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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. A wise and modest old man, as one would expect, the preoccupation of his later life was 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.]

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, sheep 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 Balinish, 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.

Born in 1810 or 11, Alexander was probably the son of another Alexander McEwen who was baptised at Little Dunkeld in 1780. This Alexander was the son of Robert McEwen, who may have been born in the immediate aftermath of the 1745 rebellion. With Robert, disappointingly, the line 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. Robert McEwen’s wife was Margaret MacGregor, while John Fisher’s wife, Catherine Campbell of Fortingall, was the daughter of Elizabeth MacGregor. These two women of the same generation  could even have been sisters. 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 two MacGregor women from whom I descend were born, and possibly even married, 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 Alexander McEwen and his neighbour John Fisher at Little Dunkeld, and indeed John’s father-in-law Archibald Campbell at Fortingall, 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’; http://www.clangregor.com/membership/sept-family-names/. Information on the McEwens of Muirhead from scotlandsplaces.gov.uk 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 scotlandspeople.gov.uk.]

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’.