Jacobite memoirs reveal “impoverished” and “drunken” nation


By Zoe Keown

AS tourists would agree, Scotland is a country that is loved for its history-laden scenery, romantic charm, Celtic fayre and endearing humbleness.

But the travel diary of Jacobite duke Marshal Alexandre MacDonald, written after the first visit to his father’s homeland, reflected an impoverished nation of heavy drinkers captivated by celebrities.

The diarist’s father fled his home on the Scots island of Uist in 1746 with Bonnie Prince Charlie after his defeat at Culloden.

MacDonald was brought up in France, where his father settled, but after becoming accustomed to Parisian society was shocked upon his first visit to Scotland.

Now uncovered from the French National Archives for the first time in nearly 200 years, disapproving Frenchman MacDonald provides an insight into a raucous party with Sir Walter Scott.

He wrote: “The ladies withdraw, bottles are passed around and things start to get animated.

“Sir Walter then becomes lively and takes part in the merriment. Guests provide chorus and Sir Walter distinguishes himself.

“The songs are curious and the performers seem to bicker amongst themselves as would so street or market porters engaged in a squabble.”

MacDonald was less than flattering when describing the great Scots poet.

He said: “He is 55, but looks 60. His face is handsome, but cold, his hair is sparse, white, same as the eyebrows and he limps from an accident sustained during his youth.”

At another dinner, a dumbfounded MacDonald wrote of seeing his host, the Bishop of Edinburgh, sitting behind “an enormous bottle”.

Writing about a gathering of the MacDonalds in Edinburgh, he said: “They have thrown a totally drunk Mr MacDonald in a dark cupboard and some of the youngsters have hidden his watch. I escape and go to bed.”

His impression the country did not improve the further north he travelled from the capital.

Used to the sophisticated elegance of French women, he was not encouraged by the state of dress of women in the Highlands and Islands.

He wrote: “Women and girls walk with their bare feet, holding their shoes in their hands even within towns. I have discussed this custom with various people who were equally critical of it.”

And uninspired with the peaceful un-tapered beauty of the Borders and the rolling Cheviot Hills he wrote: “The countryside between Berwick and Dunbar is all even drearier and monotonous than that which we saw at the last stage posts: meagre cultivations, barren slopes and isolated trees which the northern wind has crippled before they could develop.”

Upon visiting Holyrood Palace, now the Queen’s residence in Scotland, MacDonald’s impression was less than romantic.

He said: “The apartments look shabby and the furniture even more so. The view is grim. The guide does not know anything.”

The quarters occupied by Mary Queen of Scots were described as “small and dark.”  “All of it is worm-eaten and in tatters and so is the cover over her bed,” he wrote.

Jean-Didier Hache, Parisian historian and author, who translated MacDonald’s travel diary, said it was a remarkable historical resource.

He said: “The discovery amazed me and I can only assume that this diary was found to be of too marginal interest by specialised Napoleonic historians and thus remained in obscurity. However, it is undoubtedly of great value.”