History | Culture | Ancestry
Étienne Jacques MacDonald was one of France’s foremost military commanders and he was present at many of the most important military and political moments of the Revolutionary, Napoleonic and Restoration periods of French history. MacDonald was the son of an exiled North Uist Jacobite who had helped Charles Edward Stuart escape from Scotland and I previously blogged about his largely uncredited role as an important figure of French history, (click for Part 1 & Part 2). MacDonald had always longed to see the places associated with his father but it simply wasn’t possible for him to visit Scotland during the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1820 many Scots had in fact hoped that MacDonald would pay them a visit, but not in the leisurely capacity that MacDonald himself had in mind. During the height of the Scottish political unrest known as the Radical War, it was rumoured that MacDonald was assembling an army of 50,000 Frenchmen at Cathkin Braes – which unfortunately for the Radicals turned out to be nothing be hearsay.
MacDonald did eventually set off for a tour of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England in 1825. It was a whirlwind trip in which he visited an incredible number of sites, rarely staying in any one place for more than a single night. Fortunately for us, MacDonald left a relatively detailed account of this trip in the form of a diary, giving us insights into the people and places he visited during his tour, often in the frank and straight forward manner in which “His Outspokenness” had come to be known for while in Louis XVIII’s court.
MacDonald first came to Scotland on the 18th of June 1825 when he entered the country via Berwick. During his tour of Scotland, MacDonald would always take particular care to visit historic battlefields and one of the first places he visited was the battlefield of Prestonpans, a site easily accessible to him on his way from Berwick to Edinburgh. MacDonald took particular care to study the field and he noted that both the Jacobites and Hanoverians had chosen their ground well. He concluded that it was the determination of the highlanders that had caused a “horrendous rout” amongst the British Army on that fateful day in 1745.
On arriving in Edinburgh, MacDonald saw a number of sites that are still recognisable parts of the tourist trail today. His first visit was to Holyrood Palace, where he commented unflatteringly that the portraits of Scottish kings were “painted at various epochs by daubers, and which would hardly be accepted nowadays as shop signs.” MacDonald was interested in seeing Holyrood not only for its historical association with Mary Queen of Scots, but also because the future French King Charles X, the brother of Louis XVIII, spent time there while his court was in exile. He also shrewdly noticed that Holyrood Palace was already a tourist trap in 1825, with many tour guides and brochures available for a small fee. Finding the guides hard to follow, he moved on, visiting the old and new town of Edinburgh before returning to his hotel on Queen Street.
The next day he visited Edinburgh Castle and saw the room in which James I was born. He also inspected the Scottish crown jewels, which had only been recently rediscovered by Sir Walter Scott in 1818. MacDonald visited Calton Hill but understandably had little interest in Nelson’s Column, choosing instead to enjoy the impressive views of Edinburgh. One of MacDonald’s final visits in Edinburgh was to the former location of the Scottish Parliament, which had subsequently come to house the Law Courts.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the stay in Edinburgh was the meeting between MacDonald and Sir Walter Scott. MacDonald noted that Scott spoke good French, but looked older than his age. MacDonald was warned that Scott rarely acknowledged his own publications, and it was suggested that he refrained from bringing up the subject of Scott’s works, which were published anonymously. Coincidently, Scott’s ‘Tales of the Crusades’ had been published on that very day, but MacDonald tactfully refrained from mentioning it. A number of other people were in attendance at the party, including a number of MacDonalds who were all in “Highland Dress”. Of particular amusement to MacDonald was the three Islanders brought in to sing Gaelic songs for the party and who “bickered amongst themselves as would do street or market porters engaged in a squabble.” The meeting between MacDonald and Scott was a success, and they met one further time when Scott was touring Paris in November 1826.
After leaving Edinburgh, MacDonald visited Linlithgow Palace which had been destroyed by the British Army during the 1745 uprising. He was given a tour of the remains of the palace and was shown the room that Mary Queen of Scots was born in. When he saw the burnt out room he was less than impressed and commented that “one has to believe this and see it with the eyes of the faithful.”
On his way to Inverness, MacDonald passed through Falkirk, Stirling, Perth, Scone, Dunkeld and then Killiecrankie. Always making a point to view battlefields whenever possible, he was shown both the battlefields of Falkirk and Killiecrankie, including the stone marker where Bonnie Dundee was shot in 1689. As he approached Inverness, MacDonald’s guide pointed out the battlefield of Culloden in the distance. MacDonald insisted that they go there directly and that he would pay him for the inconvenience. After his often flippant and candid descriptions of many locations within Scotland, Culloden is the first place that seems to genuinely make an emotional connection with MacDonald. He wondered if he was in fact standing on the very ground that his father had stood nearly 80 years previously. Marshal MacDonald sums up Culloden succinctly by calling it the “land soaked with the blood of so many MacDonalds.” A Gaelic speaking guide then showed MacDonald the location in which Prince Charles commanded his forces during the battle, which is today accessible by a small walking path from a modern visitor’s centre. On viewing the field it was immediately obvious to MacDonald that the battlefield was already a tourist site, as the ground had clearly been scoured by sightseers looking for relics. In the short time MacDonald was at the field, a member of his own party found rusty buttons and even bones while scouring through the soil.
MacDonald’s impression of the land around Inverness was that it was depopulated. His guide indicated that this was due to emigration to America and army recruitment, particularly for regiments going to India. He noticed that the Sabbath was strictly adhered to, and that the population travelled a considerable distance to attend church. He also saw fewer people wearing the traditional highland clothing, a decline, that he was told, had been accelerated in the previous 20 years as roads improved and trade interactions increased with the south. MacDonald was particularly perplexed by the custom of highland females carrying their footwear and walking bare-feet in order to prevent their shoes from being ruined by the mud. He was equally curious about the physique of Scottish females and he describes them as having “strong legs and big feet”, even amongst the women of what he describes as “higher society”. It is up to the reader to determine if this is intended as a compliment.
After leaving Inverness, MacDonald boarded a steam ship on Loch Ness, proceeding to Fort Augustus and then on to Fort William. The next day he woke at 5am to see Ben Nevis glistening in the sun before setting off on his journey to Arasaig and his awaiting ferry for the Isles. On the way, MacDonald passed through Glenfinnan and the monument to the highlanders who rallied to the Jacobite cause in 1745 but curiously he leaves little comment regarding it. At Borrodale, Marshal MacDonald met with a John MacDonald at his home, about two miles from where Marshal MacDonald’s father had fled Scotland with Prince Charles in 1746. Like Marshal MacDonald’s father, John MacDonald of Borrodale’s grandfather had assisted the Prince during the uprising, receiving a silver snuff box and a lock of the Prince’s hair as a reward. After viewing these heirlooms, Marshal MacDonald was guided to a nearby castle of MacDonald of Clanranald, then to Arasaig and his awaiting ship.
For whatever reason, MacDonald expected Arasaig to be a bustling port town. He was disappointed to find “only a few scattered houses, a Catholic Church, whose key cannot be found to show it to us, and a wretched inn”. Aboard the ship he met 18 other MacDonalds who had come from various parts of the islands to meet with him. As they set off for Uist, the party had picturesque views of Skye, Rum, Eigg and Canna before they eventually arrive at Loch Skipport in South Uist. MacDonald’s intention on the island was to see the house that his father was born in and to see the cave in which his father hid Charles Edward Stuart following the failure of the 1745 uprising. MacDonald arrived on land and began the walk towards his father’s birthplace, noting that there were initially no roads to travel along until they came further inland. MacDonald then mentions in a single line that he visited his father’s birthplace, but strangely does not record any other detail regarding the visit. In fact, MacDonald seems keen to immediately leave to visit Prince Charlie’s Cave and then MacDonald of Sleat at Armadale on the following day.
Wasting no time, MacDonald moved across South Uist on what he describes as a road that “diminishes into a track” across an “immense wasteland” and “a country which seems desolate”. When he reaches his location, he was met by a group of MacDonalds, one elderly lady burst into tears of joy and it emerged that she was the Marshal’s first cousin. Her brother also arrived, a 73 year old man who had nearly lost his sight but he was adamant that he had enough vision left to see that they had the same family hair. More and more of the islanders, including MacDonald’s extended family, began to arrive until it was estimated that around 600 people had arrived to greet their distinguished guest. MacDonald was generous to the people during his visit, he paid an entire year’s rent to Clan Ranald on behalf of one farmer, and he granted an annual pension to another family, which he promised to pay on the 30th of June every year in remembrance of his journey.
MacDonald was told many stories by the local inhabitants about his father’s role in the 1745 uprising. To MacDonald, it was apparent that the uprising was still very much at the forefront of peoples’ memories, and he said that the local people spoke of those times as if they had just happened yesterday. As the weather began to turn, MacDonald shook the hands of his relatives and continued his journey.
MacDonald again passed over what he calls “the desolation” and as he arrived near the water it was realised that the rough seas made further travel impossible for the time being. It was decided that the group would stay on on Benbecula for the evening. Early the next morning, MacDonald and his party returned to South Uist in order to visit the cave in which his father hid Charles Edward Stuart during the 1745 uprising. The location of the cave at Corrodale was isolated, and even today it is one of the most isolated spots in the Outer Hebrides. Landing ashore, MacDonald met a number of locals who guided him to the exact location. Upon entering the cave, MacDonald reflects that when his father was there 80 years previously, that simple cave was all that stood between the Prince and the British soldiers scouring the hills above him.
Setting sail from Uist, MacDonald’s next destination was Skye, where he had planned to visit MacDonald of Sleat at Armadale Castle. It is at this point that my own family history briefly coincides with that of Marshal MacDonald. My family originates from this part of Skye, and although my 4x Great Grandfather was living at Crosslee in Renfrewshire at this time, his brother Niel MacDonald was still living at the Armadale estate on Sleat.
After a 4 hour trip from South Uist, the Marshal soon arrived at Armadale Castle. His companion and guide on the journey, MacDonald of Staffa, noted that “several hundreds of Lord MacDonald’s tenentry” had arrived to cheer for Marshal MacDonald as he arrived on the island. Cannons had also been procured to give MacDonald a gun salute but no one knew how to operate them and detonations from a nearby quarry were used as a substitute. It is entirely possible, even probable, that my 4x Great Uncle did in fact catch a glimpse of Marshal MacDonald at Armadale given that he was a tenant of Lord MacDonald at the time. Marshal MacDonald stated himself that he had a tour of the castle grounds, which included a visit to the stables and coach-house. As a Groom, or manager of horses, my 4x Great-Uncle would no doubt have been very familiar with these buildings at Armadale. Sadly, we can never know for sure if my family caught a glimpse of the Marshal, but it is definitely within the realms of possibility.
On the 2nd of July 1825, MacDonald departed from Skye and sailed to Castle Tioram where he was given a tour of the castle grounds. During his visit he met a 92 year old named Alexander MacDonald who as a 13 year old boy had seen Charles Edward Stuart with a group of men, one of whom may have been Marshal MacDonald’s father. MacDonald and his group then set sail from Moidart through perilous weather and soon passed Coll and Tiree before arriving at Staffa and Fingal’s Cave. After landing on Staffa and toasting the owner of the island, MacDonald of Staffa, with a dram of whisky, the Marshal departed and sailed around Mull to Tobermory Bay. Sailing past Oban, MacDonald’s ship then took him past the Sound of Jura and the dreaded Corryveckan.
MacDonald eventually arrived at Antrim in Northern Ireland where he had hoped to visit the MacDonald Countess of Antrim. Clan Donald’s empire had once stretched from Ross and the Outer Hebrides in the North to Islay and Ulster in the South. The Antrim MacDonalds had been one of the strongest parts of the Clan until it was weakened following the Civil Wars of the 1640s. While in Antrim, MacDonald took the opportunity to visit Giant’s Causeway but he seemed more taken with the Irish females and remarked that “the women dressed well-enough, like in Scotland, walking with their bare feet, with enormous legs and big feet.”
After Antrim, MacDonald travelled back to Scotland and arrived at Inveraray on the 8th of July. MacDonald refused to stay at the Duke of Argyll’s residence at Inveraray Castle, commenting that he preferred to stay at the local inn. He later took a tour of Inveraray Castle and the surrounding estate instead. Upon arrival in Inveraray, MacDonald ‘s ocean travels were over and he undertook most of the rest of his Scottish trip by land. Throughout MacDonald’s diary he often misspells or misunderstands the Gaelic place names that were relayed to him by his travelling party. However, his very accurate geographical description of the land near Inveraray clearly indicates that he travelled past Cairndow, Ben Chorranach and Loch Restill before travelling down Glen Croe at what is now known as the Rest and Be Thankful towards Tarbet. At Tarbet MacDonald was met by a steamboat which ferried him down Loch Lomond towards Balloch Castle and ultimately Dumbarton.
At Dumbarton MacDonald boards a steamship for Glasgow where he arrived and undertook a whirlwind tour of the “Promenade in town, monuments, buildings, streets, Catholic Church, museum”, although he does not give any specific descriptions of any of these locations. He does however indicate that he stayed at the Star Inn at Ingram Street where crowds of people gathered to catch a glimpse of him. While there MacDonald was met by numerous relatives, including a ‘Mr MacEachern’ who lived at Greenock with his ten children.
After his return to Glasgow the 60 year old Marshal appears to tire. His once relatively detailed diary entries become sparse, with just a sentence or two for each of his next destinations. On his way to the border, MacDonald simply comments that he passed through Bothwell, Hamilton, Elleston and finally Gretna before crossing the border into England.
MacDonald’s travel diary certainly makes for interesting reading, it is a perceptive work that is written in the direct style you would expect from a diary written on the move. MacDonald often comes across as grumpy and impatient throughout his writings, but despite this grizzled exterior he was capable of generous acts of charity during his trip, particularly to his distant relatives. The rediscovery of the diary is largely thanks to Jean-Didier Hache, who translated the writings and published it in a book titled ‘The French MacDonald: The 1825 Travel Diary of Jacques Etienne Joseph Alexandre MacDonald‘. I have only included the rudimentary details of the trip, but if you are interested in reading more about MacDonald’s visit to Scotland, then it is well worth picking up a copy.