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5 May 2021

Facing Our Past: Leith Hall’s Tale of Two Duels

Written by Dr Désha A Osborne
Leith Hall seen from the driveway as the sun sets on a autumnal sunny day.
Leith Hall, Aberdeenshire
As part of a blog series for our Facing Our Past project, Dr Osborne takes a look at the Leith family and their links to the Caribbean island of St Vincent.

When John Abernethy of Mayen killed John Leith, 3rd Laird of Leith Hall in a duel on 21 December 1763, the estate was passed to Leith’s young son John through the factorship of his maternal uncle Captain James Stewart. One of Captain Stewart’s first actions was to remove Leith’s cousin Patrick Leith from his position of tacksman (a leaseholder) over the lands of Christ’s-kirk and Waulkmiln of Flinders. Patrick, grandson of James Leith, 1st Laird of Leith Hall, was the father of four sons and eight daughters; fighting to maintain his home and livelihood, he unsuccessfully countersued Stewart, which ultimately lead to his financial ruin.

As a result of his family’s degradation, Patrick’s oldest son Alexander departed Aberdeenshire for the recently ‘ceded island’ of St Vincent in 1771, becoming one of the first men from the North East of Scotland to settle there. However, the Leith-Abernethy duel even followed Alexander to St Vincent. Abernethy’s uncle, Patrick Byres of Tonley, provided his nephew with the horses to make his escape from the village of Bon Accord, near Aberdeen. While Abernethy avoided trial by fleeing to the Continent, it appears his uncle took part in the alleged final duel in Aberdeenshire with Alexander Leith of Glenkindie and Freefield, Patrick Leith’s older brother and benefactor of his nephew Alexander. What remains to be said is whether Byres’s son John, the King’s Chief Surveyor in the ceded islands and settler in St Vincent, ever had an encounter with Alexander!

24 years after his arrival, Alexander became the most infamous man in St Vincent’s early colonial history. In 1795, he is credited with killing the Garifuna Chief Joseph Chatoyer in single combat. This duel, as documented by historians, became a central moment in the entire history of the Eastern Caribbean. It is memorialised in art, music, a national monument and countless histories. It is a story I was told by my Vincentian parents as a child. Alexander Leith died in 1798, unable to recover from longstanding injuries incurred during the War of 1795–97. He currently lies buried in the centre of St George’s Anglican Cathedral in Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent.

A black and white engraving of a group of people standing beneath a tall cliff in woodland. A man stands to the right, smoking a long pipe. Five women approach him, one kneeling. All but one carry baskets on their backs. The fifth carries a baby in a sling.
The chief of the Garifunas with his five wives

The story of the duel brought me to doctoral research at the University of Cambridge on Hiroona, St Vincent’s epic poem about the war (I edited the first critical edition in 2015 with the University of the West Indies Press). In the poem, written by Anglican priest Horatio Huggins, the Leith-Chatoyer duel is elevated to a world-changing event: the death of Chatoyer is the death of ‘Hiroona’ the indigenous land and the beginning of St Vincent the colony.

In 2019 I spent time as a visiting scholar at the Special Collections Library at the University of Aberdeen and as a research fellow at IASH in the University of Edinburgh, investigating not only the truth behind this duel but also the lives of many enslaved and free mixed-race women and the children born to them with men like Leith and those in his North-East Scottish network. The results have led me time and again to National Trust for Scotland-maintained properties like Leith Hall, where the histories of Scotland and the Caribbean converge at different points from the 18th century to today in surprisingly personal ways.

A head and shoulders photograph of a woman, slightly turning to face the camera. She wears a black roll-neck jumper and gold hoop earrings.
Dr Désha A Osborne

I hope to use this blog series to show how accounts like those of the Leith-Abernethy and Leith-Chatoyer duels illustrate the lasting and hidden interconnections of lives lived on both sides of the Atlantic. Working with the Facing Our Past project, I hope to help uncover more stories like this.

Dr Osborne is working with the National Trust for Scotland on our Facing Our Past project. She teaches literature at Hunter College, City University of New York, and was the 2019 Daiches-Manning Memorial Fellow in 18th-century Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

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