Erskine, John (1675-1732) (DNB00)

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ERSKINE, JOHN, sixth or eleventh Earl of Mar of the Erskine line (1675–1732), leader of the rebellion of 1715 in behalf of the Pretender, eldest son of Charles, tenth earl of Mar, by his wife, Lady Mary Maule, daughter of the Earl of Panmure, was born at Alloa in February 1675. On account of the fines and sequestrations to which his grandfather had been subjected the eleventh Earl of Mar, on succeeding his father in 1689, found, in the words of the Master of Sinclair, that he had been left heir to ‘more debt than estate’ (Memoirs, 59), and according to the same authority his endowments from his mother were of an equally questionable sort, the most noteworthy being the ‘hump he has got on his back, and his dissolute, malicious, meddling spirit’ (ib.) It was almost in the character of a needy suppliant that he joined himself to the Duke of Queensberry and the court party, whose goodwill he deemed it advisable to secure, in view of his questionable proceedings towards his creditors. He took his oaths and seat on 8 Sept. 1696, and on 1 April following was sworn a privy councillor. Subsequently he held the command of the 9th regiment of foot (1702–6), and was invested with the order of the Thistle. He remained a devoted adherent of the court party till the fall of the Duke of Queensberry in 1704, after which he joined in opposing the tactics of the squadrone party, of which the Marquis of Tweeddale was the head, doing so, according to Lockhart, ‘with so much art and dissimulation that he gained the favour of all the tories, and was by many of them esteemed an honest man, and well inclined to the royal family’ (Papers, i. 114). With the return of the Duke of Queensberry to power in 1705 the tactics of Mar again underwent a change, and determining at least to postpone any purposes he might have cherished of advancing the cause of the Stuarts, he became, as before, one of the most exemplary supporters of the court party. Of his willingness to promote the policy of Queensberry he gave a sufficient pledge by undertaking to bring forward the motion for an act for the treaty of a union between Scotland and England in the parliament of this year, and he was constituted one of the commissioners for that purpose. In reward for such important services he was, after the prorogation of parliament, appointed secretary of state for Scotland, in the room of the Marquis of Annandale, who had manifested a decided lukewarmness towards the proposal. As this office was abolished when effect was given to the act of union, Mar was then appointed keeper of the signet, a pension being also assigned him. He was chosen, 13 Feb. 1707, one of the sixteen representative peers of Scotland, and was re-elected in 1708, 1710, and 1713. In 1708 he was also named a privy councillor. Notwithstanding his efforts in bringing about the union, he, from motives not it is probable entirely patriotic, spoke strongly in favour of the motion of Lord Findlater in 1713 for its repeal. The fact that in 1713 he married as his second wife Lady Frances Pierrepoint, second daughter of the Duke of Kingston, and sister of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, has been regarded as an evidence of his desire to strengthen his position with the whigs; but as on 13 Sept. of this year he accepted the office of secretary of state under the tories, his marriage cannot be taken as indicating more than that he was ready to go over to the whigs should it again fall to their lot to be in power. It cannot be doubted that with the tories he looked forward to the death of Anne as affording an opportunity for the reinstatement of the exiled dynasty; but these designs being baffled by the prompt action of Argyll and Somerset, Mar gracefully bowed to the inevitable, and resolved to place himself as entirely at the service of King George as if no thoughts of another successor to the throne had ever crossed his mind. He wrote a letter to the king, dated 30 Aug., in which, after recounting the services rendered not only by himself to the protestant succession, but by his ancestors to the ancestors of King George ‘for a great tract of years,’ he added, ‘your majesty shall ever find me as faithful and dutiful a subject and servant as ever any of my family have been to the crown, or as I have been to my late mistress the queen’ (Letter, printed with Some Remarks on my Lord's subsequent conduct, by Richard Steele, 1715, and frequently reprinted). In addition to sending to the king this vauntingly loyal offer of his services Mar made it known that he had received a document signed by a large number of the most powerful highland chiefs, in which they desired him to assure the government of ‘their loyalty to his sacred majesty King George.’ Lockhart of Carnwath, who had abundant opportunities of knowing Mar, states that his ‘great talent lay in the cunning management of his designs and projects, in which it was hard to find him out when he desired to be incognito; and thus he showed himself to be a man of good sense but bad morals’ (Papers, i. 114). He was dismissed from office on 24 Sept., but he played the part of the fawning courtier to the very last, and attended a levee at court the evening before his departure to Scotland to place himself at the head of the movement in behalf of the chevalier. After leaving the court on the evening of 1 Aug. he changed his dress, and in the character of a common workman went on board a ship at Gravesend belonging to John Spence, a Leith skipper, and after a passage of about five days landed at Elie in Fife (Deposition of the Earl of Mar's valet, in Original Letters, p. 17). The Master of Sinclair states that he had information of the earl's landing the day afterwards from the Master of Grange (Memoirs, 19). From Elie Mar went to the house of Bethune of Balfour, near Markinch (ib.), where a meeting was held of the friends of the cause. On 17 Aug. he passed the Tay with forty horse, and, on his journey northwards to his fortalice at Kildrummy in the Braes of Mar, issued an invitation to those noblemen and chiefs on whom he could rely to attend a meeting on the 27th at Aboyne, ostensibly for the sport of hunting the deer in accordance with a custom ‘among the lords and chiefs of families in the highlands’ (Patten). Those who responded to the invitation numbered about eight hundred, representing, with the exception of Argyll, the most influential nobles of the highlands, as well as several lowland nobles and gentlemen. The meeting was addressed by Mar in a speech the cleverness of which is sufficiently attested by its entire success. He frankly confessed that he had committed a great blunder in supporting the union, but stated that his eyes were now open to the fact that by it their ‘ancient liberties were delivered up into the hands of the English, whose power to enslave them further was too great, and their design to do it daily visible’ (Patten). By the warlike clans his proposal was received with acclamation, and, after a more private meeting held on 3 Sept., arrangements were completed for putting the design into immediate execution. Having set up the standard of the chevalier on 6 Sept. at Braemar, on a rocky eminence overlooking the Cluny, and proclaimed James VIII king of Scotland, England, France, and Ireland, Mar began his march southwards. On the 9th he issued a declaration, in which he announced that the chevalier had ‘been pleased to instruct me with the direction of his affairs and the command of the forces in this his ancient kingdom of Scotland’ (Collection of Original Letters, p. 15). Accompanied by some neighbouring chiefs and their followers, he proceeded by the Spittal of Glenshie to Kirkmichael, the other chiefs meanwhile having separated to raise their followers. It would appear that among the persons least disposed to risk themselves in an enterprise under the leadership of Mar were his own tenants and dependents, for in a letter on 9 Sept. to John Forbes, his bailie at Kildrummy, he thus bluntly addresses him: ‘Jocke,—Ye was in the right not to come with the 100 men ye sent up to Night, when I expected four times the Number,’ and he goes on to threaten that ‘if they come not forth with their best arms’ he will, ‘by all that's sacred,’ burn everything that cannot be carried away, let his ‘own loss be what it will, that it may be an example to others’ (published separately, republished in Somers Tracts, iv. 429, and in Patten). After remaining four or five days at Kirkmichael to wait for reinforcements, Mar resumed his southward movement, and when he reached Dunkeld his forces numbered as many as two thousand (Patten). With these he advanced to Perth, which, in accordance with his instructions, had been seized on 16 Sept. by a party of two hundred horse under the command of John Hay, brother of the Earl of Kinnoul, who had thus succeeded in frustrating a similar design on the part of the Earl of Rothes in behalf of King George. Perth was now made the headquarters of the rebels, while Stirling became the rendezvous of the supporters of the government. Perth was the key to the north, just as Stirling was the key to the south. While Stirling remained in the hands of Argyll there was a barrier between Mar and the friends of the chevalier in the south. Mar therefore hit upon the expedient of sending a strong detachment across the Firth of Forth from Fife to make a dash at Edinburgh. The plan was so recklessly rash that its success could only have been momentary, but it was nipped in the bud by the rapid ride of Argyll from Stirling with five hundred troops; and the rebels, after various uncertain movements, passed into England to share in the disaster at Preston. In concert with the movement from Fife, Mar made a feint of marching southwards to dispute the passage at Stirling; but though this caused the hasty return of Argyll thither, he had already frustrated the attempt on Edinburgh. On learning that Argyll had returned, Mar, after retreating to Auchterarder, again fell back on Perth, where he remained for some time to levy money and afford opportunity for his forces to collect. While at Perth, besides sending a circular on 3 Oct. to the friends of the cause inviting them to advance certain sums on loan, the amount of which he took care definitely to fix, he issued a series of orders for the collection of a land cess, as well as contributions from the principal burghs. By these expedients he was able, as he complacently announced to one of his officers, to place his forces ‘on a regular foot of pay at threepence a day and three loaves, which is full as good as the pay of the soldiers at Stirling.’ The time spent by Mar in these elaborate preparations may be said to have sealed the fate of his enterprise. On 6 Oct. Mar received despatches from France, and also a new commission from the chevalier, given at the court of Bar-le-Duc, 7 Sept., appointing him ‘our general and commander-in-chief of all our forces, both by sea and land, in our ancient kingdom of Scotland.’ It was not, however, till 10 Nov. that he broke up his camp at Perth and marched to Auchterarder, where he was joined by the western clans who had been foiled by the Earl of Islay in their attempt on Inverary. After holding a review, he with characteristic infatuation rested on the following day, and it was not till the 12th that he began his march towards Dunblane, his main division being sent forward to take possession of the town, while he intended, in leisurely fashion, to remain with the rear at Ardoch. Hardly had the march begun, however, when he learned that Argyll had already anticipated him by taking possession of the town. A halt was therefore immediately called, and on the arrival of Mar it was decided that the whole army should concentrate at Kinbuck, where they passed the night under arms. On Sunday morning, 13 Nov., they formed on Sheriffmuir, to the left of the road leading to Dunblane, in full view of Argyll and his staff, whose troops had now advanced beyond Dunblane, but, owing to the configuration of the ground, were partially concealed from Mar and his officers. The forces of Mar numbered about twelve thousand to the four thousand under Argyll; and Mar's chance of victory was completely thrown away through the entire absence of common precaution, or even any definite arrangements. He called a council to debate the expediency of risking a battle. The ardent shouts of the chiefs for an instant attack drowned a few faint murmurs for delay. Mar's previous hesitation became transformed into headlong rashness. In fact in the battle of Sheriffmuir Mar cannot be said to have discharged any of the functions of a general; he merely headed an attack in haphazard fashion by a brave and powerful force formed of detachments under separate chiefs, against thoroughly disciplined troops. The right wing of the highland army outflanked the left of Argyll's forces, and drove them in headlong flight to Dunblane, but the left was in turn outflanked, and the attack being met with a steady fire of musketry, the highlanders before coming to close quarters wavered and faltered, whereupon Argyll, not permitting them to reform, charged them opportunely with his cavalry, chasing them for a mile and a half over the river Allan. The other portion of Mar's troops were almost as completely disorganised by victory as their comrades were by defeat, and on their return from the pursuit, though flushed with triumph, showed no disposition to renew the conflict. Argyll and Wightman, having chased the rebel left from the field, now found behind them the victorious right posted inactively on the top of the hill of Kippendavie, but, as Wightman explains (Wightman's account of the battle in Patten), they resolved to put the best face on the matter, and marched straight to the enemy in line of battle. The ruse was quite successful, for Mar kept his ‘front towards the enemy to the north of us, who seemed at first as if they intended to march towards us’ (account by Mar in Patten). When the troops of Argyll, after coming within half a mile of the enemy, inclined to their left towards Dunblane, ‘the enemy,’ says Wightman, with quiet sarcasm, ‘behaved like civil gentlemen, and let us do what we pleased, so that we passed the Bridge of Dunblain, posted ourselves very securely, and lay on our arms all night.’ Mar withdrew to Ardoch, ‘whither,’ he complacently remarked, ‘we marched in very good order.’ He then fell back on Auchterarder, and as the highlanders began to disperse, the retreat was continued to Perth. By striking coincidences the day of Sheriffmuir saw also the capture of the town and castle of Inverness and the defeat at Preston. Mar now began to sound Argyll as to what terms he would be prepared to make. Argyll was not, however, empowered to treat, and when he made application to the government for an enlargement of his commission no answer was returned. Soon afterwards, on 22 Dec., the chevalier landed at Peterhead, and Mar having met him at Feteresso, and been created duke, accompanied him to the historical village of Scone, whence the chevalier issued several royal proclamations, one of which appointed his coronation to take place on 23 Jan. Mar also sent forth an address in which he described the prince ‘as really the finest gentleman I ever knew,’ and asserted that to have ‘him peaceably settled on his throne is what these kingdoms do not deserve; but he deserves it so much that I hope there is a good fate attending him’ (Patten, p. 76). To delay the march of Argyll northwards, orders were given by Mar on 17 Jan. in name of the king to burn Auchterarder and the other villages in his line of march, and also all corn and forage lest they might be ‘useful to the enemy.’ Such cruel expedients might have been justifiable in a great extremity, but Mar was now merely clutching at straws, without the least hope of being ultimately successful. Even a month before the chevalier landed he had resolved, he states in his ‘Journal,’ to abandon Perth as soon as the enemy marched against it. The orders for the devastation were carried out in the midst of a snowstorm, the cries of the women and children drawing tears from the eyes ‘even of the barbarous highlanders’ (accounts of the burning of the villages Auchterarder, Muthill, &c., in Miscellany of the Maitland Club, iii. 461). The highland chiefs, on learning of Argyll's approach, made every effort to persuade Mar to risk a battle, but in fact many days before this he had made arrangements for retreat and escape as soon as the advance of Argyll should furnish him with an excuse for doing so. When Argyll was at Tullibardine, eight miles from Perth, the city was abandoned by the rebels, the bulk of whom had crossed the Tay on the ice by ten o'clock on the morning of 31 Jan., Mar and the chevalier following in the rear about noon. The retreat, it must be admitted, was conducted with skill as well as expedition. So rapid was it that when Montrose was reached, Argyll was two days' march behind them. On the evening that they arrived there orders were given to the clans to be ready to march at eight in the morning to Aberdeen, where they were told reinforcements were expected to arrive immediately from France; but before the march began the chevalier had slipped privately out of the house where he lodged, and joined the Earl of Mar, who accompanied him by a bye-lane to the waterside, where a boat waited to convey them on board a French ship. They were subsequently joined by other leaders, and on 11 Feb. they were landed at Walden, near Gravelines. The clans meanwhile, after reaching Aberdeen under General Gordon, dispersed to their homes.

Mar accompanied the prince to St. Germain, where he busied himself with a variety of intrigues, the chief purpose of which was rather to obtain his own restoration than that of the Stuart family. One of these schemes was to secure the assistance of Charles XII of Sweden, whose favour he recommended the Jacobites in Scotland to procure by a present of oatmeal for his troops. Mar next, through Lockhart, made proposals to his late opponent Argyll, when he supposed the latter to be still writhing with resentment at his dismissal in June 1716 from all his offices; but the overtures met with no encouragement. In the following year he entered into communications with Sunderland, offering the assistance of France to George I, to enlarge his German dominions, on condition of his assenting in some form to a Stuart restoration. There is some evidence that George I was not altogether averse to the project, but its inherent absurdity was no doubt at once evident to his advisers. In connection with the project Mar had also had communications with the Earl of Stair, with whom he had formerly been on terms of special intimacy. As he then admitted to Stair that he regarded the affairs of his master as ‘desperate,’ his negotiations would seem to have been entered into rather with the view of commending himself to King George than of aiding the cause of the chevalier. Shortly afterwards he left Paris for Italy, and he had no further communications with Stair till on the return journey in 1719 he stopped at Geneva. On this occasion he openly expressed his anxiety to desert the cause of the chevalier and come to terms with the government (see the documents connected with the negotiation in Hardwicke State Papers, vol. ii.) Stair advanced him a sum of money, and advised that he should be conciliated on the ground that to detach him would ‘break the prince's party.’ Mar's terms for consenting to abstain from any plot against the government were that the family estates should be settled on his son, and that meanwhile until this was done he should be paid a pension of 2,000l., in addition to 1,500l. of a jointure to his wife and daughter. It would appear that the Jacobites at St. Germain were quite aware of his negotiations with Stair, but he informed them that he had no intention of fulfilling the conditions, while by pretending to do so he would be able more effectually to aid the cause. It was at Mar's suggestion that the chevalier stirred up the scheme of Atterbury, bishop of Rochester [q. v.], and he appears to have done so simply to demonstrate to the government his willingness to save them by discovering the plot. Not improbably it was through his connivance that his own correspondence with Atterbury was intercepted (see letters in Appendix to Stuart Papers), and at any rate it is almost demonstrable that he was the person who supplied the means of deciphering it. Shortly afterwards, in 1723, he presented a memorial to the regent of France, expounding a project for betraying Britain into the power of France, by dismembering the British empire through an adjustment of the powers of the Scottish and Irish parliaments. His real design in making the proposal was supposed to have been to render the cause of the Jacobites odious to the people of Britain by connecting them with an unpatriotic scheme. Atterbury, after his arrival in France, obtained evidence sufficient to convince him that Mar had been guilty of ‘such base practices’ ‘that the like had scarce been heard of; and seemed to be what no man endued with common sense or the least drop of noble blood could perpetrate’ (Lockhart Papers, ii. 142). Atterbury also expressed the general opinion which ultimately prevailed among the Jacobites regarding Mar, that ‘it was impossible for him ever to play a fair game or to mean but one thing at once’ (Stuart Papers, 131). Latterly all his proposals bore on the face of them the marks of charlatanry, and he ceased to possess the power to deceive any one but himself. He prepared a justification of his conduct, of which an abstract is given in ‘Lockhart Papers’ (ii. 175–9), but he failed to convince any one either of his good sense or his sincerity. The prince, however, in a letter to Lockhart expressed his desire that the facts proven against him should rather be concealed than made public, and gave it as his opinion that the ‘less noise made about him the better’ (ib. 198). He was succeeded in the confidence of the prince in 1724 by Colonel Hay, and in 1725 he definitely severed his connection with the Stuarts without, however, thereby securing any benefit from the government. In his retirement he accepted his disappointment more philosophically than could have been predicted, occupying himself chiefly in architectural designs and drawings. In a paper written in 1728 he suggested the improvement of the communications in Edinburgh by proposing the building of bridges north and south of the city. He also suggested the formation of a navigable canal between the Forth and Clyde. He resided in Paris till 1729, when, on account of his health, he removed to Aix-la-Chapelle, where he died in May 1732. He was twice married; first to Lady Margaret, daughter of the Earl of Kinnoul, by whom he had two sons, the youngest of whom died in infancy, and the eldest, Thomas, lord Erskine, became commissary of stores for Gibraltar, and afterwards sat in parliament successively for the counties of Stirling and Clackmannan; and secondly to Lady Frances Pierrepoint, by whom he had a daughter, Lady Frances, married to her cousin, James Erskine, son of Lord Grange. The second Lady Mar suffered latterly from mental irregularity, and having, like his own wife, quarrelled with Lord Grange [see Erskine, James], Grange formed a scheme to carry her off somewhat similar to that which led to the disappearance of Lady Grange, but in this case he was frustrated by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The Mar estates were purchased for Thomas, lord Erskine, by Lord Grange. On account of the favour which Gibbs, the architect, received from the Earl of Mar, he left the bulk of his money to Mar's children. The attainder of the earldom of Mar was reversed in 1824. On the failure of male issue in 1866, the earldom, as created in 1565 limited to heirs male, was, after a prolonged argument before the House of Lords, declared on 25 Feb. 1875, to belong to Walter Henry Erskine, earl of Kellie, a decision which nullified the claims put forth for the earldom to be the oldest in the kingdom; but on 6 Aug. 1885 the title of Earl of Mar with original precedence as descended from Gratney, earl of Mar (1294), was confirmed to John Francis Erskine Goodeve Erskine, who had married Lady Frances Jemima Erskine, the nearest female heir in the failure in 1866 of male issue.

[Journal of the Earl of Mar, printed by order of the Earl of Mar, in France, republished at London, 1716, and frequently reprinted; A Collection of Original Letters and Authentick Papers relating to the Rebellion of 1715, London, 1730; A Full and Authentick Narrative of the Intended Horrid Conspiracy and Invasion, London, 1715; Patten's History of the Rebellion of 1715; Sinclair Memoirs; Lockhart Papers; Stuart Papers; Hardwicke State Papers; Macpherson's Original Papers; Secret Memoirs of Bar-le Duc, 1716; Macky's Secret Memoirs; Swift's Works; Jesse's Pretenders and their Adherents; Mrs. Thomson's Memoirs of the Jacobites, vol. i.; Lacroix de Marlès' Historie du Chevalier de Saint-Georges, 1876; Burton's Hist. of Scotland; Douglas's Scotch Peerage (Wood), ii. 217–9; Chambers's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Chambers's Hist. of the Rebellion.]

T. F. H.