Monday 5 June 2017

The four knights of Eskdale

It's Lombard Street to a china orange that you have not heard of the four Brothers Malcolm who, each in his own foreign field, achieved a knighthood. I would never have heard of them either if I hadn't read The Marches [review] by Rory Stewart. I wouldn't have read that book if it hadn't been recently given to me as an unbirthday present but also if I hadn't read his earlier book The Places in Between about a solo trek through Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul in 2001-2002.  Catechism time:

  • Wasn't that about the time when the US-led coalition were also tromping over Afgho looking for Osama Bin Liner? 
    • Yes. 
  • Were there a lot of yahoos about with loaded AK-47s? 
    • Yes. 
  • Did Mr Stewart complete his trek in midwinter? 
    • Yes.  
  • Is he well 'ard? 
    • Yes. 
  • Have I read better travel books? 
    • Yes. 

One's Company or A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush [British sang froid] for walkers;  or ZAMM or Lost Continent if you prefer to drive your adventures rather than having your boots fill with blood from blisters and leeches. But that's a silly comparison, which book works for you is a matter of taste and whether you're happy in yourself at the time you start reading.

The Marches has the conceit that Rory, approaching 40, will go trekking in the borrrders between England and Scotland more or less (mostly less) accompanied by his father Brian Stewart, approaching 90. It's like a lot of travel books, some random chap is out minding his own business when he is relentlessly engaged in conversation and finishes up as three pages of some other guy's book. I hope they get a complimentary copy, if not a share in the royalties, because such encounters-in-the-landscape books are rather thin without the people padding. When such books are read a generation later, it is poignant to think of the people who have aged or died while the book has not.

When you read about people who have been dead for nearly 200 years that poignancy is barely diminished. Both Rory and his Dad were soldiers in The Black Watch, one of the quintessential Scots regiments of the British Army, so they are interested in military history and have informed theories about the how and why of garrisoning Hadrian's Wall which are somewhat at variance with the theories held by archaeologists and classicists who have not been in uniform. On the way back home after their Hadrian's Wall yompings they drive up Eskdale and pause in Langholm. The tourist office, and Wikipedia, talk large about the town for its connexions with the poet Hugh MacDiarmid [prev] which is fair enough although red MacDiarmid was polar opposite politically to the Tory Stewarts. The other local celeb is Thomas Telford the 18/19thC civil engineer aka The Colossus of Roads. Also mentioned is the fact that some ancestors of Neil "Moonboy" Armstrong [bloboprevs] lived in Eskdale. I've complained that old style print encyclopedias were strong on 19thC generals and woeful weak on everything else about which I wanted to find out. But the pendulum swings the other way and the internet privileges recent and trivial over older and substantive. So the tourist info in and about Langholm has not a word about the remarkable Malcolm family who were raised in very straitened circumstances and went to school at Westerkirk just North of Langholm. Circumstances were straiter than they needed to be because Mrs Malcolm spent her entire married life pregnant and/or suckling 17 childer - 10 boys and 7 girls; 16 of whom survived to adulthood.

The four knightly brothers were
  • James 1767-1848 was the second son and he joined what became the Royal Marines serving with distinction in the War of 1812 against the neonatal USA. He was knighted at the close of hostilities in 1815.
  • Pulteney 1768-1838 was a regular sea-captain who just missed the fight at Trafalgar but was able to render timely assistance when a desperate storm followed in immediately after the battle. He also served in the War of 1812 under the command of Admiral Alexander Cochrane, not to be confused with his more controversial nephew and contemporary Thomas Cochrane.
  • John 1769-1833 joined the East India Company at the age of 13 and rose to be governor of Central India = Madhya Pradesh with an area about the size of Britain&Ireland with a population of 10 million.  The Indian Civil Service comprised not more than 1,000 people who formed the government and administration for the Subcontinent and its 300 million inhabitants. By contrast, in Ireland, there are about 300,000 people like me sucking at the public teat; that's about 15% of the working population. No wonder we can't balance the books. When he retired from India, John Malcolm was elected to the UK Parliament and continued to write books of history, politics and biography until he died. He was the first foreigner to be bestowed with the Royal Persian Order of the Lion and the Sun in 1810 and then Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1815.
  • Charles 1782-1851 was the youngest son and another naval officer. He was knighted by Richard Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1823, for whose brother Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) John Malcolm had been private secretary and confidante. So it's partly about whom you know, but it's also about a) being able and b) surviving. A bit like the Nobel Prize.
In addition to the knights there was another Malcolm naval officer, another one in the East India Company, two brothers who went out to India as merchants, one who became a vicar South of the borrrder . . . and this little one stayed at home.  Not bad for the boys of an impoverished tenant farmer from Eskdale

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