William McGonagall - The Story Of Adam Duncan

Admiral Lord Duncan
Hero of Camperdown

August 1997

Local History Section


He was made a freeman of the principal Crafts on 8th January 1798, and the Minute of Council for 26th October 1797, contains the following entry:~
      "The Council unanimously resolve to present Admiral Lord Viscount Duncan with a piece of plate value One Hundred Guineas, with a suitable inscription, as a mark of their esteem for his Lordship, and of their high sense of the signal and splendid victory obtained by his Lordship over the Dutch Fleet on the Eleventh day of October last, of so much consequence to the prosperity of Great Britain."

Adam Duncan, first Viscount Duncan, was the second son of Provost Alexander Duncan of Lundie, and of Helen Haldane, daughter of John Haldane of Gleneagles. The proclamation of the marriage of his parents is thus recorded in the Parish Register of Fowlis Easter:~

      "ffebruary 2nd, 1724:~ Proclaimed Alexander Duncan of Lundie and Mrs Helen Haldane, daughter of the late Laird of Gleneagles, in Blackford Parish."

Alexander Duncan, the eldest son of this marriage, became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the army, and died without issue, when the estate fell to the Admiral. The birth of Adam Duncan, the second son, which took place which took place in his father's house in the Seagait of Dundee, is entered in the Register of Baptisms for Dundee in these term:~

      "1731, July 1st:~ Alexander Duncan of Lundie and Helen Haldane had a son baptised Adam ."

The house in which Adam Duncan was born had been the town mansion of the Stewarts of Grandtully, and was afterwards occupied as the Blue Bell Inn. It was demolished in August 1868, and its site was beside that now occupied by St. Pauls Episcopal Church.

When about fifteen years of age Adam Duncan entered the Royal Navy as midshipman under Captain Robert Haldane, and served with him on board the "Shoreham" frigate for three years. In 1749 he entered as midshipman the "Centurion", of 50 guns, which was fitting out as flag-ship for Admiral Keppel; and he remained with this ship for six years. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 10th January, 1755, and accompanied Keppel to North America with British forces under General Braddock that were sent against the French troops in that quarter. On his return to England, Admiral Keppel transferred his flag to the "Torbay", and Duncan accompanied him as Second Lieutenant. For nearly three years he was retained on the home-station, and was not in active service until his ship was sent on an expedition against the French settlement at Goree, on the African coast, and he returned thence slightly wounded, with the rank of First Lieutenant. From this period his promotion was rapid. On 21st September,1759, he was gazetted Commander, and on 25th February, 1761, was made Post- Captain, and appointed to the "Valliant", of 74 guns, serving again under his steadfast friend, Admiral Keppel. When the latter conducted the famous expedition against Belleisle he hoisted his broad pennant on board the "Valliant", and Duncan was honourably distinguished for his bravery on this occasion. His next important service was in the protracted hostilities against the Spaniards in the West Indies, and after performing several brilliant exploits here, remained with Keppel on the Jamaica Station till the conclusion of the war. Britain was at peace for several years, and Captain Duncan was not actively employed until the war was renewed by the combination of the French and Spanish fleets in 1778, and he was appointed to the command of the "Monarch", under Admiral Sir Charles Hardy. During the following year the British fleet was compelled to act on the defensive, as their opponents were too powerful for them to attack with much prospect of success; but when British ships of war that were then in different parts of the world were ordered home, a powerful flotilla was organized under Admiral Rodney, and despatched to the relief of Gibraltar at the close of 1779. Here Captain Duncan again won distinction by his daring bravery, and was honourably noticed in the official reports of the expedition. After a brief period of inaction, he returned to Gibraltar in 1782 under Admiral Howe, and was specially mentioned for his bravery in the conflict which took place off the Straits in October of that year. On the termination of hostilities in 1783, he was transferred to the "Edgar", of 74 guns one of the guardships stationed at Portsmouth, and here he remained for the usual period of three years. On 14th September he was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral of the Blue, and three years afterwards he was made Rear-Admiral of the White. He was raised to be Vice-Admiral of the Blue on 1st February, 1793; Vice-Admiral of the White on 12th April, 1794; and Admiral of the Blue on 1st June, 1795. This rapid promotion seems to indicate that his services were highly appreciated, yet it is stated that he considered himself as under-valued. "He frequently solicited command, but his request was not complied with, and in consequence, it is said that he had it in contemplation to retire altogether from the service, and to accept a civil appointment connected with the Navy." But in April 1795, he was placed in a position which enabled him to show his capacity and to win immortal renown He was then appointed Commander-in-Chief in the North Seas, and hoisted his flag on board the "Venerable", of 74 guns - A vessel afterwards made memorable in connection with his name. After a short but successful cruise in the North Sea he returned to England in 1797 with several French and Dutch prizes, and whilst his fleet was lying in Yarmouth Roads, he managed by his intrepid conduct to quell the first symptoms of disaffection amongst the men under his command, who had been encouraged to revolt after the incident of the Mutiny at the Nore.

On 28th May, 1797, he received orders to blockade the Dutch fleet under Admiral De Winter in the Texel, and though the ships under his command were quite inadequate to warrant him in risking an engagement, he succeeded in keeping his opponents within the harbour for more than eighteen weeks. Finding that his provisions were running short, he was compelled to return to Yarmouth to refit, and though no time was lost in accomplishing this movement, he found the Dutch Admiral had taken the opportunity of his absence to venture into the open sea. He returned with all expedition to his former cruising ground, and on 11th October he encountered De Winter off the coast between the villages of Egmont and Camperdown. An engagement of the most sanguinary and brilliant character ensued. Admiral Duncan formed his line of battle so as to get the principal Dutch ships between him and the shore, but in such a position as enabled him to send a portion of his own fleet to leeward to prevent them receiving support from the coast. The Dutch maintained the contest with great bravery for five hours, but they were so closely engaged, and their loss was so excessive, that De Winter was at last compelled to surrender, and gave up his sword to Admiral Duncan on board the "Venerable." The dispatch in which Duncan announced this most important victory has been often printed, and need not be quoted here. The following letter, however, has not been published, and is of special interest, having been written by Admiral Duncan to his brother-in-law, Robert Dundas of Arniston, Lord Advocate of Scotland, before the Admiral had landed:~

      "My dear Advocate,

      As I am sure no friend will rejoice more at my good fortune that attends me than you will, I write you these few lines to say I hope the action I have had with the Dutch, who fought with their usual gallantry, is not exceeded by any this war. We have suffered much; the returns I have had, and have not had half, exceed 191 killed and 565 wounded. From only two Dutch ships 250 killed and 300 wounded. We was obliged from being so near land to be rather rash in our attack, by which we suffered more. Had we been ten leagues at sea none would have escaped. Many had surrendered, but got off in the night. We were much galled by their frigates when we could not act; in short, I feel perfectly satisfied all was done that could be, nor have any fault to find.
      I have now in my possession three Admirals, Dutch: an Admiral De Winter, Vice-Admiral Beyntjes, and Rear-Admiral Therises. The Admiral is on board with me, and a most agreeable man he is, speaks English well, and seems much pleased with his treatment. I have assured him, and with Justice, nothing could exceed his gallantry; he says nothing hurts him but that he is the first Dutch Admiral who ever surrendered - so much more credit to me. He tells that the troops that were embarked in the summer were 25,000 Dutch, all designed for Ireland, but after August this expedition was given up. The Government in Holland, much against his opinion, insisted on his going to sea to show they had done so, and he was just going to return when I saw him. I am sure I have every reason to be thankful to God Almighty for his kindness to me on this occasion and all others. I believe the pilot and myself were the only two unhurt on the quarter-deck, and De Winter, who is as tall and big as I am, was the only one on his quarter-deck left alive. After all my fatigue I am in perfect health and in my usual spirits. God bless you, my dear friend, and believe me most faithfully yours,

      Adam Duncan."

      "Venerable, getting up to Sheerness,
      October 15th, 1797."

This interesting letter is of historical importance, as it shows that the plan of the French Directorate had been to send a Dutch expedition to invade Ireland whilst their own forces were employing the British fleet off the Peninsular coast, and but for the courage and promptitude of Admiral Duncan this design might have been successful, as the Mutiny at the Nore had to some extent demoralized the Channel Fleet that should have protected our shores. The importance of the victory at Camperdown was at once acknowledged. On 17th October, 1797, he was created Viscount Duncan of Camperdown and Baron Duncan of Lundie. Three days afterwards the City of London conferred the freedom of the city upon him, and presented him with a sword valued at 200 guineas; and on the 25th October the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Common Council of London waited upon His Majesty with an address of congratulation "on the splendid naval victory achieved by Admiral Duncan." He received thanks of both Houses of Parliament, and the Crown bestowed upon him a pension of 2,000 per annum, to be continued to himself and the next two holders of the title. The King set out from Greenwich on 30th October, intending to visit Admiral Duncan on "Venerable" at Sheerness, but was prevented by stress of weather. A special thanksgiving service was held in St. Pauls Cathedral on 10th December, 1797, at which the King and the Royal Family, with the Houses of Parliament, were present, Lord Duncan carrying in the procession the Dutch Admiral's flag, which he had won at Camperdown. Early in the following year the Admiral visited Dundee, and was received special honours. His portrait was subscribed for and placed in the Town Hall of Dundee with a suitable inscription, detailing the particulars of the battle of Camperdown, and he was presented with the service of plate voted by the Town Council. The name of the family estate was changed from Lundie to Camperdown, and the memory of the victory was perpetuated by the institution of several Clubs bearing the name of Camperdown, and even by the invention of a new tartan so designated, which was for some time fashionable in Edinburgh. Long after the Admiral's death the Harbour Commissioners of Dundee, on 4th April, 1859, agreed to discontinue the name of the Tidal Harbour of Victoria Dock, and call it thenceforward the Camperdown Dock, by which title it is now known.

Lord Duncan was raised to the rank of Admiral of the White on 14th February, 1799. He retained his appointment as Commander-in-Chief in the North Seas until the spring of 1800, but there being then no appearance of a naval conflict he retired into private life. When war again broke out in 1804 he went to London, intending to offer his services to the Government, but whilst attending at the Admiralty he was struck down with apoplexy, and was obliged to return home to Scotland. Whilst on the way he was seized with a second apoplectic fit, and died at Cornhill, Berwickshire, on 4th August, 1804, in his seventy-third year. He was buried in the churchyard of Lundie, where a simple marble slab with a modest inscription, partly written by himself, marks his last resting place. His character has been thus tersely described:~

      "It would perhaps be difficult to find in modern history another man in whom, with so much meekness, modesty, and unaffected dignity of mind, were united so much genuine spirit, so much of the skill and fire of professional genius, such vigorous and active wisdom, such alacrity and ability for great achievements, with such entire indifference to their success, except so far as they might contribute to the good of his country."

Lord Duncan was married in 1777 to Henrietta, daughter of the Lord President, Robert Dundas of Arniston. The marriage is thus recorded in the Register of Marriages in Dundee:~

      "1777, May 30th, Captain Adam Duncan of the Navy and Miss Henrietta Dundass, second daughter of the Right Honourable Robert Dundass of Arniston, Esquire, President of the Court of Session."

They had two sons and five daughters. The eldest son, Robert Dundas-Duncan-Haldane, succeeded his father as second Viscount Duncan in 1804, was elevated in the Peerage by the title of Earl of Camperdown, presented with the freedom of the Burgh, 26th August, 1831, and died in 1859. His son was enrolled as a Burgess of Dundee on 12th November, 1851, and the name of his grandson, the third Earl of Camperdown, was inscribed on the Burgess-Roll on 7th August, 1883.

It may be mentioned as an interesting fact that Admiral Duncan was descended - partly in the female line - from Malcolm, fifth Earl of Lennox, the compatriot of King Robert the Bruce. The "Lennox Roses" are still shown in the Camperdown Arms, though the old eagle supporters were replaced by a sea-nymph and a sailor on the elevation of Admiral Duncan to the Peerage. ??


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Copyright © 1997, Andrew Jeffrey for The William Topaz McGonagall Appreciation Society. Revised September 23, 1997