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Issue 79 - Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves

Scotland Magazine Issue 79
February 2015


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Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves

James Irvine Robertson reflects on the rise and fall of great dynasties

Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations', goes the saying, which is entirely healthy.
Without the churn of wealth and power between individuals, families and nations, the world would be a dull and sterile place – and utterly insufferable for the less privileged. In Scotland, the churn may not have been as frequent or as thorough as in other places, and this infuriates some and delights others.

As far as families are concerned the same names float on the top of the national stew through the pages of Scottish history – Lindsay, Bruce, Douglas, Stewart, Campbell etc. Others come to join them but rarely last. The earls and dukes and clan chiefs often still sit in their palaces amid their smiling or frowning acres as they have done for a score or more generations.

Land appears to be the key to this longevity. Its possessors love their land much more than the rich man loves his gold. They are ambitious to preserve it and use it, and any accompanying title as bait to ensnare the daughters of the plutocrats. The profits of many a North American department store and meat packing business of the 19th Century have ensured the continuing prosperity of many a fine castle or country mansion in Britain.

But not always. Some dynasties fail through politics. The Comyns who fell foul of Robert the Bruce being the most obvious example. Others just simply take their eye off the ball, or the bed and two great castles of Highland Perthshire illustrate this.

Blair, anciently the key to the Highlands, flourishes; its desperately needed fortune arrived in 1930 with a marriage to an heiress. The money is still there, cosseted by the heiress’s heiress, with the castle now a charitable trust, but the money’s male line failed and the Duke of Atholl is now a South African businessman of comparatively modest means.

But dire is the predicament of the other castle, Taymouth, which lies empty, a beached whale preyed upon by property developers. Like Blair, its founding family the Campbells of Breadalbane failed to produce heirs in the direct line but the only fortune it married was in 1657 when John Campbell went to London and won the appropriately named Mary Rich.

He trotted her home in front of his saddle with her £10,000’s worth of gold on its own pony with its own escort of Highland ghillies and by 1900, his descendant, the Marquess of Breadalbane, was
the largest landowner in Britain with an estate exceeding half a million acres.

But mismanagement was compounded by his wife being a gambler, who once betted £60,000 on a horse that stayed in the paddock. By 1920 he was forced to sell 56,000 acres and by 1948, with his death, all was gone and the title is claimed by a Hungarian, whose claim goes back to 1651. He has a haulage business in Budapest.

But this is only what happens in cases of primogeniture, when the eldest son inherits the lot. Great men have younger sons and daughters.

Some sons found dynasties of their own, and daughters could be a valuable commodity when it came to cementing alliances with other magnates. But most drifted down the social scale.

A King's younger sons became knights and earls, their younger children married into the land owning families, their offspring could marry large tenants, and their descendants would marry smaller tenants and eventually some of them would be bouncing along the bottom of society until someone with talent could begin to rebuild their family's status.

Take just a single example. In 1871 Catherine Stewart from Kincardine was in jail for prostitution. She was the daughter of a farm labourer, Duncan Stewart. He came from a line of agricultural tenants in the southern Highlands who descended from the laird, Stewart of Glenbuckie, and five generations before that his ancestor was King Robert II.

Robert was the first Stewart king. He gained the throne through his marriage to Robert Bruce's daughter. He sired thirteen legitimate children and the names of a further eight illegitimate sons are on record, as are seventy three grandchildren. His successor Robert III had three sons, four daughters and a further two recorded illegitimate sons. James I had two sons and four daughters. James II had four sons and two daughters. James III had three sons and James IV four sons, two daughters and at least five children out of wedlock.

So the first six Stewart kings had 56 children that we know about. This fecundity continued with their immediate descendants. Of course all these people married into the top echelons of Scots and, indeed, European society. But their genes proliferated through subsequent generations and percolated through into much of the general population.

That great genealogist Sir Iain Moncreiffe of the Ilk reckoned that some thirty thousand Scots could trace their ancestry back to Bruce and another million descended from him, but could not prove it. This is probably a conservative estimate and certainly fails to include thirty million North Americans, including thirty US Presidents and thirty seven elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, with Scots ancestry.

Ancestors were not that important to most Lowland Scots but for the Highlanders it was different. The ability to reel off the names of one's forebears unto the umpteenth generation and show kinship, particularly to one's Chief, was very important in Gaelic Society. And since every chief had married royalty or the descendants of royalty at some time, it gave the Gaels the arrogance of lineage that allowed them to consider Lowlanders as naught but an ill-bred rabble. Those south of the Highland line were as much the descendants of kings as those to the north, this was hardly reasonable.

Today, the descendants of the farm labourers, are often searching for their ancestors. How much they find is always a lottery, but Great Britain was largely spared the convulsions of religious wars and invaders that destroyed so many records on mainland Europe.