Saturday, September 25, 2010

The French Macdonald

Died all of one hundred and seventy years ago today, did the French Macdonald, or to give him his full title, Étienne Jacques Joseph Macdonald, the first Duc de Tarente. A favourite of Napoleon, Macdonald spent most of his life soldiering around Europe. However, as he approached 60, he decided to visit the homeland of his forefathers - the Western Isles - and while there he kept a diary. This was found recently, and then published in English by The Islands Book Trust.

Although Macdonald was born in the Ardennes, France, in 1765, his father was a native of South Uist one of the Outer Hebrides, and from a Jacobite family loyal to Bonnie Prince Charlie, and dedicated to restoring the exiled Stuart family to the British throne.

In 1785, Macdonald joined the French army. After the outbreak of the French Revolution, he was appointed aide-de-camp to General Charles François Dumouriez, and distinguished himself at the Battle of Jemappes, but when Dumouriez deserted to the Austrians, Macdonald refused to do the same. He rose quickly through the French Revolutionary army ranks, serving in the army of the Rhine and in Italy, where he occupied Rome, and was made governor. Thereafter, in conjunction with another general, Jean Étienne Championnet, he took the Kingdom of Naples, which became known as the Parthenopaean Republic.

In 1800, Macdonald received command of the army in the Helvetic Republic, maintaining communications between the armies of Germany and of Italy, and won Napoleon’s praise for a winter crossing of his army into Italy. On returning to Paris, MacDonald married the widow of General Joubert, and was appointed French ambassador to Denmark, a position he did not hold for long. Caught up in ante-Napoleon intrigues, he was ostracised for some years, and not recalled to active duty until 1809 when Napoleon judged his military talents indispensable.

Soon after being recalled he helped defeat the Austrians at Wagram and was made a Marshal of France, and given the title Duc de Tarente in the Kingdom of Naples. Macdonald continued to serve in Austria, then in Catalonia, and spent some time defending Riga during the Russian campaign. In 1813, during the German campaign, he was ordered to invade Silesia, where he suffered a heavy defeat; another defeat followed at Leipzig which he barely escaped with his life.

When Napoleon abdicated, in April 1814, Macdonald, loyal to the last, was directed by Napoleon to give his adherence to the new regime, and subsequently served under Louis XVIII, though accepted no posting during Napoleon’s return and the so-called Hundred Days. He was appointed major general of the Royal Guard, and was named to the Legion of Honour. He died on 25 September 1840 - 170 years ago today. See Wikipedia for more information or the International Napoleonic Society website

In 1825, Macdonald travelled to Scotland, the home of his forefathers, and kept a diary on the journey. This was found in the French National Archives not so long ago, and translated from the original French by Jean-Didier Hache. The French Macdonald was published by The Islands Book Trust in 2007, and then reprinted earlier this year. The publisher says: ‘This fascinating document, ignored for generations and containing some very frank observations on people he met from Sir Walter Scott to his MacDonald forebears in the Hebrides, . . gives an intimate account of a vanished society and a unique insight into the fabric of nineteenth century Scotland.’

Ron Ferguson reviewing the original publication for The Press and Journal (and reproduced on Lesley Riddoch’s blog) includes some (undated) extracts. The first is about Walter Scott; and the second is about visiting the caves of Corrodale, where his father had been in hiding with Bonnie Prince Charlie.

‘At 7 o’clock, dinner at MacDonald Buchanan’s, where I meet Sir Walter Scott. He is 55 years old, but looks 60. His face is handsome and fresh, but cold. Head as that of Titus, sparse hair, white, same as the eyebrows; small and witty eyes, height 5 feet and 6 to 7 inches. He limps, from an accident sustained during his youth. We swap a few compliments. He speaks French well. I was told he does not admit to the authorship of any of the books published under his name, and I am advised to speak only vaguely about it.’

‘It is in this cave that I was told an anecdote which I often heard from my father in my youth. The Prince needed a knife, but it had been forgotten. He asked my father to find one. My father pointed out to him the risks of such an errand, but he insisted and made it an order. Thus, in this unfortunate situation, he still acted as if he were the King.’

Marc Horne, writing for The Sunday Times about the reprinted edition last April, also included some extracts.

‘The countryside between Berwick and Dunbar is all even drearier and monotonous than that which we saw at the last stage posts: meagre cultivations, barren slopes and isolated trees which the northern wind has crippled before they could develop.’

‘The apartments [at the palace at Hollyrood] look shabby and the furniture even more so. The view is grim. The guide does not know anything.’

‘Women and girls walk with their bare feet, holding their shoes in their hands even within towns. I have discussed this custom with various people who were equally critical of it.’

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