ABOVE the door of Catterick church, in North Yorkshire, is a sundial which once looked down on the parish vicar in whose arms died one of the greatest of British heroes.

The Reverend Alexander John Scott was given the job of looking after the people of Catterick in 1816 by the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, as a pension and a thank-you for his loyal service to, and spying for, Admiral Horatio Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar.

The vicar came from a London naval family, but because his father died when he was two, his rear-admiral uncle took care of him and took him to sea. He grew up in the Leeward Islands, in the West Indies, only for his uncle to lose his left arm in a battle and be forced back to England to recuperate in 1777.

Scott went to Charterhouse School and Cambridge University, where he gained a classics degree and a large amount of debt.

To escape the latter, and to find a use for the former, he became a naval chaplain, sailing the seven seas and finding himself in all sorts of interesting positions.

He witnessed mutineers’ executions in the West Indies, he became a clergyman in Jamaica, and he wrote the treaties at the end of the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen.

Once, when serving on HMS Topaze, his cabin was struck by lightning, causing the gunpowder and cartridges stored in the bunk where he was sleeping to go off. Scott was terribly shaken and had several teeth blown out.

Through all of which, he came to the attention of Nelson, who first of all found a use for his linguistic skills.

Nelson sent him ashore on long periods of “leave” to places such as Naples and Barcelona. There, he was instructed to use his Cambridge education, and his clergyman’s collar, to inveigle his way into fashionable society and pick up useful information. He was Nelson’s spy.

In 1803, Nelson officially appointed him chaplain of the Victory. Unofficially, Scott was also his secretary and interpreter.

Scott was aboard Victory on October 21, 1805, at the battle of Trafalgar, when, at 1.15pm, a musket-ball fired from the French ship Redoubtable struck Nelson as he walked through the smoke of battle on the pitching quarterdeck. The ball smashed into his left shoulder, passed through a lung and lodged in his spine.

“Kismet, Hardy,” as he may – or may not – have said to his flag captain, Thomas Masterman Hardy, beside him. “Ouch,” would have been more likely.

The chaplain helped the flag captain carry Nelson below to the cockpit where, in great pain, he clung to life for more than three hours, uttering a refrain of “rub, rub…fan, fan…drink, drink”.

These were the three things that relieved his pain, and Scott’s role was to continuously rub his chest.

It was Scott who, at 4.30pm, heard Nelson’s final last words: “Thank God I have done my duty.” And still the chaplain kept rubbing.

Scott stayed with the body as it lay in state in Greenwich Hospital, where unexpectedly huge crowds paid their respects. On January 8, 1806, he was part of the funeral procession that was watched by thousands of people as it made its way to St Paul’s Cathedral.

Scott only felt his job was done when the coffin was finally lowered into its crypt.

Like his master, Scott’s service with the Navy was over. As a pay-off, he was found a parish in Essex and then Lord Liverpool gave him Catterick. He settled in the village, where he amassed a large library which contained books in 40 languages. And there he died in 1840.

ACOUPLE of years before Trafalgar, Scott, then 34, had eloped with 17-year-old Mary Ryder and, against their families’ wishes, they had married. Their children, Margaret, who was born in 1809, and her elder sister, Horatia, grew up in Catterick.

Indeed, Margaret became so fascinated by the old sundial over the door of her father’s church that, in about 1835, the two of them started collecting details of sundials from all over the country.

Today, the sundial is a drab and unremarkable piece of stone, but in Margaret’s day, its face was painted blue, the lettering was in gold, and the gnomon – the pointy-stick bit that casts the shadow – sprang from a golden sun.

Above it was the legend which is just discernible today: “Fugit hora, ora.”

“Time flies, pray.”

Margaret married the Reverend Alfred Gatty, whose parish of Ecclesfield was near Sheffield. There, she became very well known as a children’s author, as well as publishing a remarkable book entitled The History of British Seaweed. Her best book – certainly for this column – is The Book of Sundials which, having begun it with her father in Catterick, she completed in 1872, the year before her death. Father and daughter are buried in Ecclesfield.

MEMORIES was in Catterick a fortnight ago, and it would be wrong to leave without mentioning another of the village’s more famous sons, who has a memorial in St Anne’s Church.

Richard Brathwaite was born in Kendal, in 1588. He went to Oxford University and, on May 4, 1617, at Hurworth church near Darlington he married Frances Lawson whose father lived down the Tees in Neasham. By this time, he was already established as a poet and writer.

Frances bore him nine children before her death in 1633. He dedicated a series of elegies to her before completing his most famous work, Barnabae Itinerarium, in 1638. This was a satirical poem in Latin about four journeys made by “Drunken Barnaby” in the North of England. During the Civil War in the 1640s, Brathwaite, despite his age, is believed to have fought on the Royalist side, and when the monarchy was restored in 1660, he retired to his estate in East Appleton, near Catterick.

He became active locally and was a trustee for the village school founded by the Reverend Michael Syddal, who had died in 1658. Syddal has a larger stone memorial beside Braithwaite’s, and the poet may well have composed the Latin sign-off at the foot of the vicar’s tablet.

Aged 85, Brathwaite died in East Appleton, on May 4, 1673, and was buried in Catterick church. His memorial includes a mention of his son by his second wife, Sir Strafford Brathwaite, who was famous as a naval captain but was killed in a sea-fight with Algerian pirates.