- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

THE LAST DUEL: A TRUE STORY OF DEATH AND HONOUR

By James Landale

Grove Atlantic, $24, 304 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

Here’s a test. What insult or threat would be so serious that you would get up before dawn, trek to some isolated field and trade pistol shots from 30 feet with another human being?

Before you quickly shake your head, consider this. You live in a small, very enclosed society where your name and reputation for probity has a tangible importance. Your reputation for being a solid citizen of the first rank — a gentleman — is one of the reasons you enjoy a credit rating, carry on a profitable enterprise, feed your family and make your way safely in a scary world where disgrace literally can mean bankruptcy, starvation and death.

To refuse to duel, to accept an insult passively, does not merely earn you scorn, it puts you in serious physical danger. Your insulter will feel free to assault you with impunity as will every other vindictive person you meet in public. Your friends will turn away from you, your creditors will descend at once and, worse, your expulsion from your community will follow you wherever you flee. Being a pacifist will deny you peace forever.

It is because such a circumstance is so hard to comprehend that the story of David Landale’s duel with his banker George Morgan in 1825 makes such compelling reading. The fight has its own significance, for it is the last recorded fatal duel in Scotland.

Also, author James Landale, a BBC political correspondent, engages us with his own obsessive quest as he unravels the much-told family story about his ancestor David. Most interestingly, Mr. Landale gives us a firm historical tutorial on just why it was that David had to fight.

In the village of Kirkcaldy, on Scotland’s North Sea coast, David Landale was a leading figure in the local industry of taking imported flax and bleaching it into fine linen for export. The year 1825 saw one of the periodic recessions caused by Britain’s mercantilist excesses threaten ruin for Kirkcaldy’s trading merchants.

Like all of his colleagues, Landale was dependent on bank loans to tide him carry him though the shortfalls between having to pay for raw flax from Baltic suppliers and the debts that were owed him from customers, who were having troubles of their own.

The local branch office of the Bank of Scotland in the town was run by two brothers, David and George Morgan. George was the town jerk. As a youth he had been a noisy ruffian but had gone off with Wellington’s army to fight Napoleon in the Peninsular Wars where he earned a commission and, therefore, the right to call himself a gentleman.

On coming home he became someone everyone else tried to avoid because of his truculent rudeness and quickness to take offense. Yet George could scarcely be isolated because his bank partnership made him too important to ignore.

To make a long story short, after promising David Landale a bank letter of credit, George suddenly reneged and left the merchant in a bind. Landale wrote a letter of protest to the Bank of Scotland headquarters in Edinburgh and officials sent a peremptory note to George to explain his actions against a long and valued customer. George was furious. He issued a written challenge to Landale which was firmly ignored.

This is where the confusing etiquette of the duel made things worse. Dueling was illegal in Great Britain by 1825 and those who fought, as well as their seconds and any attending physicians, were liable for prosecution. In order to avoid prosecution, imprisonment or worse, certain complicated rules and procedures had to be strictly observed if the surviving parties were to avoid arrest. Yet there was not one official rule book about the conduct of duels, but several, each more confusing than the other.

But several points were certain. Duels, even illegal duels, could only be fought by gentlemen of equal rank. Moreover, every effort had to be seen to be made to reconcile the two parties, and apologies could be offered and accepted without disgrace. There was one time, however, when no apology could be given or accepted, and that was when the challenger physically struck his foe in front of other people.

Enraged because of the extra insult he felt at being ignored, George tracked David down to a local store and struck him with his umbrella. That was it, the duel was on. George practiced noisily and often with his own army flintlocks while Landale went off to Edinburgh to buy a slightly used set of percussion cap pistols.

To find out what happened you have to read this worthwhile book. It doesn’t spoil the suspense to let you know there is a happy ending. Twenty-five years after the duel, brother David Morgan’s son married David Landale’s daughter and they lived happily into the 20th century. There is a lesson there other than the obvious one about the futility of dueling.

James Srodes is a Washington author and journalist.

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