The Vaughans of Bredwardine and Tretower, the Red Book of Hergest and Lady Hawkins’ School

April 23rd, 2024

When the bards rose to sing their verses at Tretower, Roger Vaughan’s noisy retainers would have fallen silent. Drinking and warmongering were not the only pursuits there; literature and song were appreciated too.

On 4 March 1464, at Dryslwyn, near Carmarthen, Roger was instrumental in the defeat of the Lancastrian uprising in south Wales. Amongst the vanquished rebels was Hopcyn ap Rhys ap Hopcyn, whose forfeited estates were duly assigned to Roger. Hopcyn came from a highly cultured family and is likely to have owned many fine books. Among them was a volume that is considered one of the most important of all Welsh manuscripts.

The Llyfr Coch Hergest, or Red Book of Hergest (Jesus College MS 111, now on deposit at the Bodleian), is a compendium of classic Welsh texts. A large and weighty tome, it was written shortly after 1382, on vellum, and bound in red leather. It contains geographical, medical and historical texts (including a Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth), collections of poetry, and all eleven tales of the Mabinogion corpus, for which it is the primary source.

A page from the Red Book

One of the three scribes who worked on the Red Book, Hywel Fychan, is known to have been employed by Hopcyn ap Tomas of Ynysforgan, Swansea, who was a notable patron of the bards in south Wales and a well-known collector of manuscripts. In 1403, Hopcyn was even consulted by Owain Glyndŵr as a ‘Maister of Brut’, or interpreter of old bardic prophecies.

It was probably this Hopcyn who commissioned the Red Book. It contains five awdlau or odes in his honour and two other texts that are addressed to his son. Hopcyn ap Thomas was the grandfather of the defeated rebel, Hopcyn ap Rhys ap Hopcyn, hence its coming into the possession of the Vaughans at Tretower.(1)

In the years that followed, the contents of the Red Book were hungrily devoured by the itinerant bards who frequented Tretower. Among them was Lewis Glyn Cothi, who added a couple of odes of his own, honouring Sir Roger’s son, Sir Thomas, and his grandsons. Ironically, Lewis was a supporter of the Lancastrians (whose triumph he lived to witness), but this ‘did not prevent him from singing to patrons who supported the Yorkists, and few poets broadcast eulogy so widely over Wales as he did’.(2)

Even the Yorkists among them were Welshmen at heart. In his praise poem to Roger Vaughan’s half-brother, William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1468), Guto’r Glyn (who eventually went blind, like Homer) urges him to rule fairly and favour the Welsh. His poem ends with the lines:

‘Make all one from the Conwy to the Neath.

If England and her dukes are angered,

Wales will come to your need.’(3)

An admiring bard, perhaps Lewis Glyn Cothi, must have taken the Red Book from Tretower to Hergest Court, at Kington in Herefordshire. Sir Roger Vaughan had perhaps made a gift of it to his elder brother, another Thomas, who was the lord of Hergest (called ‘Herast’ by Lewis, which is closer to the original Welsh, ‘deep glen’; otherwise pronounced ‘Hargest’, as Herbert was pronounced ‘Harbert’) and had made his seat there. Both the Red Book and the bardic tradition were preserved at Hergest for at least three generations.

A fortified medieval manor-house, contained within a moat, Hergest Court had been the property of the Clanvowe family, who completed the east wing in 1267. That structure is two storeys high and built of stone. The walls are three feet thick.

Tretower matches Hergest in its courtyard layout and fashionable timber-framing.

Thomas, however, had expanded Hergest into a court house that was at least as impressive as Tretower. Lewis, indeed, compares it to the Moorish palace at Alhambra, for it consisted of ‘eight strong buildings or fortresses’, each with its own ‘refectory and good stock of wine’. As Tretower also had accommodation for more than one household, the brothers must have striven to match each other in the splendour of their new homes. As at Tretower, too, the upper floor of Thomas’s north wing was fashionably timber-framed. The timbers there have been dendro-dated to 1452.(4)

In 1469, Thomas Vaughan, aged 69, once again marched out, with his kinsmen and retainers, in the Yorkist cause. He fought a brave fight at the Battle of Banbury, but was overwhelmed and beheaded. Lewis Glyn Cothi and Guto’r Glyn both wrote unctuous eulogies. Thomas’s widow, Ellen Gethin ‘the Terrible’, survived him, however, as did the bardic tradition at Hergest, under his son Watkin and his grandsons James and Roger.(5)

The already impressive library of the Vaughans was augmented by 362 volumes from the Cistercian Abbey near Neath, dissolved in 1539, which the last of the monks entrusted to their safe hands. By 1562, however, the Red Book, at least, had been sold or given away, for it was then in the possession of Sir Henry Sidney, President of the Council of Wales and the Marches, at Ludlow Castle. His son was Sir Philip Sidney, who may have leafed through it while on holiday from Shrewsbury.

Having passed through various hands, the Red Book was donated in 1701 to Jesus College, Oxford, the Welshmen’s college.(6) The original manuscript can now be viewed online, and translations of the Mabinogion (a collection of rattling good yarns) are readily available, not least in the shop at Tretower. As a mythology for Wales, the Red Book of Hergest surely inspired Tolkein’s ‘Red Book of Westmarch’. Also bound in a red cover, the work not of Welsh bards but of hobbits, this was the source of Bilbo and Frodo’s tales in his legendarium.(7)

Hergest Court Described

Hergest Court ‘stands like some bold veteran grey in arms, on the northern bank of the river Arrow, in a fertile vale or glen, and is a sight well calculated to rouse thoughts of by-gone times’.

The male line of the Vaughans of Hergest died out in 1706. The estate went to Frances, daughter of John, whose husband, William Gwyn Vaughan of Trebarried, was a distant cousin, descended from a bastard of Sir Roger of Tretower. Their granddaughter, Roach Vaughan, took the estate into the family of the Harleys, earls of Oxford. No longer of use to them, Hergest Court was abandoned in the mid-1700s. It was largely dismantled, what remained being reduced to ‘a common farm-house’.

For that reason, it has never been modernised. ‘Over the kitchen fire-place is a very large transom stone – and in various parts of the house are some fine specimens of old English wainscoting.’ The solar on the upper floor survives, with another huge fireplace, stone seating and heraldic stained-glass windows. There is an adjacent ‘ladies’ room’. But the whole upper floor is empty of life today. In 2018 it was described as ‘an attic full of old clutter’.

The extensive farmyard is still ‘ornamented by a few old arches in the Norman style’. The Vaughans were recusants (the adjacent stone stable or granary is their former chapel) and keen swimmers (a deep pool in the River Arrow is said to have been reserved for the ladies of the house). Owned by the Banks family since 1912, it is the most remote and romantic of houses, and its literary history is thrilling.(8)

Lady Hawkins’ School

Ellie Goulding

Charles Vaughan of Hergest, son of the James mentioned above, served as M.P. for Radnorshire in 1553, and his daughter Margaret was a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth. In 1591 she married the recently-widowed Sir John Hawkins. As a merchant and the captain of his own fleet of ships, Sir John had amassed a great fortune. He later served as Treasurer of the Navy and was the commander of one of the squadrons that defeated the Spanish Armada. He is infamous, however, as a promoter of the trade in African slaves.

When Lady Hawkins died in 1619, she left £800 for the endowment of a ‘free school’ in her native Kington. Lady Hawkins’ School is now a ‘comprehensive’, occupying  modern buildings at Kington, but her (rather forbidding) portrait hangs in the entrance hall and her marital arms on a lozenge, Hawkins impaled with Vaughan, are the badge of the school.

Lady Hawkins’ School now agonises about its connection, however tenuous, with the slave trade.(9) But Sir John was a ‘product of his age, which accepted slaving with an easy mind’. He was unashamed to adopt an enslaved man as his crest. Contemporaries were more shocked by Margaret’s tightfistedness, for she refused to ransom her stepson, Richard, from Spanish captivity, in which he languished for eight years.(10)

The continued existence of the school proves that good things may come from bad. Former pupils include the singer Ellie Goulding, who described it as ‘happy and supportive’,(11) and the actress Jessica Raine. The advice of John F. Kennedy is pertinent: ‘We will be just in our time. This is all we can do. We must be just today.’(12)


(1) Griffith Williams, ‘Hopcyn ap Thomas’ in Dictionary of Welsh Biography; TEI Header for Oxford Jesus College MS. 111 (The Red Book of Hergest),

(2) Evan Jones, ‘Lewis Glyn Cothi’ in Dictionary of Welsh Biography.

(3) Ifor Williams, ‘Guto’r Glyn’ in Dictionary of Welsh Biography;

(4) D.W.H. Miles, The Tree-Ring Dating of Hergest Court, Centre for Archaeology Report 13, English Heritage, 2001.

(5) Evan Jones, ‘Vaughan Family of Hergest’ in Dictionary of Welsh Biography.

(6) The Welsh word ‘Llyfr’, incidentally, is a word borrowed directly from the Latin (liber = book) during the period of the Roman occupation. (

(7) See Mark T. Hooker, ‘The Feigned-manuscript Topos’, Tolkienian mathomium: a collection of articles on J. R. R. Tolkien and his legendarium, Llyfrawr, 2006, pp. 176–177.

(8) The History of Kington, by a Member of the Mechanic’s Institute of Kington (Kington, 1845), pp.216-24; Residents of Hergest Court, a Talk by Allan Lloyd’, and Karen Blake, ‘Hergest Court 7th June 2018’, Leintwardine History Society, and

(9) Nic Dinsdale, Sir John Hawkins, Elizabethan Explorer and Privateer (Kington, 2003), and ‘A School with a Slaving Past’,

(10) Basil Morgan, ‘Sir John Hawkins’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

(11) Hereford Times, 14 May 2019.

(12) Quoted in A.C. Cairns, Citizens Plus (Vancouver, 2000), p.52.

Tretower Court and Tower: An Appreciation – and the Heraldry of the Vaughan Family

April 15th, 2024

Reduced to farm buildings, then left to wrack and ruin, the once-grand Tretower Court, in the Usk Valley, was saved for the nation in 1934 and is now in the safe hands of Cadw. The house has been beautifully restored and is presented to visitors with outstanding flair and imagination.

The two long ranges of Tretower Court, an attractive mixture of stone and timber-framing, were constructed in the mid-fifteenth century by Sir Roger Vaughan. It was either Sir Roger or his son, Sir Thomas, who added the battlemented curtain wall and gatehouse (with its huge wooden doors) to create the full courtyard plan of today.

The charm of Tretower, apart from the tranquil courtyard, is that the north range is virtually unaltered. The apartments on its upper floor are still accessed through a wooden side gallery. The west range, attached to it at a right angle, probably looked rather similar, but has acquired the elegant, late seventeenth-century façade that is the first thing one sees through the entrance arch.

The interior is unchanged, however, with the kitchen and service rooms at one end and Roger Vaughan’s private quarters at the other. The centrally-placed great hall, with its large fireplace on the west wall, is open still to its gloriously timbered roof. The timbers have been dendro-dated to 1455-6.

It was in this setting that Roger maintained ‘a court of royal style, the maintenance of a hundred men’. The wine flowed at his banquets and the itinerant ‘poets of the nobility’ were always on hand to sing his praises. Cadw have restored these rooms ‘as faithfully as possible, with new partitions, and plaster applied to the walls as appropriate’ (David M. Robinson, Tretower Court and Castle, Cadw, 2018, p.14). They have also filled them with replica furniture and fittings.

However well researched, such an approach is often deplored by purists, but for me, the result is very pleasing. There are hangings of say in the blue and red stripes of the Brigade of Guards, two trestle tables with benches arranged lengthwise for the retainers and, raised on a dais at the far end, a third table facing them which was for the lord and his family.

Covered with white table cloths, these are arrayed with glass- and pewter-ware and trenchers (slices of inferior bread that served as plates) that are less convincing. (They look like off-cuts from a breeze-block.) There are a dresser and a ‘cup board’ at the screen-end. With the aid of these props, it is quite easy to imagine the feasting and carousing that went on in this room.

Best of all is a painted cloth behind the high table, specially commissioned by Cadw, that depicts incidents from the Vaughan family history. On the extreme left we see Sir Roger’s father, Roger Vaughan of Bredwardine in Herefordshire, and his maternal grandfather, Dafydd Gam (‘the one-eyed’), at the Battle of Agincourt, where both men perished. Dafydd has been suggested as Shakespeare’s model for Fluellen in Henry V. As a prominent opponent of Owain Glyndŵr, he is anathema to Welsh nationalists, but his family had served their English overlords for generations, and would never have regarded themselves as traitors.

Sir Roger’s mother, Dafydd Gam’s daughter Gwladus Dhu, was remarried to Sir William ap Thomas, whose first wife, a Bloet, had been the heiress to both Raglan and Tretower. Known as ‘y marchog glas o Went’ (the blue knight of Gwent), Sir William was chief steward to the lord of Usk – the English Duke of York – and a member of his military council. From 1432 he had begun the transformation of Raglan, raising the present South Gate and Great Tower, which was surely painted. The court poet Guto’r Glyn refers to this five-storey moated fortress, accessible only by a drawbridge, as the ‘Yellow Tower of Gwent’.

Presided over by the remarkable Gwladus, the whole family, including young Roger, had taken up residence in these spacious quarters. When Gwladus died in 1454, her funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners, for she had been ‘the strength and support of Gwentland and the land of Brychan’. The court poet Lewis Glyn Cothi refers to her as ‘y seren o Efenni’ (the star of Abergavenny), though elsewhere she is sun-like, a ‘pavilion of light’. They were a close and united family. Roger was particularly attached to his younger half-brother, William Herbert, the future Earl of Pembroke, who on succeeding his father in 1445, settled Roger at Tretower as his castellan.

The motte-and-bailey castle of the Picards and Bloets stood in flat meadowland. The old shell keep had been gutted in the mid-thirteenth century and a great round ‘tower’ (from which Tretower is named) had been raised within. The polygonal outer walls of the shell keep had been retained, however, to form an impressive outer defence. Tretower Court is the comfortable modern residence that Roger built in the purlieus, some 200 yards from the castle walls.

As committed Yorkists, the Vaughans and the Herberts had often to strap on their plate armour and march to war. The next scene on the painted hanging is of Roger at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross (1461), but it omits the gruesome aftermath, for Roger is said to have led old Sir Owain Tudor to his execution at Hereford. Sir Owain’s head was placed on the market cross, where ‘a madde woman kembyd hys here and wysche a way the blode of hys face’. (James Gairdner, The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century, Camden Society, 1876, p.211.) Roger was knighted in 1465, an event that is also depicted on the hanging, acquired great estates including Merthyr Tydfil, and is said to have built the ‘royal palace’ at Cardiff. In a final scene we see him with William Herbert at the Siege of Harlech (1468).

After the victory at Tewkesbury in 1471, Roger was charged by King Edward with the pursuit of Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford, but himself falling into Jasper’s hands, was summarily executed at Chepstow. He could hardly have expected mercy from Owain’s son, but the court poets were incensed. Calling on the family to avenge him, they ‘cursed Jasper’s marrow for this wicked deed … May [we] see the traitor’s skullbone/Used in Tretower to tune the harpstring,’ they sang.

The patronage of poets endured under Roger’s son, Sir Thomas, who was unstintingly eulogised by Lewis Glyn Cothi and others, both for his courage in arms and for his liberal hospitality. Though a supporter of Richard III, he was luke-warm in the months before Bosworth, earning himself a general pardon from Henry VII.

His descendants never ascended in rank, but lived the relatively obscure lives of minor gentry, occasionally filling the office of High Sheriff, until in 1783 Charles Vaughan sold Tretower to a local farmer. By the 1850s it had been entirely given over to agricultural purposes, and the roof of the north range was on the point of collapse.

The Boy’s Head and the Snake

The figures on the hanging are always identifiable by their heraldry, which Cadw have put to excellent use at Tretower. Dafydd Gam, Roger Vaughan and William Herbert all wear armorial surcoats. Dafydd bears Argent three cocks gules, William Herbert Per pale azure and gules, three lions rampant argent. As for Roger, his coat of arms is the distinctive Sable three boys’ heads, couped at the neck proper, a snake about the neck of each one Vert – or so it appears here. The arms of Vaughan were inconsistently blazoned among the various branches. The tinctures vary and sometimes a chevron argent appears between the heads. (Michael Siddons ed., Visitations by the Heralds in Wales, Harleian Society, New Series XIV, London, 1996, pp.43, 54, 90; Burke’s General Armory.)

According to A.C. Fox-Davies (A Complete Guide to Heraldry, London, 1929, p.169), ‘The boy’s head will seldom be found as a charge except in Welsh coats, of which the arms of Vaughan and Price are examples’. To this list I would add the Watkins of Cwrt Robert in Tregear, Monmouthshire. Their ancestor, Lewis ap Gwatkyn of Painscastle, a contemporary and perhaps near relation of Roger of Tretower, is described by Lewis Glyn Cothi as a scion of the Vaughans of Bredwardine. (See

But why the snake? It commemorates their supposed descent from Moreiddig Warwyn (‘white neck’), and thence from Drymbenog ap Maenarch, lord of Brycheiniog. Legend has it that Moreiddig emerged from the womb with a viper entwined around his neck, a sure sign of his princely birth. In reality it may have been the umbilical cord, rather than a viper, that was so entwined. Moreiddig was also the fychan or ‘second born’ son. The surname Fychan, adopted by his descendants, was subsequently anglicised as Vaughan.

I particularly loved the projections that were automatically triggered in one of the old storerooms of the north range, an animated viper appearing from behind a row of shields to give an account of the house and family; or it was an almost tangible Lewis Glyn Cothi and a cast of animals, explaining their connection with the Mabinogion (an edition of which is on sale in the Tretower shop). My young son was enchanted, and so were the many other young visitors, who joyfully scaled the ramparts and coursed through the empty rooms in their unending games of hide and seek.

Jakob Duwall, a Scots Mercenary in the Thirty Years War: his Descent from the MacDougalls of Makerstoun and his Posterity in Sweden and Russia

January 16th, 2023

Jakob Duwall, alias MacDougall, by David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl

It was the ultimate indignity for an old soldier. On 1 October 1633, Major-General Jakob Duwall, Commander-in-Chief of Swedish troops in Silesia, had been defeated and captured at the Battle of Steinau. In the aftermath of the battle, his opponent Wallenstein, one of the most terrible generals of a terrible war, was reluctant to storm the fortress-city of Glögau, so set up a gallows in clear sight of its main gates. Duwall was brought forward and a noose was placed around his neck. A soldier never knows where or when he will die, but death can come at any moment, and must be faced with resignation and fortitude. Luckily for Duwall, the garrison hurriedly threw open the gates.

Renowned as a brave warrior and skilled tactician, Duwall had become complacent in his old age, or perhaps was distracted by his personal affairs. His wife Anna, captured with all her baggage during a sudden attack, had died in April of that year, and he had been prevented from overseeing her burial. The Swedish Chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, characterises him as a rapacious risk-taker and dipsomaniac, traits that he, for one, was prepared to forgive in a soldier. To the Elector of Saxony he seemed ‘ein ruhmrediger Mann, der sich mehr verratut, als er auf Gott sich verlassen’ (a boastful man who has greater faith in himself than in God). Stubborn, quarrelsome and permanently tight, Duwall had allowed his 2,000 soldiers, all of whom were billeted on the unwilling local population, to loot and burn as they pleased, and relations with his Saxon allies were under severe strain.

The isolated Swedes were thus entrenching themselves at Steinau, when the implacable Wallenstein suddenly fell upon them. Far from rising to the occasion, Duwall was so drunk that he could barely speak. He was to be Wallenstein’s prisoner for several weeks, playing the part of a drunken sot with great conviction. However, something of his old nimbleness remained, and on 13 November, he gave his captors the slip. Thereafter he sent a flurry of letters here and there, demanding a court martial to clear his name and pleading for funds with which to reorganise his army. The strain of all this was considerable, and Duwall, still in Silesia, died of drink on 9 May 1634,within months of the assassination of Wallenstein.

Jakob Duwall had been born some 45 years before in Prentzlau, Altmark, and his real name was MacDougall, which has always been pronounced and is now usually spelt ‘MacDowall’. He and his father, rechristened ‘Albrekt’, along with his uncle Robert and his three German-speaking brothers, Mauritz, Tobias and Axel, were among the tens of thousands of Scotsmen and women who flooded northern Europe in the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-centuries, in search of their fortunes or of adventure. From Holland to Denmark, from Germany to Poland, they included students, merchants, craftsmen and swarms of peddlars, many of whom settled in these countries and flourished. In the mid-1500s, even the Provost of Elsinore was a Scot. What fun Shakespeare could have had with that information! As a result, Scottish ancestry is widespread among the Poles, many of whom have polonised Scottish names. Chalmers was transformed into Czarmas, Cochrane into Czochran, Forsyth into Forseit etc. It is even suggested that Lech Wałęsa, the Polish national hero of recent times, was truly a Wallace.

In Russia and Scandinavia, the demand was not for peddlars but for mercenaries, and thousands of warlike Scotsmen were eager to oblige. Thus ‘Albrekt’ MacDougall had migrated to Sweden with his German second wife, Elsa von Bredau, and their children in 1594. He was Sheriff for Orby by 1615 and a Captain in Baron Gustav Horn’s Savolaks Regiment by 1625. ‘Albrekt’ was a more familiar version of his real name which is not recorded, though ‘Uchtred’, a favourite forename of earlier MacDougalls, is a possible candidate.

Foreign soldiers had been raised in the 1590s to fight the Russians and the Poles with whom the Swedes were almost constantly at war. Albrekt’s three boys all entered military service when of age, Jakob first seeing action against the Poles as an eighteen-year-old musketeer. By the time of the Thirty Years War, when the military registers indicate around 25,000 Scots in Scandinavian service, all three brothers were colonels of regiments. Jakob, whom Chancellor Oxenstierna flatteringly described as ‘en redelig Sveriges invohnere’ (a true citizen of Sweden), was promoted to major-general in 1632.

Questions of nationality were of less importance than the issue of nobility. Oxenstierna’s law of 1634, the Instrument of Government, made noble birth, or ennoblement, a condition for all public commissions or office, and particularly for membership of the newly-incorporated Riddarhuset, or ‘House of Knights’, of the Riksdag. Jakob Duwall’s brother Mauritz was duly admitted in recognition not only of his father’s faithful service, but also because ‘Jakob Forbes and Johan Oxenstierna, who travelled in Scotland, testified that they had heard nothing but that the Dougalls were a noble family’.

Later generations sought more detailed proof to secure their privileges. Jakob Duwall was ennobled posthumously in 1674, allowing his sons to enjoy the title of ‘Friherre’, but his first cousin William (son of Albrekt’s younger brother Robert) had left two sons, Gustav and William, who had no desire to be thought of as commoners. It seems that the latter made a special journey to Scotland, ‘in the name of and on behalf of his brother’, in order to obtain information about their ancestry. It is questionable whether young William knew any English, let alone Scots, but he contrived to meet the right people and to ask the right questions. Three old men in their eighties were interviewed, including one Thomas MacDougall of Stodrig. All three had known Robert MacDougall and his parents in Scotland, in the years before his emigration to Sweden.

MacDougall of Makerstoun

Introduced to other cousins who could vouch for their respective antecedents, William was given a clear account of the previous five generations of his family. He learnt that his grandfather Robert, who ‘crossed over into foreign parts’ some 60 years before (c.1596), and indeed Robert’s elder brother ‘Albrekt’, were the sons of Patrick MacDougall, younger brother of James MacDougall of Makerstoun, by his wife Margaret, daughter of George Nisbet of that Ilk. Both the MacDougalls and the Nisbets were border lairds (Makerstoun is high on the Tweed, near Kelso) and were connected to some of the most historic families in Scotland. According to the evidence collected by William, Robert’s great-grandparents included Andrew MacDougall of Makerstoun, Margaret Scott of Buccleuch, Walter Ker of Cessford, Patrick Nisbet of that Ilk, Margaret Douglas of Longniddry and Cuthbert Cranstoun of Thirlestane Mains. They are like a roll-call from one of Scott’s novels.

Scott of Buccleuch

Each was indeed noble according to the Scots definition, which ascribes nobility to all persons bearing a coat of arms. A patent of arms from the Lyon Court (which regulates heraldry in Scotland) is, even today, considered a diploma of nobility. William had garnered the testimonials of some highly creditable witnesses, such as the guardian to the then Countess of Buccleuch, who would have had unhindered access to the family records; likewise William Cranstoun of that Ilk and Adam, the son of Alexander Nisbet of that Ilk. William’s gleanings are thus a valuable primary source, especially when corroborated or augmented by evidence from elsewhere.

The next step was to present the accumulated testimonials to some respectable body for authentication. It was and is the practice in Scotland to have one’s antecedents set forth in Letters Patent known as a diploma stematis or ‘birthbrief’, and quite usual in the seventeenth century to obtain them not from Lyon Court but ‘from local Town Councils (where the proof was less exacting than Lord Lyon’s), but these were usually for the consideration of the patriciate of foreign cities’. William wisely chose the baillies of the Provost and Corporation of Edinburgh, whose pronouncements were sure to carry weight even in Sweden.

Nisbet of that Ilk

Examining just such a birthbrief from 1669, that of one Walter Innes, issued by the City of Aberdeen, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, himself Lord Lyon, deplored the prominence given in the document to the royal arms, those of the city being entirely absent. One hopes the baillies of Edinburgh were less impudent, but an illustration of the royal arms would no doubt have added gravitas to the resulting document. Helpfully translated into Latin, the birthbrief was signed and sealed by their clerk, William Thomson, on 6 March 1656. Having thus concluded his business in Scotland, William MacDougall returned triumphantly to Sweden and the Letters Patent were in due course registered in the State Archives in Stockholm, where a transcript can still be read today.

Cranstoun of that Ilk

The chronology suggests that Margaret Scott of Buccleuch who is mentioned above was the sister of ‘Wicked Wat’, a notable riever, who was murdered on Edinburgh High Street in 1504, in a feud with the Ker family of which his own mother was a member. The Kers, from whom the MacDougalls had a double descent, are thought to have originated at Criel-sur-Mer in Normandy, a name which in old documents is rendered ‘Ker’ (house). The pronunciation of the name is problematic. According to Admiral Mark Kerr, ‘In Scotland the name rhymes with care. Since many of the family have come to England the pronunciation in this country rhymes with car, which we have entirely submitted to’. Through the Scotts and the Kers, the MacDougalls had a double dose of Scottish royal blood: the Scotts were descended, through his grandson William ‘the Red Douglas’, 2nd Earl of Angus, from the sad, ineffectual King Robert III, baptised as John Stewart, who died of grief in 1406; and the Kers from his ambitious brother Robert, Duke of Albany, who ruled for him and for his son as Regent until his own death in 1420.

Lorentz Creutz, troll-finder general, by David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl (National Museum, Sweden)

The blood royal of Scotland was thus transmitted to Jakob Duwall’s living descendants who are through the female line, the last male, Fridof Duwall, having died unmarried in 1923. Jakob’s daughter Elsa, for example, married Lorentz, Friherre Creutz (1615 – 1676), a civil servant who in 1669 served on the infamous troll commission in Mora, which in a wave of hysteria interrogated sixty suspects and executed thirteen alleged witches and one man by decapitation, their corpses being burnt at the stake. Bizarrely, without ever having previously put to sea, Creutz was then appointed Admiral-General of the Navy, and perished when his top-heavy flagship, the mighty Kronan, capsized in the middle of a battle.

Their son Lorentz, Friherre Creutz, was Director of Mines in Finland, married to Ebba Maria Fleming, a descendant of King Gustav Vasa’s favourite Erik Fleming. They were succeeded by Claus, a captain of dragoons, married to the daughter of the distinguished general, Bleckert Wachtmeister af Björkö, who led the Swedish right wing to victory at Narva in 1700. Amongst their descendants, through a daughter Ebba who married the Friherre Lybecker, were the Knorrings, a branch of whom settled in Russia in the early 1800s. The fascinating Friherrinan Nadezhda Ivanovna Knorring (1826 – 1895), Dumas fils’s ‘green-eyed siren’, is described by Tolstoy as having ‘driven many men out of their minds’. The author of this memorial is her descendant.

To judge from their portraits, Duwall and his line were a series of grim-visaged individuals, all armed to the teeth and poised to confound the Catholics by wreaking havoc on various fields of war. Belying the contemporary image of the Swedes as peace-loving, blond-haired egalitarians, these men are dark and brooding, evidently preoccupied with their battles and sieges, their swashbuckling adventures and their acts of reckless heroism, not to mention their coffers. Yet it was on the achievements of such men that modern Sweden was built.

As for Makerstoun, a property of the MacDougalls since 1374, where the tower-house of 1590 partially survives, it eventually passed through an heiress to Major-General Sir Thomas MacDougall-Brisbane of that Ilk (1773 – 1860), soldier, colonial administrator and astronomer, who has lent his name both to the third largest city in Australia and to a crater on the moon.

[Based on Riksarkivets ämnessamlingar. Personhistoria, SE/RA/756/756.1/D/I/D 27 a. A photograph of this document (in which ‘of that Ilk’ translates prosaically as ‘de eodem’) can be viewed on the Riksarkivet website – Being an office copy it is not, of course, illuminated. A translation is available on the University of St Andrews SSNE database – On birthbriefs, see Innes of Learney, Scots Heraldry, pp.99-100, and ‘Further Note on the Birthbrief of Walter Innes’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, LXXXI (1947), pp.114-18. See also the complementary accounts of Duwall on the Swedish Riksarkivet website,, and on, as well as in T.A. Fischer, The Scots in Sweden (Edinburgh, 1907), Part II, passim; Christopher Smout, ‘The Culture of Migration: Scots as Europeans, 1500 – 1800’, History Workshop Journal, 1995, No.40, pp.108-17; and,%2C%20Machayskis%2C%20Machlajds%20and%20Makolroy.]

Robert III, King of Sciots, and his wife Annabella Drummond, wearing their coats of arms on the Forman Armorial, 1562

The Willoughby Family of Colchester, Illogan and Plymouth

September 10th, 2021


The summer of 1647 was not the most auspicious time to be married. With the King a prisoner of Parliament, the anxieties of the Civil War were unresolved. Whilst the defeated Royalists seethed against the exactions of Parliament, the country was drenched by almost incessant rain, which promised yet another ruined harvest and seemed a sure sign of divine displeasure. Long-distance travel was exceptionally difficult and dangerous, any stranger being viewed with deep suspicion and liable to lynching as a spy.

Thomas Wilby was a native of Colchester in Essex – the ancient Camaloduno, famed in Arthurian legend – one of the great commercial centres of England and a Parliamentarian stronghold. Having fallen foul of the town’s oppressive Puritan government, Thomas took passage on a ship that spirited him as far away as possible from Colchester. He duly stepped ashore in far Cornwall, or ‘Kernow’, whose people spoke a foreign language, were widely despised as a barbarous, beggarly race, and were notorious among the English for their fanatical Royalism. It was perhaps only his disarming youthfulness – Thomas was barely 21 – that prevented him from being quietly murdered. 

This is the true story of Thomas’s arrival in Cornwall and of his marriage, within months, to a well-connected local girl, Margaret Nicholas of Sithney. Their surname rapidly adapted to ‘Willoughby’ (which the Cornish found easier to pronounce), Thomas and Margaret were the ancestors of all subsequent Willoughbys in Cornwall. Their descendants have been like Abraham’s – as numberless as the stars.

The couple’s younger son, also Thomas, settled at Illogan on Cornwall’s dramatic northern shore. He founded a line which, for six generations, farmed the same small estate at Great Nancekuke, close to the very edge of the heather-clad cliffs. They also dabbled in wrecking and tinning, for Illogan was at the heart of the mining country. However, when the latest steam machinery appeared on the increasingly industrialised landscape, it inspired an enterprising younger son, William Willoughby, to become an engineer.

Perhaps the protégé of Richard Trevithick, inventor of the steam locomotive, William went on to found, in 1844, what became Willoughby Brothers of Plymouth, builders of sturdy small ships and of all manner of iron structures and machinery, much of which is visible in and around Plymouth today.

This book includes a full, up-to-date account, with biographical sketches, of all traceable Willoughby descendants, including those through the female line. They include such luminaries as Kenneth Kendall, the newsreader who made broadcasting history; Sir Ernest Willoughby Petter, who built the first British motor-car and later founded Westland Aircraft; Sir Arthur Hockaday, Denis Healey’s ‘ideal’ of a private secretary; and countless others who have made their mark in a quiet way, such as Josephine Willoughby, one of the earliest female students at Cambridge. It is intended to surprise and delight every Willoughby descendant, and to enthral every devotee of historic Kernow.

This 192-page A4 bound paperback book, with colour covers, nearly 80,000 words of text, ten genealogical tables and eighteen colour plates has been limited to an imprint of seventy copies. Only a few are still available and they can be ordered from the author at a price of £45.00 each. Please contact

Faith and Fresh Air: Medieval Reading’s Response to an Epidemic

June 9th, 2020

Sometime in the twelfth century, perhaps soon after the consecration by Thomas Becket of the Abbey Church, a terrible plague fell upon Reading. Young and old alike, anyone vulnerable to the bite of an infected flea in an age where everyone was permanently flea-bitten, succumbed like wheat before the scythe to this terrifying disease.

All normal commerce was suspended. The townsfolk kept to their houses, their anxiety almost unbearable. When a sufferer exhibited the first symptoms of the disease – a headache to start with, then debilitating chills and fever – it was like the delivery of a death sentence.

People very occasionally recovered, but most would suffer appallingly for a week, until, sapped of all their strength, death brought the release for which they must, by then, have craved. Nauseous, aching all over, they shrank with anguished cries from the light, the brightness being more than they could stand. Then came the swellings, usually after a couple of days, agonising, hard swellings that sometimes grew to the size of an orange, on the neck, arms, inner thighs, swellings that were soon black in their vileness and bursting with pus and blood. Yet this was not the most excruciating phase of the disease, for then they started to bleed internally, and to leak blood from every orifice. Sufferers already stank of death by the time they expired, with their helpless husbands, wives, parents or children looking on in horror and wondering when their own turn would come. They was nothing they could do, other than wait to load the battered, unrecognisable corpses onto the carts that came to carry away the dead.

The poor and afflicted would usually have turned to the monks of the Abbey for succour, but the infirmary there was already packed with their own people. Thirteen Reading monks perished from the disease in the course of that year. Their only hope was in prayer, for a strong wind that would blow away the foulness in the air, yet it seemed to the monks that God was punishing them for their sins and that they needed to persuade Him of their merit.

In a great act of faith, the monks of Reading Abbey, who had complete authority over the town, resolved at length on a course of decisive action. A decree was issued to all the able-bodied townsfolk. Rather than wait to put out their dead, they were told to lay out their sick relatives on litters in the streets. Fearful of leaving their homes, they were told nonetheless to assemble in the vast Abbey church for a service. A fast was proclaimed, and special litanies were sung in front of the congregation. The monks then led a solemn and orderly procession through the streets, holding aloft their most sacred relic, the hand of St James the Greater, and invoking him before God as their protector.

It was subsequently affirmed that a miracle was worked that day, that the sick lying on their litters, having once caught sight of the bejewelled reliquary containing the hand, were cured of their affliction. It was as if the Lord had been appeased in that hour and had instantly allayed the grief of His people, who returned joyfully to their homes, to be free of the epidemic for many years to come.

In the decades since the founding of the Abbey by Henry I, who had entrusted this prized relic to its care, a number of miraculous cures had been credited to the saint. There had been a catalogue of incidents in the mid-1150s. A knight called Mauger Malcuvenant had been restored to life by drops of water in which the holy reliquary had been dipped; a woman from Earley, a nearby village, had been cured of her dropsy after praying in the Abbey church; and a man from Barking had, after keeping vigil there overnight, miraculously regained the power of speech. The lifting of the Reading plague was St James’s most dramatic intervention to date, greatly enhancing his reputation as a miracle-worker and, as a centre of pilgrimage, that of the Abbey, where he was believed to be a living presence.

The Becket Casket in the V & A is contemporary with the events described above

A Survival Guide for Lock-Down: Xavier de Maistre’s Journey Around My Room

May 27th, 2020

How does one come to terms with being confined to one’s home?  In 1790, when Count Xavier de Maistre. a 26-year-old lieutenant of marines in the service of the King of Sardinia, was placed under house arrest, he undertook and completed a forty-two-day ‘journey around his room’, for that was the precise length of his sentence for the rather gentlemanly offence of duelling.

Pouring out a book that he had already long planned, Maistre writes with great verve and enthusiasm, determined to ‘display only the cheerful aspect of my soul’. His Journey around My Room is a spoof travelogue, offering an alternative, but no less fulfilling form of travel to the timid and the indolent, to those in poor health, and to those who are simply short of cash, not to mention those, like him, who are forbidden to go out at all.

Maistre’s modest furniture and pictures spark a series of delightful reflections and imaginative leaps, although, as he points out, a ‘nice fire, books, pens’ are all you really need for such a journey.

He writes with great appreciation of his armchair, his sofa and his bed, where so much of his interior life is lived. After all, ‘A bed witnesses our birth and death; it is the unvarying theatre in which the human race acts out, successively, its captivating dramas, laughable farces, and dreadful tragedies. – It is a cradle bedecked with flowers; – it is the throne of love; – it is a sepulchre.’

His carefully-curated picture gallery evokes sentimental memories of former loves and of past friendships. ‘Happy the man who finds a friend whose heart and mind harmonise with his; a friend united to him by a conformity of tastes, feelings and interests; a friend who is not tormented by ambition or egotism; – one who prefers the shade of a tree to the pomp and circumstance of a court! – Happy the man who possesses a friend!’

Though he presents himself in Voyage autour de ma chambre as rather unsoldierly, forgetting more than once to buckle on his sword for court duty, Xavier de Maistre had a distinguished military career ahead of him. He joined the Russian service in 1800, fought in the war of 1812 and was promoted a year later to Major-General. He married into my family and spent part of his retirement (from the late 1830s) in Naples, where he was the neighbour and close friend of my Naryshkin ancestors. The story he told them was that he had considered his little manuscript to be of no significance, but that his brother Joseph had liked the book and had had it published in Turin in 1794, with further editions issuing from Paris and Hamburg in 1796. It was only many years later, after the downfall of Napoleon, that Xavier was able to visit Paris. There he discovered, to his astonishment, that everyone seemed to have read his book, and he was quite taken aback to be fêted as a literary celebrity. He was a wise and modest old man, as one would expect, the preoccupation of his later life being painting, in which he was no less skilled than as a writer. He died in St Petersburg in 1852.

However, as any astute person knows, one is never alone with a book. Through his library of novels, ‘and a few choice poets’, Maistre is able to ‘transport my existence’ and explore a ‘vast terrain’, from ‘the expedition of the Argonauts to the Assembly of Notables, from the lowest depths of hell to the last fixed star beyond the Milky Way, to the confines of the universe, to the gates of chaos’. He is referring particularly to Homer, Virgil, Ossian and Milton, for whose Lucifer he confesses a guilty admiration. His books give him access to worlds which can no longer be found on Earth, ‘for the men and even the heroes of today are pygmies’. In this light, it is no vanity for Maistre to describe his journey as the finest ever undertaken.

Unlike those who, today, are cowering inside for the avoidance of an epidemic, Maistre suffers his punishment alone, though at least he is able to receive friends, and is waited on by a Jeeves-like servant called Joannetti. Besides, there are those tussles with his (apparently female) soul. However, his coquettish mistress, Madame de Hautcastel, is indifferent to him and not among the visitors. Maistre is also exiled from, and grieves for, his native Savoy, a land assailed by ills, and soon to be annexed by Revolutionary France.

Outside in Turin, it is the time of the Carnival. He would have preferred his sentence to have fallen during Lent, but ‘philosophical reflections granted by Heaven’ prevent him from envying the revellers, whose merriment is clearly audible in the streets below. Instead, he reflects on those who are in far worse predicaments than he.

He is thinking of the poor, whose ‘pitiful cries’ are everywhere met with indifference, except by ‘the host of charitable men who sleep while the others are enjoying themselves, get up at daybreak and go off to give aid and comfort to misfortune, without witnesses and without ostentation.’ These saintly people then go off to church to thank God for his benefits, for which reason alone ‘the Eternal, angered at the harshness and avarice of men, holds back his thunder bolt that was poised to strike!’

In truth, Maistre is enjoying the uninterrupted time to himself, confessing that, ‘for some time now, all crowded gatherings have inspired in me a certain terror’. He has felt corrupted by the artificial bonhomie of such occasions, and is prone to finding ‘causes of sadness everywhere’. In confinement, his natural optimism asserts itself: ‘What a rich storehouse of enjoyment has kindly nature endowed on those men whose hearts are able to enjoy!’

He knows in his heart that he needs ‘the heaven’s air, and that solitude resembles death’, but Maistre speaks for all those fortunate people who are enjoying ‘lock-down’ too much – for whom, indeed, it is a blissful, restorative experience, a chance for tired souls to rest and for the whole Earth to breathe again.

‘Enchanting land of the imagination, you whom the most benevolent Being bequeathed to men to console them for reality, I must leave you. – Today is the day when certain persons on whom I depend say they will restore me to freedom. As if they had taken freedom from me! As if it had been in their power to deprive me of it for a single moment, and to prevent me from exploring at will the vast space that always lies open before me! – They have forbidden me to roam around a city, a mere point in space; but they have left me with the whole universe: immensity and eternity are mine to command.

‘So,’ he concludes, ‘today is the day I am to be free, or rather the day on which I am to be shackled in chains once more! The yoke of business will once more weigh down on me; I will no longer be able to take a single step that is not traced out for me by propriety and duty. – I may still be happy if some capricious deity makes me forget both of them, and if I can escape from this new and dangerous captivity!’

[Xavier de Maistre, A Journey Around My Room, trans. Andrew Brown, with a foreword by Alain de Botton, London, Hesperus Classics, 2004.]

A MacGregor Miscellany: The Real Rob Roy

March 30th, 2020

Scottish Highlanders differed from Lowlanders in that they routinely carried arms, and indeed were militarised from birth. They used to say in the Highlands: ‘When a male is born they put a sword or a knife in his hand’. They were further distinguished by their language (most spoke only Gaelic); their dress (shirt, plaid, stockings, brogues and bonnets); and their modest dwellings, generally of unmortared stone, with turf roofs. Even the mighty Lochiel, chief of Clan Cameron, lived until 1746 in a wooden house with two stone gable ends (Moncreiffe and Hicks, The Highland Clans, pp.15-16).

Baby girls were not given arms at birth but a spindle to grasp. To the great convenience of genealogists, married women retained their maiden names. Thus the baptismal records of my ancestors Alexander McEwen and Catherine Campbell reveal that their mothers were MacGregors, where no other trace of them exists.

They were a tough breed, adept at negotiating the mountainous terrain. It has been pointed out that Rob Roy MacGregor would have made the nine-mile journey from Glengyle, where he was born, to Inverlochlarig Beg in Balquhidder, where he died, on foot. Today it is a 49-mile journey by road (David Stevenson, The Hunt for Rob Roy, Edinburgh, 2004, pp.1-4, 12, 34).

Rose Bonheur, ‘Highland Raid’ (1860)

The tradition in the family is that my ancestors were ‘caterans’ or cattle-raiders. This was by no means a shameful secret, as cattle-raiding was a way of life until the eighteenth century and was not considered a crime like murder or stealing money. They generally spoke of cattle having been ‘lifted’ rather ‘stolen’.

Though men of many other clans were involved at one time or another, raids were almost invariably blamed on the men of Clan Gregor, who were thought of as a race of cattle thieves. The defiant, marginalised MacGregors, described in 1745 as ‘a hardy, rough people, but noted for pilfering’, had been forced into such activity for their survival and, intensely proud of their lineage, regarded it as an occupation worthy of them as gentlemen.

Both the raiders and their victims complied with a well-established code. Only one or two cattle would be ‘lifted’ at a time, and the drovers were usually unmolested, their trade being vital to the Highland economy. Some farmers would tether a few cattle in places from which they could be easily ‘lifted’, for to cause trouble to the raiders was ‘against the rules of Highland politicks. Amongst these people a quarrel is easily begun but not forgott for many generations’.

Other tenants employed ‘watchers’ to keep guard, paying for them by means of a levy known as ‘blackmail’. The raiders themselves often took on the role, in effect being paid to protect the cattle by not stealing them (Stevenson, pp.7-9, 32, 110, 117).

This genuinely old tartan, worn by the Earl of Wemyss in a portrait of 1740, was later ascribed to Rob Roy to help market it

The father of Rob Roy, Donald Glas (‘the Pale’) MacGregor of Glengyle, who died in 1693, was a professional organiser of watches, earning his living by blackmail. Strictly speaking, Donald was ‘in’, rather than ‘of’ Glengyle, as the holding was not a feudal barony; but as de facto chief of the clan – in default of any strong leadership from the rightful claimant, Gregor MacGregor ‘in Stucharoy’ – he was felt to merit the distinction. Rob Roy was to follow him into the ‘profession’ and used to send his wife Mary out on horseback to collect the blackmail, clad in laced riding cloths and accompanied by a couple of bodyguards. They were described as ‘unwelcome visitants’.

Rob Roy’s sons carried on the family tradition and also turned their hand to horse-theft. On one occasion a woman whom they had robbed of her horses went bravely to confront Rob at his house in Balquhidder and was handsomely compensated by the old rogue, who liked to pose as a Robin Hood figure (Stevenson, pp.11-13, 196, 215).

The theft of sheep, however, was for some reason frowned upon. As an Englishman, Edmund Burt, observed in the 1720s, ‘the Highlander thinks it less shameful to steal a hundred cattle than one single sheep, for a sheep-stealer is infamous even among them’ (Stevenson, p.7). Desperate men would no doubt steal anything.

John Ramsay of Ochertyre says Rob was ‘a gentleman by birth, in a clan where every man, however poor, finds no difficulty in making out a long and honourable pedigree’ (Stevenson, p.269). During the centuries of persecution, the MacGregors clung doggedly to their name. As the law was often loosely enforced, many even dared to use it in official contexts, though it would have been unwise to include it on deeds of any import as they would have had no legal validity.

Most unhelpfully for genealogists, MacGregors tended to switch their legal pseudonyms at will, often as a mark of allegiance to their latest protector. Rob Roy originally called himself Campbell, but became a Drummond when their chief, the (Jacobite) Duke of Perth, dealt favourably with him. To flatter him further, he became a rather insincere Catholic (Stevenson, pp.22, 34, 214, 243).

In 1745 the MacGregors were said to be ‘dispersed through the Duke of Perth’s estate’, which included a considerable part of Perthshire. It is perhaps significant that Stobhall, the ancestral seat of the Drummonds, is a mere bend in the Tay from Kinclaven, where my McEwens were settled. It is conceivable that we descend from the branch of the MacGregor chiefly line calling themselves ‘MacEwin’. Documented in her two-volume Clan Gregor by the family historian, Amelia MacGregor of MacGregor, until the seventeenth century, these ‘MacEwins’ are said to have ‘disappeared without trace’.

The Highlanders were greatly attached to their traditional burial-places. The Balquhidder MacGregors favoured the island of Inchailloch on Loch Lomond. Bodies used to be carried over the pass still known as Bealach nam Corp (Stevenson, p.12). The Macnab chiefs were likewise buried on an island, similarly picturesque, that of Inchbuie in the River Dochart. The Macnab in the late eighteenth-century used his possession of ‘the most beautiful burying-ground in the world’ as a chat-up line. It failed to procure him a wife, though he managed to beget thirty-two bastards and it was rumoured that several lasses in the district got ‘the bad disorder’ from him (Moncreiffe and Hicks, The Highland Clans, p.14).

Reluctant Jacobites

Highland funerals were occasions for great gatherings and involved the traditional coronach or ‘keening’ when the assembled women wailed their lament. This would be followed by a ‘compleat narration of the descent of the dead person’. As Rob Roy’s body was carried to his grave, the pipers struck up the haunting MacCrimmon’s Lament (Stevenson, pp.220-1). As late as 1879, the funeral procession for Sir Malcolm MacGregor of MacGregor at Balquhidder was several miles long. A drunken wake would traditionally ensue (Moncreiffe and Hicks, The Highland Clans, p.15).

It is not surprising that the persecuted MacGregors lived permanently on the qui vive. Iain Moncreiffe wrote that his MacGregor cousins ‘taught me as a boy to eat the old staple diet porridge standing up, ready to run for it lest they be raided by Campbells’ (Lord of the Dance, p.194). Others hold that porridge should be eaten standing up in any case, merely out of respect for the dish.

Ancestors of mine would have been ‘out’ in the Fifteen and the Forty-Five. The MacGregors were said in 1711 to be dispersed over a wide area, but ready on their ‘watchword’ to assemble and follow their chief. The Pretender offered the promise of restoring their name. MacGregors who refused to join the rising in 1715 were threatened with death. There were many reluctant recruits, from all clans, in the Jacobite rebellions.

Rob Roy, his nephew Glengyle and MacGregor of Balhaldie led their forces south and launched an expedition to capture the boats on Loch Lomond, but were thwarted by the Royal Navy. The MacGregors under the slippery Rob Roy stood aloof at Sheriffmuir, as if ready to switch sides, and thus contributed to the Jacobite defeat. In January 1716 Glengyle led 134 MacGregors into Fife in quest of forage. For a few weeks they occupied Falkland Palace, which Cromwell had left half-derelict, with Rob serving as deputy governor (Stevenson, pp.74, 102-4, 110, 118-19).

The Real Rob Roy

Liam Neeson: not the real Rob Roy

Rob Roy had less to lose than most in these ventures, as he was already an outlaw. Having by his early thirties built up a successful, and entirely legitimate cattle-dealing business, he had been faced by 1711 with bankruptcy. In an attempt to recover his finances, he had defrauded his customers, including the powerful Duke of Montrose, his overlord for Glengyle. Protected by the rival Clan Campbell, Rob was able to escape justice and live openly in their country, first at Auch, then at Brackley, with forty or fifty men, including a personal piper, in his service (Stevenson, pp.33-44, 62-3). The MacGregors, incidentally, are described as a leading piping family, with many individual tunes to their name (

A vengeful Montrose has ever since been represented as the villain of Rob Roy’s story. In the 1995 film, Rob Roy, which gullible viewers may mistake for a factual account, he is played with sneering relish by John Hurt. But the betrayal of trust had been Rob’s, and the real Montrose was far from being an oppressive landlord, many having ‘tenures of kindness’ on his lands. He appears to have been a gentle, courteous man, much like his descendant, the present duke, who still lives on Lomond-side. Yet Rob set out purposefully to humiliate his former patron, even stealing 32 of his best cows in a raid on Buchanan Castle in 1717, and returning later to steal his grain. By the 1720s Rob Roy’s daring exploits had made him a legend throughout Scotland (Stevenson, pp.53-6, 154-6, 184).

James Graham, First Duke of Montrose: not the John Hurt caricature

Rob Roy is described as a huge, hairy redhead, with such long arms that he could tie his garters without stooping, like a human orang-utan. If so he would have been noticeably deformed, the account being clearly an exaggeration. Sources agree that he was remarkably affable and ‘jolly’, a most beguiling individual, with an aversion to gratuitous violence. In 1725 he prevailed upon General Wade to procure him the King’s pardon, and was cheerfully prepared to betray his fellow Jacobites for money (Stevenson, pp.53, 199, 203, 230).

Rob’s intelligence led to the arrest of James Stirling of Keir who was one of the Pretender’s leading agents in Scotland, a blatant act of treachery which his admirers have chosen to ignore. Aged nearly sixty, he supplemented his income with the proceeds of cattle raids. Many of the best stories about him are garbled or unverified. He is said to have made his famous ‘leap’ over the Leuchars Burn in full spate at Peterculter, but the entire story – immortalised in the 1953 Disney version of his life – was probably an invention for the benefit of tourists. He died of an injury sustained in a duel – the details are uncertain – at Inverlochlarig Beg on 28 December 1734 (Stevenson, pp.206-8, 219). An unprincipled rogue, he at least had charm and a degree of humanity, which is more than could be said for his psychopathic sons, one of whom was hanged for rape and murder.

In The Braes of Balquhidder (1914), F. Watson summed up Rob with refreshing common sense: ‘it must be admitted that he was not overly scrupulous nor truthful, and the long and the short of it is that it is wiser not to look for public school ideas in a Highland cateran’ (quoted in Stevenson, p.286). My considerable debt to another wise and indefatigable author, David Stevenson, for his brilliant biography of Rob Roy, will be evident from the many citations above.

Rob Roy, the Children of the Mist and the Outlaw in Me: Were the McEwens of Little Dunkeld and Kinclaven really MacGregors?

November 27th, 2019

An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, by David Morier

My paternal grandmother, though born and brought up in Hong Kong, was a Highland Scot, a McEwen from East Perthshire. We wear McEwen regalia on the rare occasions that demand it, such as my brother’s appearance as a pageboy at our aunt’s wedding, when he was bedecked in natty trews in the Hunting McEwen tartan. A few family traditions were preserved, such as patronage of McEwen’s of Perth, a very old-fashioned department store in John Street (now sadly defunct), and an unhistorical obsession with orthography (never McEwan with an ‘a’). From ‘Grandpa McEwen’ we seem also to have inherited great height. My father stood at 6’4, my son at 6’3, myself at 6’2.

I also vividly remember from childhood my great-aunt Anne’s account of a meeting with her maiden aunt in Scotland. It must have taken place in 1939. On hearing that Anne was engaged to a ‘Sassenach’, Aunt Kate stiffened. ‘Then you’re nae niece of mine.’ Anne persisted, politely enquiring what their ancestors had been. Kate’s reply was equally forthright. ‘Why, cattle-stealers of course!’ She must have had a soft heart, as she was later to leave some fine linen to my grandmother and instructed that a ‘kilt pin’ should be provided for her half-English daughter (my aunt still has it: a silver thistle with an amethyst flower).

Richard Todd as Rob Roy. Somehow I acquired this handsomely-bound, already vintage book as a child, presumably after seeing the film. My father later met the dashing Todd and described him as ‘knee-high to a grasshopper’.

I lapped up Aunt Anne’s story, as I was already developing a passion for Scottish clan history. Aged no more than six, I had been taken to the cinema to see the 1953 Disney film, Rob Roy (hardly the ‘latest release’, but nobody minded in those days). There is a thrilling scene in which Rob Roy, played by Richard Todd, evades English troops by leaping across a waterfall. That scene in particular, along with the outlandish outfits and the claymores, had sparked in me a romantic fascination. It was to be fuelled in the ensuing years by D.K. Broster’s Flight of the Heron, John Prebble’s Culloden and the writings of Iain Moncreiffe.

Aunt Kate’s memory of family brigandage, activity that must have been relatively recent (three generations is the usual reckoning), had also left me enchanted and intrigued. What is the truth of it? I now know that Kate’s father, my great-great-grandfather John McEwen (1842 – 1910), farmed at Muirhead in Kinclaven, where he was the tenant of Major-General Richardson Robertson of Tullybelton and Ballathie. The family were keen churchgoers and appeared to be perfectly respectable.

Muirhead is marked on old maps but has since been demolished. It was said to have consisted of ‘four farm steadings with a few acres of land attached to each’. Apart from the grand Ballathie House, the parish of Kinclaven was made up of a church and manse and a scattering of similar homesteads. It occupied an isolated loop in the River Tay (there was no bridge in those days), but fortunate guests at Ballathie were treated to the finest autumn salmon fishing in Scotland.

John, who settled at Muirhead on his marriage to Ann Duncan Gardiner, the daughter of the house, had been born further up the Tay at a place called Ballinreich, the steading in the parish of Little Dunkeld that had been farmed by his father Alexander, as it had also been by his maternal grandfather, John Fisher.

Baptised at neighbouring Dull on 12 September 1808, Alexander was the younger son of Donald McEwen of Aberfeldy and his wife Elizabeth (or Elspet) Anderson, who were married at Dull in 1800. With Donald, who may have been born in the immediate aftermath of the 1745 rebellion, the line disappointingly fizzles out.

On this truncated family tree, a name stands out, that of MacGregor, that does indeed launch us into an authentic world of brigandage. John Fisher’s wife, Catherine Campbell, who married from Achtar in Fortingall in 1798, was the daughter of a certain Elizabeth MacGregor.  The implication, which I would never have guessed, is that the real Rob Roy, my boyhood hero, most celebrated of all the MacGregors, was a putative kinsman!

Scottish clans are dynastic, extended families in the most literal sense (with a few strays adopted here and there). Clan Gregor was one of the proudest. Their Gaelic motto, S’rioghal mo dhream, means ‘royal is my blood’. They are believed to descend from the hereditary Abbots of Glendochart, who were always men of Celtic royal race. MacGregors maintain that they were of the line of Alpin, King of Argyll, who died in 841. In honour of him, the chief is known as An t’Ailpeanach.

The name-father of the clan was, however, a fourteenth-century Gregor ‘of the Golden Bridles’. Generations of his line held their beleaguered lands in Glenstrae by the sword, an inconvenience to the neighbouring Clan Campbell. In 1519, the powerful, canny Campbells contrived to establish their own nominee, a cadet who was ‘not righteous heir’, as Chief. The head of the dispossessed line, Duncan MacGregor of Ardchoille, was forced to lead his loyal clansmen into the hills, where he became an outlaw. The years of freebooting, raids and murderous mayhem began, many of the family being hanged or meeting other violent ends. Holed up in their fastnesses, braving the snows and ravening wolves, they were like the fictional Doones on Exmoor.

A document of c.1587 refers to them as ‘the House and Gang of Gregor MacIain’, but the landless Gregarach had acquired a far more romantic name. They were called ‘the Children of the Mist’, although the Gaelic might equally translate as ‘the Fog Folk’ or, some say, ‘Sons of the Wolf’. Soon, even the usurping chiefs were implicated in the brigandage, to the extent that in 1603, after a murderous attack on the Colquhouns, ‘the whole Clan Gregor were outlawed and the Name of MacGregor proscribed on pain of death’. The edict of James VI, declaring the name to be ‘altogidder abolisheed’, was confirmed by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1617.

In the early days of their outlawry the Gregarach were regularly pursued by blood-hounds, the fearful conn dubh, until the last of these was shot by their chieftain in 1624. The place (near Lochearnhead) is still called Meall a Mhadaidh, the Hill of the Wild Dog, and the long-barrelled ‘Fuzee’ or gun that he used has been passed down to the present chief. Recalcitrant MacGregors, if caught, could expect immediate execution. Their wives would be stripped bare, branded and whipped through the streets, then packed off to the American colonies as indentured slaves, along with their children.

There was a brief reprieve between 1661 and 1693, when the persecution resumed. Absurdly loyal to the wrong-but-romantic House of Stuart, they fought for James II at Killiecrankie, turning out again for the ‘Old Pretender’ in 1715 and for the ‘Young Pretender’ in 1745. Indeed it was Major Evan MacGregor, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s aide-de-camp, who fired the first shot at Prestonpans. Twenty-two MacGregors were wounded that day and one killed, for which Prince Charlie regaled the whole clan to dinner that evening, the officers sitting with him at a table set ‘upon the middle of the field’. In 1746, the Gregarach were fighting in Sutherland and missed the slaughter at Culloden, marching home past Finlairg Castle with colours flying and heads held high. It was reported with great satisfaction that the garrison, a regiment of militia recruited from the bullying Clan Campbell, ‘durst not move more than pussies’.

The outlawed Gregarach had been obliged to conceal their identity behind assumed or imposed names, including such oddities as ‘Beachly,’ ‘Landless’, ‘Telford’ and ‘Skinner’. Their chieftains called themselves Murray. Some branches were to keep these adopted names permanently, like the one calling itself Stewart, from which the Marquesses of Londonderry (including the Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh) are thought to descend. Others fled abroad. The then chieftain’s brother, James, emigrated to America, only to be scalped by angry Indians. There was even a line of martial ‘Greigs’ who became ennobled in Russia.

‘Rob Roy’ MacGregor, born at Glengyle in 1671, used the alias of Campbell, his mother’s name. Heavily romanticised by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Rob Roy (though he makes only fleeting appearances), not to mention Disney, he was, in reality, a fearsome and rather enthusiastic brigand (and a fine swordsman with abnormally long arms), who once led a terrifying raid on Dumbarton, though he was pardoned in time for a peaceful death at Balquhidder in 1734. ‘Don’t Mister me nor Campbell me!’ Scott has him say. ‘My foot is on my native heath, and my name is MacGregor!’

The persecution of the MacGregors came to an end in 1774, their legal status restored. General Sir John Murray was at last recognised as the ‘righteous chief’, MacGregor of MacGregor. Though they had been reduced for long years to the status of cattle thieves, the pride of the clan was undiminished. The chief petitioner had been a certain Captain Gregor Drummond, nicknamed Boidheach, ‘the beautiful’, a MacGregor of the chiefly line who, like all his family, had been obliged to live under a pseudonym. In 1743, King George II had commanded that three soldiers of the Black Watch be sent to St James’s for review. The then Private Drummond had been one of the men selected. The story is told that the soldiers gave perfect satisfaction to His Majesty, who handed them each a guinea. These ‘they gave to the porter at the palace gate as they passed out,’ thinking that the King ‘had mistaken their character and condition in their own country.’ S’rioghal mo dhream!

The MacGregor woman from whom I descend was born in the period of persecution. It has been said of the MacGregors that ‘they are perhaps the only clan who can be reasonably certain that all who bear the surname are genuine scions of the ancient chiefly blood, although some branches have never yet resumed it.’ The Clan Gregor Society publishes a list of the known aliases which, remarkably, includes ‘Campbell’, ‘Fisher’ and ‘MacEwin’, three of the names that figure on my ‘tree’. Who more likely to marry an outlaw than a fellow outlaw? Might Donald McEwen and his neighbour John Fisher at Little Dunkeld have themselves been MacGregors who had, for the sake of convenience, retained their aliases, yet proudly passed on the cattle-raiding memory to their children and grandchildren?

The McEwen tartan that we wear is a variant of the Campbell one. The MacEwens of Otter, on Loch Fyne, had themselves been dispossessed by the Campbell chief in the fifteenth century. The chiefly line long ago disappeared without trace. The clan badge is that of the McEwens of Bardrochat in distant Ayrshire, who, as Moncreiffe concedes, ‘may have taken their name from a completely different Ewen’. An end to such nonsense! The wearing of tartan and Highland dress was banned for civilians in Scotland after the ’45. After the lifting of that prohibition in 1782, they were somewhat artificially revived. The tartans and Highland dress of today are mostly nineteenth-century inventions. Yet the red-and-black check design known as ‘Rob Roy’s Tartan’ – the lumberjack tartan – is one of the oldest and most appealing. Henceforth I shall proudly bear the tartan and badge of MacGregor – trusting that Aunt Kate would not disapprove.

[Iain Moncreiffe and David Hicks, The Highland Clans (London, 1967), especially pp.19, 30, 99-100, 209-11; James D. Scarlett, The Tartans of the Scottish Clans (Glasgow and London, 1975); Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage, II (London, 2003), article ‘MacGregor of MacGregor’; Information on the McEwens of Muirhead from includes The Perthshire Ordnance Survey Name Books, 1859-62, Perthshire Vol.40, Communion Roll for Kinclaven, 1880-2 and Kinclaven Kirk o’ the Muir Parish Records. The relevant Census Returns and records of baptism and marriage are available on]

Detail from John Frederick’s Lewis’s A Frank Encampment, one of my favourite pictures. It depicts the then Lord Castlereagh on his Oriental tour of 1842. He is the image of the unruffled English gentleman, able to retain his composure and comforts in the most unpromising conditions. In fact his ancestry was mainly Irish and Scottish. The family’s prospects had improved considerably when they adopted the name ‘Stewart’ in place of ‘MacGregor’.

Au hasard, Balthazar! The Château des Baux de Provence and its Lords – Ancestors of Elizabeth Wydvill

November 7th, 2019

The proud and fractious lords of Les Baux were named for the eagle’s nest, the great yellow castle on a precipice – or ‘balc’ in the local speech – from which they reigned.

The donjon

Before the end of the twelfth century, an alternative story was proposed, thought up by some ingenious clerk or minstrel: that ‘Baux’ derived from Balthazar (Bautezar in Provençal), one of the three magi or wise men, whose son, they said, had come out of Ethiopia to settle in those parts and was the founder of their line. The arms of the family are thus gules, a comet with sixteen rays argent, representing the very star that had guided the magi on their journey ‘from the east’. In their war-cry, ‘à l’asard Bautezar’ (to chance, Balthazar), they succinctly proclaimed their sanctified ancestry along with the recklessness of their ambition.

The castrum Balcius is first cited in a charter of 981, when the head of the family, Pons, held the office of ‘vicomes’; whilst their line can be traced back to a Germanic-sounding Count Liebulfe – no Ethiopian he! – who was born in the late 700s. Sovereign lords for a spell, minting their own coins, the Les Baux came to rule over 79 dependencies, ranging from Vaccarès in the Camargue to the principality of Orange. Yet that was not enough. They must also contest the countship of Provence, to which, admittedly, they had a sound claim; but years of bitter conflict with the rival House of Toulouse ended with their utter defeat in 1162, the ravaging of their lands and the razing of their Château des Baux. Au hasard, Balthazar! Everything chanced on the roll of the dice.

A spectral ruin, like an abandoned city of troglodytes

The castle rose again, and was occupied by the family till 1426. In 1632, on the orders of the king, it was comprehensively slighted by the application of gunpowder. The remaining habitable parts were destroyed in 1793, the hateful charters burnt. Hewn out of the very rock, Les Baux is now a spectral ruin, like an abandoned city of troglodytes. The dressed stone that fronted each range of buildings has been removed, exposing their cave-like interiors. There is barely a single room with its four walls intact.

Military headquarters and court, this was once a throbbing community, with its capacious stables, stores and refectories (‘tinels’), and subsidiary residences for important vassals. Searching for any recognisable feature, one notices stonework up above resembling a giant honeycomb: a pigeonnier of course, for all these people must be fed. There were fishponds, too, and a windmill, and the castle supported a large hunting establishment. The plains below were not the neat vineyards of today but were forested for deer, a vast sporting ground.

The walkways on the ramparts are picturesquely worn and weathered. The narrow, slippery staircase that leads to La Tour Sarrasine is dissected by a deep gutter, an attempt to channel the torrents of rainwater. Best preserved are the service rooms cut deep into the rock below the donjon. The blackened fireplace in the kitchen and the empty bread ovens are powerfully evocative of the former life here.

The ruins of Les Baux are difficult to read but one can make most sense of the donjon, which is relatively well preserved. This thirteenth-century reconstruction of its damaged predecessor is a simple, but very grand and rather elegant two-storied structure. It has only a few small windows and was poorly insulated. The huge fireplaces of which we see traces would have been very necessary to raise the temperature and control the humidity in winter. Beam holes mark the position of the floors. There were reception rooms at ground level, and fifteen chambers above, with names like the chambre de la Tour (that of the Lady Alix des Baux in 1426), the chambre de la Rose and the chambre du Pape (after Pope Clement VII, who used to visit from Avignon).

A reconstruction of the castle in the twelfth century

Despite the sumptuous tapestries on every wall (mentioned in an inventory for Lady Alix), these rooms were sparsely furnished (the odd coffer and trestle table) and rather forbidding. They would, however, have been crowded with people and there was always the softening presence of troubadours – Raimbaut d’Orange in the twelfth century, Paulet de Marseille in the thirteenth. Think of the stamping of feet to their estampidas or dancing songs, the endless gallantries, the rapt attention to their tales of unhappy love in the uvularising Provençal.

Perched vertiginously on its rock – one shudders to think of prisoners being thrown to their deaths in 1394 – Les Baux is beautiful but unnerving, an expression of brutal feudalism. Its prideful lords were driven by their greed and ambition, launching pointless wars that destroyed countless innocent lives. Like most of their kind, they were lovers of strife, and of the spectacle of strife.

The arms of Les Baux - the Star of Bethlehem

Marguerite des Baux, Grandmother of Elizabeth Wydvill

Their ambitions thwarted in Provence, the Les Baux sought a new destiny in Italy. Barral des Baux (patron of the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange) took the cross and enlisted with Charles of Anjou in 1252. His younger son Raimond led the cavalry charge at Benevento in 1266, the battle that won the kingdom of Sicily for Charles. Barral was appointed Grand Justiciar; his elder son, Bertrand, Count of Avellino. Bertrand’s descendant Alix was the last of the line to reside at Les Baux, where she died in 1426, in the chambre de la Tour.

Their cousin, another Bertrand, also shared in the spoils, becoming duke of Andria, a fair city on the coast of Apulia. Bertrand’s son François, Duke of Andria, married Sueva, daughter of Niccolo Orsini, Count of Nola, in 1381. The Orsini were a Roman senatorial family whose line can be traced back to the tenth century; as Scott Fitzgerald described them (Tender is the Night, Book II, Chap.XXII), ‘they’re the ones who got possession of the temples and palaces after Rome went to pieces and preyed on the people’. They picked up some interesting connections along the way. Sueva Orsini’s mother, Jeanne de Sabran, was the great-grand-niece of St Thomas Aquinas; her grandmother, Anastasia, the daughter of Simon de Montfort’s exiled son Guy.

François des Baux (who died in 1422, aged over ninety) had a son by Sueva, Guillaume, who succeeded as Duke of Andria and was also the designated heir to his cousin Alix des Baux, last of the senior line. Louis III of Anjou, Count of Provence, refused, however, to honour the terms of her will, seizing the territory for himself and finally severing the troublesome House of Les Baux from their ancestral home.

The dragon-eyed Elizabeth Wydvill, queen of Edward IV

The couple also had a daughter, Marguerite, who married Pierre de Luxembourg, Count of St Pol. Marguerite’s daughter, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, contracted an illustrious first marriage with John of England, Duke of Bedford, which was childless. Her second marriage was to someone far beneath her, an aberrant love-match with one of the old duke’s retainers. Sir Richard Wydvill was an obscure Northamptonshire knight, though he was later created Earl Rivers and appointed a Garter knight. Those honours would not have come his way but for the even-more-scandalous marriage, in secret, of the beautiful, dragon-eyed Elizabeth Wydvill, Sir Richard’s daughter by Jacquetta, with King Edward IV of England. From Elizabeth, her brother and her sisters (who all quartered the arms of Les Baux) there are numerous lines of descent to the modern day.

The noblest families of southern Italy and Sicily invariably descend from the companions of Charles of Anjou, like those of Corbera and Falconeri in Lampedusa’s Leopard. The ‘del Balzo’ line subsists in several branches in Italy to this day, still holding ducal rank, but far removed from the precipice in Provence for which they are named.

[Paul Pontus, Les Baux (Paris, 1971); Famille des Baux at; Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers (Cambridge, 1982), pp.73-6, 84); Lt.Col. W.H. Turton, The Plantagenet Ancestry, pp.228-9.]

Why Learn Latin?

September 30th, 2019

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, would no doubt have opposed the teaching of Latin in schools.

When I first taught Classics in a prep school, I had been asked by a headmaster friend to provide cover in an emergency. I felt no need to question whether lessons in the Classics were a waste of my own and my pupils’ time, or whether I was complicit in such crimes as the perpetuation of elitism, privilege and pointless tradition. The job was there, and I took it.

My passion for the Classics – embracing Latin and Greek grammar, mythology and Ancient History – dates from childhood and is something I was itching to share. All that pent-up enthusiasm made my lessons, for me at least, not only enjoyable but also immensely rewarding, as if I were passing on a torch. As a result I have been ‘covering in emergencies’, at a series of prestigious prep schools, ever since. Teaching is no longer just ‘a job’ for me. I really do feel as though I am on a mission.

Whilst many pupils are soon won over and able to see ‘the point’ of their Classical studies, there are always a few who are harder, or impossible, to convince. Sooner or later, the dreaded ‘D’ word, surely picked up from sceptical parents, will spring to their lips. So what is the point, they ask, of learning a ‘dead’ language?

My old school friend, the author Simon Winder, is such a sceptic. I thought he rather enjoyed our lessons with the legendary ‘Bird’ Raven, but then I read: ‘On a conservative estimate I must have spent over a thousand hours of my childhood in Latin lessons … In an adult spasm of masochism I recently bought Teach Yourself Latin which, to my total dismay, showed that eight years of Latin lessons had actually only got me about twenty-five pages into a three-hundred-page book’ (Germania, London, 2010, p.9).

However, my battered copy of our hand-written revision notes (only someone like me would have kept it) includes such arcana as Gerunds, Gerundives and Deponent Verbs, proof that, by the age of eleven, ‘Bird’ had already steered us to what is now GCSE level – but Winder always loved to exaggerate for comic effect.

I do not believe that Latin can truly be described as ‘dead’ when it survives, in heavily adapted and accented forms, in all modern European languages, including our own. A striking instance is the conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ (sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt), which survives virtually intact in, for example, modern French (suis, es, est, sommes, êtes, sont). The differences are a mere matter of spelling and pronunciation, adapted to local palettes in the intervening millennia. (Incidentally, the last sentence alone contains eight borrowings from Latin.)

It has therefore often been said in defence of the Classics that they smooth the path to learning these more obviously useful or relevant languages, or to making sense of those with which one is unfamiliar. I believe this is undeniably true. Italian, for example, comes very easily to a Classicist.

A colleague who asked his pupils to write a defence of Latin showed me the response of a particularly sharp-witted boy who had been on a trip to Romania. He claimed to have recognised at once the meaning of a sign that read ‘Nu pecunie preste noapte’, for it was merely a garbled form of the Latin ‘nulla pecunia per noctem’, no cash overnight.

In justifying a Classical education, I prefer to avoid the usual arguments, however convincing, about linguistic skills and how helpful it is with one’s English grammar and vocabulary. I once taught the son of a well-known adventurer and survival-expert who regularly questioned his need to learn a ‘dead language’, since he was bent on a career as a bush-pilot. The intellectual case for Latin was hardly going to convince a young child. Eventually I wrote in his end-of-year report: ‘Johnny may not need to know Latin in his future career as a bush-pilot, but it might make him a more interesting person’.

For Johnny’s brush with an ancient language may turn out to be the greatest intellectual challenge of his life and he will surely be the better for it. I have found in my various schools that the Classicist is still held in some esteem by colleagues – the geographers, the chemists – who are in awe of the apparent complexity of his subject and apt to consult him on general matters as if he were an oracle. The Classics are worth keeping for that reason alone.

I take as my model the Classics master at Oundle in the late 19th century, of whom it was said: ‘He teaches Classics, but he teaches much more than Classics: from him the boys get their inspiration and ideals’. There is nothing else on the curriculum that is so broad in its remit. When the grammar is taught well, it should be integral to the wider study of Classical civilisation, with all sorts of moral lessons adduced.

Stories of virtuous Romans like Horatius, Mucius Scaevola and Cloelia are all on the Common Entrance syllabus, and even the youngest children can appreciate the wisdom of well-known Latin quotations like ‘carpe diem’ (Horace) and ‘festina lente’ (the Emperor Augustus), both neat illustrations of the imperative. If education is about introducing children to worlds beyond their own, the Classical world is the broadest horizon they will see.

The father of ‘Utilitarianism’, Jeremy Bentham, who embarked on his own Classical education at the age of three, nevertheless opposed it for others, apparently because he regarded the ancients as immoral. Thus ‘while men are acquiring false words they are acquiring false ideas of things’ (Brian W. Taylor, ‘Jeremy Bentham and the Education of the Irish People’, The Irish Journal of Education, 1980, xiv, i, pp.22-3).

Bentham’s position was somewhat extreme – he considered poetry, in any language, to be ‘useless’ – but the ‘Utilitarian’ argument against the Classics is the one most commonly voiced today, as by the blogger Donald Clark (‘Latin is an old fossil that became stuck in the curriculum, not because of its intrinsic worth, but because of snobbery and tradition’ – Why in that case expose children to poetry or any literature that has no obviously useful purpose? Surely ‘education’ is about more than equipping the young to be drones in the workplace; and if the aim is that they should be able to count and express themselves, then Latin is likely to be more ‘useful’ than, say, Geography.

Clark considers the classical education to be a ‘waste of time’ and its advocates elitist snobs, yet the less it is taught, the more elitist it will become. It is not the fault of the private schools that it has largely been abandoned in the state sector, nor that the Classicist is perceived as almost the definition of a learned man or woman. The Latin word classicus means, after all, ‘front-rank’, ‘exemplary’ or ‘high-class’. As the arriviste knows all too well, Classicists stand in the front rank of educated men and women.

The footballer David Beckham, for example, has at least three Latin inscriptions among his many tattoos, and has had his children educated in Latin at exclusive schools. According to the College of Arms website, new grantees of arms like Sir Christopher Frayling and Sir George Martin almost invariably opt for Latin mottos to accompany their escutcheons, despite the advice of the heralds that these can be in any language (

It is striking, too, how many of the leading multi-national companies have names that hark back to Classical Greece or Rome (Amazon, Nike, Visa, Oracle etc.), no doubt as much because of their allure as because of their being universally recognisable.  At my son’s nursery school there are (unrelated) boys called ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Priam’. Like it or not, the Classics continue to command considerable prestige.

The main purpose of education is surely to introduce the young to the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of their elders. Far from being of mere antiquarian interest, ancient Greece and Rome have shaped our civilisation. Their legacy is all around us and deep inside us. The clinching argument, perhaps, is that through the study of the Classics we connect with our roots in the ancient world. In Peter Green’s neat phrase, it is a pathway to understanding the ‘long perspective of the past’ that has led to ourselves ( Mary Beard has written (Confronting the Classics, London, 2014, pp.3, 9) of the ‘terrifying fragility of our connections with distant antiquity … the fear of the barbarians at the gates and that we are simply not up to the preservation of what we value’. The Classical languages and literature constitute ‘an essential and ineradicable dialect’ of our culture which cannot be amputated from the modern world, unless – she warns – there is to be ‘a dark future of misunderstanding’.

In his Elegy written in a Country Churchyard (once a standard of English literature, no doubt little read today), Thomas Gray reflected that the ‘rude forefathers of the hamlet’ in their neglected graves might, in other circumstances, have been distinguished men of action or of letters,

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll …

I suspect that most people would now struggle with Gray’s Elegy and with the vocabulary and allusions of the classically-educated poet. Are words like ‘jocund’ and ‘sequester’d’ readily understood today, and who is able to identify Hampden, Milton or, indeed, the Muse? Gray pre-supposes an audience who are as well-educated as himself. The child who is taught Classics is offered a head-start when it comes to broad culture, sophistication and eloquence. Should we deny that wealth of knowledge to the young?

Humane Classical learning has, moreover, been a solace to generations of men, from Oscar Wilde in his prison cell to T.E. Lawrence in his barrack-room and even to Karen Blixen’s great love, Denys Finch-Hatton (‘Denys taught me Latin, and to read the Bible, and the Greek poets’), who actually was a bush-pilot. Utilitarians will no doubt scoff.

Even to a beleaguered sixth-century Roman, Cassiodorus, Latin and its literature seemed a source of wisdom, virtue and stability as all else crumbled. ‘Arma enim et reliqua gentes habent,’ he wrote plaintively; ‘sola reperitur eloquentia, quae Romanorum dominis obsecundat’ (For the tribesmen have their arms and the rest; eloquence is found in sole obedience to the lords of the Romans).

It may not be for me to justify my work, which, to borrow a phrase from Herodotus, is merely λεγειν τα λεγομενα – to declare what has been handed down. Yet I still have that feeling of passing on a torch through my lessons. To quote Horace (Carmina III, i),

carmina non prius

audita Musarum sacerdos

virginibus puerisque canto

(As priest of the Muses

I sing for girls and boys

Songs never heard before).

I like to think of myself, therefore, as one of the conservators of that great tradition that has shaped our language, architecture, art, literature, economy, legal systems, politics and so much else, a potentially priceless gift and an offering to the young to do with in turn as they think fit.