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A Group of Scottish Women
Miss Clementina Stirling Graham (1782 - 1877)

In olden days the practice of “masquerading” was universally popular. During the reign of Charles II. it was carried on to an extent which evoked the just censure of contemporary historians. Bishop Burnet describes how “that both the king and queen and all the court went about masked, and came into houses unknown, and danced there, with a great deal of wild frolic.” [History of His Own Times, vol. i. p.368.] And later on we hear of the Queen, the Duchess of Richmond, and the Duchess of Buckingham dressing themselves as rustics and attending a country fair in the neighbourhood of Audley End. On this occasion the disguises were so overdone that the appearance of the royal party excited general notice. A huge crowd collected, and followed the masqueraders about, until the Queen and her friends were glad to mount their horses and beat a hasty and rather undignified retreat.

The witty but unprincipled Earl of Rochester used often to disguise himself as a beggar or a porter, either for his own amusement of for the purpose of prosecuting his illicit amours. He once set up for some time as an “Italian Mountebank” or Astrologer in Tower Street, London, where he was consulted by many ladies of the court. [Burnet’s Life of Rochester, p.14 (1774.)] The latter would themselves masquerade as orange-girls in order to pay a clandestine visit to the soothsayer, thereby inviting insults from the men of fashion whom they met upon their way and who naturally concluded from their appearance that the ladies were no better than they should be. [Memoirs of Count Grammont, p.283.]

In the eighteenth century we find further examples of this craze for “dressing up.” Anne Mackenzie, who afterwards married Sir William Dick of Prestonfield, and was the daughter of Lord Royston and granddaughter of the famous Earl of Cromarty, used to array herself and her maid in male attire and sally forth into the streets of Edinburgh in search of adventure. [Wilson’s Memorials of Edinburgh, p.169.] This the pair of masqueraders generally managed to find, and would not infrequently end the night in the company of a number of intoxicated noblemen in the old Guard House in the High Street.

The Lady Euphemia Montgomerie, daughter of the 9th Earl of Eglinton by his first countess, provides another instance of an inveterate woman masquerader. She married the celebrated “Union” Lockhart, whose notorious intrigues on behalf of the exiled Stuarts were no doubt furthered by his wife’s clever disguises. Dressed as a man, she frequented the taverns and coffee-houses of Edinburgh, and thus often obtained political information of the greatest value to her husband. On one occasion a budget of important paper destined for the Government was in the hands of a Whig named Forbes. “Lady Effie” determined to dispossess him of these dispatches. She accordingly disguised her two sons as women, and bade them waylay the guileless messenger and induce him to accompany them to a neighbouring alehouse. Here they speedily drank Mr. Forbes under the table, after which they relieved him of his precious papers at their leisure. [Ibid., p.241.]

Regular “masquerades,” at which all the guests arrayed themselves in fancy dress, were of course one of the chief amusements of that day in London. During the food riots in 1772 an entertainment of this kind was given at the Pantheon in Oxford Street, and 10,000 guineas were spent by the revellers in dress and other luxuries, much to the indignation of the starving populace. [Oliver Goldsmith appeared on this occasion in “an old English costume.” (See Timbs’s Curiosities of London.)]

With the commencement of the nineteenth century, however, extravagance of this kind was no longer countenanced. Such masquerading as went on was of a most inexpensive nature and was designed in less elaborate fashion. Our great-grandparents were certainly more easily amused than are their descendants today. To dress up and impersonate various characters for the entertainment of delighted friends was apparently one of the favourite pastimes of fashionable society. George Cruikshank is said to have been very skilful at impersonation, and would sing “Willie brewed a peck o’ maut” in the guise of an intoxicated rustic, until tears of laughter coursed down the cheeks of his audience. The Marquis of Huntly, afterwards 5th Duke of Gordon, was another incorrigible masquerader. On one occasion he disguised himself as a beggar and proceeded to solicit alms at the house of a neighbouring landowner who was taking a stroll in his park. The latter very kindly bade the poor man step into the servants’ hall and see what he could get there. When the pseudo-tramp had been bounteously regaled and was about to leave, he met his host returning from his walk. “How have you fared?” inquired this philanthropist; “Puirly,” replied the marquis; “naething but stinkin’ meat, soor bread, and stale beer!” The squire was so enraged at this display of ingratitude that he began to belabour the wretched gaberlunzie with his stick, only desisting when Lord Huntly hurriedly threw off his rags and disclosed his identity. [Social Life in Scotland, by the Rev. C. Rogers.]

Perhaps one of the most famous “impersonators” of that day was a simple, strong-minded, plain-spoken Scottish lady of the type which Lord Cockburn has described so graphically in his Memoirs, who was for long an honoured member of the famous circle of Edinburgh Whigs of whom Lord Cockburn himself was the leader.  Writing of that “singular race of excellent Scotch of ladies” for which Edinburgh was long celebrated: “They were a delightful set,” her says; “strong-headed, warm-hearted, and high-spirited; the fire of their tempers not always latent; merry, even in solitude; very resolute; indifferent about the modes and habits of the modern world; and adhering to their own ways, so as to stand out, like primitive rocks, above ordinary society. Their prominent qualities of sense, humour, affection and spirit, were embodied in curious outsides; for they all dressed, and spoke, and did, exactly as they chose; their language, like their habits, entirely Scotch, but without any other vulgarity than what perfect naturalness is sometimes mistaken for.” [Memorials of His Own Time, p.57.]

Miss Clementina Stirling Graham, an excellent example of the delightful old lady of Lord Cockburn’s description, was the daughter of Patrick Stirling of Pittendreich and Amelia Graham of Duntrune, Forfar, and was born in Dundee in 1782. [Patrick Stirling assumed the name of Graham when his wife succeeded to the Duntrune estate.]

Dr. John Brown, of “Rab” fame, who edited the one book which came from Clementina’s pen, has left a vivid account of this excellent lady. [Horae Subsecivae, 3rd series, p.169.] From this we may glean some idea of those qualities which endeared her to all with whom she came into contact, and gained for her the friendship of such men as Lord Jeffrey and Sir Walter Scott. When Sydney Smith gave vent to the fallacious and oft-misquoted remark to the effect that it required “a surgical operation to get a joke well into a Scotch understanding,” one may be sure that he made a mental reservation in favour of Miss Graham. Her sense of humour he fully recognised. It was to her that he made his famous joke about the day being so hot that he wished he could “put off his flesh and sit in his bones, and let the wind whistle through them.” Sydney Smith was, as a matter of fact, in spite of his one malicious epigram, a great admirer of the Scottish nation. Of their women he says, in one of his letters, that they are, in his opinion, handsomer than their English sisters. In his gloomy London home he often longs for a sight of Scotland. “Never shall I forget the happy days passed there,” writes the humorist, recalling his visit to Edinburgh in 1797, “amidst odious smells, barbarous sounds, bad suppers, excellent hearts, and most enlightened and cultivated understandings.” [Memoir of Sydney Smith, by Lady Holland, p.12.] And among the excellent hearts and cultivated understandings of his Scottish friends, there is no doubt that Sydney Smith assigned a high place to those of Miss Clementina.

Sir Walter Scott was another of Miss Graham’s acquaintances, though, as Dr. Brown tells us, her strong Liberal proclivities induced her to cultivate rather the society of the men of the Edinburgh Review, Gillies, Murray, Cockburn, Rutherfurd, Jeffrey, and the like. And Sir Walter, though finding her agreeable enough, was not actually carried off his feet by her charms. “She looks like thirty years old,” he writes in his Journal in March, 1828, after meeting her in the house of a friend, “and has a face of the Scottish cast, with a good expression in point of good sense and good humour. Her conversation, so far as I have had the advantage of hearing it, is shrewd and sensible, but no ways brilliant.” [Journal of Sir Walter Scott, vol. ii. p.139.]

The really brilliant thing about Miss Graham was her wonderful talent for imitation. She would dress up in old-fashioned clothes suitable to the character she intended to portray, usually that of an elderly and eccentric Scottish lady, and would then proceed to “mystify” all those of her friends who were not in the secret. Count Flahault, Sir Daniel Sandford, Admiral Fleming, even Sir Walter Scott himself, were at one time or another victims of her “impersonations.” The author of Waverley describes how he met her dining at the house of a friend. After dinner she went off as though going to a play, and presently returned in the character of an old Scottish lady. “Her dress and behaviour were admirable,” says Sir Walter, “and the conversation unique. I was in the secret, of course,” he adds, “and did my best to keep up the ball, but she cut me out of all feather. The prosing account she gave of her son, the antiquary, who found an auld wig in a slate quarry, was extremely ludicrous, and she puzzled the Professor of Agriculture with a merciless account of the succession of crops in the parks around her old mansion-house.” [Ibid.] None of the company to whom the secret had not been entrusted had the least notion that the old lady was an impostor. But one shrewd young woman observed Miss Graham’s hand, thought it plumper than seemed usual for a lady of such mature age as their visitor, and grew suspicious.

Her representations of quaint old Scottish ladies soon became famous in Edinburgh society, and she was frequently prevailed upon to exhibit her powers of satire and mimicry to large numbers of delighted friends. Of this entertainment neither she nor they ever seem to have wearied. “I often felt so identified with the character,” she wrote, in an account of her impersonations which, at the urgent request of her friends, was published privately in 1859, “so charmed with the pleasure manifested by my audience, that it became painful to lay aside the veil, and descend again into the humdrum realities of my own self,” [Mystifications, by Miss C.S. Graham. (Printed privately. 1859.)] In this pleasant manner Miss Graham deceived a quantity of people, but her satire was so free from malice that she never gave offence to her victims, and those who were taken in were the first to admit the humour of her marvellous imitations. Lord Jeffrey – the first editor of the famous Edinburgh Review – was one of the many persons upon whom Miss Graham practised her tricks. The following account she wrote of an interview she had wit his in the character of the imaginary “Lady Pitlyal,” one of her favourite characters, is sufficiently amusing to quote at length.


At the theatre one Saturday evening in the year 1821, Mr. Jeffrey – afterwards Lord Jeffrey – requested me to let him see my old lady, and on condition that we should have some one to take in, I promised to introduce her to him very soon. Accordingly, on the Monday having ascertained that he was to dine at home, I set out from Lord Gillies’s in a coach, accompanied by Miss Helen Carnegy of Craigo, as my daughter, and we stopped at Mr. Jeffrey’s door in George Street between five and six o’clock. It was a winter evening; and on the question “Is Mr. Jeffrey at home?” being answered in the affirmative, the two ladies stepped out, and were ushered into the little parlour, where he received his visitors.

There was a blazing fire, and wax-lights on the table; he had laid down his book, and seemed to be in the act of joining the ladies in the drawing-room before dinner.

The Lady Pitlyal was announced and he stepped forward a few paces to receive her.

She was a sedate-looking little woman, of an inquisitive law-loving countenance; a mouth in which not a vestige of a tooth was to be seen, and a pair of old-fashioned spectacles on her nose, that rather obscured a pair of eyes that had not altogether lost their lustre, and that gave to the voice as much of the nasal sound as indicated the age of its possessor to be some years between her grand climacteric and fourscore. She was dressed in an Irish poplin of silver grey, a white Cashmere shawl, a mob cap with a band of thin muslin that fastened it below the chin, and a small black silk bonnet that shaded her eyes from any glare of light.

Her right hand was supported by an antique gold-headed cane and she leant with the other on the arm of her daughter.

Miss Ogilvy might be somewhere on the wrong side of twenty; how many months or years is of no particular importance. Her figure, of the middle size, was robed in a dress of pale blue, and short enough in the skirt to display a very handsome pair of feet and ankles. On her head she wore a white capote, and behind a transparent curtain of pure white blond glance two eyes of darkest hazel, while ringlets of bright auburn harmonised with the bloom of the rose that glowed upon her cheeks. Her appearance was recherché, and would have been perfectly lady-like, but for an attempt at style, a mistake which young ladies from the country are very apt to fall into on their first arrival in the metropolis. Mr. Jeffrey bowed and handed the old lady to a comfortable chaise longue on one side of the fire, and sat himself down opposite to her on the other. But in his desire to accommodate the old lady, and in his anxiety to be informed of the purport of the visit, he forgot what was due to the young one, and the heiress of the ancient House of Pitlyal was left standing in the middle of the floor.

She helped herself to a chair, however, and sat down beside her mother. She had been educated in somewhat of the severity of the old school, and during the whole of the consultation she neither spoke nor moved a single muscle of her countenance.

“Well,” said Mr. Jeffrey, as he looked at the old lady, in expectation that she would open the subject that had procured him the honour of the visit.

“Weel,” replied her ladyship, “I am come to tak’ a word o’ the law frae you.

“My husband, the late Ogilvy of Pitlyal, among other property which he left to me, was a house and a yard at the town-end of Kerrimuir, also a kiln and a malt-barn.

“The kiln and the barn were rented by a man they ca’ed John Playfair, and John Playfair subset them to anither man they ca’d Willy Cruickshank, and Willy Cruickshank purchased a cargo of damaged lint, and ye widna hinder Willy to dry the lint upon the kiln, and the lint took low and kindled the cupples, and the slates flew aff, and a’ the flooring was burnt to the ground, and naething left standin’ but the bare wa’s.

“Now it was na’ insured, and I want to ken wha’s to pay the damage, for John Playfair says he has naething ado wi’ it,  and Willy Cruickshank says he has naething to do it wi’,  and I am determined no to take it off their hand the way it is.”

“Has it been in any of the courts?”

“Ou aye, it has been in the Shirra Court of Forfar, and Shirra Duff was a gude man, and he kent me, and would ha’ gien’t in my favour, but that clattering creature Jamie L’Amy cam’ in, and he gave it against me.”

“I have no doubt Mr. L’Amy would give a very fair decision.”

“It wasna a fair decision when he gae it against me.”

“That is what many people think in your circumstances.”

“The minister of Blairgowrie is but a fule body, and advised me no to gae to the law.”

“I think he gave you a very sensible advice.”

“It was onything but that; and mind, if you dinna giet in my favour, I’ll no be sair pleased.”

Mr. Jeffrey smiled, and said he would not promise to do that, and then inquired if she had any papers.

“Ou aye, I have a great bundle of papers, and I’ll come back at any hour you please to appoint, and bring them wi’ me.”

“It will not be necessary for you to return yourself – you can send them to me.”

“And wha would you recommend to me for an agent in the business?”

“That I cannot tell; it is not my province to recommend an agent.”

“Then how will Robert Smith of Balharry do?”

“Very well – very good man indeed; and you may bid him send me the papers.”

Meantime her ladyship drew from her pocket a large old-fashioned leather pocket-book with silver clasps, out of which she presented him a letter directed to himself. He did not look into it, but threw it carelessly on the table. She now offered him a pinch of snuff from a massive gold box, and then selected another folded paper from the pocket-book, which she presented to him, saying, “Here is a prophecy that I would like you to look at and explain to me.”

He begged to be excused, saying, “I believe your ladyship will find me more skilled in the law than the prophets.

She entreated him to look at it; and on glancing his eyes over it, he remarked, “that from the words Tory and Whig, it did not seem to be a very ancient prophecy.”

“May be,” replied her ladyship, “but it has been long in our family. I copied these lines out of a muckle book, entitled the ‘Prophecie of Pitlyal,’ just before I came to you, in order to have your opinion on some of the obscure passages of it. And you will do me a great favour if you will read it out loud, and I will tell you what I think of it as you go on.”

Here, then, with a smile at the oddity of the request, and a mixture of impatience in his manner, he read the following lines, while she interrupted him occasionally to remark upon their meaning.


“When the crown and the head shell disgrace ane anither,

And the Bishops on the Bench shall go a’ wrang thegither,

When Tory or Whig,

Fills the judge’s wig;

When the Lint o’ the Miln

Shall reek on the kiln;

O’er the Light of the North,

When the Glamour breaks forth,

And its wildfire so red,

With the daylight is spread;

When woman shrinks not from the ordeal of tryal,

There is triumph and fame to the house of Pitlyal.”

(The Light of the North was Mr. Jeffrey, - the Glamour was herself; but we must give the Lady Pitlyal’s own interpretation, as she appeared unconscious of the true meaning.)

“We hae seen the crown and the head, she said, “disgrace ane anither no very lang syne, and ye may judge whether the Bishops gaed right or wrang on that occasion; and the Tory and Whig may no be very ancient, and yet never be the less true. Then there is the Lint o’ the Miln, - we have witnessed that come to pass; but what the ‘Light of the North’ can mean, and the Glamour, I canna mak out. The twa hindmost lines seem to me to point at Queen Caroline; and if it had pleased God to spare my son, I might have guessed he would have made a figure on her trial, and have brought “Triumph and fame to the house of Pitlyal.” I begin, however, to think that the prophecie may be fulfilled in the person of my daughter, for which reason I have brought her to Edinburgh to see and get a gude match for her.”

Here Mr. Jeffrey put on a smile, half-serious, half-quizzical, and said –

“I suppose it would not be necessary for the gentleman to change his name?”

“It would be weel worth his while, sir; she ahs a very gude estate, and she’s a very bonny lassie, and she’s equally related baith to Airlie and Strathmore; and a’ body in our part of the warld ca’s her the ‘Rosebud of Pitlyal.’”

Mr. Jeffrey smiled as his eyes met the glance of the beautiful flower that was so happily placed before him; but the Rosebud herself returned no sign of intelligence.

A pause in the conversation now ensued, which was interrupted by her ladyship asking Mr. Jeffrey to tell her where she could procure a set of fause teeth.

“What?” said he, with an expression of astonishment, while the whole frame of the young lady shook with some internal emotion.

“A set of fause teeth,” she repeated, and was again echoed by the interrogation, “What?”

A third time she asked the question, and in a more audible key; when he replied with a kind of suppressed laugh, “There is Mr. Nasmyth, north corner of St. Andrew Square, a very good dentist, and there is Mr Hutchins, corner of Hanover and George Street.”

She requested he would give her their name on a slip of paper. He rose and walked to the table, wrote down both the directions, which he folded and presented to her.

She now rose to take leave. The bell was rung, and when the servant entered, his master desired him to see if the Lady Pitlyal’s carriage was at the door.

He returned to tell there was no carriage waiting, on which her ladyship remarked. “This comes of fore-hand payments – they make hint-hand work. I gae a hackney coachman twa shillings to bring me here, and he’s awa’ without me.”

There was not a coach within sight, and another had to be sent for from a distant stand of coaches. It was by this time past the hour of dinner, and there seemed no hope of being rid of his visitors.

Her ladyship said she was in no hurry, as they had had tea, and were going to the play, and hoped he would accompany them. He said he had not yet had his dinner.

“What is the play to-night?” said she.

“It is the ‘Heart of Mid-Lothian,’ again, I believe.”

They then talked of the merits of the actors, and she took occasion to tell him that she patronised the Edinburgh Review.

“We read your buke, sir!”

“I am certainly very much obliged to you.”

Still no carriage was heard. Another silence ensued, until it bethought her ladyship to amuse him with the politics of the country.

“We burnt the King’s effigy at Blairgowrie.”

“That was bold,” he replied.

“And a pair of dainty muckle horns we gae him.”

“Not very complimentary to the Queen, I should think.”

Here the coach was announced, and by the help of her daughter’s arm and her gold-headed cane, she began to move, complaining loudly of a corny tae. She was with difficulty got into the coach. The Rosebud stepped lightly after her.

The door was closed, and the order given to drive to Gibb’s Hotel, whence they hastened with all speed to Lord Gillies’s where the party waited dinner for them, and hailed the fulfilment of the “Prophecie of Pitlyal.”

Me. Jeffrey, in the meantime, impatient for his dinner, joined the ladies in the drawing-room.

“What in the world has detained you?” said Mrs. Jeffrey.

“One of the most tiresome and oddest old women I ever met with. I thought never to have got rid of her;” and beginning to relate some of the conversation that had taken place, it flashed upon him at once that he had been taken in.

He ran downstairs for the letter, hoping it would throw some light upon the subject, but it was only a blank sheet of paper, containing a fee of three guineas.

They amused themselves with the relation; but it was not until the day after that he found out from his valued friend Mrs. George Russell who the ladies really were. He laughed heartily, and promised to aid them in any other scene they liked to devise, and her returned the fee with the following letter:-

Letter from Mr. Jeffrey to the Lady Pitlyal, returning the fee of three guineas.

DEAR MADAM, - As I understand that the lawsuit about the Malt Kiln is likely to be settled out of Court, I must be permitted to return the fee by which you were pleased to engage my services for that interesting discussion; and hope I shall not be quoted along with the hackney coachman in proof of the danger of fore-hand payments. I hope that Miss Ogilvy is likely to fulfil the prophecy, and bring glory and fame to the house of Pitlyal; though I am not a little mortified at having been allowed to see so little of that amiable young lady.

With best wishes for the speedy cure of your corns, I have the honour to be, dear madam, your very faithful and obedient servant,                      F. JEFFREY.

92 GEORGE STREET,  21st April, 1821.”

At her house in Forth Street, Edinburgh, where she always spent the winter, Miss Graham held a kind of intellectual salon of all the brightest minds of her day. She was not a “professed literary woman” like Mrs. Hamilton or Mrs. Grant, although her Mystifications is written in a clear and humorous style. She made a further contribution to de Gelieu, which, under the title of The Bee Preserver: or Practical Directions for the Management and Preservation of Hives, Sir Walter Scott presented in 1829 to the Highland Society, by whom it was well received.

Her benevolence and philanthropy caused her to be universally beloved in the neighbourhood of Duntrune. Here, after the discovery of Dr. Jenner’s system of vaccination, she might often have been seen riding about the countryside with a needle in her pocket, prepared to inoculate all the local children who could not elude her kindly grasp. As the years advanced, her popularity and the circle of her friends increased, while to the end of her life her unselfishness and loving thought of others knew no abatement. One day, when she was over ninety, and thought that too much of the time and attention of her guests was being occupied in making her comfortable, “I am like the bride in the old song,” she said,

“Twa were blawin at her nose,

And three were bucklin at her shoon!”

To the very last, as Dr. Brown tells us, she retained her memory, her interest in life, her strong sense of humour. Friends and dependants alike adored her, and sad indeed were many hearts when this “perfect type of Scottish gentlewoman” died, in 1877, in her ninety-fifth year.

Clementina Stirling Graham was buried in the Old Churchyard of Mains, about two miles from Dundee. Like Allan Cunningham she had always wished her last resting-place to be a spot where daisies could grow about her feet, and the winds of heaven blow over her head, and the site of her tomb was specially chosen for its romantic seclusion. Her grave overlooks the crumbling ruins of the Castle of Graham of Claverhouse, whose kinswoman she was, and whose patent of nobility she had long possessed and cherished.

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