Soldiers of Faith and Fortune


This talk, given by Alasdair Roberts to the Aberdeen Newman Circle, developed out of an article on Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries in the Aberdeen diocesan magazine Light of the North. It follows the fortunes of soldiers from the North-east of Scotland who fought in Europe’s wars of religion.

As a young man Patrick Gordon was typical soldier of fortune, fighting for Sweden, Poland and Muscovy before Peter the Great raised him to the command of Tsarist armies. Scotland supplied a great many soldiers for Europe’s wars of religion, most of them Protestant. North-east Scotland was different. Sixty years after the Reformation Parliament a majority of gentry families and their followers were claimed as Catholic.

Paul Menzies’ forebears had been provosts of Aberdeen who sheltered priests, and the last of the line, John Menzies of Pitfodels, gave Blairs to the Church. Menzies became involved in the same northern wars as Patrick Gordon and they transferred from Polish service to that of the Tsar in 1661. It was a tricky transfer for Scots Catholics, given Poland’s position as a Counter-Reformation fief of the Jesuit Order.

The Orthodox hierarchy centred on Moscow were much more willing to accept Protestants. Gordon and Menzies led a group of petitioners: ‘We live in the Foreigner’s Quarter and in different towns, being on duty, and we have no house of prayer or priest for our souls and, O Sovereigns, those foreigners who are of the Lutheran or Calvinist faith have priests and houses of prayer.’ Latin Mass was soon being celebrated in a wooden church.

Paul Menzies did his share of soldiering but his more significant service was diplomatic. The Ottoman empire looked like extending to the Baltic, and Menzies was sent on a mission to Pope Clement X, Tsar Aleksei finding it helpful to have a Catholic on hand. He returned with a papal blessing for Russian military efforts. A dying wish that his three sons should be brought up as Catholics was noted by Patrick Gordon, who recorded the Menzies funeral at length.

Alexander Gordon of Auchintoul, Gordon’s son-in-law, was made a captain through the influence of his Auchleuchries kinsman. At the start of the Great Northern War – its greatness extending through the first twenty-one years of the 18th century – Gordon was captured by the forces of Charles XII but then exchanged. The Swedish king made the same mistake as Napoleon and Hitler and invaded Russia. In summer 1709 he fell to defeat at Poltava, one of the decisive battles of history. Gordon sent home captured flags and barrels of Hungarian Tokay. After his father’s death he made his own return to Auchintoul.
There he might have remained at peace, but when the Elector of Hanover was invited to the throne of three kingdoms as George I the ’Fifteen Jacobite Rising roused him to action. At Sheriffmuir, when ‘we ran and they ran and they ran and we ran,’ Gordon had the centre of the front line. His Highlanders ran forward, carrying the enemy Whigs before them. Afterwards Gordon conducted a faultless withdrawal to Aberdeen. In exile he was offered military employment by Spain but chose to make a quiet return to Auchintoul, where he died in bed at 82.

Auchintoul beside Aberchirder was raised at the end of the 16th century, but not by a Gordon. Sir Alexander Leslie of Auchintoul belonged to a cadet branch of the Leslies of Balquhain, east of Bennachie. He converted to the Orthodox faith in Moscow after accusations (put about by hostile clergy) of his men using the crosses above churches for target practice. Leslie’s military activity centred on the frontier town of Smolensk. He besieged it on behalf of the Poles and then the Russians. He played an important role in reorganising the Russian army along western lines and became the first foreigner to achieve the rank of general.

Walter Leslie, born 1606, was the second son of John 10th Baron of Balquhain. He lived in genteel poverty at the smaller house of Tullos. The nearby bishop’s palace at Fetternear had been entrusted to the family at the Reformation, but Walter Leslie underwent a conversion in Vienna – not a Catholic in Scotland, apparently. Walter fought for the Dutch and Swedes before enlisting in the Emperor’s army, campaigning under Wallenstein who gained a series of victories at the start of the Thirty Years War. Midway through it, however, he sought ways of leaving the Emperor.

Wallenstein was assassinated at Eger in Bohemia, its garrison commanded by the man who became Count Walter Leslie of the Holy Roman Empire. He married a princess and achieved a shining career in diplomacy. His embassies to foreign courts included the Vatican, where he is said to have given Pope Innocent X a solid silver writing table. There is more fortune than faith in all this, though Leslie devoutly renovated Vienna’s old Schottenkirche and was laid to rest there.

Such was Count Walter’s influence that he was able to obtain the same rank for his brother in Scotland. Money went home, and new wealth enabled Count Alexander Leslie to modernise the castle and move in. Symbolic letters were carved above the door: IHS for the Jesus (or Jesuit) monogram and MRA for Maria Regina Angelorum. New wealth encouraged Catholic activity, and the Jesuit George Leslie made Balquhain his base over a 30 year period, latterly as superior. From Tullos William Leslie went to the Scots College Douai. He had a clergy cousin of the same name, Will Leslie, who was Roman agent for the Scots Mission. Dom Guilielmo opposed his cousin over the student oath to return after ordination (he successfully defended it) when the latter was rector of the Scots College Rome.
As a Douai-educated man of the cloth, this son of Balquhain became a doctor of divinity and cathedral canon at Breslau in Silesia – now Wroclaw in Poland. At the end of the Thirty Years War it once more became a Protestant city. Canon Leslie left to enter the Jesuit Order at Rome, taking the middle name Aloysius. In the 1690s William Aloysius Leslie was Jesuit superior at Graz in Austria, and it was here that he published Laurus Leslaeana in praise of his ancestors. Alasdair Roberts presented a remarkable engraved family tree under this heading as a visual summary of the talk: rich Catholic imagery for Leslies of the vestments – Semper virens in toga – and equally vivid depictions of military life for those of the soldier’s tunic or breastplate- Semper vigens in sago.

Count James Leslie (Walter’s nephew) brought things to a grand finale. He commanded the imperial artillery during the siege of Vienna when Europe was saved from the Turks in 1683, although most of the glory went to the Polish king Jan Sobieski for the cavalry charge of his hussars. Count James’s great contribution came two years later at Osijek in eastern Croatia. The Suleiman the Magnificent Bridge (a seven kilometre road on piers across marshy ground) had provided Ottoman access to the Danube. It was destroyed after the battle to guarantee a new level of security for Christian Europe. Islamic cloth of silver and gold came home to be passed down in the Leslie family as vestments. The mansion which arose at reclaimed Fetternear carried a repeat of Balquhain’s bold Catholic symbolism: IHS and MRA.

Alasdair Roberts exchanged the North-east Lowlands for the North- west Highlands to become a full-time writer in retirement from Aberdeen University’s School of Education.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.