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Catherine Sinclair

Catherine Sinclair was born in Edinburgh on 17 April 1800 and was one of 13 children.

Her father was Sir John Sinclair, a prominent politician who played an important part in many aspects of public life at the time.

Most notably, he originated 'The Statistical Account of Scotland'.

Catherine was educated at home and from the age of 14 worked as her father's secretary.

This involved writing from dictation for long periods each day, but it gave her a good grounding in the craft of writing.

Catherine Sinclair began her publishing career with a horror story in 'Blackwood's magazine'.

She also began writing children's books to entertain her young nieces and nephews. The first of these books, 'Charlie Seymour, or, The good aunt and the bad aunt', was published in 1832.

After her father's death, Catherine was able to devote more time to writing and 'Modern accomplishments', a novel of fashionable life, was published in 1836.

This was followed by a sequel, 'Modern society' in 1837 and several later novels. From 1838, she also wrote a series of travel books beginning with 'Hill and valley, or, Hours in England and Wales'.

She wrote in a variety of genres, including novels, children's literature, travel writing, and devotional works.

Her novels sold thousands of copies — the illustrated 'Modern accomplishments' title page was first used decades after the first edition, when the book was still popular.

Her best-known book is 'Holiday house', a children's book published in 1839 which remained a nursery favourite for the next century.

It was a landmark in children's literature — one of the first books to give a realistic picture of children who are naturally curious, mischievous, and argumentative.

Catherine's family belonged to the Scottish Episcopal Church, and her religious beliefs are evident in her fiction. She wrote a number of devotional works and, at the time of her death in 1864, she was celebrated in Edinburgh for her extensive charitable and educational work.

As well as founding a mission school at the Water of Leith, she also set up public benches and fountains, and a Sinclair Cooking Depot which provided good, cheap food for the poor.

A monument to Catherine Sinclair was erected by public subscription and can be found on the corner of Albyn Place and North Charlotte Street.

The novel was still a relatively new form of writing at the beginning of the 19th-century, and was associated with a female readership. Novels were considered to be quite frivolous and trivial, in comparison to essays or poetry which were more suitable for conveying serious thoughts and lofty ideals.

In contrast to Susan Ferrier and Mary Brunton, Catherine Sinclair put her name on the title pages of her books. She explained that this was because her father strongly disapproved of anonymous publication. Perhaps she felt the need to justify her decision to name herself because she knew not everyone would approve.

Scotland and the Scotch
or The Western Crcuit
By Catherine Sinclair (1840)


Studious we toil, correct, amend, retouch,
Take much away, yet mostly leave too much.

It may probably be considered a somewhat presumptuous hope for the author to imagine she might add any interest to what is already familiarly known respecting past and present times in Scotland; and certainly if the many who could succeed in this attempt better, had undertaken the pleasing task at all, she might have entirely refrained from adding her mite to the general fund of entertainment on those interesting topics. The mine is abundant, and requires only to be worked, but strangers about to explore the northern regions, vainly inquire for any recent work, to act as a clue in conducting them through the labyrinth of our Highland hills and glens, affording the general information, and local anecdotes, which add life and animation to that beautiful scenery. While the press abounds with interesting pages, describing the present state of the Pawnees, Zoolus, Red Indians, Thugs, London pick-pockets, New Zealanders, and other barbarians, hardly one stray journal has ventured forth, these many years, respecting the almost unknown tribes of Caledonia.

An excursion in Scotland wants the novelty and adventure of savage life; neither can it boast of anything to compare with the gorgeous paraphernalia of a continental tour. The traveller must here dispense with carnivals, operas, cathedrals, restaurateurs, brigands, improvisatori, arch-dukes, and ex-kings; nor can he fall into raptures about the Venus de Medici, or the climate, but to compensate for these lamentable deficiencies, we have in the Highlands old traditions, second sight, bagpipes, witchcraft, clans, tartan, whiskey, heather, muir-fowl, red-deer, and Jacobites!

Should a single travelling carriage alter its course this year from Calais to the north, and trace out any part of this tour as it is described, with half the pleasure such an excursion is capable of exciting, the highest ambition of this volume would be attained, and the information afforded along the road will at least be found accurate. The author’s chief perplexity has arisen from being too intimately acquainted with the country, as she finds great difficulty in compressing this work within portable compass, and she has also been deeply solicitous, not in a single instance to infringe the sacred privacy of society, nor the confidence of domestic life; therefore her pages resemble the catalogue of a picture exhibition—where landscapes only appear, they are described at full length, and historical scenes are drawn without disguise, but when an individual is accidentally introduced, he always preserves a strict incognito, being mentioned as the “ Portrait of a gentleman,” or “ Likeness of an officer in uniform,” or “ Sketch of a‘chieftain in Highland costume.”

The author wishes the pen may fall from her hand, before she writes a page not devoted to sound religion and strict propriety, or which can injure either the dead or the living. She believes, however, it must be conceded by every candid reader, that while occupying her own leisure, and endeavouring to beguile that of others, in sketching these recollections of Scotland’s present beauty, and of Scotland’s former greatness, she has recorded

“Not one line that, dying, I would wish to blot.”

Download Scotland and the Scotch here in pdf format

Holiday House
Download Holiday House here in pdf format

Scots Women in History  |  Significant Scots


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