Scotland Magazine Issue 83
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The Clan Leslie
James Irvine Robertson reveals the complex
history of a great Scottish family
Many of Scotland's clans were founded by tough armour-clad men who rode north in search of fortunes and land gifted by kings who were looking for henchmen to help secure their rule over a turbulent country.
But the founder of the Leslies was an involuntary immigrant. He was an aristocratic Hungarian, Bartholomew, who was in the entourage of Edward the Atheling when he and his family were storm-driven into the Firth of Forth whilst escaping from William the Conqueror. They were given refuge by King Malcolm III who took Edward's sister Margaret as his queen.
Bartholomew became her chamberlain and earned the King's favour. He appointed him Governor of Edinburgh Castle as well as giving him his sister in marriage along with extensive grants of land in Aberdeenshire, Angus, and Fife. He built his castle at Leslie in the Garioch a few miles north west of Aberdeen.
The three buckles and motto 'Grip Fast' on the Coat of Arms of the Clan Chiefs, the earls of Rothes, refer to an alarming moment when Queen Margaret was crossing a river on a horse, seated side saddle behind Bartholomew. The horse slipped. “Grip fast,” shouted Bartholomew. The Queen held on to the strap and they made it safely to the bank. Bartholomew then had two more buckles fixed to the strap for extra safety.
Six generations on, the Leslies were amongst the strongest adherents to King Robert Bruce and had earned a reputation as fierce warriors as well as for fecundity. They and their kin provided a bulwark for the King in the North East where central authority faced the turbulent Gaels and Vikings.
Crusading provided an opportunity for sons of the dynasty to make names – and fortunes – for themselves in the chivalric society of Europe. Sir David, fourth in succession to the Barony of Leslie, was away crusading so long that he was thought to be dead. Consequently his cousin Sir George had installed himself in the family domains by the time he came home. He got them back but produced no sons and Sir George's descendants became the chiefly family.
In 1411, the Lord of the Isles invaded mainland Scotland in pursuit of the earldom of Ross and there followed the looting of Aberdeen. In a battle that defined the future of the nation, his horde of Highland clansmen were stopped at Harlaw, in the heart of Leslie country, by a force led by the Earl of Mar and the chivalry of the county.
The battle was fought all day with devastating casualties on both sides, but the Highland army withdrew and never again threatened to invade the Lowlands. Six sons of Sir Andrew Leslie were killed, although some estimates put that figure at 30, since Sir Andrew 'a turbulent baron and of very loose morals' seems to have sired half the modern clan. He was killed in 1420, feuding with Clan Forbes.
The earldom of Rothes was granted to Lord Leslie in 1458. The third Earl was killed at Flodden. The fourth was tried and acquitted for the murder of Cardinal Beaton. The seventh was Lord High Treasurer and the Lord Chancellor of Scotland and was showered with further honours, becoming Lord Auchmotie and Caskieberry, Viscount of Lugtoun, Earl of Leslie, Marquess of Bambreich and Duke of Rothes. He died in 1681 and the earldom was passed on through his daughter.
The terrible Thirty Years War on the continent gave a living to thousands of Scots fighting as soldiers of fortune, many Leslies among them. Four of them achieved greatness. Alexander Leslie fought for the Protestant King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, the Lion of the North, and rose to be a Field Marshall. Summoned back to Scotland, he was appointed Lord General by the Scots Parliament to resist the King's wish to impose bishops. He brought in Scots officers from Sweden and upgraded the army to such an extent that the King did not dare face it and negotiated a peace.
The following year, 1640, King Charles tried again. This time Leslie took Newcastle and forced another peace. The King engineered a reconciliation with this alarming general and made him Earl of Leven, but the convoluted politics of the civil wars found Leslie leading a Scots army to fight for Parliament once more at the decisive victory against the Royalists at Marston Moor in 1644.
Leading a crucial charge of cavalry in this battle was David Leslie who had fought with Alexander in Sweden. David commanded the Scots army that defeated the Marquis of Montrose at Philiphaugh in 1646. By 1650, the Scots had become disillusioned by the English Parliament and David was commanding the army for the King. He was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. When Charles II was restored to the throne, David became Lord Newark.
At the Battle of Philiphaugh, David intervened to save the life of Alexander Leslie of Auchintoul, once his Commanding Officer, who was fighting for the King. Auchintoul returned to the Russian service. He was the first foreigner appointed to the rank of General by the Tsar. He raised his family in Russia and founded a branch of the clan.
Walter Leslie fought on the Catholic side in the Thirty Years War and finished his life as an Imperial Field Marshal, Count of the Holy Roman Empire, Governor on the Croatian-Slavonian Military Frontier, Imperial Ambassador to Naples, Rome in 1645 and to Constantinople in 1665 - 1666.
One Leslie without the family fecundity was George. He became a Capuchin friar and worked as a missionary for his faith in Scotland. 'It has been said that more has been published about him than about any other Scot except Queen Mary Stuart.' His biography was published in innumerable editions in almost every language in Catholic Europe. There were even stage versions of his life performed in France and Italy. He died 1637 in Aberdeenshire.
Today there are Leslies scattered across the world. Most of the ones in North America emigrated in the 18th and 19th Centuries through Ireland. The Clan Society flourishes. The Chief is the Hon Alexander Leslie, brother to the Earl of Rothes.