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Thursday 23 March 2017

Feature: Allan Breck - Hollywood heart-throb?

History might often be stranger than fiction, but historical records are often more prosaic than the historical fiction based on them. This is certainly the case with a contemporary description of Allan Breck Stewart, which is held by the National Archives of Scotland (NAS). Stewart was suspected of the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure, executive factor of the forfeited estate of Ardsheal, which took place in Appin, in the west Highlands of Scotland in 1752. The Appin Murder and the subsequent trial of James Stewart, the brother of the estate's former owner, were matters of great controversy at the time.

Some aspects of the Appin Murder were later immortalised by Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel Kidnapped. Stevenson made the character of Allan Breck Stewart a romantic and dashing figure and the story has lent itself well to the silver screen; from 1917 onwards at least 7 film and television versions have been made, and the character of Allan Breck has been a suitable role for attractive leading actors, including Peter Finch (1960), Michael Caine (1971), David McCallum (1978), Armand Assante (1995), and Iain Glen (2005).

Excellent though the acting talents of these 60s heart-throbs undoubtedly were, none of them quite fit the description of the real Allan Breck Stewart:

He is about five feet ten inches, long visage very much marked w[i]th the small pox, Black Bushy Hair, a little Inn-kneed, Round Shouldered, about Thirty years of age, came to this country in February last from Ogilvys Regiment in France. His dress when last seen, which was upon the 18 Ins[tan]t was a blue Bonnet, a blue coat (Lowland Dress) with red Lynning waistcoat & Breeches, and a Brownish Collour'd great Coat over all, and no visible Arms.

Description of Allan Breck Stewart, 1752 (NAS/Perth & Kinross Council Archive reference CE52/2/1)

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