The letters of Archibald Buchanan, Midshipman (1803-1804)

This is the first in a series of posts  by Daniel Lange, a research student from Berlin. He has been looking at some of the letters of a youthful trainee officer from the early nineteenth century. This is the first of 3 posts by Daniel...

I have recently had the pleasure to do a one-month internship at the National Maritime Museum, which not only allowed me to take a short break from my own PhD-research but also offered me the opportunity to take a closer look at some of the hidden gems of the Caird Library. Among the objects that fascinated me particularly was a series of 17 letters by Archibald Buchanan, a young midshipman in the Royal Navy. The letters in the Caird Library are copies (NMM ref: XAGC/7) of the original letters, which are stored together with further Buchanan family papers in the Glasgow City Archives (reference TD 854). Written between December 1803 and June 1804 and addressed to his mother and brothers, the letters offer us personal and fascinating views of a young boy in the navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Born in 1788 as fourth son of Thomas Buchanan of Ardoch, a wealthy Glasgow merchant, and his third wife Helen (née Graham), Archibald left his hometown at the age of 15 in December 1803 to embark on a naval career. On his way from Glasgow to the Downs, he stayed for a few days in London and wrote to his mother how excited he was to visit the city's theatres, the tower with its crown jewels, and, particularly, the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery (‘I never saw anything so fine in my Life’). XAGC/7

When Archibald arrived at the Downs a few days later, he was received by no less than George Keith Elphinstone, commander-in-chief in the North Sea fleet. Aboard the admiral's flagship,  HMS Monarch, the young Archibald apparently experienced enjoyable first days and was introduced to the other midshipmen, the ‘young gentlemen of the cockpit’, placed into the watch, and dined with the admiral and officers in the wardroom. A letter to his mother, dated 28 December, concludes with the reassuring words: ‘In short, I am very happy at present & instead of having salt meat I have plenty of fresh Roast beef, stakes & pudding’.

Daniel Lange (Research Student)