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The Celebrated Pedestrian
Also known as Captain Barclay
Born 1799 Died 1854

Born on the 25th August 1779, Robert Barclay-Allardice was the eldest son of a Robert Barclay, 5th of Urie who in 1776 had married an heiress named Sarah Ann Allardice and adopted the surname of Barclay-Allardice. From an early age the younger Robert developed a dislike of being confined indoors and a preference for the outdoor life. Six foot tall and weighing 186 pounds he was a remarkably strong man and it was said that at the age of twenty he could lift an eighteen stone man from floor to table with one hand.

Apparently such talents ran in the family as his father was known as 'The Great Master of Urie', who once walked the 510 miles from Urie to London in ten days, and of whom it was said that his favourite method for dealing with a donkey that trespassed into one of his fields was to physically tip the offending quadruped over the nearest hedge. Neither was the 'Great Master' alone in such feats of physical strength, sundry tales of wrestling bulls and uprooting trees with their bare hands were part of the Barclay family tradition.

The Celebrated Pedestrian

During the 18th and 19th centuries long distance walking became a popular spectator sport, practiced by such notable pedestrians such as Foster Powell and Donald MacLeod and attracting large crowds. Participation in such events could be extremely lucrative if, as in Robert's case, one was prepared to place a large bet on the outcome. Robert's talents in this sport of endurance walking became apparent at an early age, as whilst at school in Brixton, he once wagered 100 guineas that he could walk six miles, 'fair toe and heel', from Brixton to Croydon inside an hour. He duly won the bet and thus began his career as a celebrated pedestrian.

His competitive career appears to have begun in 1796 when he is recorded as having walked 110 miles in a time of 19 hours and 27 minutes, and between 1801 and 1808 performed a series of further long distance walks, all of which he achieved in times that were considered extraordinary at the time. In 1808 he left home at five in the morning to go grouse shooting, and then walked the sixty miles home, dined, and then walked a further sixteen miles to attend a ball, returned home at seven the following morning, breakfasted, and then went out grouse shooting again; which was apparently considered quite normal behaviour for the good Captain.

However unlike modern athletes, Robert preferred to be properly dressed for his pedestrian escapades and therefore went walking in a top hat, cravat, wool suit, lambswool socks and thick-soled shoes. But despite the handicap of such attire Robert took things seriously and developed a rigorous training regime to ensure that he was in shape for competition, (and is often cited as being one of the first athletes to do so) although his training regime was not so rigorous that he did not also earn a reputation for being regularly drunk. He applied his same training methods to the world of boxing, in which he also had a considerable interest and became the sponsor and trainer of Tom Cribb, who was the bare knuckles World Champion in 1807 and 1809.

A thousand miles in a thousand hours for a thousand guineas

It was in 1809 that Captain Barclay made his famous wager of a 1,000 guineas with one James Wedderburn-Webster, known as 'Bold Webster' and a well-known womaniser and gambler, that he could walk a thousand miles in a thousand hours. This involved walking for almost six weeks, but since Robert could walk a mile in well under half an hour, it allowed for rest periods between each mile walked. It did however exclude any opportunity for sleep, as the wager required a mile to be walked during each and every hour of the thousand specified.

Naturally such a challenge required much preparation and took place at a marked out course on Newmarket Heath. Since it would obviously involve walking at night Robert arranged for a series of gas lamps to be erected on poles around the course. He was also apprehensive that someone (such as the aforementioned 'Bold Webster') might try and interfere with the attempt and so hired the famous prizefighter 'Big' John Gully as a bodyguard, as well as ensuring that carried a brace of pistols with him at all times. Such precautions were necessary, as not only did Roger stand to win the 1,000 guineas if he succesfuly completed the challenge, but also a number of additional bets that swelled the total 'purse' (or so it was rumoured) to a total of 16,000 guineas, or something in the region of £6m to £7m in today's money.

The thousand mile walk began on the 1st June 1809 and from the very beginning attracted a great deal of coverage in the press which brought forth large crowds of spectators. The Times was to report that a total of £100,000 worth of bets had been made on the outcome including a substantial wager by the Prince of Wales himself. Such was the level of interest in the event that every available bed in the neighbouring towns and villages was soon taken and Robert had cause to complain of the behaviour of the crowds, who tended to stray onto the course in their enthusiasm to catch sight of him.

He had problems with strained ligaments in his right knee during the third week, and in the following week developed toothache. He was regularly soaked to the skin when it rained and was much annoyed by the dusty conditions when it didn't. However the only moment of crisis occurred when he was about to set off on his 607th mile and his assistant William Cross noticed that Robert had fallen asleep on his feet. William Cross was reduced to beating Robert around the shoulders with a stick in order to wake him. The good Captain awoke and poured a series of curses on his assistant's head before setting off on to complete his mile.

At a quarter past three in the afternoon of Wednesday 12th July, Robert set off on his final mile and duly returned twenty-two minutes later at twenty-three minutes to four to wild cheers from the crowd that had gathered to witness the event. The church bells were rung at Newmarket in celebration but Robert was not in the mood for a party and by four o'clock that same day was fast asleep in his bed. Mind you, he was up and about the very next day and strolling around Newmarket and apart from losing thirty-two pounds appeared to be suffering from no ill effects as a result of his recent exertions.

The only real threat that Robert faced to the completion of his epic perambulation came from circumstances quite out of his control. Having joined the 23rd Foot in 1805, it was touch and go throughout his thousand mile walk whether the order to join his regiment would arrive and he would be forced to abandon the attempt. As it happens he completed his thousand miles on the 12th July, and just over a week later on the 20th July he left Ramsgate enroute to Flanders where he duly served as aide-de-camp to the Marquess of Huntly on the Walcheren campaign of 1809.

He returned to Scotland after the conclusion of the Napleonic Wars by which time he had given up on pedestrianism and devoted himself to agriculture and the improvement of the local breed of cattle. Oddly enough, having made his name from long distance walking, in the 1830s he was involved with establishing the 'Defiance' stagecoach service that ran between Aberdeen and Glasgow. In 1842 he made an agricultural tour of North America which provided the material for a book and later died on the 8th May 1854 as a result of injuries suffered after being kicked by a horse and was buried at Urie.


Robert Barclay-Allardice inherited the estates of Urie on his father's death on the 17th December 1799 (thus becoming the '6th of Urie') and those of Allardice when his mother died on the 9th November 1833. It was as his mother's heir that Robert was later to claim to be the heir to a number of Scottish earldoms.

The Airth claim

William Graham, 8th Earl of Menteith and Earl of Airth had died without sons in 1694. His nearest heir was his sister Mary, who married Sir John Allardice of Allardice whose great-great-grandaughter was Robert's mother Sarah Ann Allardice.

The title of Earl of Menteith had undeniably been awarded to the heirs-male of the original Graham grantee and thus had became extinct with the death of William Graham. However the title of the Earl of Airth had been created in 1633 and granted simply to the 'heirs' and not 'heirs male'. Thus Robert claimed that the Earldom of Airth was thus heritable in the female line and after the death of his mother on the 9th November 1833 petioned the crown to that effect on the 2nd June 1834.

It was not until the summer of 1839 that the claim came before the House of Lords by which time it had generated a great deal of publicity as well as attracting a number of other rival claimants. Robert's petition was opposed by the Crown who argued that "heirs" meant "heirs male", on the basis that the Airth title was intended to be granted under the same terms as the Menteith patent, which specified "heirs male." Although the House of Lords never formally rejected the petition, they took no action on it which amounted to the same thing, and the claim simply lapsed.

The Strathearn and Menteith claim

His lack of success in claiming the Airth title did not disuade Robert from another similar attempt. On the 4th August 1840 he petitioned Queen Victoria laying claim to the old earldoms of Strathearn and Menteith, this time on the basis of his position as the alleged heir of David Stewart, Earl of Strathearn, the son of Robert II of Scotland. However, he took no action to further this petition, and his claim was never heard by the House of Lords.

SOURCES

  • Barclay in London, Barclay of Urie, Barclay-Allardice of Allardice http://www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/british/bb4ae/barclay05.htm
  • The Misty Origins of the Barclays http://www.baronage.co.uk/bphtm-02/moa-07.htm
  • Peter Radford, Newmarket's greatest stayer Thursday August 23, 2001 books.guardian.co.uk/
  • JK Gillon, Robert Barclay Allardice: The Celebrated Pedestrian gillonj.tripod.com/thecelebratedpedestrian

Further Reading;

Peter Radford,The Celebrated Captain Barclay: Sport, Money And Fame In Regency Britain (Headline Book Publishing Ltd)

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