Crichie—A family history

Part II. Slessors

by Geordie Burnett Stuart 11th of Dens and Crichie

Very strangely the first Slessor ancestor we really know about was also working for Mary Queen of Scots in her heyday. He was brought over—probably from central Europe—to take charge of her seige train. No proper mediaeval monarch was taken seriously unless they had a seige train. Of course when her star was eclipsed by the 1530s he lost his job. He remained undaunted and turned his sideline into his job. All gunners were proficient draughtsmen: they could draw city, town, and country scapes. I have brought a copy (republished in 1978) of his masterwork Theatrum Scotiae. Probably the first ever collection in Scotland of views of palaces, castles, abbeys, cities etc.

Poor John Slezer he ended up bankrupt too. They had a good system then. You were locked up—with your creditors unable to get at you—Monday to Saturday. You were allowed out on the sabbath—to see your family—but your creditors could not get at you—it being the sabbath. His descendants settled at Longside near Peterhead where their births and deaths are recorded in the old Episcopal Church register.

By 1780 one John Henry Slessor was serving as an officer in the Army of the King of Portugal—England's oldest ally. By the time of the French occupation of Spain and Portugal in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s he had become Governor of Oporto. Daughters of his married Portugese and my wife and I have been to sensational weddings there of our many Portugese relations. The diaries his mother kept throughout this period plus JHS's own more laconic jottings have been edited into a book, The Backbone—by my dad's cousin Alethea Hayter,a well-known literary figure who died aged 91 in 2006.

JHS's son went into the British Army—my father is his direct descendant. This was often the the fate of Scots from the 1740s onwards. Indeed by the time of the American Revolution in 1776—They call it the War of Independance in the US—rather like most people refer to the cross border conflicts of 1709 1715, 1719, and 1745 as rebellions: I think of them as civil wars. By 1776 the majority of Scots in the US found themselves fighting for the British Crown and were known as Loyalists. Many ended up in Canada.

Now here I add a diversion about my Dad or perhaps I should call it a coincidence: My father, who was a gunner too, (still the largest unit in the British Army) went to live in Canada for 6 months when I was a little boy because the US no longer welcomed him because of what they thought he was doing—We are in 1950— he was offered Canadian nationality but he declined politely.

Brigadier General H. C. Slessor

My dad had met my mum at a ball in Buckingham Palace in 1936. They were married in 1939. He fought a long and arduous WW2: from Dunkirk where he spent two days being bombed on the beaches before being rescued, to North Africa in November 1942, the Torch landings, Sicily and Italy in 1943, Austria in 1944, then Greece to act as umpire in the Greek Civil War. He always said his 18 months in Greece was a very British affair. General Scobie was in charge, a small resolute genius who Churchill picked with instructions to save Greece from going Communist. Why a British affair? Because there were never enough guns or men to do the job. But if you moved them around often enough the other side always thought there were more of you than there really were.

There is another Slessor whose career in the early 18th Century I always enjoy. Also John Henry, son of the Portugese one, also a gunner, so just 2 moves fae Buchan. At the battle of Quatre Bras the day before Waterloo his guns had prevented General Grouchy joining Napoleon the following day. The Iron Duke—Wellington—refused him a Waterloo Medal, saying he had not been there. JHS said that if he had not held up Grouchy, he, Wellington, would have lost Waterloo. JHS persisted and years later Wellington finally relented and John Henry Slessor was awarded the medal. Oddly enough I also have the Invitation and Order of Service for the Duke's funeral in 1831, for a Burnett Stuart ancestor.

I will tell you one Wellington story: He never really accepted the idea of nationality being dependent on where you were born. When asked whether he was Irish having been born in Ireland he replied, always conscious of his grand lineage, 'I'm a subject of the King. Our Lord was born in a stable. Does that necessarily make him a horse or a cow?'

John Henry's retirement job was as Governor of Zakinthos / Zante one of the Ionian Islands that includes Corfu. I have a vicious scimitar given to him when he left. Family history says he got it because he did not interfere with their nefarious smuggling activities. His son, also JHS, was in the Sudan at Khartoum in 1898. On the way he had stopped at Zante and bought a second-hand bible that had belonged to his father who had lost it in the 1822 earthquake! JHS was there with Kitchener to avenge the death of the great General Charles Gordon who had been murdered by the Mad Mahdi (Mohammad Ahmad) and his 10000 dervish warriors in 1886. History does repeat itself. Sudan will continue for our lifetimes to represent a serious threat to our western civilisation and values. JHS founded at the end of his career the white-topee-wearing Royal Marine Band, this at Portsmouth to keep unoccupied soldiers out of mischief!

The most famous Slessor was Marshall of the Royal Airforce Sir Jack Slessor (1897-1979). He was a double first cousin of my dad—two sisters having married two brothers. In the 1920s in his plane he chased camel warriors in Darfur and rogue bedouin (including Saddam Hussein's father) in Iraq in the 1930s. By the end of WW2 he was commanding over 10000 planes in the Mediterranean Command. He used to recount his proudest moment was in 1952 when George VI died but The Queen was in Kenya. He thought he should fetch her himself, being Head of the RAF. He piled into the best plane he could find and brought her home. She was so touched by this and enjoyed his company so much that she often demanded his presence until the day he died, long after his retirement. A good book could be written about his astonishing life.

(Revision date: Friday 24th February 2012)