Posts tagged ‘Urquhart’

May 13, 2022

The First Scotsman to carry an Umbrella

Johnny Macdonald’s peaceful revolution.

I don’t think I knew any man who carried an umbrella when I was young. Not sure I know any now. Scotsmen are not given to wielding umbrellas, except perhaps on the golf course.

Scotsman John Macdonald aka Beau Macdonald aka the Scotch Frenchman is said to have been the first Scot’s bloke to walk about with an umbrella in Britain. This was in the 1770s when it was considered unmanly to carry an umbrella.

Umbrella from the Italian word ombrella from the Latin umbella, as in clustered blossoms at the extremities of grouped spokes radiating from a stem.

From Urquhart near Inverness, Johnny Macdonald was one of the Keppoch Macdonalds; his father was a cattle grazier. When young Johnny was two years old his mother, a Mackay, died in childbirth. Heartsick the father, already inclined towards adventure persuaded a number of his cattle drovers to join him and off they went to join the forces fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie. Their Jacobite cause took them down through Scotland into England and back. A letter arrived at the family home from the father in Edinburgh – at Goolen’s Inn and Livery Stables in the Canongate. A reply sent by the children went unanswered – mail sent to and from Jacobite supporters was routinely intercepted by government spies.

In mid-September 1745 young Johnny’s fourteen-year-old sister, Kitty, set off for Edinburgh to search for the missing father. She took her three youngest brothers with her – Johnny aged four, Alexander, two and Daniel seven years old. Ten-year-old Duncan was already working and remained at Urquhart. The youngsters had fourteen pounds Scots with them (twenty-three shillings and four pence English) and their father’s letter. They set off after dark to evade their neighbours who would have tried to stop them undertaking such a hazardous journey. They walked through the first night, some twenty miles to Inverness with Kitty carrying Alexander on her back.

From Inverness the children headed south towards Edinburgh. They were at the mercy of strangers – some hostile but most kind who willingly shared what food they had with the children and sometimes provided an indoor place for them to sleep. The young Macdonalds were well-dressed in woollen plaids which they used as blankets when sleeping, with additional warmth provided by branches of broom picked by Kitty and essential when they slept in the open.

The route they took across country avoided main thoroughfares and entailed them having to cross many bodies of water; still and moving. Then Kitty would have to carry the smallest boys, one at a time, and hold Daniel’s hand to guide him safely across. Once she and two-year-old Alexander were swept into a whirlpool and only saved from drowning by a man who happened to be working his potato patch nearby and witnessed their predicament. He took them home so they could dry their clothes and fed them and put them up in warm straw beds in his barn for the night.

The longest the children stayed anywhere on their journey was at Dundee where they waited for three weeks with a blacksmith and his wife who provided them with food and shelter. By the time they got to Edinburgh the Jacobite army had left for the south. They found Goolen’s Inn run by Jacobite sympathisers who put them up but they were keen to find their father and walked on in pursuit of him. They failed to track him down for the Jacobite army was moving quickly and by April of 1746 Bonnie Prince Charlie’s bedraggled force was close to the Macdonald’s home in the north of Scotland. The children remained in Edinburgh where Kitty and Alexander were involved in an accident with a coach and six horses owned by the Countess of Murray. The Countess was herself a Jacobite supporter and she arranged for little Alexander to be fostered and Kitty found with work as a servant. Daniel and Johnny continued their itinerant life; begging and sleeping where they could. Many of Edinburgh’s tenements had spaces under stairs that were popular with the homeless at night but for young boys they were dangerous places and the brothers took it in turns to sleep and lookout when they used them. Their predicament was all the greater because they were Highlanders and so despised by many Lowlanders around Edinburgh. In addition, orphan children were frequently kidnapped in Scotland and sent overseas to work on plantations in British colonies and the boys were careful to avoid this fate. They got to know one or two fellow Highlanders, older youths and men, enlisted men who were part of the city guard. The troops arranged with Mr Goolen of the Inn to provide the boys with safer shelter which worked out better until a woman stole their 6-yard-long plaid which deprived them of clothing and their night blanket.  

The boys found odd jobs. Johnny was hired to rock a cradle which he hated and took his resentment out on the baby so was sacked. He then was taken on to turn a roasting spit and that satisfied him for a while – remember he’s only about four-years-old. After this he spent four months as the eyes of a blind fiddler walking from place to place so he could earn money playing at fairs and events. When he left that role little Johnny was offered a job as a postilion by another Jacobite family. As a postilion the boy rode on the back of one of the leading horses pulling a coach or carriage. He was given a uniform of a green jacket, red cape, red waistcoat and a leather cap. He loved horses and enjoyed the work that took him out and about across the country. In his journal he writes proudly of being ‘the littlest position in Scotland or anywhere.’ So began Johnny Macdonald’s working life.

The children kept in touch with one another and Johnny discovered through a message from his older brother, Daniel, that their father had been killed at Culloden. In the aftermath of battle it was highly dangerous to be a Highlander or live in the Highlands, then and for years to follow. Jacobite sympathisers or those suspected of being sympathisers were hunted down and brutalised. Many, many were summarily killed and others arrested and removed south for execution or to await transportation to one of the colonies. Homes and farm steadings were set alight and crops destroyed or stolen. The Macdonald’s neighbours rallied round to protect their late father’s farm still worked by Duncan, to prevent their house and its belonging being stolen and wrecked by government troops under Prince William, Butcher Cumberland. With Cumberland’s men pillaging and attacking everywhere Duncan decided to escape and followed his siblings to Edinburgh (where Highlanders were no less despised it has to be said) where the ever-dependable Mr Goolen arranged for him to be apprenticed as a stonemason at Falkirk.

Johnny Macdonald moved from employer to employer, mostly fellow-Scots – landowners with private wealth and businessmen involved in overseas trade. It is clear there was a Scottish web of contacts in south Britain, on the continent of Europe and elsewhere in the world. Wherever his masters went, for business or pleasure, Johnny went along too. James MacPherson of Ossian1 fame was Johnny’s master for a time. They met through a mutual friend, Colonel Alexander Dow, originally from Crieff. Dow had fled Scotland after killing a man in a duel and ran away to the East India Company in Calcutta which in turn led him to making translations of Persian literature. Macdonald and Dow spent two years together in India.

Despite having lived a huge chunk of his life abroad Macdonald did not forget his home. When with Sir John Stuart in Spain and Stuart waxed lyrical about the Spanish countryside ‘I never saw a finer sight; such a fine country and fine river’ Macdonald turned to him and said, ‘Sir, there is a finer sight in Scotland.’

‘Where, for God’s sake!’ asked Stuart.

‘Sir, from the castle of Stirling.’

The Irish author, Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy), did not employ Macdonald but at the end of his life, in 1768, he and Johnny Macdonald were living in London. Macdonald was a servant to John Crauford of Errol, a vile toadying man, a Scot who hated his native country but was content to use it to further his political career. As a MP he represented various constituencies – although representing communities is not what being an MP was about in the 18th and early 19th centuries. MPs rarely or never went near their constituencies; they were just names on the political map that ticked a box of frogs called democracy. Anyway, when Crauford sent Macdonald to Sterne’s lodgings to ask about his state of health Macdonald found the writer at the point of death. He waited with him, later reporting that just before he died Sterne raised his hand ‘as if to stop a blow’ and with his last breath gasped, ‘Now it is come.’

A more usual duty for Johnny Macdonald was to prepare food for his employers. Queen of Scots soup was a dish he frequently made. And here’s the recipe. Cut six chickens into small pieces, rinse out hearts, gizzards and livers. Place the meats in a pan and cover with water. Stew until the chicken is cooked. Season with salt and cayenne pepper and add finely chopped parsley then stir through eight beaten eggs and serve immediately. Macdonald’s varied his soups and his herb seasonings and sometimes substituted barley with rice.   

From when he was a tiny boy, Macdonald led a colourful life, mixing with some of society’s most illustrious characters. He absorbed some habits and dress from places he visited around Europe such as tying back his long hair with a silk hanger and wearing lace ruffles at his neck – and, of course, carrying an umbrella, the very mark of effeminism in England and Scotland. Umbrella’s were for women. In the eighteenth century when it rained men who could afford it hired a carriage. Those who couldn’t, got wet.

Beautifully turned-out and ready for all weathers, Johnny Macdonald attracted cat-calls in London’s streets because of his appearance. Being rude and opinionated has a long pedigree among taxi drivers – Hackney coachmen didn’t shrink from voicing their narrow prejudices, more so for taking him for a foreigner, a French man.

What, Frenchman, why do not you get a coach?

Frenchman! take care of your umbrella.
Frenchman, why do not you get a coach, Monsieur?

At these times if his sister Kitty was with him she would be embarrassed by the attention he attracted but Macdonald took it in his stride, answering back in French or Spanish, as though he didn’t understand their mocking calls.

Johnny was in his own way a kind of revolutionary. Although not a ‘gentleman’ he and a handful of other men led a change among that class in Britain influencing them to carry an umbrella in place of a walking stick which had replaced swords as the well-dressed gentleman’s accessory when out in town. By 1780, shortly after Macdonald took to London streets under his umbrella the first patent to manufacture umbrellas in England was taken out, in 1780. They were not initially very popular and much caricatured in the press.  

While Johnny Macdonald seems to have been the first Scotsman to brave carrying an umbrella the man attributed as the first male umbrella user in London was Jonas Hanway – ‘friend of chimney-sweepers and the foe of tea’. Like Macdonald, Hanway was well-travelled. A merchant, his trade took him as far as Russia and Persia, not without incident. After his merchandise was stolen by a Turkish Khan, Hanway was attacked by pirates. Unsurprisingly, he decided this life wasn’t for him and settled in London where he railed against drinking tea which he claimed caused bad breath, ugliness and nervousness and consequentially made Britons who drank the stuff ugly, halitosis-breathing wrecks. In the umbrella stakes Hanway may have beaten Johnny Macdonald to opening his ombrella in rain-swept London but as a role-model for men he can’t hold a candle to the charismatic and handsome Johnny Macdonald.  

Being considered effeminate did not bother Johnny Macdonald. He was proud of his dandy-like appearance and the attention he got from women such as happened a lot in Edinburgh. So much so he asked a friend why young women were so attracted to him. Her reply was,

Johnny, there is nothing in it further than this – they think you have so good a temper, and never hear you say an ill word…But you are always praising their beauty.” However, she added, “If you don’t take care women will be your ruin.

Johnny wasn’t ruined by his attractiveness to the opposite sex but it’s very possible some of the  women he encountered in his life were through their encounters with the beguiling Johnny Macdonald. That said, he was a decent man by the sounds of it. One time when in Spain he had a relationship with the daughter of an inn keeper in Toledo called Malilia. On his return the following year he discovered she had a baby four months earlier. She was relieved to see the child’s father again and he was equally happy to discover he had a family there. Despite the age difference – Malilia was eighteen and Macdonald thirty-eight they arranged to live together in Britain. However, Malilia’s mother dissuaded her daughter from following her husband so Macdonald eventually returned to Toledo where he was surprised to find she had given birth to a second son. A happy Johnny commented,

The Macdonalds grow in Spain.

And they lived happily ever after. Or so I assume as I’ve read nothing to the contrary. And that’s the tale of the first Scotsman to walk under an umbrella in Britain – and one of a very few who have since.  

1Macpherson published The Poems of Ossian he claimed came from ancient Gaelic poetry. This body of work is linked to the emergence of the Romantic movement and interest in Gaelic. Macpherson was only a few years older than Macdonald and also from a Highland Jacobite family. After going into hiding as a child post-Culloden, he studied literature at Aberdeen’s two universities.

Travels published in 1790, later republished as Memoirs of an 18th Century Footman in the Broadway Travellers series (London: George Routledge & Sons, 10s 6d).

Internet Archive Hints to the Bearers of Walking-sticks and Umbrellas. John Shute Duncan, 1769-1844