Never trust the stories of an old soldier. Well, that maxim certainly applies to the modern world which seems to be full of fake veterans who are exposed as fantasists who never served in the armed forces. But what about centuries ago when people were more honest (and no one locked their doors)?
Step forward Auld Dubrach. Peter Grant, known sometimes as Dubrach after the Aberdeenshire farm he once tenanted, died in 1824, just four years after he was ‘rediscovered’ as an ancient Jacobite relic and survivor of the Battle of Culloden at his daughter’s house in Glen Lethnot in Angus. His tombstone in the churchyard of Invercauld near the castleton of Braemar gives a brief summary of his remarkable life:
† Erected to the memory of Peter Grant, sometime farmer in Dubrach, who died at Auchendryne the 11th of Feb., 1824, aged 110 years. His wife Mary Cumming, died at West-side, parish of Lethnot, in Forfarshire, on the 4th Feby., 1811, aged 65 years, and lies in the churchyard of Lethnot.
Grant, the alleged last combatant Jacobite, lies not far from the farm of Dubrach (An Dubh-bhruach) in Deeside (where he was born), in the graveyard at Braemar. His biography runs as follows. Apprenticed as a weaver and tailor, Grant took up arms with the rebels in the ’45 uprising (serving in Monaltrie's and Balmoral regiment) and was made a sergeant following his outstanding bravery at the Battle of Prestonpans. After the disaster of Culloden, where he is said to have killed a dozen men, he was captured by Hanoverian forces and imprisoned at Carlisle Castle, but he somehow managed to escape by scaling the castle’s walls and he walked all the way back to Deeside. There he enjoyed a quiet life, once again employed as a tailor, and in 1763 married Mary (or Marion) Cumming(s). He is said to have made the cap in which Mary was christened, and indeed even attended the actual christening. They had six children: sons John, Peter, and William, and daughter Jean, Annie, plus one other whose name has been lost.
Later Peter Grant tenanted the farm of Dubrach, reputedly the highest farm in Scotland, until the lease was about to run out. Then he moved with his wife and son John to the steading of Westside, in Lethnot parish, Angus, where his wife died. Little is known about his initial years in Angus, but while there he was pleased to greet the new minister, Rev Alex Symers, whose wife Clementine was a Carnegie of Panbride and related to Dubrach’s old army commander.
Fame came to the old campaigner in 1820, at the ripe age of 106. Two gentlemen named Smart, who were Montrose corn merchants, were rambling through Glen Lethnot in hunting season when they stumbled across this astonishing looking survivor at his cottage door. Dubrach invited them into his cottage and regaled them with tales about his Jacobite past, sung the rebel song ‘Wha Widnae fecht for Charlie’, and swung about his broadsword in an impressive manner. According to the account of Andrew Jervise (in Land of the Lindsays):
Interested in the patriarch, one of the gentlemen (Mr George Smart, now in Montrose), waited on the parish minister, and suggested that something might be done for the comfort of Grant, were his history laid before the King. The suggestion was cordially received, and a petition, containing an epitome of his history, was immediately drawn up and signed by Grant himself, as ‘His Majesty’s oldest enemy,’...and being presented to George IV., he was graciously pleased to command that a pension of a guinea a week should immediately be given to old Grant during the remainder of his life, remarking... 'that there was no time to lost in the matter.' But, as was to be expected, the gift did not in the least abate his Jacobite ardour...
The two men were staying with their sister at Drumcairn farm and William Smart of Cairnbank (near Brechin) interceded with William Maule (1771–1852), who later became Lord Panmure. One version of events states that Maule presented the king with the petition when he visited Edinburgh in 1822. Part of the supplication reads:
Educated a Roman Catholic, and in all the prejudices of the times, he drew his sword on behalf of another family, and fought with all the energy of a Highlander; but time and experience have corrected his views. Under the mild administration of your royal predecessors, he has seen the nation flourish, and its glory upheld by their wise, able, and vigorous measures. With equal zeal, then, would he gladly draw the sword in defence of that monarch, who now tills the throne, and who he trusts in God, for the good and happiness of his people, will continue to do so for many years to come! But, alas! my royal sire, though the soul of the aged Highlander is still ardent, the frost of age has chilled his vigour. He who in former times had experienced all the luxury of a comfortable independence, is now, in the evening of his age, reduced to poverty and want; for he has not even strength left to travel in search of his daily bread: and to aggravate his distress, to one affectionate daughter, Ann, the only solace of her aged and surviving parent, your petitioner can only bequeath poverty and rags. May it, therefore, please your majesty to take your petitioner’s case into your royal consideration, and to grant such relief as his circumstances may seem to merit; and your petitioner shall ever pray.
An alternative story has the unlikely scenario of the ancient man making it to Edinburgh himself in August 1822 and encountering the head of the House of Hanover face to face. According to this, the king made a friendly gesture by exclaiming, ‘Ah, Grant, you are my oldest friend.’ And Dubrach is reported to have replied, ‘Na, na, your majesty, I’m your auldest enemy.’ The delighted king awarded him a pension of 52 guineas.
William Maule commissioned the Brechin born artist Colvin Smith (1795–1875), R. S. A., to paint a portrait of Peter Grant, which is now in the National portrait Gallery of Scotland. It shows an old man to be sure, but someone who looks a lot younger than a hundred plus years old. Two articles in the periodical Caledonia (collected in 1895) give details of Auld Dubrach. The first is by an old lady, above ninety, who remembered Grant at the time he was having his portrait painted in the studio in Pearce Street, Brechin, sixty-eight years previously. The sitter was residing at the time in Airlie Street in the town, in a house belonging to a joiner named John Chalmers. She often met Peter Grant and enjoyed having a crack with him. She also visited the ‘neat’ cottage in Lethnot which he shared with Ann, though she coukld not remember whether Anne was Dubrach’s sister or wife. (Anne, to be fair, must have been over sixty at the time.) This article mentions only two children from the marriage of Mary Cumming and Peter Grant, Peter and Anne, plus then detail that the family only moved back to Dubrach some time after the marriage.
The first article in Caledonia has Maule trying to dress up the old veteran in respectable garb, though the old curmudgeon refused and wore his old fighting apparel before the astonished and frightened king in Edinburgh. In almost pantomime fashion the Hanoverian king asked Dubrach, ‘Are you now sorry that you were so very foolish and disloyal in your young days as to enter the service of the Pretender?’
King or no king, it was the wrong thing to say. Dubrach’s eyes flashed with fire. His chest heaved with emotion.
‘Be ma faith, sir,’ he exclaimed, ‘I wad fecht for him yet: and yell ne’er be a man like bonnie Prince Charlie.’
It is almost a pity that such an encounter did not in fact happen.
The second account in Caledonia is also the more credible. It mentions the fact that William Maule was presented to King George IV in Edinburgh on 20th August 1822, and there is no mention in the comprehensive records of the king’s visit that the astonishing Dubrach put in an appearance. Furthermore, the writer states that Auld Dubrach was not a giant of a man as described in other accounts, but rather small, though still striking in appearance. Another valid point made in this second account is the supposed fact that Dubrach still had his ‘genuine’ Highland garb seventy-odd years after Culloden. Even more remarkably, how did this blatantly attired rebel escape capture dressed like that all the way back to Aberdeenshire from Carlisle after his cunning escape? While there is not enough evidence to convince that Auld Dubrach was a Jacobite fake, some elements of the story he wove about himself seem open to question.
Another jarring fact about Dubrach is that he was surprisingly well travelled in his very last years, at a great age, even though he might not have made it to Edinburgh. Lord Archibald Campbell, in researching his Records of Argyll in 1883, asked John Campbell what he knew about Auld Dubrach. John had encountered the old man in the Glendaruel district in 1822 and had published a piece in the Oban Times about this. His own father was under-gardener at Dounans in 1822, and Peter Grant, son of Auld Dubrach was head-gardener, Shortly after receiving his pension, the old man visited Peter for some weeks in Argyll and would spend several hours each day in the Campbell household. John Cambell describes him:
He was about six feet in height, stout and well formed, with small feet but large hands, a fine open brow and dark piercing eyes, and long hair, which hung in curls...and was as white as the snow on his native mountains. The dress he had on him...was the same as that he wore at Culloden...I well remember that he exhibited an air of independence; his spirit would not brook opposition of any kind, and his whole bearing was majestic and heroic-like.
For the servants of the local houses, Dubrach happily sang and acted out his experiences at Culloden. Interestingly, his performance may have been inspired or at least enhanced by two books he carried with him. One was a full account of Prince Charlie’s time in Scotland; the second was a volume of Jacobite rebel ballads. Several letters from John Campbell to Lord Archibald concentrate on the detail and correctness of the old gentleman’s Highland dress. He also states that Dubrach received a warm welcome at Dounans because the Fletcher family who owned the house were also Roman Catholics and Jacobite sympathisers. The veteran reacted with explosive rage when a piper played the tune, ‘The Campbells are Coming’, because it reminded him that so many of that clan fought on behalf of the Hanoverians.
After Dubrach moved back north from Angus to his native region and the steading of Dubrach now farmed by his son, his daughter Anne Smith lived on in Lethnot. Jervise states that she had to rely on the charity of her neighbours, but she later had her father’s pension continued to her. Lord Panmure later built a house for her near the bridge of Lethnot (Bridgend Cottage). But fame and money turned her head and she became, to herself at least, Lady Anne. She reluctantly accepted the company of her fellow parishoners, remarking ‘There’s nae body but the minister’s folk near me worth mindin’, an’ although it be sair against my wull, i doubt I’ll hae to mak them a kind o’ cronies.’ She died in 1840 and was buried alongside her mother in the kirkyard of Lethnot.
When Dubrach himself died on 11th February 1824, his funeral was attended by upwards of three hundred people, who consumed over four gallons of whisky. Three pipers played the Jacobite tune 'Wha Wadna Fecht For Charlie'. A stone near his grave is inscribed; ‘The old, loyal Jacobite was at peace. He had kept faith with those whom he thought were his rightful Monarchs all of his life, a hero and man of honour to the last.’
Dubrach’s son William Grant for a time tenanted the farm his father had occupied and was therefore also known as Dubrach. He appears rather briefly in literature, in his old age, when he was encountered by the father of the author of Oor Ain Folk, walking unsteadily towards him and two friends at Ballater Fair: ‘He was, under certain circumstances, rather a quarrelsome man, and sometime brought no little trouble on his friends by his boastful vauntings and vapourings.’ The three men feared Dubrach would lead them into drinking, then a challenge of strength or combat that would inevitably lead to a fight. So they decided to teach him a lesson by clasping his hand in as strong a handshake as each could muster when he drunkenly accosted them. Up he staggered, ‘with his unkempt hair flaunting in tawny locks over his broad shoulders’. The three men each gripped his hands so mercilessly that his face was contorted in pain by the last greeting and he left them in peace.
But even here, with the son, the Dubrach legend is confused and contrary. The anonymous writer of the first account in Caledonia magazine states that the youngest boy,William, was the son who most resembled his father, although he ‘possessed neither his father’s piercing eye, nor his force of character, being a quiet,canny man’. Perhaps time and circumstances altered William Grant of Dubrach considerably.
Whatever truth there was in the legend of Auld Dubrach, he was well remembered in his own district of Deeside. Folklorists Calum Maclean and Dr John MacInnes a local man, John Lamont, in 1959 and he recounted details of the hero as if he was a current day character.
Caledonia, A Monthly Magazine of Literature, Antiquity, and Tradition, Mostly Northern, ed. Alexander Lowson, Aberdeen,1895, pp. 55-76.
The Calum Maclean Blogspot, http://calumimaclean.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/peter-grant-auld-dubrach-kings-oldest.html
Land of the Lindsays, Andrew Jervise, Edinburgh, 1853, 109-10.
Oor Ain Folk, James Inglis, Edinburgh, 1894, 75-77.
Records of Argyll, Lord Archibald Campbell, Edinburgh & London, 1885, 456-462.