It is impossible to avoid the cult of celebrity with so many magazines, TV show and websites all dedicated to bringing us every tiny detail of the lives of the rich and famous. You may think that this is a modern phenomenon but the first modern style celebrity emerged in the early part of the nineteenth century and he was a Scot, Lord George Byron. Yes, the man commonly feted as one of the great English Romantic poets was actually a proud Aberdonian.
George Gordon Byron was born in London in 1788. His father, Captain Jack ‘Mad Jack’ Byron was an Officer in the Coldstream Guards. Unfortunately the only thing admirable about him was his rather wonderful nick name. A profligate spender, Captain Byron had already worked his way thorough his first wifes’ fortune prior to her death in 1784. Mad Jack needed a fresh income stream and the very next year he married Catherine Gordon, heiress to the Gight estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It didn’t take long for him to waste her fortune as well and after a few short years the couple fled to France in an attempt to evade his creditors.
Catherine returned to London in 1788 to have their child, the future Lord Byron. Following the birth contact between Catherine and her husband was limited with Mad Jack only communicating at all to beg for more money. In 1790, after being toally abandoned by her husband, Catherine moved with her infant son to Aberdeen, closer to her ancestral family home. Initally they moved in to lodgings on Queen Street before moving to the nearby Broad Street. Catherine still had a small annual income from a dowry so although leading an impovershed exsitence the pair were able to survive. Byron’s father died in France in 1791, destitute, possibly at his own hand.
Betwen 1794 and 1798 Byron attended Aberdeen Grammar School, then located on Schoolhill close to his home. In 1798 he inherited the tile Lord Byron and moved down to Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire with his Mother. His education then followed the traditional path taken by the English gentry as he attended Harrow followed by studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. By 1807 he wss already a published poet. It was to be the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812 that would catapult him to the type of fame we associate with our modern day celebrities. he had already come to the attention of the public after making a series of speeches in the House of Lords, speaking in support of the Luddites, an unusual stance for an aristocrat to take. Fame had come quite quickly for the young poet. As he said himself. “I awoke one morning to find myself famous.”
Afairs with various society ladies (and gentlemen) served to scandalise and delight his followers. Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of him as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ helped to build the legend growing around him. His fame was immense, even by todays standards. His good looks, charisma, lifestyle and romantic desire for adventure created an enormous interest in him domestically and world wide. Many portrats were produced of him, copies of which sold in huge numbers to his fans. Like his modern day equivalents Byron was both aware and protective of his image insisting that he be portrayed in a more reflective profile pose than having his face shown full frontal.
In 1815 Byron married Annabella Milbanke. Despite the union producing a daughter, Augusta, the marriage was a short lived affair and the couple formally seperated in 1816. Byron left England in April of that year, never to return in his lifetime.
The rest of his life was spent travelling Europe whilst continuing to write poetry and engage in regular sexual adventures with members of both sexes. In 1824, whilst preparing to take part in an attack during the Greek War of Independence, Byron contracted a fever and died. His body was returned to England. Westminster Abbey refused to allow him to be buried in Poets corner due to his unconventional lifestyle. He was buried at St Mary Magdalene Church in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, close to his inherited ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.
In Greece Byron is still revered as a national hero. The town of Vyronas, North East of Athens is named in his honour and the anniversary of his death is designated as a day of celebration of all things Greek. Nottinghamshire is never slow to make the most of their connection to this fascinating man yet Aberdeen makes little fuss. Perhaps that is because the Aberdonians are secure in the knowldge that he considered himself a Scot. He retained a Scottish accent for the whole of his life and in his final days was often seen wearing a jacket adorned with tartan. In his epic poem Don Juan he took the opportunity of proclaiming just where his national allegiance lay.
But I am half a Scot by birth, and bred
A whole one, and my heart flies to my head, –
As ‘Auld Lang Syne’ brings Scotland one and all,
Scotch plaids, Scotch snoods, the blue hills and the clear streams,
The Dee, the Don, Balgounie Brig’s black wall,
All my boyhood feelings, all my gentler dreams
Of what I then dreamt, clothed in their pall,
Like Banquo’s offspring
Scottish folk duo The Corries used to regularly perform the song Dark Lochnagar about the stark beauties of that mountain. Many would have been unaware that the lyric was actually a poem by Lord byron, written in 1807. It is known that Byron spent some time at a farmhouse near Ballater on the South Deeside Road so there is little doubt that the song is an expression of fond childhood memories.
England! thy beauties are tame and domestic,
To one who has rov’d on the mountains afar
Oh! for the crags that are wild and majestic
The deep frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr.”
Aberdeen grammar School has a fine statue of their former pupil in a prominent postion as you enter th grounds. Elsewhere in Aberdeen the Northfield housing estate has an number of streets named after the man including Byron Square where the Lord Byron pub can be found. Other than that there is little civic acknowledgement of the influential part that the Granite City played in his life. As Aberdeen struggles during the current downturn in the oil industry perhaps it’s time to make more of a claim to the legacy of Lord Byron by inviting tourists to follow in the footsteps of one of our literary greats. Here’s to Lord Byron, celebrity poet, playwright, Scot and Aberdonian loon.