By Eugene Dunphy
Standing over six feet tall, well-built, with a large nose and small eyes, the Press speculated that this ‘wandering piper’ had served under the Duke of Wellington and sold his commission as Captain following the Battle of Waterloo.
Though ordinary people admired him for his musical skills and for scoffing at authority, some newspaper editors saw him as a vagrant street musician, a charlatan, a self-publicist. But who was this alleged nobleman, this ‘mysterious stranger’?
We now know that his name was Captain Alexander Graham Stuart de Vere. Known to his close circle of friends simply as Graham Stuart, he was a proud Scot who harboured a deep affection for Ireland: “The Irish, high and low, are the most friendly to strangers of any other nation in the known world,” he said.
And so begins our story.
In the autumn of 1824, Stuart argued with French fiddler and former soldier, Count Bender, that the Irish and Scottish were more welcoming and charitable than people in mainland Europe.
When it became apparent that their dispute was not going to be settled by talking over beers in a London coffee house, the musicians, both of whom were close friends, hatched an extraordinary plan: they agreed to spend a number of years busking for worthy causes.
They planned to perform twice a day in major towns; Stuart in Scotland and Ireland, Bender in France and Belgium.
Their collected money would be lodged with a local charity. Once a receipt was secured, it would be sent for verification to their mutual contact in London: whoever raised the most money would win £5,000.
They also agreed to don disguises and perform under assumed names.