U is for Beauchamp Colclough Urquhart

These are the arms of Kenneth Trist Urquhart 26th chief of Clan Urquhart whose father established his right to be chief in 1959. As with many old Celtic families the Urquhart arms celebrate the exploits of a faithful hound that saved the life of a hunter menaced by an outsize boar in the mists of time. Don’t ask me to explain the naked lady with the sword and the palm leaf. The subject of this blog, Beauchamp Clough Urquhart, was the 22nd chief. Were he American, you’d have to call him Beauchamp Clough Urquhart III since his father and grandfather both had the same name. He was third and last; he died childless, and with him died the Urquharts of Meldrum.

My excuse for this blog is a snappily titled volume, In Memoriam Beauchamp Colclough Urquhart of Meldrum, Captain 1st Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders (gazetted Major, 5th April 1898) killed in action at the Battle of Atbara, Soudan, Good Friday April 8th 1898. Also more, also later about In Memoriam volumes. This one was almost certainly edited by Urquhart’s sister Anne who had married Garden Alexander Duff of Hatton. Beauchamp Colclough Urquhart was a decent man and a good soldier who would probably have reached the command of his battalion of the Cameron Highlanders before retiring to Meldrum if he hadn’t been killed. But it has to be admitted he was a pale shadow of an earlier Urquhart chief. In an attempt to keep my readership (eight at the last count) I’ll focus on him for a moment or two with the aid of Henrietta Tayler’s Family of Urquhart.

Sir Thomas was the 12th chief of Clan Urquhart and the nth descendant of Conachar, the Irishman who had a narrow escape from a boar. Sir Thomas could have told you the value of n since in his book Pantochronachon he includes a genealogy tracing his ancestry back to Adam and Eve. He is most famous (and justly so) for his translation of Rabelais. The screenshot above is from an article about Sir Thomas Urquhart and Rabelais by Roger Craik. It is well worth reading in full at


The genealogy and the translation were by no means Sir Thomas’ only works. As you’ll have guessed by now from his strange book titles, he was a great coiner of words, though few of them have stood the test of time. He proposed a universal language in his Ekskybalauron. In the same book he tells us how he took “Manuscripts in folio, to the quantity of six-score & eight quires and a half” to the Battle of Worcester where they were scattered to the winds by the “exquisite snaps and clean shavers” of Cromwell’s army. What priceless treasures the world has lost! Fortunately, though, Captain Goodwin of Pride’s Regiment rescued some receipts from creditors which allowed Sir Thomas to hold the duns at bay for long enough to visit his estates. A prominent Royalist, who looked the part (see below), Urquhart died of over-exuberance – though this story is denied by Ms Tayler – in Holland while celebrating the Restoration of Charles II.

Sir Thomas’ brother inherited what was left of the Urquhart fortunes. Either he or the kinsman who succeeded him as chief was obliged to sell Craigston Castle. The last of the Craigston branch of the family was Colonel James Urquhart who fought at Sherriffmuir for the Jacobites and was proscribed. He was succeeded as 17th chief by William Urquhart of Meldrum whose daughter Jean married Captain John Urquhart nicknamed “the pirate”. The pirate, who was also at Sheriffmuir, went into exile and fought as a privateer with letters of marque from the Spanish. He must have made a considerable fortune since he bought Craigston back from the Duffs in 1740 and the original Urquhart estates in Cromarty from the Mackenzies in 1741. The recovery of the Urquharts is often attributed to him. It had at least as much to do with Highland clearances. It would be nice to think it was Spanish doubloons that paid for the 186 room Jacobean-style house that emerged from Archibald Simpson’s remodelling of Meldrum House in 1836. But it wasn’t really. It was the presence of sheep and the absence of people.


This is a picture of Meldrum House today. It doesn’t properly illustrate Simpson’s work since the house was redesigned in 1934 by W L Duncan who removed two pavilions and the top storey. Still it gives an idea of scale. Meldrum House is now a hotel. Its owners say Simpson was commissioned by James Urquhart. Work started in 1836 by which time the oldest Beauchamp Colclough Urquhart of Byth had inherited.

Back to the subject which is the 1836 Urquhart’s grandson. He was born 20th July 1860 and was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant in the 79th Foot on 14th January 1880. Like most regiments numbered higher than 26 the 79th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders had only one regular battalion. In 1881 all other single battalion regiments were linked with other single battalion regiments to form new regiments with two regular battalions. The idea behind Sir Edward Cardwell’s reform was that one battalion could remain in Britain to train and recruit while the other was overseas.

The 79th was the exception to Cardwell’s rule. Apart from dropping its regimental number, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders emerged from the reforms of 1881 unalloyed by amalgamation and still with only one regular battalion. The regiment almost certainly owed its survival to Queen Victoria herself. It had been a great favourite of hers in her highland period and in 1873 had been granted the badge of the crowned thistle, the royal badge of Scotland. But reformers had their eye on this anomaly. During Urquhart’s service with the regiment there were repeated scares that its independence was under threat. In 1887 the regimental historian records “it was in contemplation to convert the Cameron Highlanders into a 3rd battalion of the Scots Guards” and that after protests from the Highland Society of London and other bodies the proposal was as “dead as if it had never been mooted”. Which didn’t stop it being mooted again in 1893. The furore only ended in 1897 when the regiment was allowed to raise a second regular battalion. A nucleus of officers was sent home from Gibraltar. Prtedictably enough they had difficulty recruiting. “The whole of Scotland was thrown open to recruiting for the Cameron Highlanders.” Which rather spoiled the point since the exclusivity of the regiment was that it was composed of men who came from Cameron country.

The picture above is from Historical Records of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and is by R A Wymer. It shows the service uniform of the regiment in Egypt in 1882. The store pattern helmets with puggarees were “stained brown with tea, coffee or tobacco juice” as were the spats. The red serge jackets had blue collars with a thistle pattern ornament and red cuffs marked with white braid. Because of the climate, khaki trousers and khaki drill jackets had been issued, but as the writer of the appendix on dress notes, “Red jackets were also taken and were worn in action at Kosheh and Giniss.”

Urquhart arrived in Egypt on 4th September 1882 with a party of reservists under Captain Chapman. The regimental historian, probably Major General J S Ewart, grouses “they had not been supplied with kilts, and the subsequent presence of so many men in trews somewhat spoiled the fine appearance of a battalion on parade.” Urquhart was in time to fight at Tel-el-Kebir, the battle that put paid to Arabi Pasha’s hopes of Egyptian independence. The Cameron Highlanders were with the slow-moving River Column of the Nile Expeditionary Force advancing from Assouan when news of General Gordon’s death at Khartoum led to the abadonment of the relief effort.

In 1885 the Cameron Highlanders were one of four infantry battalions left behind to form the Soudan Frontier Field Force. At the end of November the regiment and the 9th Soudanese Battalion of the Anglo-Egyptian army were the main elements of the garrisons of Kosheh and Mograkeh when a Mahdist force of about 7000 men appeared on the hills above Amara. For the rest of the month the two forts were effectively under siege until the arrival of a relief force under Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stephenson. The battle of Ginnis on 30th December 1885 broke what proved to be the last serious attempt to export the doctrines of the now dead Islamic leader Mohammed Ahmed into Egypt. It was also the last battle fought by men of the British army wearing red. Urquhart, who had been promoted captain on 2nd November 1885, took part in the battle and led E Company to clear the enemy from some houses near Kosheh the next day. In 1886 the Cameron Highlanders moved to Cairo. They sailed home in March 1887.

This is Urquhart’s record of service as given in The Historical Records of the 79th compiled by Captain T A Mackenzie and others and published in 1887.

From 1887 to 1893 Urquhart served uneventfully at home with the regiment. He is mentioned twice in the clunkier two volume regimental history. On 23rd July 1888 he commanded an escort of men and pipers charged with depositing old colours of the 26th and 94th Regiments in St Giles. From 22nd May he commanded the Guard of Honour sent to Ballater for the duration of Queen Victoria’s stay at Balmoral. And those were the high spots of regimental life!

In 1893 Urquhart was seconded from the Cameron Highlanders to act as senior aide de camp to Lord Aberdeen, the newly appointed Governor General of Canada. Confusingly the London Gazette of December 12 1893 has him seconded from the Cameron Highlanders to the Staff College from September 7th 1893. Satisfactory attendance at the Staff College was necessary if he was to be promoted major. His appointment as Aberdeen’s ADC seems to have trumped his secondment to the Staff College. Certainly by December 1893 he was already in Canada where he remained until he heard of the death of his father in September 1896.

John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, 7th Earl of Aberdeen and later 1st Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair (1847-1934) was Governor General of Canada from 1893 to 1898 and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1905 to 1917. In 1929 he published some of the jokes he told in his after dinner speeches. Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen enjoyed a cult revival at the turn of the millennium. Here is one of them:

“A reminiscence concerning the late Dr Campbell, bishop of Glasgow, which he probably narrated, or which at any rate would be thoroughly appreciated by him was, that some English friend once addressed a letter to “The Right Rev the Bishop of Glasgow, The Palace, Glasgow.” The letter was returned from the Post Office, marked, “Not known at the Palace – try the Empire.”

You can read more of Lord Aberdeen’s jokes in a Guardian article at


After settling his father’s affairs, Urquhart took up his delayed secondment to the Staff College. Hart’s Army List for 1898 shows him in the Senior Division of the Royal Military College the year before. It wasn’t until 31st March 1898 that he was able to join 1st Battalion Cameron Highlanders at Ras-el-Hudi on the river Atbara.

This map is from Alfred Milner’s England in Egypt (1894). It is based on maps drawn by Major F R Wingate in Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan and shows the maximum extent of the area ruled by the Mahdi and his successor the Khalifa. It was always likely that the British would seek to avenge the death of General Gordon; however, many policy makers resisted this, notably Lord Cromer who as British Consul-General in Cairo was de facto ruler of Egypt. In 1896 Lord Salisbury’s incoming Conservative government believed that the French, who had already sent Colonel Marchand to Fashoda, had designs on the whole region that had once been ruled by Egypt. The catastrophic defeat of an Italian army at Adowa by the Ethopian Emperor Menelik sharpened London’s alarm as it raised the very real prospect that Menelik might ally with the Khalifa and threaten British rule in Egypt.

In 1896 Brigadier General H H Kitchener, the commander-in-chief or Sirdar of the Anglo-Egyptian Army was tasked with reconquering the Sudan. He attributed Wolseley’s failure to relieve Gordon in 1884 to supply problems and resolved to solve the problem by building a railway across the bend of The Nile from Wadi Haifa, south of Assouan, to Abu Hamed. The gap between Assouan, where the existing Egyptian railway system ended, and Wadi Haifa was covered by ferry. In 1896 Kitchener advanced a force to Dongola to provide a shield for his railway building. A Mahdist attempt to save Dongola was defeated at Hafir in September. Kitchener was promoted Major General when news reached London. 1897 was taken up with extending the railway. The advance to Khartoum began in 1898 when the Anglo-Egyptian Army was reinforced by a brigade under Major General W F Gatacre consisting of three battalions from the Warwickshire Regiment, the Lincolnshire Regiment and the Cameron Highlanders.

The Anglo-Egyptian army advanced up river to Berber where the river Atbara joins the Nile. The Khalifa, aware of the threat to his capital at Khartoum, sent Emir Mahmud Ahmad to reinforce the Mahdist forces under Osman Digna. Osman Digna had intended to fight a mobile war, crossing the Atbara and threatening Kitchener’s supply lines. He was over-ruled by Mahmud who insisted on remaining inside a fortified camp.

On 8th April 1898 the British stormed the Mahdist camp. This plan of the Battle of Atbara is from A Hilliard Atteridge’s Wars of the Nineties.

This coloured platinum print depicting the Cameron Highlanders entering the Mahdist camp was published in 1898 by Henry Graves from a painting by Stanley Berkeley. There is an account of the battle in Urquhart’s In Memoriam by the special correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. Here he describes the moment when Urquhart was mortally wounded. “Truth to say, the enemy were there to kill or be killed. They gave no quarter, and rarely asked for it themselves, fighting like beasts till death relaxed their thews. A sergeant jumped from the palisade across the trench underneath, and then pistoled a Dervish who had sprung up in front to spear him. Captain Urquhart, of the Camerons, jumped across about the same moment, and was shot by a rifleman who had lain among the dying waiting an opportunity to slay. Hearing a gun discharged so close behind him, the sergeant wheeled about and shot the Dervish, and one of Urquhart’s infuriated men bayonetted the treacherous foe as he fell. Urquhart received the terrible mortal wound through the body. As his men stopped to pick him up he said, ‘Never mind me, my lads. Go on, Company F’.” The story of Urquhart’s dying words is colourful but almost certainly untrue. The regimental history has Urquhart “shot dead”. As I said earlier, its main author was Spencer Ewart, who as staff officer to General Gatacre and an officer of the regiment had every opportunity to inform himself.

The poet McGonagall must have been a Telegraph reader since he repeats the story:

And with their pipes loudly sounding, and one ringing cheer,
Then the Cameron Highlanders soon did the zereba clear.
And right through the Dervish camp they went without dismay,
And scattered the Dervishes across the desert, far, far away.

Then the victory was complete, and the British gave three cheers,
While adown their cheeks flowed burning tears
For the loss of their commanders and comrades who fell in the fray,
Which they will remember for many a day.

Captain Urquhart’s last words were “never mind me my lads, fight on,”
While, no doubt, the Cameron Highlanders felt woebegone
For the loss of their brave captain, who was foremost in the field,
Death or glory was his motto, rather than yield.

McGonagall’s effort is not included in the In Memoriam volume. What are included are other accounts of the Sudan expedition, various obituary notices and a biographical sketch. The few personal reminiscences are contributed by the good and great and resemble the speeches at a memorial service.

Urquhart’s In Memoriam is a far cry from the deeply personal cries from the heart, replete with schoolboy achievements and prize essays, published in such numbers twenty years later in the First World War. But that’s not surprising. Since he joined the army seventeen years earlier, Urquhart had spent only a few weeks at Meldrum. There were few people who could remember him as a boy. He had yet to make his mark as laird. He wasn’t even buried at Meldrum. The inscription at Oldmeldrum Episcopal Church is “To the memory of Beauchamp Colclough Urquhart, Major, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, b 20.7.1860 killed at the battle of the Atbara, Soudan 8.4.1898 and buried on the field of battle.” But Lord Aberdeen liked him. Here is his memorial plaque at Rideau Hall, Ontario.

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