Correspondence and Papers of Sir James Leith

Scope and Content

The material comprises:

  • (a) numbers 1-294: correspondence and papers, manuscript and printed, of Lieutenant-General Sir James Leith, relating to his service in the Peninsular War, 1808-1816. Number 276 is a General Order Book (5 April-12 June 1809) and numbers 227-294 are printed items (1801-16), of which numbers 278-86 are proclamations issued by the French in Portugal in 1808;
  • (b) numbers 295-314: others miscellaneous letters of Leith, 1796-1813, of which numbers 303-312 (1813) concern his appointment as a Knight of the Order of the Bath and number 314 (May 1817) relates to the issuing of an allowance to his widow Lady Augusta Leith.

Administrative / Biographical History

Sir James Leith (1763-1816), army officer, was the third son of John Leith (d 1763), of Leith Hall, Kennethmont, Aberdeenshire. In 1780 he was appointed second lieutenant in the 21st Fusiliers, and in 1782 was given command of his own company in the 81st Regiment, or Aberdeenshire Highlanders. In 1784 Leith was posted to the 50th Regiment of Foot at Gibraltar, and served as aide-de-camp. On 25 October 1794 he was commissioned as colonel, to raise the Aberdeen fencibles, or Aberdeenshire Highland Regiment of fencible infantry. Leith commanded the regiment in 1798 in Ireland, until it was disbanded there in April 1803. In the same year he was appointed colonel of the 13th battalion of the Army of Reserve, and in 1804 he was promoted to brigadier-general.

After serving on the staff in Ireland, Leith joined Sir John Moore's army, and as major-general commanded a brigade in John Hope's division during the Corunna retreat. In the summer of 1810 he joined the Peninsular army, and was at first posted to a brigade in Sir Rowland Hill's division, with charge of the division. Leith commanded a body of British and Portuguese, which became the 5th division of the army, in the lines of Torres Vedras and at Busaco. A recurrence of Walcheren fever necessitated Leith's return home on sick leave; but he rejoined the army after the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo in January 1812, and commanded the 5th division at the last siege of Badajoz. Leith was severely wounded at the head of his division in the desperate fighting with the French centre about Arapiles, at the battle of Salamanca, on 22 July 1812. He was sent home, and in 1813 he was made KB for distinguished conduct at Corunna, Busaco, Badajoz, and Salamanca. He also received honourable augmentations to his family arms in consideration of his services at Badajoz and Salamanca.

In 1813 Leith became a lieutenant-general, a rank he had held locally in Spain and Portugal since 1811. He rejoined the Peninsular army on 31 August 1813, two days before the final assault on San Sebastian, where he was again disabled while directing the movements of his division. In 1814 he was appointed commander of the forces in the West Indies, and governor of the Leeward Islands. Leith was made a GCB on 2 January 1815, and for his Peninsular services he received the Portuguese Grand Cross of the Tower and Sword, and the gold cross and clasp for Corunna, Busaco, Badajoz, Salamanca and San Sebastian. He died at Pilgrim, Barbados, on 16 October 1816.

Source: H.M. Chichester,'Leith, Sir James (1763-1816)', rev. Roger T. Stearn, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by the John Rylands Library at auction at Sotheby's on 28 November 1961 (Lot 556).


Description compiled by Jo Humpleby, project archivist, with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Sir James Leith.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1952-1970 (English MS 1307).

Related Material

The JRUL holds further material relating to the Peninsula War within the Clinton Papers, described in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 41 (1958-9), pp. 5-6; papers relating to the Peninsular War (ref.: GB 133 Eng MS 1227); and correspondence of Sir William Henry Pringle (ref.: GB 133 Eng MS 1273).

Correspondence and papers of James Leith are also held at the National Archives of Scotland (ref.: GB 234 GD225). The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland houses his correspondence with Lord Castlereagh (ref.: GB 255 D3030), and the British Library, Manuscript Collections, holds his correspondence with Sir James Willoughby Gordon (ref.: GB 058 Add MSS 49486) and his letters to Lord Spencer.