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A Group of Scottish Women
Mrs Grant of Laggan (1755 - 1838)

“For a small place, where literature sticks out,” wrote Lord Cockburn in his Memorials, “Edinburgh has never been much encumbered by professed literary ladies; and most of those we have had have been exotics.” [Memorials of His Time, by Henry Cockburn, p.268.] One of the foremost of these “professed literary ladies” who may in a sense be termed, from Lord Cockburn’s point of view, “an exotic,” inasmuch as, though a Scotswoman, she was not a native of Edinburgh, was the authoress of Letters from the Mountains, a volume which has been well described as “an interesting treasury of god solitary thoughts.”

Mrs. Grant of Laggan was not born to literary greatness; rather, such greatness as she achieved was thrust upon her by the imperious hand of circumstance. She did not write because she had something to say – a message to deliver to the world – and thought herself inspired to express it in cold print. She wrote because she was poor, because her children were crying for food, and because her friends very rightly urged her to make use of those undoubted literary gifts which she possessed to provide for herself and her family. Like Monsieur Jourdain, who took so long to discover that he had been talking prose all his life, Mrs. Grant reached the age of fifty before she realised that for years she had been writing literary essays in the form of letters to her friends, and that a volume of her collected correspondence was worthy of a place, however humble, in the literature of her country. The production was certainly a most flagrant example of “book-making,” but none the less delightful on that account.

Anne Grant was the daughter of Duncan M’Vicar, an officer in the British army, who had married a Miss Stewart of the ancient Argyleshire family of Stewart of Invernahyle. [“A name which I cannot write without the warmest recollections of gratitude to the friend of my childhood [Alexander Stewart of Invernahyle] who first introduced me to the Highlands, their traditions and their manners.” – Sir W. Scott in Chronicles of the Canongate, p. xviii.] Shortly after his daughter’s birth, in 1755, M’Vicar’s regiment, the 77th Foot, was ordered off to America, and he himself was forced to accompany it. He accordingly bade a temporary farewell to his wife and child, whom he left behind in a small house at the east end of Glasgow.

Anne was from all accounts a precocious infant, who, though she said very little, seems to have been an attentive listener. For the first two years of her life she remained so ingloriously mute that Mrs. M’Vicar was occasionally alarmed at the child’s apparent lack of intelligence. She soon realised, however, that this silence was only a sign of the earnest thoughts that were occupying the baby mind, and that there was little fear of Anne suffering from an inadequate supply of brains. The child had often heard her mother telling the neighbours about her absent soldier father, and had seen them pointing their fingers towards that distant land where M’Vicar’s regiment was quartered. One Sunday evening, inspired by a sudden happy idea, she set off, without telling a soul, to find the gallant officer and bring him back to his deserted family. The little mite, who was then only two years old, started out all alone from her mother’s house and walked resolutely in a westerly direction for a distance of nearly a mile, expecting at every moment to come across the parent whose absence was such a familiar and depressing topic of domestic conversation. How much farther Anne would have marched one cannot tell, for just as she had begun to realise the difficulties of her quest and the elusiveness of absent parents, a kind old lady, who lived at the west end of the town, happened to catch sight of the lonely but determined little figure, questioned the child as to her intentions, and finally succeeded in persuading her to allow herself to be put to bed. Meanwhile, poor Mrs. M’Vicar had discovered her daughter’s absence, and was hastening in despair to inform the local authorities of her loss. The town-crier was at once sent out with his bell to offer a reward for the recovery of little Anne, and on the Monday morning the child was brought home none the worse for her adventure.

In the following spring M’Vicar’s family joined him in New York, where they lived happily and contentedly together for ten years. During this period of her early life, Anne’s education was undertaken by her mother, with the occasional assistance of an old sergeant belonging to a Scottish garrison regiment. This veteran taught the child to read and write, and even inspired her with a taste for the poems of “Blind Harry” and some of the most uncouth and rugged of the earlier Scottish minstrels. Anne’s choice of literature was peculiar in one of her years. At the age of six she had read the whole of the Old Testament, and was already half-way through a copy of Paradise Lost, which one of her father’s brother officers had given her. She learnt Dutch, too, from a Dutch family, who lived at Claverock, near Albany, and very kindly looked after M’Vicar’s household, when he took the field with his regiment at Ticonderoga. In later years in her Memoirs of an American Lady, Anne Grant paid a grateful tribute to the memory of her Dutch friends at Albany, chief among whom was the heroine of this volume of reminiscences, a certain Madame Schuyler, of whom the author affectionately wrote that, “whatever culture my mind received, I owe to her.” Madame Schuyler was the daughter of a Mr. Cuyler, who in the reign of Queen Anne gained a mild form of fame by bringing four Iroquois chiefs to England. The visit of these “noble Redmen” naturally created a great sensation at the time. It even inspired Addison to write one of his Spectator essays. [April 27, 1711.] Swift had more than once suggested to him that he should give an imaginary account of the sensations of an Indian visiting England for the first time. The result was this humorous article purporting to be a translation of the journal left behind by one of the Iroquois chieftains. Cuyler was presented to the Queen, but politely declined the knighthood which was offered to him declaring that his democratic principles prevented him from accepting such an honour. During the M’Vicars’ stay in America Mrs. Schuyler became deeply attached to Anne, and her personality made such an indelible impression upon the child, that the latter was able to describe it many years after with an accuracy which was all the more wonderful since it depended entirely upon the recollections of a girl of thirteen years of age. [See Memoirs of an American Lady, by Anne Grant. (1808).]

In 1768, the state of Duncan M’Vicar’s health compelled him to return to England, regretfully leaving behind him his small estate in Vermont. Part of it had been granted to him by the Government, and the remainder purchased from brother officers who did not share his original intention of making a permanent home in America. He had no time before he left to make suitable arrangements for the care of this property during his absence, and a few years later, when the American war broke out, his plot of land was seized and confiscated. This loss was a serious one to M’Vicar, who had invested most of his savings in his American farm; but he still possessed a modest private income, and on his return to Scotland was fortunate enough to secure the appointment of barrack-master at Fort Augustus, whither he at once removed with his family.

Anne had now reached the marriageable age, and when the Rev. James Grant, military chaplain to the garrison of Fort Augustus, fell in love with her at first sight, and found that his sentiments were returned, there was nothing to prevent the marriage, which accordingly took place as soon as the reverend gentleman was appointed minister of the parish of Laggan in 1779.

Mrs. Grant made an ideal minister’s wife. She set to work at once to master the intricacies of the Gaelic tongue, in order to study the characteristics of her husband’s Highland parishioners. The respect and affection of these folk she soon succeeded in gaining, though at first they had been inclined to look with some suspicion upon this Lowland woman who had intruded herself upon them. At Laggan she lived quietly for many years, and in due course became the mother of twelve children. During this peaceful (if not altogether idle) period of her life, Mrs. Grant made a close study of the manners and feelings of those with whom her lot was cast, and eventually described them in those Essays on the Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland which were published thirty years later. But her happy life at Laggan was fated to be interrupted by the cruel invasion of that fell disease, consumption. Four of her children died of tuberculosis one after the other, and finally, after a brief illness, her husband succumbed to the same complaint, leaving a homeless and penniless widow with a family of eight to support.

For a time Mrs. Grant tried farming in a small way, at a little cottage lent to her by the Duke of Gordon, but her efforts in this direction met with no success. Then some intelligent friend suggested that she should publish a collection of the verses which she had written from time to time for her own pleasure or for the amusement of her numerous correspondents. [Perhaps the most famous of her poems is the song beginning, “where and oh where is my Highland laddie gone?”] This she reluctantly consented to do; the poems were retrieved with some difficulty from the pigeon-holes of her acquaintances, and in 1803 the volume was published by subscription. The Edinburgh Review, ever a most captious critic of verse, declared that these poems were “written with great beauty, tenderness and delicacy,” and the zeal and importunity of her friends procured for this volume a list of over 3000 subscribers, among whom may be mentioned Jane, Duchess of Gordon, who was consistently kind to the author. “Silver and gold she has not,” wrote Mrs. Grant some years later, “but what she has – her interests, her trouble, her exertion – she gives with unequalled perseverance.”

By this means her debts were paid, and for a time at least she was able to live in comparative comfort. But fresh financial difficulties lay in wait for her. Her eldest daughter had to be sent into a home for consumptives at Bristol; her son required an outfit for India, where he had with difficulty obtained a civil appointment. Mrs. Grant was soon as badly in need of money as ever, and once more, by the advice of her friends, determined to turn her literary talents to account. She had long been a prolific letter-writer, numbering among her correspondents such well-known people as Joanna Baillie, Mrs. Hemans, Wordsworth, and Southey, and it was rightly thought that a volume of her correspondence might prove popular to the reading public. Accordingly, in 1806, she published Letters from the Mountains, which immediately won a well-deserved success, not only by reason of its literary charm, but also because the circumstances in which the author had been placed naturally inspired popular sympathy. Expressions of kindly interest reached her from every quarter. Three wealthy Scottish London merchants, who were quite unknown to her, sent £300 as a token of their regard for the author of the Letters, and some ladies of Boston, U.S.A., published an American edition of the book, and remitted £200 to Mrs. Grant as her share of the profits. Furthermore, a number of friends in Scotland made a collection on her behalf which amounted to over £300, on receipt of which, as we read in one of Lady Louisa Stuart’s letters to the Duchess of Buccleuch, she expressed herself as quite overpowered with surprise and joy, never having seen so much money before in the whole course of her life. [Gleanings from an Old Portfolio,  containing some correspondence between Lad Louisa Stuart and her sister, Caroline, Countess of Portarlington, and other friends and relations, Edited by Mrs. Godfrey Clark (D. Douglas, Edinburgh), iii. p.183.]

Two years later, Mrs. Grant published the Memoirs of an American Lady above referred to, which also proved financially successful, and in 1810 she moved from Stirling, where she had been living for some time, to Edinburgh, which now became her permanent home. Of her subsequent publications, the most successful were a poem in two parts entitled Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen, and a two-volume book called Popular Models and Impressive Warnings for the Sons and Daughters of Industry, published in London in 1815.

Misfortune, however, still dogged her footsteps. One after another all her children died, with the sole exception of her youngest son, who survived to edit her Life and Memoirs. But as her home joys decreased her friends grew more numerous and appreciative. Her finances were by this time in a satisfactory condition, and such literary success as she enjoyed enabled her to entertain in a modest way at the little house in Edinburgh, where a constellation of the literary and social stars of the day frequently assembled at her invitation.

The society of Edinburgh was at that time particularly interesting, [“L’on voit, par toutes ces institutions, combine les letters, les sciences at les arts sont en recommendation dans cette ville; aussi s’est-elle honorée par les grands hommes qu’elle a produits dans presque tous les genres; aussi la célébrité des professions a-t-elle attire dans ses murs des étrangers de toutes les parties du monde, et a donné à cette ville un lustre at des moyens d’aisance qui la distinguent des autres. Edinburg, par sa position et le calme qui y regne, est un lieu proper aux sciences: elles n’aiment ni le tumulte, ni les discussions parlementaires, ni les mouvemens bruyans du commerce, ni les objets multiplies de distraction et de plaisir de Londres. De tout tems les Muses ont fixé leur sejour sur une colline, au bord d’une fontaine solitaire.” –Voyage en Angleterre, en Écosse et aux îlés Hebrides, par B. Faujas-Saint-Fond, vol. ii. p.281. (1797.)]  and in the brilliant gatherings of distinguished persons there to be found, women, (as we have seen), figured conspicuously. Captain Topham, the traveller, has described the ladies of the Scottish capital as being both physically and mentally beyond all praise. “Nature has been liberal to them on decorating their external parts, as in ornamenting their minds,” he says, “and I believe as few nations excel them in beauty as in advantages derived from disposition and education.” “No women understand better the rules of decorum,” he continues, “nor are they rivalled by the French in the talent of agreeable conversation; for which they seem to be better calculated, as well from their superior knowledge of the world, as from their more extensive acquaintance with books and literature.” [Letters from Edinburgh, written in the years 1774-1775.] In such society as the gallant soldier thus describes Mrs. Grant did not feel out of place. [“Went to breakfast with Mrs. Grant on Princes Street. She holds a mist respectable rank in the literary society of the place, and is much visited by stranger…She speaks with a strong Scotch accent, as do many of the females with whom I have conversed. The brogue is quite a national trait, and in the middling and lower classes it is no recommendation to be without it…The openness and simplicity of her manners are no less attractive than the graces of her understanding. She has none of the flimsy wisdom about her, which is said to distinguish the blue stockings of this city, and which qualifies them to converse with anybody on any subject; but especially with politicians and philosophers. She has a strong and enlightened mind, cultivated by study and observations, and is blessed with an ample share of that, first of national endowments, good sense.” – The Contrast, or Scotland as it was in the Year 1745 and Scotland in the Year 1819. (1825).] Her son tells us, in a preface to his mother’s Memoirs, that her chief charm lay, not so much in the extensive range of information that she possessed on every subject as in her uniform cheerfulness and equanimity. Her conversation was so natural and unaffected, and seemed to emanate from her well-stored mind with so little effort, that her liveliest sallies appeared as if they had been struck off at the moment without any previous reflection. [Memoirs and Correspondence of Mrs. Grant of Laggan, vol. i. p.26.] Once, when Walter Scott was leaving a brilliant assembly, where he had been surrounded by the usual crowd of fashionable admirers, “Mr. Scott always seems to be like a glass,” said Mrs. Grant, “through which the rays of admiration pass without sensibly affecting it; but the bit of paper which lies beside it will presently be in a blaze – and no wonder.” [Lockhart’s Life of Walter Scott, p.206.]

When among intimates she frequently claimed the privilege of age to speak with perfect candour, but her home-truths were free from any suspicion of malice, and never gave the least offence. We have already heard of her meeting Walter Scott at the Duchess of Gordon’s house in 1809. “I think Mr. Scott’s appearance very unpromising and commonplace indeed,” she says, “yet tho’ no gleam of genius animates his countenance, much of it appears in his conversation, which is rich, various, easy, and animated.” [Memoirs and Correspondence, vol. i. p.199.]

Mindful of the kindnesses she had received in early life from her friends in New York, she always kept open house to any Americans who happened to visit Edinburgh. One of these, George Ticknor, the author, has described his hostess as “an old lady of such great good nature and such strong good sense, mingled with a natural talent, plain knowledge, and good taste, derived from English reading alone, that when she chooses to be pleasant she can be so to a high degree,” [Life and Letters of George Ticknor, vol. i. p.278. (Sampson Low, Searle & Rivington, 1876.)] – and Mrs. Grant generally “chose to be pleasant.”

She was one of the numerous literary persons who were at one time or another suspected of having written Waverley. In a letter to an American friend, disclaiming any share in the composition of this masterpiece, she spoke with such assurance of Scott’s authorship that her correspondent concluded that Mrs. Grant had been Sir Walter’s confidante. A report of this reached the novelist, and made him very angry. “As for honest Mrs. Grant,” he wrote to Miss Edgeworth, [Feb 3, 1824 (Lockhart’s Life of Scott, p.517.)] “I cannot conceive why the deuce I should have selected her for a mother-confessor; if it had been yourself, or Joanna [Baillie], there might have been some probability in the report; but good Mrs. Grant is so very cerulean, and surrounded by so many fetch-and-carry mistresses and misses, [Young ladies of good family were sent to her to be instructed in deportment, and she acted as their chaperone or companion at concerts and assemblies.] and the maintainer of such an unmerciful correspondence, that though I would do her any kindness in my power, yet I should be afraid to be very intimate with a woman whose tongue and pen are rather overpowering. She is an excellent person notwithstanding.” The author of Letters from the Mountains was certainly a trifle “cerulean,” but she always had the good taste not to sacrifice the feminine to the literary character, and Lord Jeffrey may have had her in his mind when he said that there was no objection to a blue-stocking so long as the petticoat came low enough down to hide it.

In 1825 it was thought advisable by many of Mrs. Grant’s friends that her affairs should be placed upon a sound financial basis, and her old age secured from the worries of discomfort and debt. A petition was accordingly drawn up by a number of eminent persons, begging the Government to grant the old lady a suitable pension. Sir Walter Scott, by way of showing that he would “do her any kindness in his power,” joined in subscribing to this memorial, thinking that Mrs. Grant certainly merited a pension, even more by the “firmness and elasticity of men with which she had borne a succession of great domestic calamities” than by her works as an authoress. [The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, vol. i. p.28. (D. Douglas, 1890.)] Many famous men appended their names to this application, among other Mackenzie, the “Man of Feeling,” and Lord Jeffrey. Unfortunately, there was only a sum of £100 available upon the pension list, and Lord Melville, the minister in charge of such matter, decided to divide this sum between Mrs. Grant and a distressed lady, the granddaughter of a forfeited Scottish nobleman. Thereupon Mrs. Grant, “proud as a Highlandwoman,” as Scott tells us, “vain as a poetess, and absurd as a blue-stocking,” [Ibid.] resented this partition, and demanded that her claims should be submitted to the King. Lord Melville was much annoyed by the tone of the old lady’s correspondence, and sent it to Sir Walter Scott, asking rather peremptorily to be informed whether Mrs. Grant would or would not accept her £50. Scott handed the matter over to Henry Mackenzie, and did his best to pacify the indignant minister. That Mrs. Grant would consent to take the pension offered was a foregone conclusion. “Your scornful dog will always eat your dirty pudding,” wrote Sir Walter in his Journal, and, sure enough, Mrs. Grant eventually intimated her willingness to accept the proffered £50, and expressed contrition for her earlier refusal. She need not have been so proud, for she suffered in good company. The poet Hood only received £100 a year from the Civil List in his old age, and Campbell’s pension barely amounted to double that sum. Southey and Wordsworth were allowed but little more when their failing faculties rendered them dependent upon the nation for support. In our own time “Ouida’s” services to literature were recognised by the grant of a modest annuity of £150, and the granddaughters of Robert Burns must be satisfied with even less. Mrs. Grant did not realise how difficult it is to secure any official recognition of deserving literary merit, or perhaps she would have been less difficult to please. To obtain a pension is, as Sir Walter Scott declared, like hunting a pig with a soaped tail, which is “monstrous apt to slip through your fingers.”

In her youth Mrs. Grant was tall and slender, but in late life she fell downstairs, injuring her leg so severely that she was kept a prisoner in her house till the end of her days, and became in consequence somewhat stout. Lord Cockburn tells us that she was always under the influence of an affectionate and delightful enthusiasm which, “unquenched by time or sorrow, survived the wreck of many domestic attachments, and shed a glow over the close of a very protracted life.” [Memorials of His Time, p.269.] She was a hater of Whigs as well as a lover of kings, and Mrs. Fletcher, in her well-known autobiography, describes how, on the occasion of George IV.’s visit to Edinburgh in 1842, Mrs. Grant replaced her habitual black dress by a robe of salmon-coloured satin, took her seat at a shop window in Princes Street, and waved her handkerchief wildly when the royal procession passed by. [Autobiography of Mrs, Fletcher, p.151. (Edmonton & Douglas: Edinburgh, 1875.)] Her kindness of heart was proverbial. De Quincey was particularly touched by her flattering attentions to himself, and retained a lasting impression of the “benignity that she – an established wit and just then receiving incense from all quarters” – showed in her manner to the young author, at that time wholly unknown. [De Quincey’s Literary Reminiscences, vol. i. p.55. (Boston, 1859)] She also befriended John Wilson (“Christopher North”), and when that eccentric young poet and his wife set out on a walking tour through the Western Highlands, gave him letter of introduction to her various acquaintances at Inverness and elsewhere. [A Memoir of John Wilson, by Mrs. Gordon, p.193. (1862.)] Later on, in 1820, when Wilson sought to obtain the Chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, he successfully applied to her for a testimonial.

Mrs. Grant was an extremely religious woman, and made a habit of reading a chapter of the Bible to her guests every morning after breakfast. Once, when the poet John Pinkerton sneered at sacred things in her presence, she was so indignant that a scene was only averted by the tact of their mutual hostess. [Memoirs of a Literary Veteran, by R.P. Gillies, vol. i. p.132.]

As a story-teller she was unrivalled. She had a rich fund of anecdote at her command: her mind was a crowded storehouse of fable and legend. One of her favourite stories was that of the haunted glen of Laggan. A man of low degree had won the heart of a chieftain’s daughter, whose family discovered the intrigue, and had the unfortunate lover seized and bound naked on one of the large ants’ nests common to Highland forests. The victim of this cruel punishment died in agony, while his mistress became demented and roamed wildly about the glen until her death, when her ghost, unable to rest, haunted the scene of her lover’s torture with such persistence that the natives of Laggan shunned the road by day as well as by night. Mrs. Grant always asserted that her late husband had exorcised the “Red Woman” – as the phantom was called – by holding a religious service in the glen. But Dr. Macintosh Mackay, [The famous Gaelic scholar, and editor of Rob Donn’s poems.] who succeeded the Rev. James Grant as minister of Laggan, declared to Walter Scott that the ghost was banished more effectually by the construction of a branch of the parliamentary road running through the glen than by the prayers of his predecessor. [Journal of Sir Walter Scott, vol. i. p.407.]

No one has time, nowadays, one may suppose, to read such an old-fashioned book as Letters from the Mountains. But whoever takes the trouble to do so will find it a work of great charm, written by one who was a lover of nature as well as a keen student of humanity, with a rare gift for portraying Scottish peasant life. Composed amidst scenes of misfortune and privation, Mrs. Grant’s work is written at once with simplicity and force. It bears the stamp of a pure and healthy mind, and is coloured with that patience and fortitude which the author practised continuously, and which she recommends so earnestly to her readers. Her writings have always been deservedly popular in her own country, where they are still remembered, while those of Mrs. Hamilton, Mrs. Brunton, and Lady Anne Halket are forgotten. “Addressing themselves to the national pride of the Scottish people” – to quote from the petition drawn up by Mrs. Grant’s friends at the time when she was applying for a pension – “they breathe at once a spirit of patriotism and of that candour which renders patriotism unselfish and liberal.” As the outpourings of a simple and vigorous mind, they can safely be relied upon to stand the test of time, and prove a worthy memorial of a delightful type of old Scottish lady which is by no means extinct to-day.

Anne Grant lived to the age of eighty-four. She died on November 7, 1838, and was buried in St. Cuthbert’s churchyard, Edinburgh.

Memoirs and Correspondence of Mrs Grant of Laggan
An article from Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (pdf)

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