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A Group of Scottish Women
Susannah, Countess of Eglinton (d. 1780)

No account of the social entertainments of Edinburgh over which Mistress Murray presided so skilfully would be complete without some mention of a still more famous lady, who long adorned them with her presence and was generally admitted to be the most beautiful woman of her time. The sight of that lengthy procession of sedan chairs, of which contemporary chroniclers write in such glowing terms, bearing the lovely Susannah, Countess of Eglinton, and her seven equally lovely daughters to the Assembly Rooms, was one calculated to send the blood coursing more quickly through the veins of each fashionable dandy of the day, and make the oldest beau feel young again. It would not indeed be easy to call to mind the name of any woman who caused so great a stir in the society of the Scottish capital as did Lady Eglinton, perhaps the most famous “toast” of the eighteenth century.

Susannah Kennedy was the daughter of Sir Archibald Kennedy of Culzean, and the granddaughter of the first Lord Newark. When she first appeared in Edinburgh society her extraordinary beauty took the city completely by storm. No girl was so much admired, toasted, talked about. Rich suitors offered her their titles and fortunes; less eligible admirers hastened to lay their hearts and their debts at her feet. Amateur poets vied with one another in composing amorous sonnets in praise of her eyebrows: young bloods fought each other before breakfast, or shot themselves at twilight, victims of the jealousy or despair which she inspired. But Miss Kennedy rode proudly by, heedless of the havoc she was causing, dragging a crowd of captives at her chariot-wheels along a path strewn with the shattered hearts of rejected suitors.

Upon one admirer she deigned to smile, indeed, but only for a time. He, too, was shortly destined to join the melancholy band of the unaccepted. But he at least was permitted to cherish hopes, though his hopes were eventually doomed to disappointment. Sir John Clerk of Pennycuik was rich, good-looking, and very much in love. An accomplished and clever writer, he was generally acknowledged, as Anderson says, to be “one of the most enlightened men of his time.” [Anderson’s Scottish Nation, vol. i. p.260.] He is remembered as being the author of a humorous poem founded upon the old Scottish lay, “o merry may the maid be that marries the miller,” as well as of several serious literary works, and was for many years a regular correspondent of Roger Gale, the English antiquary. At the time of his infatuation for Miss Kennedy, however, he had no spare moments to waste upon correspondence, but was kept busy trying to impress the haughty belle of Edinburgh with his undoubted personal attractions. He loaded the fair Susannah with presents, he overwhelmed her with polite attentions. One day he even went so far as to send her a flute as a love-offering, from which, blow as she might, the lady could extract no music. A careful examination of the instrument showed it to be blocked with a sheet of paper, which on removal proved to be a copy of verses in Sir John’s handwriting. It is not usual to conceal amorous poems in the interior of an otherwise harmless wind-instrument, but lovers have been forced ere now to adopt stranger means of communication. Sir John’s “jewels five words long” were not at any rate unworthy of their casket.

“Go happy pipe, (he sang) and ever mindful be
To court bewitching Sylvia for me.
Tell all I feel – you cannot tell too much –
Repeat my love at each soft melting touch,
Since I to her my liberty resign,

Take thou the care to tune her heart to mine.” [Chambers’s Traditions of Edinburgh, vol. i. p.260.]

Small wonder if the “happy pipe,” declining to compete with such a rival, remained ingloriously mute.

But the bewitching Sylvia, or rather Susannah, was not to be won by even so inspired an outburst, and politely gave back his liberty (and the piccolo) to her poetic suitor. The world held in store for the beauteous Miss Kennedy a richer gift than Sir John could hope to offer. She was destined to occupy a high position on society as the bride of no less a personage than the proud old Earl of Eglinton, and her family was only too anxious to further the arrangements for so promising a match. It seemed as though the very heavens smiled upon the alliance, and that Fortune herself was in league with Lord Eglinton and the lady of his choice. For one fine day, as she was walking in her father’s garden at Culzean, a hawk, bearing upon its bells the name of the earl, alighted upon Miss Kennedy’s shoulder – an omen which the least superstitious of her relations could not utterly disregard, even if they had wished to do so. Since the gods themselves were determined upon this marriage, there was nothing left to be done, one would imagine, save to order the trousseau and address the invitations.

There were, however, several obstacles in the way. In the first place, the earl was many years older than Miss Susannah; in the second – and this was perhaps the more insuperable of the two – he was already married.

Alexander, 9th Earl of Eglinton, had already taken unto himself two wives; first of all, the Lady Margaret Cochrane, and subsequently the Lady Anne Gordon. The latter was still alive, and, anxious though Lord Eglinton may have been to wed the youthful Susannah, it may well be imagined that he shared the popular prejudice which exists against bigamy. His countess was, however, a confirmed invalid, and, after lingering on for a period which was not really so lengthy as it seemed to her impatient husband, tactfully passed away just in time to allow the earl to snatch Miss Kennedy from Sir John Clerk. This he at once proceeded to do, and his rival was forced to retire with the best possible grace. It is said that when Sir John proposed to Susannah, that young lady’s calculating father took the precaution of asking the advice of Lord Eglinton before allowing his daughter to reply to her importunate suitor. “Bide a wee, Sir Archie,” said that flippant old gentleman, with a twinkle in his eye, “my wife’s very sickly!” So strong a hint as this was not to be neglected. Sir Archie had a few words with his daughter, and Sir John was promptly dismissed. It is pleasant to learn that the poetic baronet mended his broken heart, survived to hold the office of one of the Barons of the Exchequer for many years, and was twice happily married.

Lord Eglinton was a warm-hearted old gentleman. Like old Lord Cromarty, [Lord Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Cromarty, married at seventy a young, beautiful, and wealthy widow.] he made a wife a kind though somewhat fatherly husband. [“Susannah and the Elder” was the title given to this pair by facetious friends.] But if there was one thing in the world that the earl desired, it was a male heir to carry on the title and uphold the dignity of his ancient family. For a long time it looked as though he would be disappointed.

          The three sons of his first wife had died in childhood; his second wife had but one child, a girl; and for many years his third wife insisted upon bearing him a monotonous series of daughter – seven in all. Lord Eglinton was a short-tempered man, inheriting the impetuosity of his ancestor and namesake, the 6th earl, nicknamed “Greysteil” after the hero of an old Scottish ballad who was notoriously as quick with his sword as with his temper. Exasperated at length by his lady’s apparent inability to provide him with an heir male, he even went so far as to threaten her with a divorce. “By all means,” was her ladyship’s calm reply, “but first of all give me back all that I brought you.” The earl at once assured her that every penny of her marriage portion should be returned. “Na, na, my Lord, that winna do,” insisted the lady. “Return me my youth, my beauty, and my virginity, and then dismiss me whenever you please!” Whereupon the disappointed old peer melted, and, as if to reward him for his kindness and good sense, his wife presented him with a son before the year was out. Moreover, she continued the practice of this excellent habit, and, when Lord Eglinton died in 1729, he was the happy father of three sons as well as the seven original daughters, and could thus hope that the continuation of his line was secured. He was buried with all the ceremonial befitting his rank, one peculiar feature of his funeral being the attendance of nearly a thousand beggars, many of whom came all the way from Ireland to share the £50 which by the old earl’s wish was distributed among them.

On the death of her husband, the countess, by this time a woman of forty, retired into the country and devoted herself to the education of her children. At Auchans, the Eglinton seat, she lived for a long time in great state, and the entertainments she gave there and in her husband’s house on the west side of Old Stamp Office Close, High Street, Edinburgh, were long noted for their magnificence.

As the guardian of her eldest son, Alexander, she exhibited the greatest ability in the management of domestic affairs. Her children were brought up in the stern old-fashioned manner, and taught to regard their mother with profound respect, tempered, however, by a very real affection. An unusual amount of strict ceremonial was always observed at Auchans in the home circle. Every day at the dinner-hour the eldest boy would take his mother by the hand, and the two would march solemnly down to the dining-room together. All the children invariably addressed their mother as “Your Ladyship,” and the girls were taught to call their eldest brother “Lord Eglinton,” even in the nursery. Such rigorous training did not in any way diminish the charms of the countess’s lovely daughters, who were all, like their mother, “divinely tall and most divinely fair,” and the “Eglinton air” became a common phrase in Edinburgh to signify all that was stately and dignified.

The enthusiastic French writer, from whose eulogy of Scottish women I have already quoted in a previous chapter, could scarcely find words adequate to express his emotions of first seeing the lovely countess and her daughters at one of the Edinburgh assemblies. “La Tristesse pensa m’accabler,” he says, “quand la belle Famille D’EGLINTOUN se presenta à mes yeux, & Madame la COMTESSE à leur Tête, reluisant comme le Soleil à Midy, dardant de ses yeux mille Trepas. Les Petits Cupidons sembloient voltiger autour de My Lady MARY, & quelque fois alloient se reposer sur son beau Sein, & quelque fois se cacher dans ses aimables Fossettes. My Lady BETTY paroissoit toute charmant, par la petite Rougeur qui lui montoit au Visage, d’entendre élever de tous cotez, sa belle Taille & son beau Teint, jusqu’aux Cieux. Les Autres jolis Rejettons de cette Illustre Famille, dans fort peu de tems feront ravage parmi les Coeurs; & deja on est sur ses gardes.” [L’Eloge d’ecosse at des Dames Ecossoises, p.20.]

The Montgomerie girls were indeed almost as much admired in society as their mother had been, and to a great extent shared her intellectual qualities as well. “What would you give to be as pretty as I?” Lady Eglinton once asked the eldest of them. “Not half so much as you would give to be as young as I,” replied Lady Bettie at once.

The following amusing letter, [Memorials of the Montgomeries, by Sir W. Fraser, vol. i. pp.113-114.] written by six of Lord Eglinton’s daughters to their guardian, Lord Milton, begging him to interest himself on behalf of some unfortunate man who had been thrown into prison for debt, says as much for their kindness of character as for their sense of humour:-

“The Petition of the Six Vestal Virgins of Eglinton to the Honourable Lord Milton. Humbly sheweth – that whereas your petitioners has taken upon them to solicite in behalf of Alexander Aickenhead, part of whose storie your Lordship knows already. His new misfortune is, that after he had received sentence of banishment for three years out of this regality, he was unhappily seduced by his principal creditors to come privetly to his own house to compound some debts, but was not an hour there before the malitious  neighbourhood inform’d against him, and had him unexpectedly apprehended and carried to Irvine gaol; So we being importun’d by his wife (who is extremely handsome), join’d with our own inclinations to serve the poor man, we’re in hopes that these two motives will have some ascendant over your lordship’s natural disposition to relieve the distress’d; and to excite you still further to this good action, his wife, as the only acceptible reward she thinks she can make for this piece of humanity, she hopes from your lordship in favour of her husband’s liberty, she protests you shall have as many kisses as you please to demand. (And we likewise bind and oblige ourselves to do the same, when your lordship makes your publick entrie here in May); but we once more beg you’ll use your interest to get the man out of prison, which you’ll do a particular good to his family and an infinite obligation to your pupils, whose ambition’s to subscribe themselves.

“Your lordship’s most affectionate children,

                                    BETTIE MONTGOMERIE

                                    ELEANOR MONTGOMERIE

                                    SUSANNA MONTGOMERIE

                                    MARY MONTGOMERIE

                                    FRANCES MONTGOMERIE

                                    CHRISTIAN MONTGOMERIE

“P.S. – We’ll esteem it a favour if you lordship will honour us with an answer. But for heaven’s sake remember that the wife is hansom.

To the Honourable LORD MILTON,

At his lodgings, Edinburgh.”

All Lady Eglinton’s daughters who grew up, with one exception, married happily. One of them, Lady Margaret, enjoyed the privilege of helping Flora Macdonald to secure the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She was the wife of Sir Alexander Macdonald, near whose family residence, Mougstot, in Skye, the fugitive Prince landed after Culloden. Sir Alexander was loyal to the crown, but was fortunately absent from home at the time. Flora appealed for help to Lady Margaret, who in her turn confided in her husband’s factor, Macdonald of Kingsburgh, and with his assistance the Pretender’s safety was ensured.

Like Mistress Nicky Murray the Countess of Eglinton was at heart a thorough Jacobite, and, warmly though she espoused the cause of Literature and the Arts, never surmounted her political prejudices so far as to patronise any of the Whig poets. She was, however, a patroness of many of the foremost literary men of the time. The unfortunate Boyse dedicated a book of verse to her. Allan Ramsay, in phrases of the most fulsome adulation, offered his Gentle Shepherd to the lovely countess, “whose superior wit and sound judgement shine out with an uncommon lustre, while accompanied with all the Diviner charms of goodness and equality of mind” – whatever that may mean. “It is personal merit,” he adds, “and the heavenly sweetness of the fair that inspire the tuneful lays. Here every Lesbis must be excepted, whose tongues give liberty to the slaves which their eyes have made captive; such may be flattered; but your ladyship justly claims our admiration and profoundest respect; for whilst you are possessed of every outward charm in the most perfect degree, the never failing beauties of wisdom and piety which adorn you ladyship’s mind command devotion.” [The Gentle Shepherd: A Scots Pastoral Comedy, by Allan Ramsay, p.iv. (Edin., 1725.)] As though this were not enough, another poet, William Hamilton of Bangour, commended the Gentle Shepherd to the countess’s favour in a lengthy rhymed address.

[“From the tumultuous rule of passions freed,

Pure in thy thought, and spotless in thy deed;

In virtue rich, in goodness unconfin’d,

Thou shin’st a fair example to thy kind;

Sincere and equal to thy neighbour’s name,

But swift to praise! how guiltless to defame!

Bold in thy presence bashfulness appears,

And backward merit loses all its fears,

Supremely blest of Heav’n, Heav’n’s richest grace

Confest is thine, an early blossoming race;

Whose pleasing smiles shall guardian wisdom arm,

Divine Instruction! taught of thee to charm;

What transports shell they to thy soul impart

(The conscious transports of a parent’s heart),

When thou beholds’t them of each grace possest,

And sighing youths imploring to be blest.

After thy image form’d with charms like thine

Or in the visit, or the dance to shine!

Thrice happy who succeed their mother’s praise,

The lovely Eglintounes of other days.”

                                    (See Works and Life of Allan Ramsay, by E. Chalmers, vol. ii.p. 43.)]

Even that old bear, Dr. Johnson, was captivated by the charms of the beautiful countess. He has always been accused of saying that women have no minds, and his dislike of Scotland and its inhabitants is notorious. To a friend who told him that Scotland had many “noble wild prospects,” Johnson remarked that “the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England.” [Boswell’s Life of Johnson, p.117. (Malone, 1791.)] To another who said to him apologetically that, after all, God had made Scotland. “Certainly,” he replied, “but we must always remember that he made it for Scotchmen, and – comparisons are odious, but God made Hell!”

Lady Eglinton certainly did not impress Dr. Johnson like that other old Scottish lady of his acquaintance whom he likened to a dead nettle, adding that, were she alive, she would sting. He visited Auchans in 1773, when its mistress was well over eighty, spent several hours there, and subsequently expressed himself as being hugely delighted with his reception, and particularly impressed with the charms of his hostess. “Her figure was majestick,” says the inevitable Boswell, “her manners high-bred, her reading extensive, and her conversation elegant.” [Boswell’s Life of Johnson, p.395. (Croker, 1860)] She gave the biographer the original manuscript of Ramsay’s great pastoral poem which the poet had presented to her, and enchanted the two fellow-travellers with her vivacity and the brilliance of her conversation. In the course of the interview it transpired that Lady Eglinton had married her husband the year before Dr. Johnson was born. Whereupon the old lady playfully remarked that she might have been his mother, and that she now adopted him. When he took his departure she embraced him, saying, “My dear son, farewell!” Boswell she laughingly called “the boy.” “Yes, madam,” said Dr. Johnson, “we will send him to school.” “He is already in a good school, replied the countess, and expressed her hope of his improvement. “I was sorry to leave her,” [Letters to and from the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., vol. i. p.200. (Published by Hester Lynch Piozzi.)] wrote Samuel to his friend Mrs. Thrale; and one can readily believe him. Later on, Boswell recounted this interview to some friends, but erroneously stated that Lady Eglinton had adopted Dr. Johnson as a son in consequence of her having been married the year after he was born. The Doctor, who was present, corrected his satellite at once, declaring with a great show of annoyance that to make such a suggestion was to defame the countess. “Might not the son have justified the fault?” inquired an ingenuous young lady of the party – a remark which cause Dr. Johnson much satisfaction.

The young Earl of Eglinton was among Samuel’s staunchest admirers. One day at supper he was regretting the great man’s rough manners, and declared that he could not help wishing that Dr. Johnson had been educated with more refinement. “No, no,” exclaimed a fellow guest; [Baretti, the Italian lexicographer.] “do with him what you would, he would always have been a bear.” “True,” answered the earl, “but he would have been a dancing bear!” [Boswell’s Life of Johnson, p.195. (Croker.)]

The Countess of Eglinton was exceedingly fond of her beautiful daughters, but she was even more passionately devoted to her eldest son. It is said that during the whole course of his life she only refused him one request. Alexander’s father had been a Privy Councillor and Commissioner of the Treasury to King William and Queen Anne, and on the accession of George III., the son was appointed one of his Majesty’s Lords of the Bedchamber. Proud as he was of his mother’s beauty, which age could not in any way diminish, Alexander begged Lady Eglinton to take her rightful place in the Coronation procession. But the old lady asked to be excused, laughingly declaring that she was far too old to pay for new robes.

The tragic and untimely death of the young earl was a source of the deepest grief to his mother. Alexander was riding one day on his estate when he came suddenly upon a man poaching in the Eglinton preserves. This man was Mungo Campbell, an Excise officer who had formerly held a commission in the army, and son of old Provost Campbell of Ayr. An argument ensued, in the course of which Campbell shot and killed Lord Eglinton. This was a dastardly deed, as the murdered man was unarmed and therefore unable to defend himself. The earl’s servants arrived upon the scene too late to save their master’s life, but in time to arrest his assassin. It is said that they would have shot Campbell then and there had not Lord Eglinton, almost with his last words, forbidden them to ill-treat his murderer. Campbell was eventually tried at Edinburgh, and condemned to be executed, but anticipated his sentence by hanging himself in his prison cell. [His body was buried privately, but the Edinburgh mob discovered the whereabouts of the grave, rifled its contents, and subjected the corpse to many indignities. Campbell’s friends managed at length to rescue his remains, and buried them at sea, out of reach of the fury of the populace. There was a legend prevalent at one time to the effect that Mungo Campbell had cheated the hangman of his due by taking the place of a drunken soldier who had died in prison. It was said that he allowed himself to be carried away in this man’s coffin, and “came to life” at the brink of the grave, much to the dismay of the sexton, who was about to bury him. There does not, however, seem to be much foundation in fact for this story.]

With advancing years the aged countess lost none of her good looks and stately bearing, though, like many other old Scottish ladies of quality, [As, for instance, Lady Lovat (who was so afraid of being poisoned that she lived for two years exclusively of eggs), the bearded Lady Hyndford, and old Lady Galloway, who was accustomed to pay ceremonious visits to her next-door neighbours, in the narrow Horse Wynd where she lived, in a coach and six.] she became a trifle eccentric in her habits. One of her chief amusements consisted of taming and feeding the numerous rats which haunted the wainscotting of Auchans. After meals she would tap lightly upon one of the panels in the wall, and immediately a score of these disagreeable animals would appear and hungrily devour the scraps of food which she threw to them. At another signal they would scamper away to their holes again, thereby, as Lady Eglinton sagely remarked, comparing favourably with many of her human guests, who never knew when the moment had arrived to say “goodbye.”

She died at Auchans, 18th March 1780, in her ninety-first year. Even at that extreme age she retained the exquisite complexion of a girl. Its perennial freshness has been attributed to the fact that she made a practice of washing her face periodically in sow’s milk – a curious treatment, perhaps, but in her case eminently successful. Her beauty, which she bequeathed to her descendants, has become proverbial, and the dignity of her bearing and the charm of her character have combined to hand her memory down to posterity as that of an accomplished and admirable lady who, in the words of Dr. Johnson, “for many years gave the laws of elegance to Scotland.” [Letters to and from the late Samuel Johnson, vol. i. p.200. (Mrs Thrale.)]

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