Alexander the Exciseman and Robert Burns the Poet

Alex.Findlater & Co. was founded in Dublin in 1823 by Alexander Findlater who came, like many other successful Dublin businessmen, from Scotland.

The name Findlater is ultimately Norse, fyn being white and leitr cliff, so called because of the quartz in the local rock of a district on the coast of the parish of Fordyce in Banffshire where the name originates. The family of Ogilvie of Deskford held the title of Earl of Findlater, after the district, from 1683 to 1811. The earldom became extinct on the death of James, the seventh earl.

In the 7th century the then Earl of Findlater built a castle near Cullen, a small seaport town in Banffshire. The castle stands on a rock overhanging the sea, and is now a picturesque ruin, slowly crumbling into the sea. Once a place of power, playing its part in the feudal wars, it was one of the places that joined the Gordon rebellion against Mary Queen of Scots in 1562. The story goes that when the Queen sent to Findlater Castle to demand the keys the occupant, one Sir John Gordon, refused to receive her. He took a party of her soldiers unawares and massacred all of them. The Queen issued a royal decree commanding Sir John to deliver up the castle to her officers on pain of treason. He refused and moved towards Aberdeen where he attacked the Queen’s forces at the Battle of Corrichie. He was captured and three days later beheaded at Aberdeen. (Some four hundred years later I was in a cottage on an island off the West of Ireland

The ruins of Findlater Castle, painted in oils by A. Perigal RSA 1874

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Rev. Alexander and his wife Jane Kirkaldy

and, by chance, was recounting this story. My host, Derrick Gordon, looked at me quizzically and declared himself to be a descendant of those Gordons!)

Another legend of Findlater Castle has it that

while the nurse of the infant son of the lord of Findlater, was walking on the seabattlement already mentioned, or standing at an open window, on a genial summer day, singing and dandling the child, he, all of a sudden sprang from her arms in his glee, and disappeared in the gulf below, not, however, without a wild and vain attempt on the part of the nurse to save him. She, too, rushed headlong into the water and perished. The baron, overcome with grief, left the castle never to return.1

A Findlater from the area assured me recently that the ghost of the nurse haunts the ruins to this day.

More substantially, an old family bible records that our Findlaters are descended from Alexander Findlater who married at Dyke, in the County of Moray, Christina, daughter of David Brodie of Brodie, on 5 November 1665. She was the sister of Sir Alexander Brodie of Brodie, Lord of Sessions and one of the Commissioners who negotiated Charles II’s Restoration in 1660. They had a large family of six sons, of whom some settled in the North of Scotland and others went to the West Indies.

Their eldest son, from whom the characters in this book are descended, was the Rev. Alexander Findlater, born at Dyke, and baptised on 3 November 1666. He was the first minister of Hamilton after the Revolution in 1688. He married Jean, daughter of Rev. Thomas Kirkaldy, the second son of the laird of Grange. Jean was the grandniece of Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange, brother of the great soldier, Sir James Kirkaldy, whose defence of Edinburgh Castle, in the cause of Mary Queen of Scots, is one of the most heroic episodes in Scottish history.*

*After the eventual surrender, Sir William was hanged on a scaffold in Edinburgh’s High Street, in August 1573, with his brother Thomas and two counterfeiters.

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Old Uncle Alex 1754–1839.
The friend of Robert Burns in life
and vindicator after death.

Alexander and Jean had four daughters and six sons, one of whom, Thomas, became a minister in West Linton. He, in turn, had a son, Charles, also a minister at Newlands, near Peebles. Alexander and Jean’s youngest son, James, was born on 7 March 1716. He married Helen, daughter of Ronald and Janet Ballantyne, she born a Nisbet. They had five daughters and six sons, one of whom, Alexander (Old Uncle Alex), became the friend and defender of the poet Robbie Burns; another son, John, born on 10 May 1758, became Supervisor of Excise at the booming seaport of Greenock and married Janet Dempster on 12 August 1768. He was the father of the Alexander who was to land in Dublin in 1823.

Old Uncle Alex was born in August 1574 and joined the excise service in 1774. Two years later he was stationed at Coupar Angus as a gauger—measuring the strength and volume of excisable goods—and in 1786 he became acting supervisor in Dumfries and in 1791 full supervisor. He eventually reached the top of his profession in Scotland when he became Collector of Excise in Glasgow, a position he held for eleven years before retiring in 1825 at the age of seventy-one.

At that time, before direct income taxation was introduced, all the money required to finance the long series of wars that built the British Empire came from customs and excise. For most of the century Britain was engaged in a fierce (and expensive) war with France for military and economic predominance from India to South America. Excise duties were levied on a range of goods, from luxuries to necessities, including salt, tea, coffee, soap, starch, candles, paper, hides, skins, printed goods, glass, bricks, and of course beer, spirits, wine and tobacco.

In Scotland, France’s financial support for the Jacobite cause (patriotically represented by Burns’ songs), and a growing anti-English feeling lent respectability to the natural disinclination to pay tax. Smuggling was rampant. Beer was illegally brewed and spirits illicitly distilled all over Scotland. The population as a whole evaded or disregarded the revenue laws in spite of the draconian penalties, including execution, incurred for flouting the law. Not surprisingly the revenue officers of the period, personifying as they did the tax regime, were unpopular.

In 1789 a new recruit was posted to Old Uncle Alex’s division, one Robert Burns, now Scotland’s best-loved poet, author of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Comin’ Through the Rye’, ‘The Banks of Doon’, ‘Tam O’Shanter’, ‘To Mary in Heaven’, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ and a multitude of others. He was already a poet of note. Alexander wrote many years later of their friendship: ‘I believe I saw more of him

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than any other individual had occasion after he became an Excise officer’ and on another occasion, ‘few people, I believe, were more frequently in his house, particularly after he came to reside in Dumfries, and in the latter days of his life.’ 2

Robert Burns (1759–97) was born near Ayr, the son of a small farmer. His first poems were published in 1786 and were at once successful. He bought a 100-acre farm at Ellisland and it was on this

Burns’ Cottage, where the poet was
born in 1759

Burns’ farm at Ellisland
Engravings by D.O. Hill RSA of Dumfries

farm, where Alexander was a frequent guest, that he wrote many of his great verses. Indeed, according to John Sinton, one of Burns’ biographers, ‘The three-and-a-half years that he spent there, in his triune capacity of farmer, gauger, and poet, were said to be the happiest and busiest of his life. In the prime of early manhood, idolised at home, beloved abroad, full of energy and love of life, he galloped along the country lanes and mountain paths, humming sweet melodies, and dashing off immortal lines and poems that shall continue to delight and instruct mankind in ages yet to come.’3

As an exciseman from 1789, Burns was in charge of fourteen circuits, technically named ‘rides’. He had to own his own horse, and every two months his supervisor, Alexander, had to certify that he was well mounted. On his grey mare called Jenny Geddes he travelled at least thirty miles a day surveying licensed traders and inspecting dirty ponds for sprouting bags of barley as well as ‘yeasty barrels’ intended to be used in the illicit distillation of mountain dew. His farming venture eventually failed and he moved, with his wife and family, into a house in Dumfries where they occupied the first floor.

Alexander spent time training and supervising his new officer. For example, on 11 June 1792 they spent the whole day together and visited twenty-five tax-payers— a brewery, eight wine and spirit dealers, eight victuallers, three chandlers, two tanners, two tawers (preparers of white leather) and a tea dealer—in a tiring ten-hour period. However, Alexander discovered that his new officer had some

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Dumfries at sunset (D.O. Hill)

shortcomings, and noted one or two instances: at one victualler’s he had failed to record the stock properly and was formally admonished.4 On another occasion he had not surveyed a brewery as his instructions required, and again recorded the stock incorrectly.

Burns seems to have been upset by being admonished and tried to shift the blame:

I am both surprised & vexed at that accident of Lorimer’s Stock.–The last survey I made prior to M’ Lorimer’s going to Edin’ I was very particular in my inspection & the quantity was certainly in his possession as I stated.–The surveys I have made during his absence might as well have been marked ‘keys absent’ as I never found any body but the lady, who I know is not mistress of keys, &c. to know anything of it, and one of the times it would have rejoiced all Hell to have seen her so drunk.–I have not surveyed there since his return.–I know the gentleman’s ways are, like the grace of G— –, past all comprehension; but I shall give the house a severe scrutiny tomorrow morning, & send you in the naked facts.–I know Sir, & deeply regret, that this business glances with a malign aspect on my character as an Officer; but as I am really innocent in the affair, & as the gentleman is known to be an illicit Dealer, & particularly as this is the single instance of the least shadow of carelessness or impropriety in my conduct as an Officer, I shall be peculiarly unfortunate if my character shall fall a sacrifice to the dark manoeuvres of a Smuggler.5

Burns included in his letter, below his signature, ‘I send you some rhymes I have just finished which tickle my fancy a little’. He was given the benefit of the doubt and that is the last that was heard of the matter.

Excisemen had unpopular laws to enforce, and had to deal with the people who suffered as a consequence of prohibitive taxation. People being people, ways

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were discovered of working outside the laws, making the excise officer’s work more difficult. Robert was of the opinion that it was not the officers, whose duty it was to execute the laws, who were to blame, but those who made them, and subsequently squandered the money at home and abroad. He recorded his opinion in these lines:

Ye men of wit and wealth, why all this sneering
‘Gainst poor excisemen? Give the cause a hearing;
What are your landlords’ rentrolls? Taxing ledgers:
What premiers, what? Even monarchs’ mighty gaugers;
Nay, what are priests these seeming godly wisemen:
What are they, pray, but spiritual excisemen? 6

Burns was a zealous officer, but several anecdotes are related which show he was understanding and sympathetic to those widows whose misdemeanours were of a petty nature. For instance on a fair day in 1793 Burns called at the door of a poor woman named Kate Watson, who was doing some business of her own that day.

With a nod and a movement of the forefinger Burns brought her to the door:
‘Kate,’ said he, ‘are ye mad? The supervisor and I will be in on ye in half an hour; gude bye ti ye at present,’ and with that he disappeared in the crowd.
On another occasion, a woman—Jean Dunn of Kirkpatrick, who had been brewing beer duty–free for the fair, observed Burns and another officer, Robinson, coming towards her house. Jean slipped out at the back door, and left her servant and young daughter to face the gaugers.
‘Has there been any brewing for the fair here to-day?’
‘Oh no, sirs, we hae nae licence for that’, replied the servant girl.
‘That’s no true,’ exclaimed the wee lassie, ‘the muckle kist’* is fu’ o’ the bottles o’ yill that ma mither sat up a’ nicht brewin for the fair.’
‘We are in a hurry just now,’ said Burns, ‘but when we return from the fair we will examine the muckle black kist–come along Robinson.’ 7

* A muckle kist is a large chest, trunk or press.

Burns’ behaviour was noticed by the authorities. At a meeting of the district justices, one of them asked: ‘Let me look at the books of Burns, for they show that an upright officer may also be a merciful one.’

On the other hand, Burns showed no mercy to regular smugglers.

One of the fraternity, not knowing Burns personally, offered one night to sell him some smuggled whisky. ‘You’ve lichted on a bad merchant,’ said the Bard, ‘I’m Robert Burns the gauger.’ The smuggler stared, then impudently replied ‘Aye, but ye’re likewise Robert Burns the poet; I mak sangs too, sae ye’ll shurely ne’er ruin a brither poet.’

‘Why, friend,’ said Burns, ‘the poet in me has been sacrificed to the exciseman, and I should like to know what superior right you have to exemption,’ and sangs or no sangs, the seizure was made then and there. 8

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However, working as an excise officer often involved more than dealing with small-time smugglers. A story is told about one of the big smuggling operations which Burns encountered on the Solway Firth. Walter Crawford, the excise riding officer for Dumfries, operated a patrol along the coastline between Dumfries and Gretna. His work involved finding out when a smuggling run was going to take place and which route it would take.

Robert Burns 1759–1796

On this occasion, in February 1792, a smuggling schooner had slipped into shallow waters, and Crawford and another officer were waiting for it with a party of thirteen dragoons. Armed only with pistols, they made a first attempt to board the ship, but were forced to withdraw when they found themselves threatened

In this letter Robert Burns expressed his gratitude for Alexander’s support. The last few lines read: ‘I send this as a sheer tribute of gratitude to a Gentleman whose goodness has laid me under very great obligations, and for whose character as a Gentleman I have the highest esteem.– It may very probably never be in my power to repay, but it is equally out of my power to forget, the obligations you have laid on, Sir, your deeply indebted and very humble serv. Robt Burns’.

with fire. Crawford was then permitted to board, and was able to find out the number of armed men on board. He disembarked and sent for reinforcements, and next morning had a force of fortyfour dragoons, ‘fully accoutred and on horseback’.

However, overnight the schooner had drifted a mile down the firth under a strong current, which made it impossible to get at it either by foot or on horseback. The logical answer was to row out, but the crafty locals, who thrived off smuggling, had holed all the boats, while the schooner in the meantime kept up a fire of ‘grape shott and musketry’.

The only thing to do was attack the ship from land, but quicksand by the water’s edge prevented the use of horses,

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so there was nothing for it but to make an attempt by foot. Crawford divided his forces into three groups, with the intention of attacking the ship fore and aft, and broadside. The third party was commanded by Burns, who waded sword in hand to the brig, and was the first man to board.

Our orders to the Military were to reserve their fire till within eight yards of the vessel, then to pour a volley and board her with sword & Pistol. The vessel kept on firing though without any damage to us, as from the situation of the ship they could not bring their great guns to bear on us, we in the mean time wading breast high, and in Justice to the party under my Command I must say with great alacrity; by the time we were within one hundred yards of the vessel the Crew gave up the cause, gott over side towards England which shore was for a long way dry sand. 9

The next day the vessel, with all her arms and stores, was sold by public auction at Dumfries. Burns purchased four of her rusty carronades for £3 and despatched them to the French Legislative Assembly, with a letter requesting them to ‘accept them as a present, and as a mark of his admiration and sympathy’. The customs confiscated them at Dover. 10

Inscription in music book presented by
Robert to Alexander

It was this type of incident that brought Burns under scrutiny by the Excise Board. At this time the colonies in America had achieved their independence, the French Revolution was in full swing, the cry of ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ was striking chords in excitable hearts, at least until the Terrors of 1793 and 1794. Throughout 1792, Burns was vocal on the subject of civil and religious liberty. But as a paid servant of the Crown, it was unwise of him to be so public in his sympathies with the French Republicans. (The long expected war between France and Britain finally broke out in February 1793, a few days after the French had shocked the world by executing Louis XVI.)

Most of the commissioners thought he should be dismissed ‘without so much as a hearing, or the slightest intimation’. However, the chairman decided to send a senior inspector to Dumfries to investigate. Here, Alexander, his supervisor, affirmed that Burns was exact, vigilant, and sober and was one of the best officers in the district. Burns never allowed his patriotic sentiments to interfere with his public duties. His survey books and business papers were examined, and deemed correct. He was found to be an efficient officer—but then it was not a question of his efficiency but rather of his loyalty. The investigations worried him greatly. His character was at stake and his prospects in life appeared to be blasted. He wrote:

In naked feeling and in aching pride,
He bears the unbroken blast from every side.

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Interior of Burns’ house in Dumfries

The inspector reported favourably. Burns was acquitted of misconduct, and his chances of promotion were unaffected. His job was secure but the message sent to him must have annoyed him intensely: ‘His business was to act not to think; and that whatever might be his opinion of men or measures, it was for him to be silent and obey.’

By 1974 Burns’ mind was set on promotion and on 29 December he wrote to Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop: ‘I have been appointed to act temporarily as supervisor in place of Mr Findlater, who is absent on sick leave. I look to an early appointment as full supervisor. My political sins seem to be forgiven me.’ 11 When Alexander resumed business, Burns returned temporarily to his own station. He had a very high opinion of his supervisor, as we learn from a letter to Mr Graham, Chairman of the Excise, when he referred to Alexander as ‘not only one of the first, if not the very first of excisemen in your service, but also one of the worthiest fellows in the universe.’ 12

However, the poet’s health started to deteriorate in the autumn of 1795. His letter to Mrs Dunlop, on 15 December 1795, was more alarming: ‘If I am cut off, even in all the vigour of manhood as I am, gracious God, what will become of my little flock . . . But I must not think longer on this subject, so I shall sing with the old Scotch ballad: “Oh, that I had ne’er been married”.’ 13

In the spring of 1796 Burns became seriously ill with rheumatic fever. On 4 July he was brought to the seaside to see if sea bathing would help. There the excruciating rheumatic pains tortured him. He knew that he was dying. On 12 July he returned in a small spring cart to Dumfries to die. He wrote his farewells. On 21 July 1796 the illness, from which he had suffered so long, ‘terminated his earthly career’. Scotland’s great poet was only thirty-seven years of age. Alexander wrote: ‘On the night, indeed immediately preceding his decease, I sat

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Purchases in 1789 by Milord Findlater (MLF) James, 7th Earl (who died without issue in 1811) from Jean Remi Moët, co-founder of Moët & Chandon in 1807. The top picture shows MLF purchasing 120 bottles Clos Vougeot and 120 bottles of another wine. The lower illustration is for a purchase of 120 bottles champagne, vintage 1788. Mr Moët first produced champagne in 1741 and the first Irish purchase was made in 1788 by the Hon. John Butler of Molesworth Street, Dublin. Source: Henry Vizetelly ‘Facts about champagne’ 1879 London, Ward, Lock & Co.

by his bedside and administered the last morsel he ever swallowed, not in the form of medicine or of the cordial of romance, but what was better fitted to allay his thirst and cool his parched and burning tongue.’ 14

After the poet’s death exaggerated stories, imputing drunkenness and dissolution, were spread concerning him, and were credited by many people who might have known better. What Alexander described as ‘Burns’ convivial habits, his wit and humour, his social talents, and his independent spirit’ inspired these tales. One does not need to read between the lines to realise that these very traits of Burns’ character were what endeared him to a broad-minded, intelligent man, such as Alexander undoubtedly was.

For the next forty-three years Alexander defended Burns’ honour in the leading publications of the day. Dr Currie, the first, official, biographer of the national bard accepted as true much of the gossip about the poet’s habits and character, but fourteen years later Alexander Peterkin, who was editing Burns’ works, invited Alexander to commit to paper his testimony for inclusion in his appreciation of the poet. It appeared in Peterkin’s The Works of Burns and is dated 10 October 1818. Alexander wrote:

His convivial habits, his wit and humour, his social talents, and independent spirit, have been perverted into constant and habitual drunkenness, impiety, neglect of his professional duty, and of his family, and in short every human vice. He has been

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branded with cowardice, accused of attempted murder, and even suicide, and all this without a shadow of proof, proh pudor!

Is there nothing of tenderness due to the memory of so transcendent a genius, who so often delighted even his libellers with the felicities of his songs, and the charms of his wit and humour?—And is no regard to be had to the feelings of those near and dear relatives he has left behind; or, are his ashes never to ‘hope repose’?—My indignation has unwarily led me astray from the point to which I meant to have confined myself, and to which I will now recur, and briefly state what I have to say on the subject.

My connection with Robert Burns commenced immediately after his admission into the Excise, and continued to the hour of his death. In all that time, the superintendence of his behaviour as an officer of the revenue was a branch of my especial province, and it may be supposed, I would not be an inattentive observer of the general conduct of a man and a Poet so celebrated by his countrymen.

[Robert Burns] was exemplary in his attention as an excise-officer, and was even jealous of the least imputation of his vigilance; . . . and I will farther avow, that I never saw him, which was very frequently while he lived at Ellisland, and still more so, almost every day, after he removed to Dumfries, but in hours of business he was quite himself, and capable of discharging the duties of his office; nor was he ever known to drink by himself, or seen to indulge in the use of liquor in a forenoon, as the statement, that he was perpetually under its stimulus unequivocally implies.

. . . but permit me to add, that I have seen Burns in all his various phases—in his convivial moments, in his sober moods, and in the bosom of his family; indeed I believe I saw more of him than any other individual had occasion to see, after he became an Excise Officer; and I never beheld any thing like the gross enormities with which he is now charged. That when sat down in an evening with a few friends whom he liked, he was apt to prolong the social hour beyond the bounds which prudence would dictate, is unquestionable; but in his family, I will venture to say, he was never seen otherwise than attentive and affectionate to a high degree . . . the virulence indeed with which his memory has been treated, is hardly to be paralleled in the annals of literature.

In Johnston’s Edinburgh Magazine of February 1834 he wrote: ‘Had Burns been subject to a Board’s recorded censure, I must ex-officio have known of it, as it could not have been concealed from me. I say without hesitation, that Burns would, had he lived, have been promoted in due course, and that at a shorter period of service than any of his predecessors.’

Old Uncle Alex strove long and hard to protect the name of his friend. He finally succeeded in quashing all the exaggerated and invented stories put about by Burns’ enemies and critics, and his ill-informed biographers. It was now undisputed that Burns was a zealous and thoroughly efficient officer the whole of his career. As late as 1923, eighty-four years after his death, Old Uncle Alex was commemorated by the Sandyford Burns Club, Glasgow, who, in recognition of his defence of the poet’s honour and reputation, erected a gravestone in the form of a boulder of silver-grey Creetown granite over his burial place. The

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inscription reads ‘The friend of Robert Burns in life, his vindicator after death.’* The Corporation of Glasgow then voted £15,000 [€800,000] for the foundation of a Chair of Scottish History and Literature in the University of Glasgow in Alexander’s memory. 15

The friendship between the poet’s family and the Findlaters survived long after Burns’ death. His nephews, William and Gilbert Burns, went to Dublin and, as we shall see, were founding partners, with Old Uncle Alex’s nephew, in the establishment of various business houses in Dublin. Burns’ eldest sister Agnes also crossed the sea and married William Galt, a land-agent in Stephenstown near Dundalk.

Old Uncle Alex was married twice. While stationed at Coupar Angus he wed, in 1778, Susan Forrester, daughter of John Forrester, a writer from Falkirk. She died in 1810, not long before Alexander’s appointment as Collector of Excise at Glasgow. There were four sons and a daughter from this marriage.

His second marriage was to Catherine Anderson and they had one son and two daughters. The family lived for the greater portion of his remaining twentyeight years in Glasgow. After his death his furniture and personal belongings were auctioned, and there was much interest in one of the pieces of furniture, an organ, originally made for St Andrew’s Church, Glasgow. This instrument, a large chamber finger organ, with six stops and a swell, was bought or hired from a Glasgow music seller for the church, but was only played once, so great was the popular wrath at the innovation. It was four years afterwards, apparently, that Old Uncle Alex acquired it from the music seller.

Old Uncle Alex left the excise in 1825 and lived in retirement for a full fourteen years before he died. At the time he retired his nephew Alexander had been in Dublin for two years, and was establishing himself in the business community there.

Piper Findlater VC of the Gordon Highlanders, 1897
Piper Findlater was one of the great heroes of late-Victorian society, and a man with a canny modern sense of how to turn his fame into cash. ‘Sporran’ tells the story of his great deed.
The Gordons have come. Listen to the crashing music, the lilt of
the pipes, and the rolling tap of the lead side drummer, which

* The graveyard was closed down some years ago.
This association with the town led the well-known tobacco company P. J. Carroll & Co., who enjoyed a good trade with Scotland, to name a new brand of their cigarettes ‘Sweet Afton’ after one of Burns’ poems, ‘Flow gently, sweet Afton’. With the head of the poet prominent on the front of the packet, the brand became popular with millions of smokers in both islands for several generations.
Piper Findlater’s story has been told many times. This one was written under the pen-name ‘Sporran’. A fuller account is in The Wonder Book of Daring Deeds—True Stories of Heroism and Adventure (London: Ward Lock nd) printed between Scott of the Antarctic and Lawrence of Arabia.

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Piper Findlater playing the Gordon Highlanders to victory on the Dargai Heights in 1897

increases to a great volume of sound as all the drums throb in staccato thunder. The band swings by, the music into the distance recedes.

A regiment is proud of its drums and band, while it is said that the worth of a regiment or battalion is gauged by the smartness of its bandsmen, drummers and pipers. If that is so, then, the Gordon Highlanders must surely be among the leaders of the army. It was a piper of the Gordon Highlanders who won the highest and most coveted of all awards for exemplary courage in action. That was Piper Geordie Findlater, who won the Victoria Cross in the Tirah Campaign of 1897.

The incident took place at the small Indian station of Dargai, which is situated on the Afghan border, and which is now the most northerly railway station in India. Dargai is on a range of hills, which overlooks the strategical Malakand Pass and the Swat Valley. In the Tirah campaign the British forces were of necessity, through scarcity of water, forced to evacuate the post. It was decided that it should be retaken, and the Gordon Highlanders were chosen for the attack, for the regiment was noted for its dash and courage. Highland regiments always take their pipes into action with them, and it was to the skirl of Scottish music that the lines of kilted men leaped forward with bayonets flashing in the bright Indian sunlight.

The keen eyed and fanatical enemy greatly outnumbered the attackers, and the long barrelled jezails, accurately aimed, picked off the charging Highlanders by the score. The attack was repulsed,

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but with blood aflame at their setback, the Gordons once again leaped forward, while the pipes wailed above the din of war. The defenders fought valiantly, and it seemed as if once again the Highlanders would be driven back. Men fell by the score, and pipes fell to the parched earth, with tartan ribbons in the dust, as their players closed their eyes in death.

Piper Findlater was with his company, playing lustily as he leaped over the rocky ground. Suddenly he fell, shot through both of his legs. With indomitable courage, and although suffering agonies through his wounds, he again took up his pipes, and propping himself with his back against a rock began to play the regimental march—the Cock o’ the North. The men seeing Findlater fall, wavered, but, as the wild music again rose and fell across the Indian hills, they sprang forward with a rush. Nothing could stop the hurricane charge, and with a yell of triumph, Dargai was taken. On all the battlefronts where Highlanders have been called for service in all parts of the world, the Gordon Highlanders have upheld the glorious traditions of the Scottish clans.*

For his gallantry Piper was awarded the VC, and became an instant celebrity.†Quen Victoria never stood for an investiture with one exception. Quoting from 'Queen Victoria, a Personal History' by Christopher Hibbert: 'When the Queen was wheeled up to Findlater and the other wounded V.C., both sitting in chairs, they were ordered to rise but the Queen said, "most certainly not," and raised herself without help (a very unusual thing) and stood over them while she decorated them with the cross. (Ref Brett i,214). After the war he had to earn his living. He accepted an engagement at twenty-five guineas per night to play the pipes at one of the London music halls. His debut as a music hall artist was a great success. However his performance came to the attention of the War Office who looked upon it with disfavour and advised him that Queen Victoria herself was not amused. The Piper later wrote: ‘I, being without anyone to depend on for advice and having been only a common soldier, agreed that the engagement should be cancelled.’ There were suggestions that a post might be found in Her Majesty’s Balmoral household. He commented: ‘A few questions were asked—if I was educated, etc. I had been a farm servant before joining the army and I was only fifteen when I enlisted, so I had not the advantages of a good education.’

He was then twenty-five.

However this contretemps did not inhibit his music hall career in the provinces, and he appeared regularly in Glasgow, Dundee and the Findlater-owned Empire Theatre Belfast. A piquant interest was

* The first battalion of the Gordon Highlanders was raised in 1787. Recruitment to the second battalion was stimulated by the beautiful Duchess of Gordon, who promised each man who enlisted a kiss and, in case that might not be sufficient, a shilling.
† Never ones to miss a commercial opportunity, we in Dublin immediately marketed a bottled sauce called ‘Dargai ’Dash, described by the Irish Figaro as ‘a full-bodied sauce of very pleasing flavour, and one which will be found by connoisseurs to greatly add to the qualities of fish, soup or meat. The proprietors of this admirable sauce,’ wrote the journalist, ‘in adopting the title “Dargai Dash” have done wisely, for the slightest reference to the heroic conduct of our troops at Dargai arouses the blood much in the same way as a “pick-me-up” of this stimulating sauce does when taken as such.’ (Irish Figaro 3 September 1898)

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added to his fame by the appearance on the stage (in a bridal gown) of Miss Mary Gellatly, a former sweetheart, who it was reported he was going to marry. But soon the couple fell out, and the marriage was off. She sued him for breach of promise and got a settlement equivalent to two years‘ wages for a skilled worker. Luckily her heart was so little broken that eleven days later she married another former lover.

Piper died on his farm near Turriff in Aberdeenshire in March 1942 at the age of seventy. His medals were purchased at auction by the Gordon Highlanders Regimental Museum in 1995.

Notes and references

  1. James Spence Ruined Castles–Monuments of Former Men in Vicinity of Banff Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1873, p 3
  2. Extract from a letter from Old Uncle Alex to Alexander Peterkin of Edinburgh and first published in Peterkin’s edition of Burns. Cited in Wilson The Works of Robert Burns Glasgow: Blackie & Son CCCLIX
  3. John Sinton Burns Excise Officer & Poet 2nd edition, Glasgow and Edinburgh: J. Menzies, 1895, p 12
  4. Ian McIntyre Dirt and Deity: A Life of Robert Burns London: Flamingo 1996, pp 292-3
  5. McIntyre op. cit., p 282
  6. Quoted in Sinton op. cit., p 9
  7. Sinton op. cit., p 10
  8. Sinton op. cit., p 11
  9. McIntyre op. cit., p 293
  10. Sinton op. cit., p 13
  11. Sinton op. cit., p 18
  12. Burns Chronicle & Club Directory, January 1924, p 72
  13. Sinton op. cit., pp 20–21
  14. Sinton op. cit., p 21
  15. Burns Chronicle and Club Directory January 1924, pp 80-3