The military exploits and achievements of James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose, have long since been acknowledged and are now acclaimed across the globe wherever the virtues of honour and nobility are cherished.
Less widely known however is the fact that Montrose was also a poet of considerable ability.
Some 13 or so poems have been attributed to Montrose although, as no contemporary manuscripts of his work have survived, this figure could be considerably more. Whether or not others were lost during the time when his enemies ransacked through his private papers in search of incriminating evidence is not known.
Great leaders have over the years used the words of Montrose to encourage and inspire their followers and even General Montgomery, on the eve of D-Day, roused his troops with the following words:-
‘He either fears his fate too much
Or his deserts are small
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all’.
These four lines, taken from Montrose’s poem ‘My Dear and Only Love’ , are perhaps the most often recited of all Montrose’s writings and they underline the clearness of vision and the single minded purpose of Montrose as he struggled against overwhelming odds to support the failing cause of his sovereign Charles 1 st .
‘My Dear and Only Love’ is a considerable work and the first part alone consists of 228 words in 5 verses. Part 2 contains a further 13 verses making the entire work over 800 words.
This work, which is essentially a love poem to Montrose’s wife Magdalen Carnegie, is also generally recognised as being one of the greatest political poems of all time. It was written in two parts and the second part could conceivably have been written much later than the first.
Montrose started this work at a time when his personal life was in turmoil, being torn by his loyalty to his family, his country, his religion and his sovereign. In it he makes an impassioned plea as he struggles to express his love for his wife and also his beloved Scotland which is embroiled in civil war.
He makes a contrast between his model of honourable conquest, Alexander the Great, the Synod, which Montrose despised as a vehicle for collective hypocracy, and the English Republican Commonwealth which he considered a committee-driven abnegation of personal responsibility.
Little of fact is known about Montrose’s relationship with Magdalen but what is beyond doubt is that it suffered greatly by the pressures put on it by the political upheaval of the times. Despite these pressures on them both, and to their great credit, no evidence was ever found (despite rigorous searches by Montrose’s enemies to locate any) to show that either one of them had ever been unfaithful
My Dear and Only Love (Part 1)
My dear and only Love, I pray
This noble world of thee
Be govern’d by no other sway
But purest monarchy;
For if confusion have a part,
Which virtuous souls abhor,
And hold a synod in thy heart,
I’ll never love thee more.
Like Alexander I will reign,
And I will reign alone,
My thoughts shall evermore disdain
A rival on my throne.
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all.
But I must rule and govern still,
And always give the law,
And have each subject at my will,
And all to stand in awe.
But ‘gainst my battery, if I find
Thou shunn’st the prize so sore
As that thou sett’st me up a blind,
I’ll never love thee more.
Or in the empire of thy heart,
Where I should solely be
Another do pretend a part
And dares to vie with me;
Or if committees thou erect,
And go on such a score,
I’ll sing and laugh at thy neglect,
And never love thee more.
But if thou wilt be constant then,
And faithful of thy word,
I’ll make thee glorious by my pen
And famous by my sword:
I’ll serve thee in such noble ways
Was never heard before;
I’ll crown and deck thee all with bays
And love thee evermore.
Whilst most of Montrose’s poems were influenced by the heavy matters of state and religion which were so burdensome upon the state of Scotland at that time there are one or two examples in his writings which show a lighter side to him and perhaps also a keen sense of humour.
Although James the 1st Duke of Hamilton postured as King Charles’s most loyal servant in Scotland he was in fact in close league with the enemies of Charles, the Covenanters. Hamilton always liked to be considered as a military expert, having served for a while under Gustavus Adolphus, but in truth Adolphus was never able to trust Hamilton with any military responsibility whatsoever.
Montrose suspected that Hamilton was deceiving Charles and for this reason there was little love lost between Hamilton and Montrose.
When Hamilton was in the North of England on court business he was annoyed during his visit to the Earl of Newcastle by two quarrelling dogs. Apparently, being unaware that the dogs belonged to Newcastle’s son, he drew his blade and ran one of the dogs through.
On hearing of this incident Montrose penned the following epitaph for the unfortunate creature.
Some Lines on the Killing of the Earl of Newcastle’s Son’s Dog
Here lies a dog, whose qualities did plead
Such fatal end from a renowned blade;
And blame him not, though he succumbed now,
For Hercules could not combat against two;
For while he on his foe revenge did take,
He manfully was stabbed behind his back
Then say, to eternise the cur that’s gone,
He fleshed the maiden sword of Hamilton.
Montrose’s story is one of honour, service, achievement, sacrifice, and finally tragedy. He fought valiantly against a rising tide of treachery and betrayal and ultimately, when most of his friends and associates had already been slaughtered by the Covenanting regime, he followed them to the scaffold to suffer the death, by hanging and quartering, of a common felon.
When Montrose was finally defeated at Carbisdale in April 1650 he was captured and handed over to the authorities by Neil Macleod of Assynt. His fate was sealed.
He was hurried to Edinburgh to take part in a sham trial in front of the representatives of the Covenanting regime, following which the sentence of death was pronounced. Montrose spent an uncomfortable night in the Tollbooth but even during these final hours he managed to pen a prayer, his Metrical Prayer, which clearly shows his commitment to God and his unshaken belief that God would take him to him and ‘raise him with the just’.
Montrose’s Metrical Prayer
Let them bestow on ev’ry airth a limb;
Open all my veins, that I may swim
To Thee, my Saviour, in that crimson lake;
Then place my parboil’d head upon a stake,
Scatter my ashes, throw them in the air:
Lord (since Thou know’st where all these atoms are)
I’m hopeful once Thou’lt recollect my dust,
And confident thou’lt raise me with the just.
That Montrose could write so eloquently just hours before his pending execution shows not just admirable ability but also astonishing strength of character.
The campaigns of Montrose were often hard fought and bloody affairs but Montrose knew they had to be. Once the conflict started he knew that he was fighting against forces which were greater in terms of number and better in terms of supply. He knew that his first defeat would probably end the campaign, and so it was ultimately to prove.
Montrose always strove to fight his campaigns in an honourable way and, as he was to proclaim at his trial, ‘not one hair on a Scotchman’s’ head was harmed that he could have saved’.
Montrose believed in the true and original Covenant. Honour and fidelity meant everything to him and, until his very last breath; he died believing that he had done everything in his power to not only acclaim God but also to support his rightful sovereigns Charles 1st and 2nd.
Titles and First Lines of Montrose’s Poems
Poems from the Flyleaves of His Books.
- As Macedo his Homer, I’ll thee still
- As Philip’s noble son did still disdain
- Though Caesar’s paragon I cannot be
In Praise of Women
- When heaven’s great love had made the world’s round frame
Perfect Sympathy in Love
- There’s nothing in this world can prove
The Killing of the Earl of Newcastle’s Son’s Dog
- Here lies a dog, whose qualities did plead
To His Mistress
- My Dear and only love, I pray
On the Faithlessness and Venality of His Times
- Unhappy is the Man
His Metrical Vow
- Great Good! And Just! Could I but rate
- On the Death of Charles 1
- Burst out my soul in main of tears
On His Own Condition
- I would be high, but that the Cedar tree
On Natural Order
- Can little beasts with lions roar
His Metrical Prayer Before Execution
- Let them bestow on every airth a limb
All Montrose’s poems, and a great deal more, are contained in a highly recommended book by the Scottish author Robin Bell entitled ‘Civil Warrior’, ISBN 1-84282-013-3.
Bell not only tells the story of Montrose in a concise and easily understood format (the book is 109 pages long) but he punctuates the text with Montrose’s poems, considering the historical events of the time and exploring the influence they had on Montrose’s words.
He cleverly weaves the poems in and out of the story and the result is an immensely enjoyable and informative read.
So much can be learned about Montrose and the turbulent times in which he lived by reading and understanding his poetical works. They go a long way to helping us understand the kind of man who Montrose was and also what drove him on to stand up for what was ultimately a lost cause. It was a cause he was to sacrifice everything for.
For more information on Montrose’s poems and other historical books see our Bibliography on this website.