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Thursday 2 February 2017

Lion Hunter: Roualeyn George Gordon-Cumming

An anecdote recorded and later transcribed by Calum Maclean on 29 May 1951 from John MacDonald of Highbridge reveals a rather amusing explanation behind the name of a man who became something of a celebrity in the Highlands as well as beyond. It is an understandable, if incorrect, folk etymology. Nevertheless, it makes for a good story as related in the following transcription:

Bha boireannach a’ gabhail an aiseadh thairis air Loch Nis. Agus ’s e seann-duine a fhuair i airson a h-aiseadh air a’ bhàta agus i gu bhith air a h-aiseadadh air an taobh thall agus i a’ dol a dh’ionnsaigh bean-ghlùine. Agus air adhart leitheach slighe bha e a’ faireachdainn dragh a’ tighinn oirre fhèin. Agus bha i ag ràdha ris an duine a bha seo: “Row Allan. Row Allan,” theireadh i an-dràsda is a-rithist. Agus bha i a’ cumail air seo a ghràdha ris gus an do chuir i an duine, cha mhòr a-mach a anail. Ach rinn e an gnothach air a cur a-nunn sàbhailte mun tàinig dragh na caraibh. Agus rugadh leanabh gille dhi agus thug i an t-ainm air Rowallan. Rowallan Cumming a bh’ air. Is bha e fada an Africa is na rìoghachdan thall. Agus bha e a-rithist ann an Cille Chuimein agus e a’ dèanadh bataichean agus gan creic. Agus chaochail e an Cille Chuimein. Tha mi a’ creidsinn gum bheil trì fichead bliadhna bhon a chaochail e.

And the translation may be rendered as follows:

A woman was taking the ferry-boat over Loch Ness. And she had got hold of an old man to take her over in the boat and she hoped to give birth over on the other side of the loch as she was going to see a mid-wife. And around about half-way across she felt her waters breaking. And she said to the man: Row Allan. Row Allan,” and she said this now and again. And she kept on saying this until the man was nearly out of breath. But he managed to take her across safely before things got any worse. And she gave birth to an infant boy and she gave him the name Rowallan―Rowallan Cumming was his name. And he was for a long time in Africa and overseas yonder. And he was then in Fort Augustus and he was building boats and selling them. He died in Fort Augustus. I believe that sixty years have now passed since he died.

A short entry for ‘Rowallan’ from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 14. p. 637) unsurprisingly gives a more factual account:

Cumming, Roualeyn George Gordon- (1820–1866), lion hunter, the second son of Sir William Gordon Gordon-Cumming, second baronet (1787–1854), and his first wife, Eliza Maria (d. 1842), the daughter of John Campbell and a granddaughter of the duke of Argyll, was born at Altyre, Scotland, on 15 March 1820. The travel writer Constance Gordon-Cumming was his sister. He was educated at Eton College, but even in his boyhood was distinguished for his love of sport, especially salmon fishing and deerstalking, than for anything else. He entered the East India Company’s service as a cornet in the 4th Madras cavalry in 1838, and on his way to India had his first experience of hunting in South Africa; but the Indian climate did not agree with him, and in 1840 he resigned his commission.

Gordon-Cumming returned to Scotland and devoted himself to deerstalking; but in his own words he found ‘the life of the wild hunter so far preferable to that of the mere sportsman; that he obtained an ensigncy in the royal veteran Newfoundland companies. Not finding the opportunities for hunting in North Africa which he expected, he exchanged in 1843 into the Cape mounted rifles, and once more found himself in Africa. Unsuited to military life, he resigned his commission at the end of the year, and after purchasing a wagon and collecting a few followers he spent the next five years hunting, travelling widely, and exploring the interior of South Africa. In 1848 he returned to Britain, and in 1850 he published his Five Years of a Hunter’s Life in the Far Interior of South Africa, a book which had immense success and was published in many editions; it made him the lion of the season. In 1851 Gordon-Cumming exhibited his trophies at the Great Exhibition. He then went about the country lecturing and exhibiting his lion skins for some years, and under the sobriquet the Lion Hunter he obtained great popularity and made a great deal of money. In 1856 he published a condensed edition of his book as The Lion Hunter of South Africa, and in 1858 he established himself as Fort Augustus on the Caledonian Canal, where his museum was a great attraction to tourists. He was a man of great height and physical strength. He seems to have had a premonition of his death, for he ordered his coffin and made his will just before he died, unmarried, fro heart disease, at Fort Augustus on 24 March 1866; provision was made in his will for two illegitimate daughters.

 His game books (photocopies of which are lodged in the National Library of Scotland, Dep 175, Box 175/4(ii)) from 1850 to 1865 are more or less a list of the amount of things he killed and when and if it took his fancy he would intermittently give a more expansive description of a stalk if it proved to be of personal interest. There is also an interesting insert from an untitled publication as follows:

Now in the possession of VISCOUNT POWERSCOURT.

THE stag that bore this head was killed in Lord Lovat’s forest of Glenstrathfarar, Inverness-shire, by the late Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming, the celebrated African hunter. I was acquainted with him and also with his brother, the late Sir Alexander Penrose Gordon-Cumming, and I often had conversations with them both about Roualeyn’s adventures in Africa and in Scotland.

I saw this head in his collection at that time, about 1858–59, when he used to exhibit his African and other sporting trophies by the Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus.

He was very poor, and used to support himself by this exhibition, where he used to attend in his Highland dress, and a magnificent figure he was, some six feet four in height and a very powerful man, and he used to relate his sporting adventures and explain his collections at a charge of one or two shillings, or thereabouts. The steamers plying on the Caledonian Canal between Inverness and Banavie had to stop at Fort Augustus for an hour or more, passing through the locks, and the passengers used to land and visit his exhibition. Passing down the Canal on my way from the Highlands in 1859, I landed with others and was talking to him, and I remarked this fine head, which is 41 inches wide and has 11 points. He said, “If everyone had their rights, that head belongs to Lord Lovat, for I shot the stag in his forest.” Gordon-Cumming was known in Scotland as a great poacher, and was often after deer where he had no business to be, but few darted to interfere with him. He said that he wanted the head, as it was the widest he had ever seen in Scotland. In those days deer forests were not so strictly preserved as they are now, and on the hills which were grazed by sheep, stags were shot without any interference by anyone; that was about the hear 1846 or 1846.

Through he kindness of Mr. St. George Littledale, I got the following story of how Gordon-Cumming killed this stag. He had it from a stalker named Colin Campbell, who had it, I believe, from his father. I give it in his own words:

“The stag was spotted by the stalker in the charge of the beat where the stag had his home, and, as it is very often the case when you are keen on a good head, that is often when you do not get him. However, the stalker, after a day or two on unsuccess, was told to keep his ears and eyes open, in case Gordon-Cumming, who was in the neighbourhood, might get hold of the head. Some gentlemen near by died, and the sportsmen went to the funeral, giving instructions to his stalker not to go unless he saw that Gordon-Cumming went; if so, if he might go. Gordon-Cumming put on his Highland dress, and walked along the road, when he met the stalker, who asked him what he was going to do with a rose he happened to have in his button-hole, at a funeral? Gordon-Cumming replied that when everything was over he would leave him a rose. The stalker got in, shifted his clothes, and proceeded to the funeral. When Gordon-Cumming got round the corner he took a circuit route and made for the stag, and in three hours that the head off the stag. The stalker having heard the shot, made for the direction of the sound, where he found the carcass with the rose by its side.”―(Signed) COLIN CAMPBELL.

Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming died in 1866, and I bought the stag’s head at the sale of his collection in London, after his death


December 16, 1899.

By anyone’s standards Gordon-Cumming led a remarkably adventurous life which eventually brought him relative fame as well as a modicum of income. He wrote some compelling accounts of his hunting trips such as A Hunter’s Life among the Lions, Elephants and Other Wild Animals (1857). He spent most of his short life killing animals, in Scotland as well as North America but especially southern Africa where, between 1838 and 1843, he visited several times before deciding upon his career as a big-game hunter. Between 1843 and 1848, he carried out his hunting activities mainly in Bechuanaland and the valley of the Limpopo River. On returning to Britain, his collection of hunting trophies was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 at London’s Crystal Palace, which was also illustrated by a lecture delivered by him. The collection, known as The South Africa Museum, was afterwards exhibited in various parts of Britain and would become the core of a museum which he set up in the central Highlands.

By 1858 Gordon-Cumming came to make his home in Fort Augustus within the former soldier’s barracks. Beside the Caledonian Canal he exhibited his trophies which attracted many visitors before his untimely death.

An extract from Gordon-Cumming’s letter reads: “You must understand that the greatest difficulty to a good hunter in Elephant hunting is to find them, and then one man can kill one Elephant in the troop, and not more, especially if they be bulls, for bulls separate the instant they are attacked, and the fight generally lasts from 10 minutes to an hour, according to the denseness of the first or the savageness of the Elephants; one bull this year took 57 bullets before he fell…”

For Gordon-Cumming, it seems that big game hunting was primarily a sport, and a test of courage and athleticism. A far bigger threat to the wildlife of Africa came from commercial hunting. Elephants were hunted for their ivory from the sixteenth century and in our own day their numbers have become dangerously reduced by hunters.

Although it recounts some of the information already given a local account of this colourful character adds some detail about his time in Fort August which may now be given:

One other famous figure connected with Kilcumein and the old Fort calls for a word in passing. Roualeyn George Gordon-Cumming, the famous lion-hunter, was closely connected with the place. Here it was that he finally erected his museum of magnificent fastnesses by Loch Ness offered him a shelter and a refuge; the last decade of his life was spent beneath the shadow of the Fort, and he died within its walls.

The second son of the Baronet of Altyre, he successively entered the service of the East India Company, the Royal Veteran Newfoundland Company, and the Cape Mounted Rifles, but all were given up in turn to satisfy his craving for “the life of the wild hunter.” Collecting a few followers he plunged into the heart of Africa and spent five years in the pursuit of every kind of big game. On his return to England he published a book, and exhibited his unique collection of skins and trophies at the great Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. As an immediate result he became famous and was everywhere feted as the “Lion-hunter.” Finally settled at Fort Augustus in 1858. A contemporary writer says of him “In appearance he was remarkable for his height and his massive symmetry of build. With handsome Highland features and the eye of an eagle he was verily a king of men.” He delighted in marked eccentricities of dress and might be seen parading Princes Street in Edinburgh in top-boots, a Gordon tartan kilt with plaid to match fastened by a large brooch, huge shirt frills, surmounted with a brass helmet as a head-piece and quantities of jewels, with silver fish-hooks in his ears. On wet days the whole was secured with a ponderous umbrella. At Fort Augustus he used to meet the tourist steamers with a number of retainers similarly attired in grotesque costume, and, preceded by a magnificent goat, would lead the way to his museum. In warm weather he discarded this gorgeous raiment and went about clad only in a shirt and stockings. Sometimes his hair was allowed to hang in long ringlets down over his shoulders, and at other times was caught up in a lady’s net and fastened with numberless hairpins. Many are the anecdotes still current of his sayings and doings in the district which cannot be related here, but which remain a rich harvest and easily to be obtained for the humorist and the antiquarian. His museum stood at the south-eastern corner of the canal bridge on the site now occupied by the wooden hall next door to the Catholic school.

When the Established Church was rebuilt some years ago, the roof of Roualeyn Gordon Cumming’s museum was used to cover it, and the timbers that once enhanced the charms of the lion-hunter and his wild-beast show, now serve as the framework to an honest Presbyterian congregation, and form a setting to the Geneva gown.

As is often the case which stories such as these, primarily historical narratives often containing biographical material. there is a kernel of truth and thus they should not be dismissed as hearsay. It is always a useful device to attempt to winnow the historical wheat from the legendary chaff.

NB SSS 10, pp. 919920
Roualeyn Gordon Cumming, Five Years of a Hunter’s Life in the Far Interior of South Africa (London: John Murray, 1850)
―――, Five Years’ Hunting Adventures in South Africa (Glasgow: Thomas D. Morison, 1850)
Andrew J. Macdonald, Glen-Albyn or Tales and Truths of the Central Highlands (Fort Augustus: The Abbey Press, 1920), pp. 76–78

Portraits of Roualeyn Gordon Cumming
Attack on Four Patriarchal Lions
Cover of A Descriptive Catalogue of Hunting Trophies, Native Arms, & Costumes from the Far Interior of South Africa
Gordon Cummings Wilds Sports

1 comment:

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