Hit and myth: Was Scotland's last duel a joke?

"LIKE an arrow from the bow, the president’s blade flashed through the air" and gouged his opponent’s cheek, causing the crowd to gasp as fresh blood flowed onto the wood-panelled floor.

Honour had been served in what has long been documented as the last duel in Scotland, fought with swords between two hot-blooded Glasgow University students after a heated argument between them about whether a former prime minister or an eminent scientist should become rector.

According to a university magazine, the bloody duel was fought in March 1899 between Robert Henderson Begg, a supporter of Lord Kelvin - eminent scientist and Tory candidate - and Italian student Carlo La Torre, who was an ardent advocate of the other candidate, Lord Rosebery, the former prime minister.It took place on the ground floor corridor of the then Glasgow University Union building - now known as the John McIntyre Building - in the west end of the city, and ended with the wounding of La Torre.

This dramatic event has gone down in the history books as Scotland’s last duel, and Glasgow University has regarded the fact that it hosted the contest with some pride. Visitors have been regaled with tales of the conflict, references to the event appear on its website and in student diaries of Glasgow University Union, and the university’s fencing club stages an annual Last Duel competition.

But now researchers from the very same university appear to have spoilt the party, for they have revealed - to the horror of many - that the blow-by-blow account of the duel in Glasgow University Magazine was simply a student joke and that no blood was ever actually spilt at all.

The study by Glasgow University Archive Service claims the article was a satirical sketch put into the magazine as a joke, pointing to several made-up articles that appeared in the publication from this period.

It found no other mention of the event in contemporary university records, newspapers or court summaries.

Curiously enough, the magazine chose to recount the fight in the reported speech of one of the participants in the duel.

The journalist wrote: "The fight was furious. Begg began to dictate the words he wished printed in the Magazine and we feel constrained to publish them: ‘Begg, with great agility, rounded his man. Then, like an arrow from the bow, the president’s blade flashed through the air. La Torre’s cheek fell. The blood rushed from his face. He leaped in the air. It caught him full in the eye, and he fell before the might of his conqueror.’"

But before this, the writer told of the drama inside the corridor as if it were a true event: "The house was crowded when the heroes stepped forward into the Union passage. Betting was all in favour of the Tory. Begg was evidently in splendid form. The white of his eye protruded, his arm quivered, his knees shook and his teeth clattered together."

He went on to write in colourful style: "He looked very brave, as indeed he always does, and his appearance inspired the spectators to keen appreciation. We have seldom seen so fine a specimen of humanity."

University archivist Lesley Richmond said the magazine’s account of the event could not be trusted.

"It is very difficult to read it and be able to discriminate between the satirical and what actually happened," she said. "The humour of the day is very difficult to work out. Essentially the magazine aimed to be like Punch, the leading satire magazine of the time, and is totally unreliable as a source.

"There is nothing in the minutes of the time from the university senate and not any record of it anywhere else. The magazine is the sole source of the myth."Any event that drew blood within the university would have been recorded somewhere official. It would have caused great concern."

Richmond cited an article in the same issue of the magazine that mentions the duel, reportedly penned by the principal about the death of a senior colleague, who was actually alive and well at the time of publication.But many with an interest in the university’s history are reluctant to accept the new findings, and remain adamant that blood was shed on campus.

Gerald Warner, historian and Scotland on Sunday columnist, who has written a book on Glasgow University Union that details the duel, said there were many reasons the fight would not have been reported.

"The union was very much a private club in those days. So who was going to complain?" he said.

"If the chap had been seriously injured, then it would have been picked up by the university, but they called time after first blood was drawn, and an episode like that wouldn’t have concerned them."

He conceded that the account of the event was undoubtedly exaggerated, but said the fact that no other reference existed was not sufficient evidence to disprove it.

"I think that the duel was not all that desperately serious, but I’m convinced that there was a scuffle with swords, and the magazine duly recorded it in a slightly pompous way.

"I think that it is perhaps true that it is only recorded in the magazine, but I think there has been an oral tradition that has kept it alive."

David Grant, the current president of Glasgow University Union, said he was "bitterly disappointed" by news that the duel may have been a fake. "If the duel was false, then it’s very disappointing and tragic.

"I’m still to be wholly convinced, but I will be truly gutted if it didn’t take place because it was one of our claims to fame.

"We still show people the spot where it was supposed to have taken place. If it was just a student joke, then it was a genius one."While the drawing of La Torre’s blood appeared to have settled the 1899 duel in the one colourful account that exists, it seems the very authenticity of the drama is now to become the subject of a much longer but perhaps equally bitter argument.