Reflections on the Instability of Fortune

Posted on August 04, 2016 by Cape Rebel

From Escape from Culloden
by The Chevalier de Johnstone

No felicity could surpass that which I felt on landing, having surmounted the greatest obstacles to my escape. I was now within reach of the assistance of my relations and friends in Edinburgh. It had not however been without a good deal of pain and difficulty that I had succeeded in crossing, for my hands were now in nearly as bad a plight as my feet had been ten days before, bleeding a great deal and considerably swollen. But I did not much mind being lame in my hands for a few days, as I would not have much occasion to use them, and my feet were now pretty well recovered. Having landed about a musket-shot from Prestonpans, where we had obtained so brilliant a victory over the English, and not daring to approach Edinburgh before dark, I decided to spend the whole day on the field of battle tranquillising my mind a little, softening somewhat the rigours of my fate by reflection on the past.

That place represented a striking symbol of the vicissitudes of fortune to which we humans are subject. I compared my situation on that glorious day, when I had discharged the functions of aide-de-camp to the Prince, carrying his orders everywhere and charged with the care of thirteen hundred English prisoners, with my present state, covered in rags to escape the scaffold, borne down with trouble and distress, and finding my only consolation in the hope of escape to a foreign country and the concomitant abandonment forever of the land of my birth, my relations and my friends. How stark was the contrast.

I could not help thinking that Providence had so disposed matters that we should land near the fields of Prestonpans – having been carried so far east by the ebbing of the tide – rather than in the neighbourhood of Leith, where we had intended to land, in order to impress indelibly on my mind the lessons that will never be effaced from it. How I would have enjoyed seeing some of the Prince’s favourites, whom the importance formerly conferred on them by their favoured position had rendered insolent, proud and impertinent. I imagined seeing them now, mean, servile and cringing in our altered circumstances. I have indeed seen them since, and I found that I was not wrong in my conjectures. Their behaviour was precisely what I had anticipated.

The instability of fortune ought to teach men the importance of preserving consistency of character. If we do not allow ourselves to be blown up with prosperity, but conduct ourselves always with modesty and humility, we shall not be cast down or become cringing in adversity. Arrogance and vanity are the infallible marks of smallness of soul, and never fail to degenerate, in reverses of fortune, into the meanest servility. A man who is modest, mild and beneficent will never allow himself to descend so low. Whatever revolutions of fortune he may experience, and however exalted the elevation from which he may fall, his misfortune will always be accompanied by the esteem and regret of all good men, and he will always have the public voice in his favour. When happy, everyone will rejoice in his good fortune, and when he experiences reverses, everyone will be eager to console him.

In going over the ground, ever step brought to remembrance some particular of the battle. When I reached the spot where I had seen thirteen hundred English prisoners guarded by eighty Highlanders, I sat down to dine on my bread and cheese and a bottle of Canary wine Mr Seton had made me take at our parting. The remembrance of the glorious and inconceivable victory we had obtained on this spot added to my extreme pleasure at having passed this arm of the sea.

As I was afraid of being recognised if I went straight to Edinburgh, I resolved to seek asylum in Leith, in the house of my old governess, Mrs Blythe. She had been twenty-two years in the service of my mother, particularly entrusted with the care of me, having received me from my nurse when I was only twelve months old.

The trouble and uneasiness which she had continually experienced on my account, both from the dangerous illnesses to which I had been subject in my youth and from the passionate, impetuous and imprudent character I possessed in common with most only sons, had served merely to increase her kindness and affection for me. She had loved me as if I had been her own child. Mr Blythe, the master of a small coasting vessel, who was very rich, had taken a liking to her when she was fifty, and had offered to marry her. The match had been too advantageous to Margaret for her to hesitate in accepting it. It was three years since she had left our house to reside with her husband at Leith, and they lived very happily together. Blythe was a Calvinist and a sworn enemy of the house of Stuart, but he was a man of much probity and I had nothing to fear from him. I therefore quitted Prestonpans before sunset in order to reach his house in Leith after nightfall.