Duel, by James Landale

When a gentleman's honour really was a matter of life or death
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The Independent Culture

Early one morning in 1826, in woods near Kirkcaldy in Scotland, a meeting took place between a banker and a businessman. Each was attended by a doctor and a second, who prepared the pistols. The two men took up positions just 10 paces from each other. At the command, "Gentlemen, are you ready? Fire!", they raised their weapons, and two shots cracked out.

Both figures remained standing for 10 seconds. Then the banker dropped his pistol and softly crumpled to the ground, dead. "I consider that a just retribution of providence," said the businessman.

By law, David Landale, a peaceable yarn merchant, was now a murderer. He fled the woods, leaving behind the corpse of his former banker, George Morgan, a malicious bully who had forced him to this point by striking him in the street.

This would be Scotland's last duel. James Landale, a descendant of the victor, has turned it into a gripping narrative and a case study upon which to build a lively, perceptive history of duelling, especially in its declining years.

"Coffee for two, champagne for one," went a saying, but, by the early 19th century, there was little cause for celebration. Lucky to escape death, the winner would be lucky again if he escaped hanging - in theory. In fact, courts were lenient, especially when his opponent had been the aggressor.

Landale was acquitted. The judgment of public opinion was more equivocal. Surely in this rational, civilised new century, a truly honourable man could have found a better way out?

The key was the changing notion of honour. From its knightly origins, it had become a soufflé so overblown and fragile that a shoot-out could take place over an accidental collision in a waltz. Its absurd side was being exposed at the moment when the bourgeoisie was absorbing many aspects of aristocratic behaviour. Landale and Morgan still believed in it, but they were modern enough to be unsure what honour required, how to issue a challenge, what the consequences would be. The build-up to the event was a tale of hesitation and doubt. Yet it was also a matter of great courage.

James Landale structures his story skilfully, and brightens it with anecdotes and with excerpts from published "codes". These told you what to eat for breakfast and how to die, but offered no guidance on the one thing that a gentleman of the 1820s really needed to know: whether he should fight a duel at all.