Memoirs of a Highland Lady: The Last Winter in Edinburgh

1818-1819

Picardy Place, where the Grants spent their last winter in Edinburgh. FYI: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born at 11 Picardy Place in 1859.

Opinions on Nouveau Riche and Poor Relations

‘Uncle Adam,’ said she one day, ‘do you mean to leave Mary and me any thing in your Will?’

…Jane and I had spent a week… at Hermandstone, an ugly but comfortable place which Lord Gillies rented of Lord St Clair. I had been there before, and we were often there again, and when they were quietly leading a country life with only a few intimate friends visiting them, it was very pleasant. But when they had all their rich, grand, formal East Lothian neighbours, we young people hated going there. Lord Gillies was extremely fond of aristocratick company; the more grandees he could seat together at his very splendidly furnished table the better pleased he seemed to be. How often we see this in those of humble birth, as if the having risen to a place in that ‘charmed circle’ did not add a luster to it, when talents and probity such as his had been the passport. Mrs Gillies, well born and highly bred, took her position naturally, content with what contented him. Neither of them, for all this, ever neglected the poor relations. His one prosperous brother, the doctor and authour*, was never as kindly welcomed as poor William, and poorer, more primitive Colin. At this very time William Gillies’ three children found their home with their uncle Adam; for years they had had no other, the two girls going to the different classes while in Edinburgh, the boy placed first at the High School and then sent to the Charter House; and every Saturday when in town there was a dinner for the young family connexions, school boys and girls, and College boys, all made as welcome as the grandees, and appearing a good deal happier. Miss Bessy Clerk and others used to fear that young people like William Gillies’ children, brought up in such society, in a house so luxurious, would be spoiled for a ruder life, should such a change, as was most likely come to them. But it did not so turn out; the change did come, and they bore it perfectly. Robert the corn factor, Mary the Authouress, and Margaret the professional painter, have followed their different employments better than if if they had never had their intellects improved by their superiour education. The Authouress and the painter in particular benefited by the early cultivation of their taste, neither did I ever hear that Robert did less in Mark Lane because he was capable of enjoying in his Villa at Kensington the refinements of a gentleman’s leisure. Margaret was never agreeable, but she was very clever. She did not wait to be turned out of Lord Gillies’ house by his death or any accident. ‘Uncle Adam,’ said she one day, ‘do you mean to leave Mary and me any thing in your Will?’ ‘Perhaps a trifle,’ answered the Uncle. ‘Not an independence?’ pursued the niece. ‘Certainly not, by no means; these are strange questions, Margaret.’ ‘Necessary ones, Uncle. My father has nothing to give us; he has married a second wife. We shall have then to work for our bread some time; we had better begin now while we are young, have health, activity, and friends to help us. I go to London next week.’ She did, to her father’s, where she was not welcome; so she hired two rooms, sent for Mary, began painting dauby portraits while learning her art more thoroughly; and when I saw them in their pretty home at Highgate they told me they had never been in want, nor ever regretted the decisive step they had taken.** The friends were at first seriously displaced; but the success of the nieces in time appeased the Uncles, and both the doctor and Lord Gillies left them legacies.

*John Gillies (1747-1836) was, in fact, not an M.D.; he was an art historian who succeeded Principal Robertson as Historiographer Royal for Scotland.

Margaret Gillies, 1864

**Margaret Gillies (1803-87) earned a reputation as a miniaturist and water-colour painter. Her sister Mary, the author of many books for children (often using the pseudonym Harriet Myrtle), died in 1860.

Mrs. Siddons returns to the stage

But to see the great queen again we had never dreamed of. She had taken leave of the stage before we left London.

Mrs. Siddons

I think it was about May or June of this year that old Mrs Siddons returned to the stage for twelve nights to act for the benefit of her grandchildren. Henry Siddons [her son] was dead, leaving his affairs in much perplecity. He had purchased the theatre and never made it a paying concern, although his Wife [Harriet Siddons] acted perseveringly, and all the Kemble family came regularly and drew good houses. His ordinary company was not good; he was a dreadful stick himself, and he would keep the best parts for himself, and in every way managed badly. She did better after his death; her clever brother William Murray conducting affairs much more wisely for her, and certainly for himself in the end, slow as she was in perceiving this. Some pressing debts, however, required to be met, and Mrs Siddons came forward. We were all great play goers, often attending our own poor third rates, Mrs Harry redeeming all else in our eyes, and never missing the stars, John and Charles Kemble, Young, Liston, Matthews, Miss Stephens, etc. But to see the great queen again we had never dreamed of. She had taken leave of the stage before we left London. She was little changed, not at all in appearance, neither had her voice suffered; the limbs were just hardly stiffer, more slowly moved rather, therefore in the older characters she was the finest, most natural; they suited her age. Queen Catherine she took leave in. To my dying hour I never shall forget the trial scene; the silver tone of her severely cold ‘My Lord Cardinal,’ and then on the wrong one starting up, the scorn of her attitude, and the outraged dignity of the voice in which she uttered ‘To You I speak.’ We were breathless. Her sick room was very fine too. Then her Lady Macbeth, Volumnia, Constance—ah, no such acting since, for she was nature, on stilts in her private life. ‘Bring me some beer, boy, and another plate,’ is a true anecdote, blank verse and a tragick tone being her daily wear.

Memoirs of a Highland Lady

‘I was born on the 7th May 1797 of a Sunday evening at No. 5 N. side of Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, in my father’s own lately built house and I am the eldest of five children he and my mother raised to maturity.’ Thus opens one of the most famous set of memoirs ever written. Since its first bowdlerised edition in 1898, they have been consistently in print. This is the first ever complete text. Written between 1845 and 1854 the memoirs were originally intended simply for Elizabeth’s family, but these vivid and inimitable records of life in the early 19th century, and above all on the great Rothiemurchus estate, full of sharp observation and wit, form an unforgettable picture of her time. The story ends with the thirty-three-year-old Elizabeth finding her own future happiness in marriage to an Irish landowner, Colonel Smith of Baltiboys. ‘A masterpiece of historical and personal recall.’ Scotsman

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