Adam Duncan 1st Viscount

1731-1804. He was born on 1 July 1731 at Dundee, a younger son of Alexander Duncan of Lundie, Perthshire, who was a Hanoverian supporter in the 1745 rebellion and became the provost of Dundee, and of his wife Helen Haldane of Gleneagles. He was the uncle of Rear-Admiral James Haldane Tate and the younger brother of an officer who died in the service of the East India Company. Another brother became a major in the Army.

In 1746 Duncan entered the navy aboard the sloop Trial 10 commanded by his maternal uncle, Robert Haldane, and he transferred with this officer when he was promoted captain of the frigate Shoreham 24 in February 1748, remaining with that vessel for the rest of the year. In 1749 he served under Commodore Hon. Augustus Keppel aboard the Centurion 50 in the Mediterranean, and afterwards in the Norwich 50 on the North American station, where on 10 January 1755 he was commissioned lieutenant. He returned to Europe with Keppel to join the Swiftsure 70 in the Channel that same year, and in January 1756 was appointed to the Torbay 74, again serving under Keppel and being wounded in the attack on Gorée on 29 December 1758.

Duncan was promoted commander on 21 September 1759, and after she arrived in the Downs from St. Kitts in October he joined the hired vessel Royal Exchange 22. In December this vessel left the Downs to cruise to the north with other men-of-war, but she was back by the 13th of that month, on which station she continued to serve. The management of the Royal Exchange presented many difficulties, as Duncan had to struggle with a crew of boys and foreigners who had originally been employed as merchant seamen, and therefore did not believe themselves subject to naval discipline. As a consequence, the ship was temporarily put out of commission in April 1760.


Admiral Duncan

On 25 February 1761 he was posted captain of the Valiant 74 at Portsmouth, which vessel flew the broad pennant of Commodore Keppel at the reduction of Belle Isle in June. She departed with Keppel’s pennant for the West Indies on 5 March 1762, earning an unexpected bonus a week later when she captured a French East Indiaman, the St. Priest. Duncan subsequently commanded the Valiant at the reduction of Havana when that valuable Spanish possession surrendered on 13 August, and where he led the attack on the castle at Moro armed only with a stick. Accordingly, he received a share of the fortune that the victorious force earned in prize money, but he also contacted a fever, and after returning to England in June 1764 he found it necessary to spend some time at Bath and Cheltenham in convalescence.

Returning to Dundee, Duncan remained on the beach for a further fifteen years until his marriage to a daughter of the influential Dundas family on 6 June 1777 presented him with the necessary ‘influence’ to resume active service.

On 12 May 1778 he was appointed to the new Suffolk 74 which was fitting out at Chatham, and which dropped down to Blackstakes at the end of July to take on her ordnance, prior to joining the Grand Fleet in September. He subsequently removed to the Monarch 74 in December. During January 1779 he sat on Admiral Keppel’s court martial subsequent to the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778, in which proceedings he was conspicuous for his frequent interruptions of the prosecutor in support of his Whig friend and patron. As a result, he was given orders to put to sea by the Admiralty prior to the Tory Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser’s court martial in April, but the Monarch’s crew refused their duty the day before the trial began as they had not been paid, and the delay allowed him sit on the court martial after all.

In the summer of 1779 the Monarch formed part of the Grand Fleet which eventually put to sea on 16 June under Admiral Sir Charles Hardy, and she participated in the retreat up the Channel before the allied armada during August. She next sailed with Admiral Sir George Rodney to relieve Gibraltar, playing a conspicuous part in the Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent on 16 January 1780, where she incurred twenty-nine casualties in forcing the surrender of the San Augustin 74, although this vessel fled before she could be secured. Shortly afterwards, Duncan’s men mutinied rather than face the prospect of sailing on to join the Leeward Islands station, and the troublesome Monarch returned to England with Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby’s squadron. She participated in the Channel Fleet campaign from June, and led the fleet into action against a French convoy on 3 July. In September she was again ordered out to the Leeward Islands, whereupon Duncan resigned the command so as to preserve his health.

He was not re-employed until after the fall of the government in 1782, when the new First Lord of the Admiralty, his patron Keppel, appointed him to the Blenheim 90 on 11 April. After undergoing major repairs at Chatham, she dropped down to Blackstakes in the second week of June to take on her ordnance, prior to sailing for the Nore to complete her crew, part of which arrived on a tender from Scotland. She departed the Thames at the end of July for the Downs and ultimately for Portsmouth, where she arrived on 7 September with a large convoy of colliers, coasters, and storeships . Duncan sat on the court-martial into the loss of the Royal George 100 on 29 August, and he commanded the Blenheim with Admiral Lord Howe at the relief of Gibraltar on 18 October, and days later at the action off Cape Spartel where his command lost two men killed and three wounded. She was back with the fleet off St. Helens on 14 November, and in December she underwent a refit at Portsmouth.

Duncan was superseded in command of the Blenheim on 23 December 1782 when it was reported that she was to be fitted out for foreign service. On 15 January 1783 he was appointed to the Foudroyant 80 in succession to Captain Sir John Jervis, however, he retained this vessel for only a short while whilst the war due to a close, and she was paid off at Plymouth on 26 February.


Duncan’s later career profited greatly through his marriage to the family of Henry Dundas, the minister for war and future Viscount Melville

During the ensuing peace, Duncan commanded the Portsmouth guard-ship Edgar 74 from April 1783 until she was paid off in August 1786. Meanwhile, in December of the former year he was excused from attending the trial of Captain Evelyn Sutton of the Isis 50, relative to that officer’s conduct at the Battle of Porto Praya two years earlier, as he was unwell. During April 1786 he briefly held the command at Portsmouth in the interval between Admiral John Montagu’s departure and Rear-Admiral Lord Hood’s arrival.

Duncan became a rear-admiral on 24 September 1787, being a beneficiary of Lord Howe’s controversial fast-track and ‘yellowing’ policy which led to the First Lord of the Admiralty’s resignation on 16 July 1788. During a parliamentary debate on the matter, it was insinuated by Captain John MacBride that Duncan had only received his promotion on the instigation of his influential relatives, the Dundas family. Upon the onset of the Nookta Sound dispute of 1790 with Spain, a messenger was dispatched north to Edinburgh to recall Duncan to duty, but in the event the issue was soon resolved and he was not required to serve. His most excitement in the years of peace came on 5 June 1792, when he single-handedly braved a rioting mob in Edinburgh which had been attacking the home of his parents-in-law in a protest over electoral reform.

On 1 February 1793 he was promoted vice-admiral, although he frustratingly remained on the beach throughout the first two years of the French Revolutionary War and even contemplated retirement through want of employment. This unfortunate situation was resolved in February 1795,when benefitting from the ascent of his younger uncle-in-law, Henry Dundas, to the position of Secretary of State for War, he was appointed the commander-in-chief on the North Sea station to counter the threat of the newly hostile Netherlands.

In March 1795 Duncan hoisted his flag aboard the Prince George 98 at Chatham, and with Captain William Johnstone Hope being appointed his flag captain, he transferred in early April to the leaky old Venerable 74. He was promoted admiral on 1 June, and at the same time his initial force of three men of war sailed from Sheerness to protect British trade in the North Sea. Not long afterwards, he was in London to receive instructions at the Admiralty with regard to the command of a combined fleet of British men-of-war and a Russian fleet of twelve sail of the line and six frigates. Unfortunately, the British element of his fleet would prove to be in as poor a condition as the Venerable, the Russian vessels were alleged to be little more than floating hulks and were to take no notice of his instructions, although this was refuted by one witness at the time, and he was to be handicapped by the few opportunities to exercise his ships.

Taking leave of the Admiralty, and having enjoyed an audience with the Queen, Duncan remained with his squadron in the Downs throughout July, but in the second week of August news was received that a Dutch fleet of five men of war and six frigates had put to sea. Accordingly, he set off in chase with two sail of the line, three 50-gun vessels and two frigates, being joined by the Russians. In the event, the Dutch reached Flushing unharmed towards the end of the month, whereupon Duncan returned to the Downs on 3 September whilst the Russians remained cruising off the Texel. He thereafter remained in the Downs for some time, with Captain James Bissett having joined the Venerable as his flag captain, whilst in September it was reported that he had turned down the Mediterranean command because of the risk to his health of hot climes, advising the prime minister and the First Lord of the Admiralty to appoint Admiral Sir John Jervis instead. Come November, no sooner had a number of his ships repaired to Sheerness than he suddenly rushed to sea with the Russians on reports that a French squadron and its convoy was leaving Bergen. The mobilisation proved to be fruitless, and he returned empty-handed to the Downs in early December.


In February 1796, Duncan arrived at Sheerness aboard the Venerable with a convoy from the Downs, but upon departing on the 24th, he was soon ordered back to the North Sea with a stronger force of five 74-gun ships after intelligence had been received that a Dutch fleet was at sea. For several frustrating days his squadron remained wind-bound in the Downs before departing for Yarmouth. Meanwhile, his second-in-command, Rear-Admiral Thomas Pringle, had fallen in with the Dutch in the middle of February, but had conspicuously failed to bring them to action. No sooner was Duncan putting out in early March than he had to return to the Downs after a shift in the wind, although there was at least some excitement in the fact that a new telegraph system was rapidly able to transmit the news of his predicament within minutes to the Admiralty. He eventually arrived off the Yarmouth Roads on 11 March to join Pringle, and on the following day the combined force sailed on a cruise which took them as far north as the Naze of Norway in search of the Dutch. For day, rumours suggested that the enemy were at Bergen, but these proved to be ill-founded, and by 24 April Duncan was cruising off the Doggersbank with little expectation of finding the enemy. Only slightly mollified by several captures of smaller Dutch vessels, he returned to the Nore at the end of the month to be presented to the King shortly afterwards and take leave of absence. It would subsequently transpire that the Dutch had gone south to the Cape where they surrendered to Vice-Admiral Sir George Keith Elphinstone in Saldanha Bay on 17 August.

During August 1796 Duncan had to intercede in a dispute between Vice-Admiral John MacBride, who in his absence had taken command of the North Sea fleet, and the Russian commander-in-chief, and on 22 September the former struck his flag aboard the Russell 74 to make way for Duncan, who departed Sheerness aboard a cutter too resume his command. Raising his flag once more aboard the Venerable, Duncan raced for the Texel with the benefit of a brisk south-westerly wind upon reports that another Dutch fleet had come out. He was back at Yarmouth again in early October, before going out on the 20th to cruise off the Texel in bitter early winter weather which provided the expectation that the Dutch ports would ice up. Shortly afterwards, he was joined by an expeditionary force from Portsmouth which had been ordered to capture the Helder by Mr Dundas, but his local knowledge was such that he sent home the two regiments, claiming that such an attack would be certain suicide. In November Captain William George Fairfax became his flag captain aboard the Venerable, and the fleet returned to port shortly afterwards, whereupon Duncan handed command of the station over to Vice-Admiral Richard Onslow so as to take a couple of months leave.

At the beginning of February 1797, Duncan left his home in Scotland, taking passage from Leith aboard the Glenmore 36, Captain George Duff, to resume command of the North Sea Fleet. Following a brief visit to the Admiralty in London, he left the Nore in March for Yarmouth to find an increased fleet of twelve sail of the line, a 50-gun ship and three frigates. After putting to sea to blockade the Texel on the 17th, he was back at Yarmouth by the end of April, by which time the fleet mutinies at Portsmouth and Plymouth had broken out. On 30 April Duncan furiously faced down an insurrection upon his flagship, in the course of which he was only restrained by the chaplain from plunging his sword into one malcontent. When the crew of the Adamant 50, Captain William Hotham, became mutinous, Duncan shifted his flag into her on 13 May and bodily hauled a ringleader out of the assembled men to dangle him over the side with his own hand, daring anybody else to usurp his authority. However, even his force of personality could not prevent the Nore Mutiny spreading to the rest of his fleet bar his flagship and the Adamant on 27 May. Three days later, he sailed with the Venerable and Adamant to resume his blockade of the Texel where he attempted to keep the Dutch in port by remaining inshore with these two ships whilst signalling to an imaginary fleet over the horizon. Eventually, he anchored off the outer buoy of the Texel and announced his intention to fight the enemy with his two ships until they sunk. Fortunately, in June he was joined by six ships from the Channel Fleet under Rear-Admiral Sir Roger Curtis, then by a Russian squadron, and finally by the ships of his own fleet returning to duty, which allowed Curtis to depart.


The Battle of Camperdown

Throughout July and August, Duncan continued to patrol off the Texel in the belief that the Dutch fleet was preparing to sail, but with the weather proving un-seasonally rough, several vessels had to return home for repairs before on 3 October the entire fleet entered the Yarmouth Roads. By now, Duncan, who spent some time ashore at Yarmouth in ill-health, did not believe that the Dutch were in any condition to come out; however, on the 9th news was received that the Dutch were indeed at sea. Two days later, on 11 October his fourteen sail of the line and two of 50 guns fell in with sixteen of the enemy under the command of Admiral Jan Willem De Winter. The Dutch tried to regain their base, but five miles west of Camperdown, Duncan attacked in shoaling water without forming a line of battle. During an action that would become known as the Battle of Camperdown, his fleet managed to break the Dutch line in two places and earn one of the most complete and hard-won victories of the war. De Winter himself struck to the Venerable and the British also took a further eight ships of the line and two frigates.

Duncan arrived home with his victorious fleet on 15 October, and after voyaging to Margate on a cutter he spent the night at Mitchenel’s Hotel before proceeding to Walmer Castle to dine with the prime minister, William Pitt, and Mr Dundas. Travelling up to London via Canterbury with Admiral Lord Hood, he was mobbed by a crowd whilst taking coffee in Covent Garden, and then an adoring crowd pulled his coach around the streets. On 10 November he was feted when his carriage was towed up Ludgate Hill for a dinner at the Guildhall. Meanwhile, on 21 October he had been created Baron Duncan of Lundie and Viscount Duncan of Camperdown, although many felt this to be an insufficient honour, and eventually his son would be elevated to an earldom in 1831. Whilst numerous towns across the county honoured him, reward for his victorious men came when Duncan asked the King to reprieve many of the mutineers who had fought so bravely at Campedown.

Over the Christmas period, Duncan visited his new flagship, the Kent 74, which was under construction at Blackwall and was to be commanded by Captain William Johnstone Hope. In the New Year he went back to Scotland where a parade through Edinburgh was held in his honour on 16 February. Throughout the spring of 1798 he was unwell, but in the second week of April it was announced that he was fully recovered from a dangerous operation that had been performed in the Scottish capital. Even so, it was not until June that he took leave of the King to resume his command of the North Sea station, whilst fortunately, an offer by the Duke of Clarence to become his flag-captain was forestalled. On 2 July Duncan arrived at Yarmouth with his daughter and hoisted his flag aboard the Belliqueux 64, Captain John Inglis, and in August he sailed aboard the Kent for the Texel. By September he back at Yarmouth before going out again on rumours that the Dutch were at sea, but for most of the next two month he remained in the Yarmouth Roads with his fleet accompanied by six Russian vessels until in December 98 he went to Bath for the benefit of his health to be temporarily replaced by Vice-Admiral Archibald Dickson.

In January 1799 the sickly Duncan reached Edinburgh from Bath, harbouring expectations that he would never see England again, but it was soon announced that his condition was not of a dangerous nature, and by the beginning of March he was considered well enough to resume his command of the North Sea fleet. In early May he apparently visited Exeter to receive the freedom of the city, and thereafter arriving in London in good health, he was introduced to the King once more. He was back at Yarmouth by early June, and he set out aboard the Kent for the Texel on the 29th of the month. By now the Dutch had managed to re-establish a fleet that was expected to offer greater support to the French and Duncan oversaw Vice-Admiral Andrew Mitchell’s campaign against them which commenced on 21 August. During September the Kent was back at Yarmouth where Duncan, under the care of his wife, was once more convalescing in his lodgings ashore, and on 22 October his flag was shifted to the frigate Andromeda 32, Lieutenant Andrew King, whilst Admiral Dickson hoisted his flag aboard the Kent and sailed for the Helder in temporary command of the fleet.

Duncan was well enough to welcome the Duke of York to Yarmouth following his return from the Netherlands on 3 November, and the towards the end of the month he re-hoisted his flag aboard the Kent. He nevertheless appears to have remained ashore at Yarmouth before finally retiring through ill-health on 28 April 1800, whereupon he once more attended a levee with the King.

Suffering from gout of the stomach, and having recently been subject to a seizure in London, Lord Duncan died on 4 August 1804 at an inn in Cornhill, Northumberland, within short distance of the Scottish border, whilst on the way back to Edinburgh after coming south to offer his services. He was interred in the family vault at Lundie, Angus.

On 6 June 1777 at Arniston in Scotland, he married Henrietta Dundas, the daughter of the Right Hon. Robert Dundas, the Lord President of the Court of Session in Scotland, and the M.P for Edinburgh. She was also the niece of Henry Dundas, the influential Treasurer of the Navy and Secretary of State for War from 1794, although she was of a similar age. Her elder sister married the future Vice-Admiral Sir John Lockhart-Ross. Duncan and his wife had issue four daughters and three sons, the eldest of whom, William, died at Edinburgh on 23 December 1787. The youngest son, Hon. Sir Henry Duncan, served with distinction in the Navy. Duncan’s estate was at Lundie House, Angus, where he displayed the figurehead of the Dutch flagship Vrijhed in the grounds, and he also had a residence in George’s Square, Edinburgh.

As his mother had been a renowned beauty of her day, it was not surprising that Duncan was regarded as a particularly handsome man, and he supplemented his looks with a huge personality and an imposing size, being 6ft 4″, and in later years of a commensurate breadth. Whilst a lieutenant, he attracted admiring crowds as he walked through Chatham. Gentle, Godly, genial, mild-mannered, universally esteemed, and popular, he was also firm, assertive and courageous. His exploit in breaking up the Edinburgh riots in 1792 resulted in him having to wear a ring linking the third and little fingers of his left hand after the latter had been broken.

Duncan ensured that his men were well cared for, and amongst other benefits he allowed them to fish. However, his benevolence did not prevent him from advocating such punishments as a hot spike on the tongue if the men were caught swearing. He was an opponent of impressment, a protégé of Admiral Viscount Keppel, and a fervent Whig, although his admiration for the Earl of St. Vincent was not reciprocated for the outrageous but typically prejudicial reason that Duncan was a Scot. He twice rejected commands in the West Indies for health reasons because of the fever that he had contacted at Havana in the 1760’s, and this was generally considered to have retarded his career. Amongst his many honours was one that was received from the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great.