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Updated 04/26/2013


Cock o' the North

Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon KT (18 June 1743 – 17 June 1827), styled Marquess of Huntly until 1752, was a Scottish nobleman, described by Kaimes as the "greatest subject in Britain", and was also known as the Cock o' the North, the traditional epithet attached to the chief of the Gordon clan.

Alexander Gordon was born at Gordon Castle, Fochabers, on 18 June 1743; the eldest son of Cosmo Gordon, 3rd Duke of Gordon and his wife, Lady Catherine Gordon, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Aberdeen. He was educated at Eton and also possibly at Harrow. He succeeded as 4th Duke of Gordon in 1752. His younger brother was Lord George Gordon who led the Gordon Riots.

He was elected as a Scottish representative peer from 1767. He was appointed a Knight of the Thistle in 1775 and was created a Peer of Great Britain as Baron Gordon of Huntley, of Huntley in the County of Gloucester, and Earl of Norwich, in the County of Norfolk, in 1784. He was Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland from 1794 to 1806 and from 1807 to 1827. Between 1793 and 1827, he was Chancellor of King's College, Aberdeen. In addition, he was Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire until 1808. He received the Order of the Thistle from King George III on 11 January 1775. The Duke was a truly enlightened grandee. He planned villages, improved his estates and was well-regarded by his tenants.

He raised regiments (the 92nd Highlanders) in 1794 for the American Rebellion and French Revolutionary Wars. He was responsible for establishing the village of the new village of Fochabers as well as for Tomintoul and Port Gordon in Banffshire. He is also credited as the founder of the Gordon Setter breed of dog, having popularized a 200 year old breed during the 18th century and then formalized its breed standard in 1820.

He was an enthusiastic supporter and patron of the music of William Marshall (1748-1833), a Scottish fiddler and composer, and famous for his many strathspeys, who acted as steward of the Gordon household.  The tune, Cock of the North, may be one of William Marshall’s compositions.

The Duke died suddenly at Mount Street, Berkeley Square, on 17 June 1827 and was buried in Elgin Cathedral.

The dance and ballad air was assumed into martial repertory, the obvious connection being with the Gordon Highlanders, whose military bands play it as the regimental march past in quick time. It has been recorded that the melody helped win Gordon Highlander Piper George Findlater the Victoria Cross in 1897. It seems that while leading the charge storming Dargai Heights with other pipers, he was shot through both legs; "undaunted, he propped himself against a boulder, and continued to play" the stirring air to encourage the successful action. Another military story relates of its earlier use in the siege of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The British were initially hard pressed and were for some time besieged in various locations in the city by native Indians. Signals had been regularly sent between the forces defending parts of the besieged town, and those under attack in the Residency quarters. A drummer boy named Ross, after the signaling was over, climbed to the high dome from which signals were sent and despite harassing fire from the Sepoys he sounded "Cock o' the North" in defiance, rallying the English with his bravery (though being a drummer, exactly how he 'sounded' the tune remains a mystery.)

The tune was used by the Scots poet Robert Burns for his song "Her Daddie Forbad and Her Minnie Forbad."  In America, it was given to Bayard that there was an obscene New England song to the tune called "Chase Me, Charlie," but he did not hear it. It has been asserted that a trumpet version of the tune was played at the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 although this cannot be substantiated.