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Twelve Paces Aim And Fire

the pistols - object.jpg

A field just outside Kirkcaldy was the setting for the last fatal duel to be fought in Scotland, in August 1826.

When a quarrel over a bank loan escalated into first insult, then assault (with an umbrella, in the High Street), there was only one way in which a gentleman could retain his honour - at dawn, from 12 paces.

Two of the pistols from the duel are in display in Kirkcaldy's museum - a grim reminder of times when reputation had to be defended to the death.

12 Paces Aim and Fire
00:00 / 03:58


In depth written study

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Unlawful Death or Honour Restored

To twenty first century eyes duelling is a barbaric, uncivilised and unsophisticated, way to settle an insult or dispute. Perhaps in two hundred years time much of what we today class as acceptable behaviour will be viewed to the contrary. In those far off days, to a gentleman, personal honour and reputation were paramount. Resorting if need be to duelling to protect and restore honour was both understood and often even expected. That said, duelling was illegal and the victor could well find themselves in court to answer for their actions.

Before public opinion swept away the “field of honour”, Fife found itself the location of three celebrated duels over six short years.  All ended in the death of one of the combatants and, in each, it was the challenger who prevailed.

The 26th March 1822, saw a duel originally scheduled to take place in Edinburgh moved to Fife at almost the last minute when the authorities got wind of the intention. A quarrel, which in reality was over political knockabout humour, ended with a challenge by John Stuart of Dunearn to Sir Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck. On a field near Balmuto, Stuart shot Boswell through the collarbone. He was carried to Balmuto House on a library door and lingered in pain until the next day before dying. Stuart was charged with murder but the legal stars of the day, Henry Cockburn and Francis Jeffrey, secured an acquittal. They proved that in terms of the accepted behaviour of the day Stuart had been left with no option other than to issue the challenge. It was accepted by even his friends that responsibility for his death lay at Boswell’s own door.

The 30th October 1824 saw a second intended Edinburgh duel being fought at Ferryhills near North Queensferry . The move was yet again as a result of the Edinburgh magistrates becoming aware of the objective. The background was two acquaintances, keen horseracing men, fell out over a bet. Heated words in the “Black Bull” public house in Edinburgh resulted in Captain Wm. Gurley striking a resounding blow on the shoulder of John Westall with a poker. There could only be one outcome and, after travelling to Fife on the same ferry, the combatants took their stations. Gurley was shot dead and he too was carried on a door, this time to the nearby “Mitchell’s Inn”. He is buried in Inverkeithing cemetery. Westall and his second fled. The second was apprehended in Liverpool but nothing more was ever heard of Westall.

The 23rd August 1826 saw the last fatal duel in Scotland take place. The origins of this dispute were between a banker and his customer, David Landale, a Kirkcaldy linen merchant, who felt strongly that at a time when he required the support of his bank, George Morgan and his brother, agents of the Bank of Scotland, had not provided it. In addition be believed that Morgan was disclosing information to his detriment  on his financial affairs.

He complained by letter to the Head Office and moved his accounts. The Bank supported the financial decision making of the brothers, but reprimanded George Morgan for  breaching what is now known as data protection. The reprimand centred on indiscreet gossiping about Landale’s business, resulting in injury to Landale’s financial standing .

Morgan, a former soldier and a hot tempered man, set about trying to goad Landale into challenging him. His mistake was to make his intention public knowledge. He eventually struck Landale with an umbrella on Kirkcaldy High Street in order to provoke the duel. In this he was successful as Landale now had no option other than to issue a challenge.

Landale had no wish to fight and several times indicated that an apology would conclude the matter. Morgan declined and, in a field at Cardenbarns farm, the soldier was shot dead by a man who had never held a gun before.

Landale fled to Glasgow and then Carlisle, but returned for his trial at Perth. Cockburn and Jeffrey once again prevailed in securing a not guilty verdict, repeating their success in  the case of John Stuart of Dunearn. The defence in both cases was of identical construction based on honourable, mild mannered, respectable and peaceful individuals, being goaded or provoked into taking the only remaining alternative open to them.

This story had  an unusual final twist, albeit some years later, when George Morgan’s nephew married David Landale’s daughter. Both Landale and Morgan lie in Kirkcaldy’s Old Kirk graveyard – barely  a pistol shot apart.

The three events must not / cannot be judged through 21st century eyes – duels were of their time and convention of the day. That does not however stop us asking – bravery or madness?

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