Pistols at dawn - weapons that tell story of last fatal duel in Scotland

THE two duelling pistols, brought out of their case in Kirkcaldy Museum, are heavier than James Landale expected, as he grasps the ribbed walnut butts. The hexagonal steel barrels glint dully. Surprisingly, perhaps, this is the first time that he has held these guns, although he knows all about them. For the last time either gun was fired in anger, 179 years ago, one of his ancestors used it to kill a man ... in the last recorded fatal duel in Scotland.

James Landale, 37, is chief political correspondent for BBC's News 24 channel. His forebear, David Landale, was a notable merchant in 19th century Kirkcaldy and the man he shot dead was George Morgan, in effect his bank manager. Now the present Landale has written a book, Duel, which seeks to explain to a 21st century readership just how two prosperous, respected men could walk into a field one damp August morning, take aim at each other and fire, over a point of honour.

"To the modern mind, duelling is absurd," says Landale, another of whose relatives presented the pistols to Kirkcaldy Museum not long after it opened in 1925, "It's also an incredibly selfish thing to do: the duellist, after all, is saying 'My personal reputation and honour are more important than my life, my job, my family'.

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"Therefore, it's incredibly difficult in this day and age to imagine what it was like to take part in a duel and why you should feel the need to do so."

Engrossed in the pistols and the feud which has become part of his family's lore, Landale, who lives in London, has reached the end of years of research, during which he painstakingly worked his way through court records and other accounts of that moment and the events leading up to it.

"I slowly came to understand the social pressures David Landale was under, and the reason why he duelled was that there was huge social pressure on him to do it. His personal reputation and honour lay totally on the line," he says.

Not only does the book (with plaudits from son of a Kirkcaldy manse, Gordon Brown) investigate the duel and Landale's subsequent trial, it includes a history of duelling, from the days when the slightest unintentional faux pas could result in two men staring down each other's gun barrels, or each other's swords.

Because the trial set a minor precedent in dealing with cases of duelling, all documentation relating to the case was kept by Landale's lawyer, Henry Cockburn, later a notable law lord and chronicler of his times. Thus the BBC correspondent found "pure historical gold" in the statements of 29 witnesses, bound and preserved in the National Library of Scotland. Another vital source was the reproduction in an old Kirkcaldy newspaper of letters Landale had written to his doctor and land agent about the duel, and about what to do if he was killed - or in the event of him shooting Morgan and having to flee.

In truth, the merchant thought the latter eventuality unlikely. His adversary was a former military man, used to handling firearms, while Landale, so far as we know, had never fired a shot in anger. Before he could fight, Landale had to take the ferry across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh, where he went into John Thompson's gun shop in Princes Street and chose a pair of second-hand but state-of-the art pistols. They were percussion-fired, making them more reliable and hard-hitting than the established flintlock, and when Landale asked the assistant if they were good, the lad replied that he could depend on them: "Thae's the pistols that shot the man at the Ferry last year."

A duelling novice, Landale had chosen weapons blooded in an exchange at South Queensferry in 1825, when one Mr Westal had shot dead a Captain Gourlay over an unpaid 70 guinea bet.

But what had forced the level-headed, devout Landale into taking to the duellists' field? In pre-linoleum days, Kirkcaldy's linen industry, based on imported Baltic flax, had made "the Lang Toun" a prosperous trading port. In 1818 alone, two million yards of linen came out of its mills, but now, in an economy drained by the Napoleonic Wars, business was thin.

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Landale was a founder member of the Kirkcaldy Chamber of Commerce; George Morgan a former soldier who had seen action in the Peninsular Wars. He was also said to be pompous, vindictive and an abusive boor. He and his brother David were the town's agents for the Bank of Scotland, and in these difficult times refused to accept Landale's bills of exchange, forcing him to return in some embarrassment to his debtors and demand cash. The dispute escalated and when Landale withdrew his accounts from the bank, an angry Morgan spread malicious gossip about the linen merchant's finances.

Landale was at risk of losing his good name, and his honour. Discovering the source of the rumours, he wrote a no-holds-barred letter of complaint to the bank's headquarters. Things came to a head when the volatile Morgan struck Landale with his umbrella, in public.

"David Landale was a reluctant duellist," says his descendent. "There had been an exchange of criticism between the two men, but he was willing to avoid a duel. What changed this substantially was when Morgan rapped him with his umbrella on Kirkcaldy High Street. One gentleman had assaulted another in public, and to maintain his honour, he felt he had no choice but to duel."

Landale stayed remarkably dispassionate about the affair, on the night before the duel dispatching precise instructions about his affairs. How many of us would remain so calm under such circumstances? Not James Landale: "When you think about it, he had just killed a man for the first time in his life ... and yet when he, for example, walked from the field of the duel, one of the coach drivers later said that while Millie [his second] was white as a sheet, his hands shaking, Landale 'did not appear agitated but rather paler in the face than usual'. I find that amazing.

"Joseph Conrad, whose famous book, The Duel, based on a true story and later made into film by Ridley Scott, wrote that duelling 'demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood'. And I think that in that brief moment, David Landale achieved that.

"He clearly didn't want to duel, but because he was convinced of his own rectitude, he maintained that 'homicidal austerity'. I can understand, I think, if you are going to have to do something like that, you almost have to drain yourself of all other emotion and be totally focussed."

As David Landale stood in Perth courthouse on 22 September, 1826 facing a murder charge, the jury, too, considered him a reluctant participant, and he was acquitted - it is worth noting, that at that same assizes, several accused, including an eight-year-old girl, were sentenced to transportation and another to hanging for varying degrees of theft.

Clearly a gentleman's right to kill in defence of his honour was something else; but even as the sympathetic judge, Lord Gillies, congratulated Landale on his acquittal, duelling was already on the way out. Society was reacting against its bloody absurdity, and the last duel fought in Britain took place in 1845.

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James Landale strolls up the track that leads to Cardenbarns Farm, near Kirkcaldy, and the field where the two men faced each other on that fatal morning. Leaving their carriages at a fork, they would have walked up this path in silence. Amid nearby trees stood their doctors, near enough to hear what happened but not witness it, so they couldn't be held culpable.

A couple of miles away is the former mining village of Cardenden, birthplace of Ian Rankin - what would his world-weary Rebus have made of this case? As we arrive at the field where a modest cairn marks the historic site, the present Landale starts laughing. The fallow field he last visited two years ago has been turned into a track for offroad motorcycles and quad biking. Where, on that fatal morning there was the shout of "Gentlemen, are you ready? Fire", and a simultaneous crack of pistols then a groan as Morgan sank to the ground, today there is the snarl of two-stroke engines.

After his acquittal, David Landale went back to his business, and renewed prosperity, until a severe stroke laid him low. He died in 1861, his business insolvent. However, the tale ends with an astonishing twist of reconciliation between his family and that of his adversary, although we're not giving the game away.

Back in the 21st century, James Landale prepares to launch himself back into the fray of the party political conference season. Yes, he agrees, as a political commentator, he does see no end of situations which, two centuries ago, would have been resolved by one protagonist "calling out" the other. There is no shortage of precedent - Wellington (while prime minister) and the Earl of Winchilsea in 1829; Pitt the Younger (also while PM) and George Tierney, Lord Castlereagh and George Canning in 1809.

"The amount of, shall we say, vituperative comment means that almost certainly, if duelling was still in practice, I'm sure you'd have duels all the time," he observes. One is tempted, mischievously, to suggest Tony Blair and his Chancellor. For his part, Landale, tongue in cheek, says of the Tory leadership contest: "Duelling, as a mechanism, would mean only the seriously committed would take part - and it would be decided quickly and efficiently."

Coffee for two, champagne for one, as they used to say.

Duel, by David Landale, is published by Canongate books on 13 October, 14.99

The traditions of duelling

Pistols were first used in place of the rapier sword for duelling in 18th century Britain.

The word duel derives from 15th century Old Latin "duellum" ("war") and in Middle Latin, associated with duo, meaning "two".

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Duelling pistols became popular among the wealthy in the mid-18th century. They were often black powder single shot pistols.

Typically, duels have been fought between members of the same social class. They are most often associated with the upper classes but can be fought at any social level to redress a point of honour between two parties.

Duels traditionally took place at dawn. It was the duty of each party's second to check weapons were equal and the duel was fair.

In a pistol duel, the parties stood back-to-back with loaded weapons in hand and walked a set number of paces, before turning to face their opponent, and shooting. The graver the insult, the fewer the paces.

The offended party could stop the duel at any time if he deemed his honour satisfied.

In 1792, Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs Elphinstone held a "petticoat duel" in London's Hyde Park after their conversation turned to the subject of Lady Almeria's true age. The ladies first exchanged pistol shots in which Lady Almeria's hat was damaged. They continued with swords until Mrs Elphinstone received a wound to her arm and agreed to write Lady Almeria an apology.

The Scotsman's founding editor, Charles Maclaren, above, fought a duel with Dr James Browne, editor of the Caledonian Mercury at Ravelston, Edinburgh on 11 November 1829. The two exchanged shots, missed, refused to shake hands, and parted without apology.