The Earl of Leven
David Melville, later Leslie, 3rd Earl of Leven and 2nd Earl of Melville, was born in May 1660 in Fife at Balgonie castle, near Leven. He was the third son of George Melville, 1st Earl Melville and Catherine Leslie and was a devoted Whig and devout Presbyterian.
Melville acceded to the earldom of Leven in 1681 and in 1683 was, with his father, suspected of being involved in the Whig-led Rye House Plot to assassinate Charles II and his brother the Duke of York.
Both father and son fled to the Netherlands, to the court of William Prince of Orange, which was filled with other exiled British Protestants.
William, invited to lay claim to the throne of England, used Leven to enlist the support to his cause from the German princes. Leven managed this, having considerable influence in the relevant circles. He was a veteran soldier, having served with some distinction in the army of the Elector of Brandenburg. He had the pedigree for it, his grandfather on his mother’s side having been Alexander Leslie, Lord Balgonie, the great 17th century Scottish soldier who had fought under the Swedish warrior king Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War and for Parliament in the English and Scottish Civil Wars of the 1640s.
In 1688 William at last sailed for England and with him came Leven, with his own small force of 25 officers and 257 other ranks. On William’s landing Leven was ordered to take and garrison the important port of Plymouth, which he did.
The invasion soon began to garner support. On 13 February 1689 the Declaration of Rights was presented to the newly declared King William II. But only a month later, in March 1689 James II landed at Kinsale in Ireland in an attempt to raise the Irish Catholics.
From his base in Devon, William sent General Hugh Mackay north by sea with his Dutch Scots brigade of a thousand battled-hardened veterans. It was Mackay who would be commander in chief of the army in which Leven’s regiment were to fight their first engagement.
Leven and his officers were ordered north from Plymouth to his homeland of Scotland by way of Chester, to meet and negotiate with the Scottish government. It was a clear expression of William’s faith in Leven’s skills at diplomacy and it was to be well rewarded.
On 14 March the Scottish Convention of Estates, the de facto government of Scotland, met and in Edinburgh and ordered the governor of Edinburgh Castle, the Duke of Gordon to surrender the castle to King William.
When Gordon refused, five days later, on 18th March 1689, Leven received authority from the Estates to raise a regiment of foot with which to defend the city of Edinburgh from those who remained loyal to James.
Leven’s letter of authority read (sic):
‘The Committee…may be pleased to grant warrant to the Earl of Levin, with all expedition to levie ane regiment of foot consisting of eight hundred men, and to beat drummes to that effect. And that so soon as they are in readiness, he cause them Rendezvous in the Abbey Close…’
In what is said to have been something between two and four hours, Leven raised 780 men ‘by beat of drum’ and mustered them as ordered by the ruins of the Abbey Church at Holyrood.
Mackay meanwhile reached Leith on 25 March to reinforce Leven and the Protestants. While he pursued the rebels under Dundee across the highlands,
in Edinburgh over the next three months, the castle was besieged by Leven’s regiment and other protestant forces and finally on 13 June, Gordon had surrendered the stronghold to Leven. Now, with its numbers bolstered up to fighting strength, Leven’s regiment marched north to reinforce Mackay’s army and meet the rebels.
This they did on 27 July at Killicrankie (see main text).
The battle was a catastrophe for the Protestants but the Earl of Leven’s regiment was able to extract a degree of glory and personal success from disaster. For, while the rest of Mackay’s army had fled, only two regiments, Leven’s and Hastings’ had stood their ground. In a letter Mackay praised them to Leven’s own father, the new secretary of State for Scotland:
‘Your son’ he wrote, ‘hath behaved himself with all his officers and souldiers extraordinarily well…’
A contemporary described Leven as ‘a man of good parts and sound judgement’ although ‘master of no kind of learning’.
The family home was at Balgonie castle, between Markinch and Leven, which had been purchased in 1635 by Alexander Leslie first Earl of Leven and Lord of Balgonie, who added a floor to the building. The 3rd Earl carried on his work, adding to the castle in 1702 a three storey range on the east side.
Following the success of William’s cause and his establishment as the new monarch, Leven went on to rise through the army and in politics. He remained colonel of the the regiment which as was the custom of the time retained his name, between 1689 and 1694, leading it in battle in Flanders.
Leven was invested as a Privy Counsellor in 1689 and the same year was made commissioner to pacify the Highlands. He also held the office of Commissioner of the Exchequer in Scotland and was the first governor of the Bank of Scotland. Between 1689 and 1702 and again from 1704 to 1712 he was Governor of Edinburgh castle. During the 1708 rising, he apparently treated the many Jacobites imprisoned in the castle with great civility.
Leven was appointed Brigadier General in 1702, Major General in 1704 and Lieutenant General 1707. In 1706 he was appointed as a commissioner for the union of the Kingdoms. However, he was a victim of political intriguing and in 1712 at the death of Queen Anne, like many of his contemporaries, he was dismissed from all offices. He died in 1728.