Kirkcaldy 14-year old who ran away to sea and spent decade in Napoleon’s brutal jails

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The remarkable story of a man who left his family home in Kirkcaldy and ran away to sea aged just 14, and ended up spending a decade in Napoleon’s jails, has been recalled in a new book based on his diaries.

Alexander Stewart endured brutal living conditions and was made to march hundreds of miles in chains. He also made numerous attempts to escape before finally succeeding and returning to the UK where he became an inspirational Congregational minister, who played a full part in the Evangelical revival.

His story has been told by Simon Williams, his great-great grandson in ‘Survival, Revival and Moral Revolution’ which publishes on May 28. He said: “This is popular history at its best!”

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Stewart’s story begins in the Lang Toun and takes him to Russia and back - and the diaries he penned until the age of 79 gave Simon a treasure trove of material as well as an insight into the man and all he endured.

Simon Williams book tells the story of a remarkable life led by Alexander Stewart (Pics: Troubador Publishing)Simon Williams book tells the story of a remarkable life led by Alexander Stewart (Pics: Troubador Publishing)
Simon Williams book tells the story of a remarkable life led by Alexander Stewart (Pics: Troubador Publishing)

Mr Williams, a former teacher of history and headteacher of a mixed outer London comprehensive school, said: “Alexander Stewart’s biography of 1947 was intended for friends and family. With a lot of new research, I wanted to reach a new audience of friends and family - particularly my grandchildren - as well as reach out to a new audience of history lovers.”

The author said the book takes to heart Hermione Lee’s injunction that there is no such thing as a life lived in isolation - and places his great-great grandfather’s life into the context of the times he lived.

Stewart’s story began in Kirkcaldy when, aged 14 he left his family home - he was from a family of 12 children - and “sometime during the day, he decided not to come back.”He hooked up with a group of boys who were running away to find work at sea. Noted Mr Williams: “It was a decision that was to haunt him; it lost him the rest of his youth and caused him, as well as his family, much distress and suffering. Yet it was one that was ultimately to shape an extraordinarily rich and productive life.”

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He became a cabin boy, and survived several near death incidents before being captured by the French off the coast of Brighton. During a decade in captivity he was marched something like 1500 miles, mostly in chains, between different prisons and made four attempts to escape. When he finally returned home in 1815 and asked his mother whether she knew him, she held his jacket quite tight, rolled up his left sleeve and pointed to a mark on his skin of which he had no knowledge.

Stewart finished recording in his diary in 1869, when he was 79 years of age, having settled south of the border and played a full and active role in the Evangelical revival as the landed classes lost their virtual monopoly of power and slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

Mr Williams said: “Spearheaded by preachers such as Stewart and educators such as the Anglican Thomas Arnold, the political nation underwent a moral revolution.”

The diary entries of the last two years also show him actively involved in family affairs and social events, keeping up with old friends, retaining a keen interest in scientific research and topical debate, and still contributing to the school.

Survival, Revival and Moral Revolution by Simon Williams is available from May 28 via Troubador Publishing

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