendants of its original owners.

Now I am not suggesting that every Scot can claim such colourful antecedants, but with the astonishing wealth of information available on and off line it is certainly worth having a look to find out who you are.