Admiral Lord Viscount Duncan of Camperdown, naval war hero, was born on the 1st of July, 1731.
In a naval career spanning fifty-four years, Admiral Duncan achieved his greatest fame through the crushing defeat of the Dutch fleet off Camperdown. Whilst Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy in the North Sea, Duncan sprang the Dutch offside trap and led his fleet of ships to victory, thwarting an invasion by the French and Dutch. In such a manner, the Battle of Camperdown was akin to the Battle of Britain in terms of its significance and Admiral Duncan became a national hero. A grateful nation awarded him the titles of Baron of Lundie and Viscount Camperdown, in addition to the extraordinary sum of £3000 per year as a pension. At 6'4" Duncan was known as 'the handsomest man in the Navy' and his victory led to stylish women wearing Camperdown hats, and dandies sporting Camperdown vests. In the words of Admiral Lord Nelson, to whom he was a mentor, “the name of Duncan will never be forgot by Britain and in particular by its Navy.” Nelson, in fact, kept a miniature of Duncan in his cabin while at sea. I wonder what Hardy thought of that? Incidentally, the miniature is now part of a permanent exhibition dedicated to Duncan at the National War Museum in Edinburgh.
Adam Duncan was born on the 1st of July, 1731, in Lundie, in what is now Angus. Some biographies state that he was born at Bluebell House in Dundee’s Seagait. Whatever the accuracy of that minor detail, he was certainly born into a prominent family as both his father and grandfather were Provosts of Dundee and Adam did indeed spend most of his time at the family’s Seagait town house, from where he attended Dundee Grammar School. Incidentally, his elder brother Alexander Duncan became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Army and Adam inherited the family estate, because Alexander died without issue.
When Adam was nearing fifteen, in early 1746, he left home to join the Navy. He went aboard H.M.S. ‘Trial’ as midshipman under the patronage of his cousin, Captain Robert Haldane. The ship was involved in the hunt for Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who was in hiding on the Western Isles of Scotland after his defeat at Culloden. The ‘Trial’ captured the French ship that had been sent to pick up the Prince, but Bonnie Prince Charlie managed to evade capture – for which generations of shortbread lovers are grateful.
Duncan’s early naval career continued against the French during 1748, when he patrolled the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay causing grief to some French privateers. The following year, Duncan joined H.M.S. ‘Centurion’ as Midshipman, under Admiral Keppel. He sailed to the Mediterranean with the objective of securing the release of British hostages and cargoes in Algiers. That took until 1752 and afterwards, he was placed on half pay for two years. He returned to active service as Acting Lieutenant on H.M.S. ‘Norwich’ and by the following January, he was confirmed in the rank and back aboard the ‘Centurion’ with Keppel, in North American waters.
In 1756, at the outbreak of the ‘Seven Years War’, Duncan was Second Lieutenant under Keppel once again, on board H.M.S. ‘Torbay’. For the remainder of that year, they caused yet more grief to French shipping and Duncan showed his courage leading several boarding parties. He was made First Lieutenant in November, 1758, and his rise through the ranks saw him promoted to Commander in September, 1759. In February, 1761, he was made Captain and given command of H.M.S. ‘Valiant’. Two years later, after seeing service in Belle-Isle and Havana, he was semi-detached from the Navy – for fifteen years.
He returned in 1778 and, in January, 1780, he took part in the ‘moonlight’ battle off Cape St Vincent, when the Spanish fleet was defeated. He wasn’t needed again until 1782, when Admiral Keppel became First Lord of the Admiralty. This time his ship was H.M.S. ‘Blenheim’ and he was instrumental in the relief of Gibraltar in October, 1782. He was promoted to Rear-Admiral in September, 1787, Vice Admiral in February, 1793, and Admiral in June, 1795. By this time the Dutch were getting restless and he was made Commander-in-Chief on board H.M.S. ‘Venerable’. He spent the next two years blockading the Dutch coast.
Admiral Duncan earned widespread respect and praise for his part in the naval mutinies of 1797, but nevertheless, most of his fleet refused to leave Yarmouth. By his influence and strength of character, balanced with a degree of sympathy for the average matelot’s plight, Duncan was able to keep his own crew and that of H.M.S. ‘Adamant’ from joining the mutiny. Duncan then managed to convince the Dutch that the two British ships they could see were two of twenty still in the vicinity. Neither the Dutch nor the French tumbled the ruse, but in early October, the patience of the Dutch government ran out and its fleet was ordered to set sail.
Duncan’s fleet sped out from Yarmouth in response and, on the 11th of October, 1797, met the Dutch fleet, commanded by Admiral de Winter, opposite ‘Kamperduin’. Duncan played a masterful stroke at the onset of the battle, which led to a complete rout of the Dutch. At first, as was customary, each ship manoeuvred to take on its opposite number. Then Duncan suddenly ordered his fleet to fall out and for each ship to tackle an enemy ship of its choosing. Instead of getting drawn into shallow water, Duncan's fleet forced its way in behind the Dutch and prevented them returning to safe anchorage at the Texel.
Two and a half hours later the battle was won and all the Dutch ships either sunk or captured. All sixteen ships of the line in the British Squadron survived. In keeping with his chivalrous spirit, Admiral Duncan refused to accept Admiral de Winter's sword at the time of the Dutch surrender and shook his hand instead. Duncan’s controversial tactics were a forerunner of those used by his protégé, Nelson, at Trafalgar. However, but for Camperdown and St. Vincent, eight months earlier, there would have been no Nile or Trafalgar, nor even a Waterloo. Camperdown was regarded as the most important naval action in history up to that point and it’s fair to say, Duncan had saved the nation from a Napoleonic invasion.
Duncan died suddenly on the 4th of August, 1804, in an inn at Cornhill on the Scottish border, while on his way back to Edinburgh. He was buried at the Kirk in Lundie, where the bell of the ‘Vrijheids’ was installed. Part of his estate is now Camperdown Park in Dundee. A 12-foot bronze statue of Admiral Duncan, by Janet Scrymgeour Wedderburn, was commissioned for the Bicentenary Celebrations of the Battle of Camperdown and now stands in Castlehill, High Street, Dundee.