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Clan Donnachaidh Annual
Poet Chief

From “Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century’ by John Murray of Ochtertyre

Duke James
Duke James

‘As the lines of Alexander Robertson of Strowan’s character and fortune were strongly marked, some account of him will not be unacceptable (Footnote In the summer of 1770, I was at the goat-whey in Rannoch, while the memory of Strowan was fresh, and a number of his companions, high and low, still alive who loved to talk of him.) He was a cavalier in the purest sense of the word, having engaged in every rebellion that took place between 1689 and 1746.. Having been attainted soon after the Revolution, he served for some time in the French army; and being a man of spirit and address, was all along well received at the Court of St Germains, which was then filled with Scottish and English persons of fashion.

  Soon after the accession of Queen Anne he received a pardon, for which he cared so little that he did not suffer it to pass the Seals. During that reign he lived more in the world than Highland chieftains usually do; and his wit, joined to his handsome person and courtly manners, made him generally acceptable. His accession to the Rebellion in 1715 did not make him worse, as he had slighted the Queen’s pardon for his treason in King William’s time. After ten years uncomfortable exile, the Earl of Portmore, who was his relation, procured him leave to return home, from George I. That Prince had already given a grant of the rents of the estate of Strowan to his sister Mrs Margaret, for behoof of him and his creditors, who were not the less numerous for his politics.

  Upon returning to Rannoch he took the estate entirely into his own management, turning his sister out of possession, and treating her in a manner no less unnatural than illegal (footnote. He first imprisoned her in a small island at the head of Loch Rannoch, on which there was no house; then he sent her to the Western Isles, where she died in misery. His companions said in his defence that she was both an imperious and a wretched woman, which surely did not mend matters. Even vice cannot be punished but by the magistrates. There was certainly something peculiar in the blood of that generation. When Strowan was pressed to marry, he used to say that nothing descended of his mother could prosper. She was the daughter of General Baillie, of whom it was alleged that, in order to ensure the succession, she had an active hand in starving her own brother. It is a tradition of Rannoch, that as often as she went abroad to ride or walk the crows followed after her in great numbers making a hideous croaking, as if upbraiding her with her guilt).


  But he soon found his situation ill suited to a man of high spirit who had been educated in courts and camps. Had his estate been much greater and entirely free, it would not have sufficed a person of his romantic thoughtless cast, that wished to act the part of both a chieftain and a man of fashion. Ere long he found himself bested with difficulties which he was utterly unable to remove; and his distinction between debts of honour and legal debts did not raise his character or credit. (Footnote. If his creditors trusted to his honour, he was most anxious to pay them but bonds or bills, he thought no more of the matter. ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘that a man has security in my estate; let him make the most of it.’. A messenger more fearless than the rest broke through and apprehended him in his garden at Carie. So far from resistance, he treated the man with great hospitality; but the women in the neighbourhood tore an seized the catchpole, spite of all Strowan could say, and stripping him stark naked, kept him under the spout of a mill wheel till the poor creature was almost killed with cold. For this the chieftain was tried at Perth, but acquitted through want of evidence. The room in which Strowan slept and entertained company at Carie was the factor’s kitchen in 1770. In the garden, which had once had a good wall, besides fruit trees, might be spied mint, rhubarb, and flowers in their natural state, monuments of their former master’s taste and attention).

  For a number of years the poor man was beset with officers of justice who wished to imprison him; and though he placed guards at the principal passes into his country to give him notice, they sometimes put him in great hazard. This banished him for a great while from Edinburgh where he was much in request; nor was it safe to visit his fashionable friends in the low country. Even in circumstances which would have depressed any other man he kept up the post and dignity of a chieftain, which he could the easier do that he was exceedingly beloved by his numerous clan.

  He lived constantly in thatched houses of one storey, the family ones having been burnt in times of war. At a time when his great neighbours at Dunkeld and Taymouth had no notion of pleasure ground or gardening, he planned, and in part executed a villa at Mount Alexander with much taste and judgement, being picturesque even when deserted and overrun with bushes and weeds. And his garden at Carie was one of the best in the country and planted with good trees, both for shade and fruit. Between these two places he divided his time as the fancy struck him; and it was but four miles betwixt them.

  In the year 1745, when seventy five years of age, and in no condition to undergo the fatigues of a campaign he joined his prince at the head of a considerable body of men. By doing so, he said he would show the Elector of Hanover that, although he might give his estate to that puppy Duncan Robertson, none but himself should raise the clan. (Note. In 1745 George II ordered the Barons to report whether the investiture of the estate of Strowan should be given to the heir male or the heir at law. To the great indignation of the chief, they reported in favour of Duncan Robertson of Drumachuine, who immediately after joined the rebels, not very wisely.

  In marching south Strowan lodged with Mr Simpson, minister of Dunblane, a worthy, pleasant man. Being in antipodes in politics, much good-humoured irony passed between them. On the chief’s return, in Cope’s chain and arrayed in his furs, Mr Simpson met him on the bridge. ‘Strowan’ said the latter, ‘you come back in better order than you went.’ Oh,’ replied the wit. ‘all the effects of your good prayers, Mr Simpson.’ After the battle of Preston, he was allowed to go home, having got for his share of the spoils Sir John Cope’s chain and furred night gown. Though he lived for several years after, Government connived at his drawing the rents, whilst prudence taught him the propriety of keeping out of the way of the military parties that were stationed in the neighbourhood.

  When he first became a proficient poet cannot be now known. The probability is that he contented himself with short effusions suited to the moment till poetic fame became the object of men’s ambition. But at whatever time he turned his thoughts that way, nothing could have prevented him rising above mediocrity but want of application and distraction of mind, occasioned by his misfortunes and straits. A moderate degree of cultivation, and the counsels of literary friends, would have lopped away his luxuriance and corrected his inaccuracies. Cruelly as his memory was treated in publishing, after his death, pieces that were either unfinished or unworthy of him, his ‘Holy Ode’ and ‘Farewell to Mount Alexander’, bespeak an elevated, well attuned mind, capable in happier circumstances, of having soared still higher. Considering the mean company he kept for more than twenty years, and the strange life he led, the wonder is how he could exert his mental powers to such good purpose as he did.


  (Note. James Moray of Abercairny told me that between 1720 and 1730 he used to go over and stay a week with Strowan, who was his relation, and always very kind to him. Nothing he said could be more brilliant and delightful than that gentleman’s wit, or more pertinent than his remarks upon men and things. But the pleasure of his guests was diminished by the style of dissipation in which he lived. In the morning his common potation was whisky and honey, and when inclined to take what he termed a meridian, brandy and sugar were called for. These were the liquors which he generally used, not being able to afford wines, and perhaps liking spirits better. 

  When his guests declined the beverage, he would say good naturedly, ‘If you be not for it, I am.’ Besides taking too much of these cordials, he exhausted his spirit by lively talk; on these occasions he would turn into his bed, which stood in the room where he ate and drank. After sobering himself with a nap, he got up and walked abroad, till he had recourse again to his cups.  One day while Strowan was asleep, Abercairny spied on top of the bed a bundle of papers, quoted on the back like a law process. Taking it down he found a collection of his host’s poetry, strangely assorted - here a serious one, and next to it an obscene or satirical one). When half seas over (long his favourite luxury), he often gave vent to poetical sallies which were not always dictated by decency and discretion. Whilst their author thought little more of them, and could not be prevailed upon to touch or chasten them, his myrmidons, who flattered his vanity by extravagant praise, took copies, which were circulated over the country.

  In spite of his many failings, and the bad company kept for a number of years by this extraordinary man, there was a dignity and courtesy in his manner which, joined to the vigour and sprightliness of his understanding, made his conversation highly acceptable to persons of every rank. As he was exceedingly popular in his own country, none knew better how to make his competitors keep their distance (Note. There was then in his neighbourhood a laird who, without sense or learning had the knack of versifying in Latin and English. As he was a very absurd old man, it may well be imagined he would not be less quarrelsome over his cups while a youth. On those occasions, after he had reprehended his neighbours, Strowan called with much gravity for his page, whom he directed to chastise that rude noisy fellow.)

  Till the rebellion, he was a welcome guest in the first families. (Note. None fonder of a visit from Strowan than James, Duke of Athole, whose social hours were joyous and dignified; who lived with his vassals like a parent and a companion. It had been the custom for every gentleman to kiss the Duchess. He learned from her woman that one of Strowan’s companions (afterwards an officer in the French service) had once been his menial servant. On her complaining of having to salute such a man, the Duke archly answered ‘madam, my friend is a greater man than the king, for he can both make and unmake a gentleman when he pleases.’) of the country, even when his dress and equipage did not seem to correspond with the loftiness of his pretensions. On these occasions, however, he took care to be attended by the gentlemen of his clan, and a number of domestics, of a very different cast from the powdered lackeys in the houses of the great, each of them having infirmities peculiar to themselves. (Note. In his time Rannoch was the seat of numerous and daring gangs of thieves. As they bade defiance to the government, it was not in Strowan’s power to repress them, though he abominated their courses. Being told of a great thief on his estate, he said he would try his honesty, affecting not to believe the charge, whereupon he dispatched him to Perth for a sixpence loaf, which the man did with great dispatch, bringing with him a roll, which was then given into the bargain. As he might have concealed it, Strowan would never after hear anything wrong of a man of so much honour.)

  It may be thought too much has been said of this gentleman’s private life, but the abuse and abasement of his brilliant talents show the inexpedience and danger of going much beyond one’s depth, either in politics or expense (Note. It is to be feared that the acquaintance of the present generation with the results of Strowan’s muse is limited to the couplet quoted by the Baron of Bradwardine - ‘For cruel love has garter’d low my leg. And clad my hurdies in a philabeg’ which the Baron pronounces an elegant rendering of Virgil’s ‘Nunc insanus amor duri adversos detinet hostes’

  Yet Strowan was unquestionably a man of mark in Scottish literary society, and a personal friend of most of the poets of his day, especially of the Jacobite Meston.

William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London. 1888

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