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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

The French Macdonald: The 1825 Travel Diary of Jacques Etienne Joseph Alexandre Macdonald

Macdonald, Jacques Etienne.  The French Macdonald: The 1825 Travel Diary of Jacques Etienne Joseph Alexandre Macdonald. Commentaries by Jean-Didier Hache and Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart. Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, UK : Islands Book Trust, 2007. 209 pages, 20 colour illus. ISBN-13# 9780955542015. Paperback. £10.00.

Cover: the French MacDonald

Since I am reviewing this book for the Napoleonic Series, I should discuss the relevance of a book based on events in 1825, given that Napoleon had died in 1821, and that for many Napoleonic enthusiasts the interest stops abruptly at June 1815. Published by the Islands Book Trust, this is a book on Scottish history, the focus being on the relationship of the French Marshal MacDonald to Scotland. It is still of interest to the Napoleonic enthusiast with a wider interest in the era and its characters, and in particular for those who like to know what happened afterwards: it is of great importance to anyone with an interest in Marshal MacDonald.

In 1825 Marshal MacDonald, Duke of Tarentum (I will keep to the forms used in the book), made a two months tour of the British Isles, the principal aim being to visit Scotland, and in particular the Hebridean island of South Uist, where his father had been born. He kept a travel diary, which was kept in his daughter's family and eventually deposited in the Centre Historique des Archives Nationales where Jean-Didier Hache, a French researcher into the Marshal's Scottish family, unearthed it. Fortunately for him it had been transcribed by the Marshal's granddaughter and was therefore legible. Hache has translated the section of the trip relating to Scotland for this book and also provided the commentary.

The first part of the book is devoted to explaining the Marshal's Scottish connections, and the history of his father, Neil MacEachen. Neil already has a biography of his own: A Macdonald For the Prince, by Dr. Alisdair Maclean (Isle of Lewis, Scotland, UK: Acair, 1982), but  Hache has been able to provide substantial corrections and amplifications to the story. Neil was the guide to Prince Charles Edward Stuart during the prince's time hiding on South Uist while on the run from government troops after the battle of Culloden, and shared with Flora MacDonald the task of getting him away to Skye. Neil left Scotland with the Prince and seems to have kept up some association with him for a while before accepting a commission in French service in the Albany regiment (later Ogilvy's) under the name of Neil MacDonald.

Neil's family history has been researched, and there is limited information about his early career, but there remain large gaps in the story. In 1763, Ogilvy's regiment was disbanded and he retired on a small pension, supplemented by some initial payments from the Stuart court in Rome, acquired as a result of a series of begging letters.  Much information about Neil's life in France has been uncovered by  diligent researchers, though there is a great deal of supposition involved. He had married a local woman at St Omers and had a daughter born in 1764 then moved to Sedan where his son was born in 1765. He then moved on to join a small colony of Scottish exiles in Sancerre, where local historians have naturally been busy with the early history of the future Marshal.

The story that Neil was not married to the mother of his children and was doing his best to dump the whole family is produced only to be discounted. That there were marital problems can be assumed from  the evidence that a daughter born to Mme Macdonald in 1769 was recorded as 'father unknown.' A local source states that the family lived in poverty, in a single-roomed house; the mother taking in washing and the children being sent into the streets  to collect wood and manure, however this is the same source that produced the scandal mentioned above, so it calls for some scepticism. The suggestion is that the family were heavily dependent on the charity of the wealthier members of the colony: certainly someone paid for not only the son, but the daughter, to be sent away to school.  The section ends with a discussion of whether Neil could have been a Jacobite agent: the author considers it quite probable, but unproven.

The author then continues with a brief account of the Marshal's career. Unfortunately, though there is much useful information concerning his finances and other personal matters, the military aspect seems to be based uncritically on one of the older writers of  potted biographies of the Marshals of Napoleon and would give rise to some objections from regular members of the Napoleon Series discussion forum, so I will pass over it hastily: it is not the main point of the book. Tellingly, the quoted conversation between Napoleon and MacDonald after Wagram is not taken directly from the Recollections, as stated, but is a paraphrase, possibly influenced by Bourrienne. One real error is in stating that he served in Naples in 1807: in fact, MacDonald turned the offer down.

The book now passes on to the circumstances surrounding Marshal MacDonald's visit to Scotland. His interest in his ancestry is demonstrated by the fact that in 1809 when he qualified for a coat-of-arms he adopted that of the MacDonalds of Clanranald, with the addition of a small tarantula in reference to his title. He also adopted the Clanranald's motto: "My hope is constant in thee" (apparently in English) which, we are told later, dates back to the words of Robert the Bruce to Donald, Lord of the Isles at the battle of Bannockburn. Since he was not a MacDonald by blood this seems distinctly  presumptious, but there is no record of the Clanranalds (or the Scottish Heralds) ever objecting: all the MacDonalds he met later seemed more than willing to acknowledge kinship. In 1814, when social communication between France and Britain was re-established he wrote to a MacDonald contact in Scotland for an abstract of his genealogy, and in 1815 the Society of True Highlanders, meeting at Inverlochy, elected him an honorary member. This meant that when he decided to visit Britain he had a number of contacts to assist him.

The author then describes and discusses the visit, and the Marshal's relationship with Scotland,  in a rather superfluous chapter: there are so many extended quotations from the Diary that it might have been better to add the explanations in between the sections of the Diary. This is followed, not by the diary itself, but by a chapter on the historical background to the visit, contributed by Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart. This covers the history of South Uist, the breaking-up of the Clanranald estates over several generations, and the rise and fall of the kelp industry.

Kelp, as explained, is a form of seaweed that could be burned to produce an essential ingredient for the making of glass and soap. The industry had been established on the islands for some time, but had become more valuable while the supply of a rival product from Spain was interrupted. Unfortunately for the islanders, after 1815 supplies from Spain were resumed and the industry on South Uist began to collapse; the trustees of the estate then began breaking up the townships and clearing the land for sheep. This explains why the Marshall found his father's relatives living in poor conditions: he commented in his diary on the poverty he saw in Scotland, and on the depopulation, but  may not have been aware of the socio-economic background to the problems, dependent as he was on translators. This chapter is an excellent piece of history, but perhaps rather too specialist for its position in this book . The reader who finds it heavy going may be assured that it can quite safely be skipped.

Then there are a few scanty field notes, collected in 1877 and 1890 from some very old inhabitants of South Uist who remembered the visit or still remembered what they had been told of Neil MacEachen. Several pages of colour illustrations follow: including two  portraits of the marshal and, my favourite, the Marshal's son, age four-years old , wearing a tartan dress, clutching a 'Scottish sword' and looking thoroughly miserable about the whole affair. Apparently early indoctrination had its effect though, since the second Duke was pictured in full highland regalia later in life and added 'Fergus' to his son's names and 'Flora' to that of one of his daughters. There also some modern photos of Corrodale and of the ruins of Neil's house at Howbeg, featuring one of the MacEachens still living on the island.

The book then continues to the Diary but in order to get the negative comments out of the way I must mention the 'Chronology' which concludes the book (a rough time-line of European history with the events in the life and careers of Neil and the Marshal added). It is helpful in general, but is very sloppy (a criticism which I must also apply to the Commentary), for example, the Marshal's birth date is given incorrectly, varying from that given in the main text: also, who is this 'Prince Joseph de Beauharnais' under whom Macdonald apparently served in Naples in 1807? They have at least restored the Russian campaign to 1812, it was twice placed in 1811 in the Commentary, but there is repeated confusion between Louis XVIII and Louis-Phillippe. These are inexcusable mistakes.

However, to the Diary at last: sadly, only the Scottish portion is given, but we are told that the Marshal landed at Portsmouth on June 1st and reached London on June 11th. On the 15th he was off again and crossed the border at Berwick on the 18th. From there on we have the full Diary, his own private jottings on the trip, until he crossed the border again at Gretna Green on July 13th.

He travelled as a private individual, accompanied only by an aide-de camp, Count de Couessin, who had married his niece, and one servant, named only as Auguste. In the Highlands he was accompanied by Macdonald of Staffa, whose grandfather had also been with the Prince on South Uist. This gentleman acted as guide and translator since the Marshal spoke no English or Gaelic. An account of the journey which is included is attributed to him. They stayed in public inns for most of the trip, refusing offers of hospitality from the nobility, partly to save time. However, MacDonald was not only a Marshal Duke and a Major-General of the Royal Guard, but also a Peer of France and a member of the Privy Council, so the British Establishment welcomed him with full honours. He was, we are informed, welcomed in Westminster by the Speakers of both Houses of Parliament, and the First Lord of the Admiralty offered him the use of a Royal Navy revenue cutter for his trip to the Hebrides.

While he accepted this offer, the Marshal does not seem to have had expectation of special treatment, he visited the sights as an ordinary tourist, and was quite surprised when the guard at Holyrood Palace presented arms to him. He accepted the vicissitudes of travel with good humour, though traces of grumpiness show up in the Diary when someone upset his arrangements, or when, as happened all too often, he was kept waiting for his dinner. He was clearly pleasantly surprised at the amount of attention he received, and was always ready to respond courteously, to chat to anyone who spoke French and to sign autographs when requested. He accepted dinner or tea invitations (a piece of social history which was new to me was that taking tea with the ladies was an evening occupation, from 9 pm to midnight on one occasion), but apparently was not keen on the British habit of very long dinners, nor on that of the gentlemen sitting over their wine: he always withdrew before the serious drinking started. He was generous in tips to servants and guides, and in presents to the officers and crew of the cutter; he also took steps to relieve the poverty of his father's family, making gifts at the time and also setting up annuities for several of them.

The schedule of the journey is intimidating: apart from the few days in Edinburgh, the party seldom slept twice in the same town, they were often on the road at six am and travelling till nearly eleven pm, taking advantage of the long hours of midsummer daylight. This being Scotland in midsummer, it rained a lot. The journeys were broken by visits to great houses, gardens, museums, interesting ruins, scenic viewpoints, battlefields etc. Stopped anywhere long enough, they visited factories and farms, exchanged visits with the local gentry or, with the aid of a translator, interviewed the Highland people.

After the visit to South Uist, (where he saw his father's birthplace, met his relatives, and took a side trip to the caves where his father and the Prince had hidden) the voyage in the cutter was extended to a trip to Staffa and Fingal's cave, then over to Ireland for a look at the Giant's Causeway, to which was added a 40 mile trip to visit the MacDonald Countess of Antrim (she was out).  The weather was bad for much of the sea journey, they had to use the open boat to visit the islands and the sea at times became very rough: "Couessin, who knows about the sea, thinks that we are nearly in danger. However I stay calm, and so does Auguste."  The author tells us that the Marshal was not in good health (he was in his 60th year) and the reporter from the Inverness Courier is quoted as saying that "he walked rather feebly, and with a manner that indicated an infirm state of health."  The Marshal complained only of "my poor gouty feet", which on a few occasions limited the walking part of an expedition: in my opinion his stamina was admirable.

He was particularly curious about the Jacobite Rising, and anything he could learn about his father. He took a great interest in architecture and in building projects, especially the rebuilding of Edinburgh then going on, and also in the agriculture, being highly impressed by the size and quality of the sheep. He made notes on the Highland people, their dress, customs and diet.  He admired the scenery, but seems to have had no taste for the Romantic, he mentions Macpherson as the 'author or translator' of the poems of Ossian, which suggests that he had his doubts about the authenticity. Though he was in mourning for his wife at this time, he still commented approvingly on the pretty girls. In fact, he took an interest in everything that came his way: one hopes that Couessin and Auguste shared his enthusiasm.

The people of Scotland seemed to be just as curious about him, especially in the Hebrides and in Glasgow, where he attracted large crowds. No-one seemed to be concerned that he was a soldier who had been at war with Britain for twenty years; the one embarrassment occurred at Edinburgh, when he walked up Calton Hill only to find that the column at the top "is dedicated to the memory of Admiral Nelson's victories. I must say that I was much more interested in the view than in this column, which is there to celebrate our maritime defeats and disasters."

The return trip was via Loch Lomond and Glasgow, at which point his energy was clearly flagging a little, he skipped a couple of planned trips and took the road south. Here this translation ends, but we are told that he went to Manchester, then on to Liverpool and by ferry to Dublin, then back through Wales and Birmingham to London again, then to Brighton (I wonder what he thought of the Pavilion), reaching France on the 27th July: He wrote, "The coast of France looked to me as the Promised Land." But also "Farewell, beautiful England, charming country whose inhabitants have welcomed me with so much care and politeness."  He had taken earth from his father's birthplace and intended it to be buried with him; if this was done there is a little piece of the Hebrides in Pere Lachaise cemetery.

In spite of my earlier criticisms, this is a well-researched book, with copious footnotes. The sources are noted in detail, but there is no separate bibliography. The author has to be commended for the amount of information he has got into this small volume, and thanked for finding and translating this fascinating Diary, and for getting it published.

The website for the Islands Book Trust is


Reviewed by Susan Howard

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2007