Wednesday, July 08, 2009

One Old Jacobite and formal terraced gardens

One of my heroes is George Keith, the last Earl Marischal of Scotland. Born into one of the great offices of state, with extensive lands round Dunnottar Castle, he had a good life in store. But in 1715, aged 23, he risked it all by declaring for the Jacobites. He commanded the right wing cavalry at Sherrifmuir - an extraordinary battle in which the right wings of both armies routed the other side; the Jacobites had the superior numbers but, under the bumbling leadership of the Earl of Mar, failed to hold the ground and the government forces took the day. Along with other dispirited Jacobite leaders, Keith retired that night to nearby Drummond Castle, home of the Duke of Perth.

I was there two weeks ago. Looking out on the fine formal terraced gardens it was hard to imagine the despair of brave men contemplating defeat, attainder, life-long exile, the loss of everything that they couldn't carry with them.

George Keith went on to have a long and varied life. He returned to Scotland from Spain as leader of the 1719 Jacobite rising and later was a roving ambassador for his exiled king. His travels took him to the court of Empress Catherine II of Russia and when that court was purged of foreigners he went to Prussia, eventually becoming Frederick the Great's ambassador to Paris. Here, in 1745, he tried hard (with the benefit of bitter experience) to dissuade Prince Charles Edward from making an attempt at the throne without foreign help.

He retired to a life of intellectual debate and the tending of plants at Frederick's Potsdam Palace, Sans Souci (above). In his eighties he was still writing energetically to friends in Scotland. Ultimately, it seems, he was far more at home amongst the sophistication (and yes, the formal terraced gardens) of Sans Souci than he was in the wave-lashed fortress of Dunnottar Castle which would otherwise have been his inheritance.

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