Keith, Robert Murray (DNB00)

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KEITH, Sir ROBERT MURRAY (1730–1795), lieutenant-general and diplomatist, born 20 Sept. 1730, was eldest son of Robert Keith (d. 1774) [q. v.], and his wife Margaret, second daughter of Sir William Cunningham, second bart., of Caprington, Ayrshire. With his brother Basil, afterwards Captain Sir Basil Keith, royal navy, lieutenant-governor of Jamaica, he was educated at the high school, Edinburgh, which he described as a bear-garden. In September 1746 he was at an academy in London, learning ‘the great horse, fencing, fortification, French, music, and dancing’ (Memoirs, i. 91). About the same time he obtained a cornetcy in the 6th Inniskilling, then Lord Rothes's dragoons, and was doing duty with that corps at Breda early in 1747, when he accepted a company in a Scottish regiment raised by James Douglas, lord Drumlanrig, for the Scots brigade in the Dutch service. The roll of officers is given in ‘Scots Magazine,’ ix. 350–1. He served with the regiment, in which he was ‘much esteemed for his judgment and politeness,’ until the first reduction of the Scots-Dutch. As one of the juniors of his rank, he was then cast for reduction, but Lord Drumlanrig retained him at the head of his company of grenadiers until the second reduction of the Scots brigade in March 1752, when he was pensioned off (Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 32854, f. 143). Keith appears to have dabbled in poetry and music. A collection of his poems was published long afterwards under the title of ‘The Caledoniad’ (London, 1773, 3 vols. 12mo). One of these pieces, a parody of ‘Barbara Allen,’ is given in the notes to Johnson's ‘Musical Museum’ (ed. 1839), vol. iii. Keith appears to have next entered the service of one of the minor German states (probably Brunswick), where, according to a family tradition, he suffered severe privations owing to the scantiness of the pay and allowances (Memoirs, i. 93). He was on the staff of Lord George Sackville at the battle of Minden (1 Aug. 1759), and carried Sackville's resignation to Prince Ferdinand (ib. i. 99; Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. iii. 79). On 25 Aug. 1759 Keith was appointed major-commandant of three new companies of highlanders. The audit office records show that Keith's highlanders were formed out of a second battalion of the 42nd highlanders at Perth. Three days after they had joined the allied army in Germany, Keith's corps, still raw recruits, supported by the hussars of Luchner, attacked the village of Eybach sword in hand, and routed Beau Frémonte's regiment of dragoons with heavy loss (Stewart, vol. ii.) On the recommendation of Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, Keith's highlanders were augmented. The regiment was numbered the 87th foot, Keith becoming lieutenant-colonel commandant. Another highland corps, the 88th royal highland volunteers, had been raised by James Campbell of Dunoon, and served with Keith's, their officers being interchangeable, as in the ‘linked’ battalions of recent years. They won great fame in the subsequent campaigns, at Warburg, Zeirenberg, Fellinghausen, Grabenstein, Brunker-Muhl, and elsewhere. Keith was reported to be killed at Kirch-Denkern, to which report Horace Walpole refers more than once (Letters, vol. iii.). At the conclusion of the war the highland corps returned home, receiving a warm welcome on their march through Holland, and from Gravesend to the north. The 87th (Keith's) highlanders was disbanded at Perth in the summer of 1763. Keith remained long on half-pay, passing some of the time in Paris (ib. vol. iii.) In 1769, on the recommendation of General Henry Seymour Conway [q. v.], he was appointed British minister at the court of Saxony. In 1771 he was transferred as envoy extraordinary to Copenhagen, where, in 1772, he distinguished himself by his spirited conduct in rescuing Sophia Matilda of Denmark, the sister of George III. The pro- ceedings against her had been kept secret. On hearing that she had been imprisoned and threatened with death, Keith went alone through a crowd infuriated by rumours that the queen had attempted to poison her husband, forced his way into the council-chamber, and denounced war against Denmark if so much as a hair of her head was touched. He despatched a messenger to his own government for further instructions, and then shut himself up for four weeks. At the end of that time he received the return packet, with the insignia of the Bath, enclosed by the king's own hands, to mark his sense of Keith's conduct. He was instructed to invest himself, and go straight to the palace. In consequence of Keith's intrepid bearing, the queen was allowed to retire to Zell in Hanover. In November 1772 Keith was transferred to Vienna, where his father had been British minister before him, and he himself represented British interests for the next twenty years. During a period of leave in the summer of 1774 he appears to have accompanied his friend General Henry Seymour Conway on a military tour in France, Flanders, Prussia, and Hungary. In 1775 he was returned to parliament for Peebles, and, although absent, remained the representative until 1780. On 1 Sept. 1777 he was promoted major-general. In 1781 he became a lieutenant-general, and was made colonel of the 10th (Lincolnshire) foot. Having been reappointed to Vienna, he in 1788 very strongly urged on the home government the need of a change of policy towards Austria. His diplomatic services ended with the peace between Austria, Russia, and Turkey, on the eve of the French revolutionary war; on 29 April 1789 he became a privy councillor.

As a diplomatist Keith was capable, honest, and fearless. He possessed great conversational powers, speaking French, Dutch, German, and Italian well, and having a fluent command of Latin, of which he made good use in diplomacy. He was very temperate in his habits. In person he was short-throated, and in later life very corpulent. He died suddenly in the arms of his servant, after entertaining a few friends at dinner, at his villa at Hammersmith, 21 June 1795, aged 64. His father had died under nearly the same circumstances.

[Mrs. Gillespie Smyth's Memoirs and Correspondence of Sir Robert Murray Keith, K.B., with a memoir of Queen Matilda of Denmark (London, 1849, 2 vols. 8vo), is the chief authority. An abridgment, entitled Romance of Diplomacy (London, 8vo), appeared in 1861. An account of the formation and services of the 87th (or Keith's) highlanders is given in General D. Stewart's Sketches of the Scottish Highlanders (Edinburgh, 1822), vol. ii. See also Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, vol. ii.; and in Hill Burton's Scot Abroad (new ed. 1881), pp. 423 et seq. Keith's despatches from Dresden, Copenhagen, and Vienna are enrolled under ‘Saxony,’ ‘Denmark,’ and ‘Austria,’ and the respective dates in the Foreign Office Papers in the Public Record Office, London. In the British Museum a letter from Keith to Count Bentinck in 1760 is in Egerton MS. 1722, f. 64; letters to Sir A. Mitchell are in Addit. MS. 6810 ff. 246, 252 b, 6856 ff. 26, 37, 6860 f. 387, and a letter from Dresden, Addit. MS. 6829, f. 187. Letters from Keith to Lord Grantham in 1771–9, General Rainsford in 1781, J. Strange in 1784, and the fifth Duke of Leeds in 1786–90, are also among Addit. MSS.]

H. M. C.