Memoirs of a Highland Lady: Rotterdam and Mr. George Canning

Travels on the Continent

I cannot recollect much else that is worthy of note before our little tour upon the Continent. We set out in August, and were two months a half away. My father was not inclined for such a movement at all, it was probably very inconvenient to the treasury, but my mother had so set her heart upon it, he, as usual, good naturedly gave way. Johnny was to spend his holidays with the Freres. Miss Elphick went to the Kirkman Finlays, her parting was quite a dreadful scene, screams, convulsions, sobs, hystericks. The poor woman was attached to some of us, and had of late been much more agreeable to the rest; but she was a plague in the house, did a deal of mischief, and was no guide, no help. She had been seven years with us, so there was a chain of habit to loosen at any rate.

In the month of August, then, of this year 1819 we set out on our foreign travels, my father, my Mother, William, Jane, Mary and I; rather too large a party as we found when we had more experience, particularly as we were attended by a man, a maid, and a dog. The maid, a thoroughly stupid creature, and the dog, poor Dowran, went with us; the man, a black, and a deal too clever, joined us in Holland, for to the Netherlands we were bound. My father had always had a passion for Dutch and Flemish paintings, farming, buildings, and politicks; besides, he was so very kind as to wish to take me to the waters at Aix la Chapelle. I had been attacked in the Spring with the same sort of strange suffering that has fallen upon me several times since, at intervals, after any disturbance of mind, a failure as it seemed of all powers of body, the whole system paralysed, as it were, without any apparent cause other than that reserve of disposition inherited from my Mother, which threw all grief back inwardly while the outward manner was unchanged.

We embarked at Leith in a common trading vessel, a tub, with but moderate accommodation, the Van Egmont, bound for Rotterdom. Its very slow rate of sailing kept us nine days at sea; luckily the weather the whole time was beautiful… We all did our best to make them pass cheerfully. We watched the land, the sea, the sky, the day’s work. Our skipper was extremely civil; his mate, a merry scapegrace, inventing all sorts of fun to amuse every body; the fare was good, the Cabin clean, and living out on deck in the open air even I regained an appetite.

Rotterdam

We arrived in the very midst of the Kermess, the annual fair, the most favourable of all times for the visit of strangers. The wares of all the world were exposed for sale in the streets of booths tastefully decorated, lighted up brilliant at night, and crowded at all hours by purchasers from every province in the two united kingdoms, all in their best and very handsome and perfectly distinct attire. Like Venice, Rotterdam is built in the water, long canals intersect it in every direction, on which the traffic is constant; there are mere footpaths on either side, with quantities of narrow bridges for the convenience of crossing. The tall houses forming the street must have been goomy abodes, just looking over the narrow stream to one another. Outside they were gay enough from the excessive cleanliness observed, and the bright paint, and the shining brass knockers, and the old fashioned solidity of the building.

Rotterdam, 1857, by Rouargue

The excessive cleanliness was almost more to be admired than all else; it pervaded the habits of the nation throughout. The streets were daily swept, the pavements daily washed, the windows daily rubbed, the brasses daily brightened. Within it was the same; no corner left unvisited by the busy maid, the very door keys were polished, like the small bunches we keep in our pockets, cupboards, closets, shelves, not only spotless but neatly ornamental; white paper with a cut fringe, or white linen frilled, laid along under the shining wares they were appropriated to hold. Yet nobody seemed overworked. In the afternoons all the women were spinning or knitting, as beautifully tidy in their own persons as was all the property around them. There were no dirty children, even no beggars.

[The father]* left a curious will. He ordered his daughters to marry into the peerage under the penalty of forfeiting all share of their inheritance should any of them give herself to a Commoner. How absurd are these meddlers with the future.

George Canning by Richard Evans

I went with [my father] along the Bompjes [waterfront] under the trees by the side of the water, and reaching the part at which the Harwich packet landed the passengers, who should step ashore but Mr Canning—the only time I ever saw him. He and my father seemed glad to meet, and while they were conversing of I had an opportunity of correcting all my imaginary impressions of the great man. He was not so tall and much more slender than I expected. His countenance was pale, anxious almost, and certainly no longer handsome; the high, well developed forehead alone reminded me of the prints of him. He was travelling with his sick son, a boy of seventeen or so, a cripple confined to a Merlin chair, and supported in that by many cushions. An elderly, very attentive servant never left the invalid’s side, while another looked after the luggage and a carriage fitted up with a sort of sofa bed. They did not come to Badthouse, so we saw no more of them; but I could not forget them, and often after, when the world was ringing with Mr Canning’s fame, this scene of his private life returned to me, for he lost the son… Mrs Canning, the wife, was sister to the Duchess of Portland and the Countess of Moray. They were co-heiresses with very large fortunes, something like a hundred thousand pounds apiece; indeed I believe the eldest sister had more… [The father]* left a curious will. He ordered his daughters to marry into the peerage under the penalty of forfeiting all share of their inheritance should any of them give herself to a Commoner. How absurd are these meddlers with the future. Mrs Canning, of course, lost her fortune, but her ennobled sisters each presented her with fifty thousand pounds as a wedding present.

*Major-general John Scott, British army officer and Scottish politician, reportedly won a million dollars at whist at White’s.

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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Memoirs of a Highland Lady

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