IT must have made for an imposing spectacle when the gentry, landed aristocracy and the common people of Ayrshire gathered in vast numbers on April 11, 1822, to attend the funeral of Sir Alexander Boswell, laird of Auchinleck, former MP, dilettante antiquarian and son of the biographer James Boswell.

The Ayr Courier reports that more than 11,000 people were there and that the cortege stretched back more than a mile. The article draws a vivid picture of the minister, the Ayrshire Yeomanry cavalry of which Sir Alexander had been Colonel, assembled trumpeters, the undertaker and assistants walking ahead of the hearse and six, while behind came the Baronet’s own coach, empty, then his groom, servants and dependants, three mourning coaches containing his only son and three lords, 25 private coaches with Lord Glasgow and assembled dignitaries, the tenantry on horseback with men from neighbouring villages on foot bringing up the rear.

The Ayrshire Advertiser put the large numbers down to “the rank, talents and character of the departed” as well as, more enigmatically, to “the cause and manner of his death”. And there’s the rub, for Boswell was killed in a duel, one of the last to be fought in Scotland, and one for which everyone attributed responsibility to him, not to his opponent, James Stuart of Dunearn.

The dispute had its origins in the unsettled, acrid politics of Scotland in the post-Napoleonic war period. The estate of Auchinleck and his ability in managing it provided Boswell (1755-1822) with an income which made him a man of independent means. In defiance of his father’s wishes, he withdrew from studies of law, but developed a refined taste in literature, even if he never became more than a minor man of letters and a bibliophile with a fondness for early Scottish writers.

READ MORE: Understanding the many faces of Dario Fo

He published some stilted verses but also some racy songs, two of which, “Jenny’s Bawbee” and “Jenny dang the Weaver”, are still in the contemporary folk repertoire and can be heard on YouTube.

Boswell used his wealth to purchase a seat in Parliament, a “rotten borough” in Devon, but he had to continue paying to maintain it, and this was a strain even on his resources. He was a heart-and-soul Tory but his acrimonious character set him at odds with the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, and only after he had resigned his seat in 1821 did Liverpool confer on Boswell the baronetcy which he believed his loyalty had merited.

The National:
James Boswell was a biographer and the father of Sir Alexander Boswell

He shifted his energies into writing satirical and scurrilous squibs and verses on political adversaries. For reasons which are not altogether clear, the main target of his bile was James Stuart of Dunearn (1775-1849), a prominent Whig. The anomaly is that the two men were distant relatives, met socially and gave every appearance of being friends. After the duel, puzzled acquaintances from the best Edinburgh society recalled both men as being cordial and courteous, good companions and real gentlemen, but that last description is more ambiguous than might appear since a gentleman has to follow an iron code of conduct which might override his own feelings.

A Tory paper, The Beacon, was set up in Edinburgh in 1821 by one Duncan Stevenson, and Stuart found himself the object of derision and vilification. He demanded that Stevenson retract and apologise, but when he refused the only acceptable course of action was to administer a horse-whipping, which Stuart did in Parliament Close. No criminal action followed and Stuart’s honour was satisfied. Not so Stevenson’s, who challenged Stuart to a duel, leaving him in a quandary. The etiquette of duelling was such that a gentleman could not accept a challenge from a social inferior, which Stevenson undoubtedly was. Stuart snubbed the challenge and thought that was the end of the matter. The Beacon went out of business, but was succeeded by a Glasgow journal, The Sentinel, which followed the same editorial line and had the same journalistic standards, filling its columns not only with news items but with verse and raillery. Stuart found himself once again the object of sneering comments, some in the form of mild jibes but others brutally demeaning to his honour according to prevailing cultural standards.

Whigs had annual gatherings all over the UK to commemorate Charles James Fox, their revered leader. In its account of the 1822 dinner in Edinburgh, The Sentinel reported seeing “Mr Stuart of Dunearn in a state of inebriation, misdirecting his wine into his waistcoat pocket instead of his mouth.”

READ MORE: Pope Pius II's Scotland visit in 1435 explored

In another column after Stuart was ousted from a position with the Yoemanry in Fife, the paper printed a mock apology: “We now freely and ingenuously confess our error in having repeated in our columns anything regarding Mr James Stuart; for had the gift of prophetic anticipation been ours, and could we have foreseen all that the gentleman (italics in the original) has done for himself, we should have left his conduct to himself as the more successful satirist.”

The National:
James Stuart found himself the object of derision and vilification​

This may have been the rough and tumble of contemporary political argy-bargy but The Sentinel must have known it was breaching boundaries when it published some verses entitled The Two Jamies. The first was a Jamie Macdonald “who keeps a gin shop,” but the lines on the other Jamie were virulent.

Who’s this too but Stuart well known for the Cow-art,
Of oxen the feeder, of Frank the delight?
In specification he’s up to
the true-art
A bully by day and a justice
by night!

There could be no dubiety over identity of the Jamie targeted, and no question over the only appropriate response. All codes of gentlemanly honour agreed that to accuse a man of cowardice was an insult that required “satisfaction” – that is, an apology or a duel. Stuart made enquiries to establish the author of the verses, and was dismayed to discover that it was none other than Boswell. He requested the Earl of Roslyn to mediate, but Boswell declined to settle.

The two were gentlemen of comparable rank, so ritual took over. A challenge was issued, seconds were appointed, weapons agreed and the field of honour chosen. It could not be in Edinburgh since the sheriff had got wind of the proposed duel and issued an order which would have led to the arrest of seconds and medical men, so the two parties crossed the Forth and made for Auchertool.

The National:
Alexander Boswell used his wealth to purchase a seat in Parliament

Boswell was an accomplished marksman and there is some dispute over whether he fired in the air or did not fire at all. Stuart had never even handled a pistol, but he did fire and his shot struck Boswell in the collar bone. He lingered on in what must have been excruciating agony for two days, before dying. Stuart fled to France, always intending to return for trial but anxious to avoid the misery of prison.

Duelling was outlawed in Scotland, as in most countries, and the survivor could face the death penalty, but public opinion, especially in the upper classes, was at odds with the law of the land. The language employed concerning duelling and its rites is intriguing, and speaks of a mindset which has long vanished. A “gentleman” was entitled, indeed obliged, to seek “satisfaction” when his “honour” had been impugned, and to demand an armed encounter on the “field of honour”. Stuart, like many other duellists, was relaxed about the probable verdict of a jury of his peers, since they would all be gentlemen whose beliefs and expectations were similar to his.

HE did return for trial in Edinburgh on the appointed day to find that the crowd seeking admission was such that the jury struggled to get in. His advocates included the stars of the Scottish bar of the day: Henry Cockburn, author of the Memorials of His Time, and Francis Jeffrey, founder and editor of the Edinburgh Review. Cockburn writes that “no Scotch trial of my time excited such interest.” He too was a Whig and a great orator, and used the opportunity then afforded for defence counsel to make an opening address in which he underlined that Stuart was “a gentleman connected with the foremost families in the land – with those of Rae, Buchan and others”. He went on to declare that “the law of Scotland, which was founded on humanity and common sense, never condemned except where the mind was guilty” and that was not the case. He even concluded that Stuart had acted “under a moral necessity,” and that a “verdict of not guilty would be most grateful to humanity.”

All the witnesses were gentlemen, with several peers of the realm among their number. In his summing up, the judge did quote legal authorities who stated that duels were no more than “illustrious and honourable murders” but spent the rest of his address emphasising “the ample and fair testimonies which had been tendered in favour of Stuart,” and “the distressing feelings of mind he had experienced since that fatal moment.” It was practically an instruction to the jury to acquit, which it did without even withdrawing to consider their verdict.

There were further ramifications, including a motion of censure against the Lord Advocate in the House of Commons, only narrowly defeated.

The case gives a glimpse of another Scotland and other values, for there was agreement that Stuart had no option but to behave as he had done, and that is the crucial point.

Stuart did what a gentleman had to do according to the culture of the time. Reading about the case is like consulting a work on the Aztecs or probing a past unentangled with the present, but maybe that is too complacent an analysis. The duel and trial do present a case study on the power of prevailing cultural beliefs.

Sir Alexander Boswell now rests in the family mausoleum in Auchinleck alongside his father and earlier generations of the family, including the Lord Auchinleck whom Samuel Johnson met on his return journey from the Hebrides. The mausoleum is currently being restored but as an act of homage to James Boswell, not to his son, although he too has his place in history, even if not an altogether honourable one.