Two ladies of Dirleton
Mary Nisbet, Countess Elgin
The Hon. M.G. Constance Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy
by Stephen Bunyan
Nesbitt/Nisbet Society, United Kingdom
Publication No. 9
Suggested further reading
BRADLEY, A.G. 1927. When squires and farmers thrived. London.
CHECKLAND, Sydney George. 1988. The Elgins, 1766-1917: a tale of aristocrats, proconsuls and their wives. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 303pp.
A well-written account by an eminent historian, based on detailed research into the Elgin family archives at Broomhall, and the main source for the biography of Mary Nisbet in this booklet.
[FERGUSSON, R. 1807.] The trial of R. Fergusson, Esq. for Crim. Con. with the Rt Hon. Lady Elgin, before R. Birchall, Esq. Under Sheriff, In the Sheriffs' Court, Tuesday, Dec. 22. 1807. £10,000 damages. With a biographical sketch of the life of Lady Elgin. London: printed for the booksellers, by Tim. Marshall, 42pp.
A contemporary account of Lord Elgin's case against Robert Fergusson for seducing Lady Elgin (Mary Nisbet). Known only from a (unique?) copy in the National Library of Scotland.
NISBET HAMILTON GRANT, John Patrick. 1926. The letters of Mary Nisbet of Dirleton, Countess of Elgin. London: John Murray, 358pp.
The lively letters (1799-1805) of Mary Nisbet, wife of Thomas, 7th Earl of Elgin, to her mother, describing travels in Europe and Turkey.
NISBETT, Robert Vivian. 1990. The progression of a branch of the Dirleton Nisbets to Australia. A monograph. Nesbitt/Nisbet Society of Australia, 19pp. Reprinted by the Nesbitt/Nisbet Society, United Kingdom in 1993.
Traces the descent of the Australian Nisbetts from the marriage of John Nisbet, b. 1693, (Dirleton line) and Rachel Mason.
NESBITT, Robert Chancellor. 1941. Nisbet of that Ilk. London: John Murray, 321pp. Reprinted 1994 with additional material provided by R.A.E. Nesbitt of that Ilk, published by Phillimore, Chichester.
The standard family history of the Nesbitt/Nisbet families. Pages 25-49 cover the Dirleton Nisbets.
I. Mary Nisbet Hamilton Ferguson, Countess of Elgin
One of the most fascinating and influential individuals in the history of Dirleton parish must surely be Mary Nisbet, who became the Countess of Elgin and later Mrs. Nisbet Hamilton Ferguson. She is of interest because her story still poses some unanswered questions. She fascinates for the role she played in an age when women were very much expected to be submissive to their husbands, and because much of the present attraction of Dirleton and Stenton villages is her legacy.
First let us look at Mary's background. She was born in 1777 and was the only child of William and Mary Nisbet of Dirleton. At first sight this may not seem particularly impressive. The daughter of a simple country laird; but William Hamilton Nisbet was more than that. The family had benefited over a long period from a series of heiresses and their inheritances. William Hamilton Nisbet himself inherited the properties of Dirleton and Innerwick from his father, and from his mother he inherited the Biel estate including the bulk of Stenton parish. His mother's other property at Pencaitland passed to his younger brother John Hamilton of Pencaitland. William married Mary Manners, the grand-daughter of the 2nd Duke of Rutland, but as daughter of the son of the Duke's second marriage. She was herself an heiress and inherited the estates of Bloxholm and Alford in Lincolnshire.
Mary, as the only child of such a marriage, was a young woman with great prospects. It is strange that a family with such a background and with such possessions had not been ennobled. The reason for this is probably to be found in the staunch Jacobitism of the Nisbet family. It was inevitable that the hand of a girl with such prospects would be sought in marriage by suitors anxious to gain control and possession of her inheritance.
Mary was obviously brought up as the centre of a devoted family. She was certainly indulged, but at the same time clearly stood in awe of her mother. She comes through in Mary's letters as a woman of strong views, but there is a directness and frankness in the letters which demonstrates a close relationship between mother and daughter. Mary's affection for her father also shows, not least in her tendency to refer to him by the nickname Sir Philip O'Kettle. Mary was brought up at Archerfield for which she had a great affection. During these years her father had improved both the house and the estates. By 1789 she had grown into an attractive young woman of twenty one, dark, lively and with a shapely figure. She played the pianoforte, loved reels, played whist and read novels. She was the centre of attraction in Edinburgh society. We can readily believe it: apart from her lively disposition, the idea of which is supported by a glance at portraits of her, she had the enormous attraction of being the heiress to vast wealth. We are told she had suitors. It would be extraordinary if she had not.
A serious attempt was made to secure her hand by Thomas, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th of Kincardine. The Earl was described as interested in rewards, recognition and honour. Such a man could not afford to marry carelessly. He may have been in love, he may have been fascinated by Mary, but he was certainly attracted by her dazzling prospects. He could offer her an ancient line, a title, a great position; he had the prospects of a great career but needed what she could offer in return - the prospect of a young family and the apparent certainty of great wealth. Elgin was born in 1766 and had succeeded his brother at the age of five.
The Elgins are an ancient family but their estates and income did not match the status of their title. Elgin's personal horizons had already been enlarged by the patronage of his kinsmen, Lord Bruce of Tottenham and Lord Ailesbury. In 1782, he came north to St. Andrews. In 1785, he went to Paris and then spent a year in Dresden. This was an anxious time for his mother who, having carefully nurtured the Earl during his minority, was anxious about his prospects. She knew that he was dependent on the strait-laced Ailesbury's influence, which might be withdrawn if Elgin fell from grace. Elgin now manifested an interest in three directions. He applied for a commission in the Guards. His family did not consider this wise. A commission was granted but he was given extended leave. He started to develop Broomhall, which had been carefully managed during his minority and almost at once imposed extra financial burdens on the estate, and he got involved in Scottish politics, in particular the election of the Representative Peers in 1790. He tried to take a line independent of Dundas who controlled Scottish political life. This was a dangerous line to take. Fortunately for his own future, in the end he came into line with Dundas.
Elgin had already had a brief introduction to diplomacy and when in 1791 someone was urgently needed to go to Vienna, Elgin was sent. It was useful experience. Elgin returned to Broomhall and started to rebuild it in 1796. He employed Thomas Harrison who built in the Greek style. This project was opposed by his mother on grounds of expense. In 1794, in response to the Government's wishes, Elgin formed a Battalion of Fencibles. To do this, he borrowed £6000 and served in Ireland until November 1795 as Lieut. Colonel. It seemed an unnecessary extravagance but was to prove a useful investment for his career.
In December 1795 Elgin was sent to Berlin as Minister Plenipotentiary. The purpose of the mission was to strengthen the support of Prussia against revolutionary France. Meanwhile, his mother became governess to Princess Charlotte, a role which she filled with success and which gave Elgin a link with the throne. Elgin returned in 1798 and continued his developments at Broomhall. Such a policy was expensive and so Elgin found the emotional needs, financial pressure and need for an heir were all pushing him towards marriage. Meanwhile he was given Royal encouragement to put himself forward as a prospective ambassador to Turkey. He did so and was appointed. In the nine months before he left, he courted and, on the 11th of March 1799, was married to Mary Hamilton Nisbet. Mary's father settled £10,000 on her, not in cash but in the form of a non-negotiable bond which provided interest only.
Elgin was certainly an eligible husband. He was a nobleman. He had begun a promising career in which he had negotiated with emperors and kings. He was polished and well educated, and a member of the House of Lords. He was building a fine mansion and developing a fine estate. There was some question over the soundness of his finances and possibly over his financial judgment, but that was the price the Hamilton Nisbets perhaps expected to pay. Mary, after all, had vast expectations. There was some drama at the wedding when Mary was upset and Bishop Sandford temporarily stopped the proceedings. The marriage was, however, completed and within four months Mary was pregnant.
Mary's heath and probably her pregnancy gave cause for concern, and Elgin offered to give up the appointment to Turkey. Mary and her parents agreed he should not do so. Meanwhile Harrison, his architect, had inspired Elgin with a zeal for Greek sculpture. Elgin built up his suite to go to the East. It reflected his cultural interests. He tried but failed to get Turner, the great landscape artist, to go with him. He had the Rev. J. Carlyle, Professor of Oriental Languages at Cambridge who was to look for ancient texts, and Dr. Hector McLean who was to study the small pox and plague. He had two secretaries, William Richard Hamilton, the son of the Vicar of St. Martin's in the Fields, and John Philip Morier. He had a chaplain, the Rev. Philip Hunt who became a tutor to Mary. Elgin had chosen his suite well, but it was expensive.
In addition, he employed the artist Don Tita Lusieri, otherwise known as Giovanni Battista and two formatori, makers of plaster casts, and two architects, and took a chamber orchestra from Rome. They also had some personal servants. Elgin was expected to meet these expenses, and the cost of the many gifts he was expected to make, from his salary of £6,600 per annum. Grenville refused to increase this salary, which was largely paid in arrears. Elgin had also hoped for an honour, but was unsuccessful in this. He was made a Privy Councillor in 1799, but did not get an order of chivalry. A vacancy in the Order of the Thistle went elsewhere.
Here then we have Mary as a young bride, at a time when Britain was involved in a major war, going not to one of the civilised capitals of Europe, but to Turkey of which little was known. What was known might be thought unlikely to appeal to a gently reared girl, brought up in what was more or less Jane Austen's world. It was no doubt an adventure, and Mary was preparing to enjoy it or endure it. Her letters home are astonishingly frank and wide ranging. In Portugal she met a doctor who knew Archerfield and commented on the improvements her father had made there. Moving on to Gibraltar they chased possible prize vessels. At Gibraltar she commented freely on an elderly charmer, General O'Hara, and then at Naples speculates about what father would think of Lady Hamilton (Nelson's dearest Emma). She also wrote to her mother saying she had told Elgin he could tell bad stories to her father. The Elgins were received by the Queen of Naples at a fete in the Chinese manner which had cost £6000, a vast sum then. Even before she arrived she was encouraging her mother and father to come out on a visit to Constantinople, a most astonishing suggestion in view of the circumstances of the time.
Soon the Elgins arrived in Turkey. They were received in great style. They were greeted by the Selim, a warship with 132 guns and 1200 men. Lavish gifts were exchanged in various ceremonies. She lists some of the presents she had received: a pelisse worth £500 and a gold filigree coffee pot set with rubies and pearls. Despite the attitudes of the country, Mary managed to be involved and in due course captivated Turks both male and female. On her visit to the sister of the court Pasha she sent for her pianoforte and taught the women to dance Scottish reels. Her obvious success made her unpopular with the other European women. A Turkish poet wrote "Her sugar lips are breeding smiles divine and overspread the world with heaven's shine". Mary also had to concern herself with more mundane problems. They had a large house which she had made comfortable at a cost of £2000. She found that she had to provide for a large household. She talks of 30 "Hottentots" which soon after increased to 60. She is prepared for her mother's visit and asks her mother to bring a box of singing birds for the Sultana. Despite her extravagances she is concerned that people may have had to pay to receive letters which had not been franked. Getting letters franked by a member of Parliament was almost an obsession of the gentry of the period.
Mary gave birth to Lord Bruce on 5th April 1800.
At this stage mention of the Greek marbles begins. Greece was a Turkish possession at the time. Mary reported that Elgin had set up a staff at Athens to assess and record antiquities. It consisted of six painters including Giovanni Battista, the two formatori, and six others. Already they were dreaming of a house between Piccadilly and Park Lane to show off their collection of Greek antiquities. Mary's mother and father spent a year with them in Constantinople and left in May 1801, to return via Athens. Mary, left in Constantinople, was forlorn without them and suffered from chokings and fever. She spent the summer in Bouyouk Dere, a pleasant village where her health improved.
Meanwhile, the Hamilton Nisbets in Athens had caught the antiquarian fever. The Archbishop of Athens presented them with the Gymnasiarch's Chair from the ancient games, which despite sinking with the Mentor eventually came to Biel, where it remained until recently. They carved their names on the Parthenon and left a space for Mary and the Elgins in their "Athenian Club". Mary caught the enthusiasm. She, like her father, had been against the expense of the formatori hunt, but now she wrote to her mother reporting Elgin's glee that Mr. Hamilton Nisbet had entered into the spirit of the project. Elgin was no doubt hoping for financial support from his father-in-law. Meanwhile, Mary concerned herself with the purchase of porphyry of the finest kind, and red granite from Alexandria for building projects at home. These she asked Admiral Lord Keith to send home as ballast.
In July 1801 she reported to her mother that Elgin had received the permit authorising his entry into the Citadel, to copy and model anything they could, to dig the foundations, to erect scaffolding and to bring away marbles that might be deemed curious. A discussion of how Elgin and his agents interpreted that permission is not properly a part of an account of Mary, nor is this the place to assess the contribution to scholarship by Elgin's party. It should be noted, however, that Mary remained an enthusiast and used her charm to get the navy to carry back marbles to Britain. From Athens, she wrote that they hoped the Nisbets would help smooth the way for the careful handling of the marbles at the British ports.
One other important aspect of Mary's stay in the Near East was her support for Dr. Scott's vaccinations for smallpox. Lord Bruce and Mary, the new baby, and many of the household were vaccinated. The Elgins were enthusiasts because Jenner's father was the Dowager Countess's chaplain, and because the Hamilton Nisbets had met a doctor in Vienna who told them about it. He had studied under Cullen in Edinburgh. The Elgins were responsible for making vaccination acceptable in Turkey, and they established a staging post for the vaccine to go to India. This is remarkable when one remembers that Jenner's discovery was as recent as 1796.
Mary now wanted to travel. She planned to go to Egypt, but like so many young mothers, did not know what to do with the children. She wished she could send them in a balloon, another new invention, to her mother. This planned trip came to nothing. She heard her parents were going to Paris. She replied she would like to be ambassadress there, but was to go under very different circumstances. In April 1802 she went to Athens. They had an interesting time and their enthusiasm for antiquities increased. Mary took charge of a party of fifty to return to Constantinople, leaving Elgin to follow. It was bravely done, yet from the heart came the cry "What would I give to transport myself to Archerfield?".
By the time she got back to Constantinople, she was far advanced in her third pregnancy, and Matilda was born two weeks later. Meanwhile, Mary was involved in the family hobby of building. In an earlier letter, she had denied removing the Biel plans, and during these years her parents were enlarging the house at Biel. The decision had been taken to build an embassy, the English Palace, at Constantinople. Mary wished it had been taken earlier. What an amusement it would have been, and how she would have liked to give one grand fete in it. However, it was being done at last, and it was being built as a copy of Broomhall, the Elgin's mansion in Fife.
Mary was also concerned with her expenses. She had attempted to reduce expenditure, and in January 1802 was able to report that she had brought expenses down from £8,472 the previous year to £4,847. One of the economies was to dispense with Elgin's chamber orchestra, although its leader Polloti stayed on for his keep, but without pay. Her mother had asked her to do two things. One was to get some Maltese slaves released. She or Elgin achieved the release of 136, valued at £40,000. The other was to learn Italian which she was doing.
In January 1803 the Elgins left Constantinople with their children and two paramanas, native nursemaids. Elgin had been ill all winter and had treated himself with mercury, which had affected his nose. He had been better in Athens, but by the end of the year had deteriorated again. At Malta they made what was to prove a tragic mistake. They sent the children home on the Diana and decided to travel through France. They spent Holy Week in Rome and Mary talked to Lady Beverley about her feelings for Elgin. Checkland suggests Mary could not confide in her mother because she was far away and because she was straitlaced. The former is certainly true, but most young women would welcome a tête-à-tête, which would no doubt be preferable to a letter. She had not yet met Ferguson and from the frankness of her other letters, it seems likely she would be willing to discuss a problem in general terms. When they got to France, the political situation changed and all travellers were imprisoned. The Elgins were befriended by Napoleon's cousin, Sebastian, but to no avail, not were other efforts on their behalf any more successful.
During this period Mary and Elgin went through a difficult time. He was depressed and she was concerned about his health, the safety of the children, and the state of Elgin's finances. She was also pregnant again. She was consoled by news of the safe arrival of the children. She urged her parents to take them to Archerfield and urged that her mother should not risk coming to France and particularly without her father. "Go to Scotland and make Nelly Bell and Peggy Nisbet greet ower my bairns. Tell Nelly to hurl them in the clothes basket as she did me" (Nelly was paid £3/10/- p.a. at Archerfield in 1784). She was pleased to hear about the purchase of Ninewar in 1803. The Elgins stayed at BarrPges which they found boring, and then moved to Pau which they found better and where they got a house for £60 p.a. Elgin, however, was unjustly blamed for the maltreatment of French prisoners by the Turks when he had their conditions improved. He was also treated more harshly because of the way a French general was treated in England. In November Mary went to Paris to work for his release, but in December he was imprisoned in the castle of Lourdes. Mary was concerned for his health and persuaded Tallyrand to persuade Bonaparte to release him from there. At the beginning of 1804, she wrote a letter to her mother saying how unhappy and depressed she had been for various reasons.
Mary had now become involved in the emotional triangle which was to bring disaster. Robert Ferguson of Raith was in Paris and helped to work for Elgin's release, but he also fell in love with Mary and wooed her fiercely. William was born in Paris on 4th March 1804, by which time Ferguson had gone home. He still wrote passionate letters. He and Elgin were exact contemporaries. Elgin was a Tory; Ferguson a Whig. He and Elgin were close neighbours, but Raith was a more prosperous estate than Broomhall. Mary tried to shake him off and wrote saying she could love him no more. She returned to Elgin. She shared his mother's concern about the finances of Broomhall; she wrote to his mother about Elgin's nose, and she studied classics under Hunt. Ferguson meanwhile had gone to Archerfield to give the Hamilton Nisbets news and to convince them the Elgins really had tried to be released from France. In April, baby William died and his embalmed body was sent home to Dunfermline, where Ferguson represented the parents at the funeral.
Mary's emotions continued to be confused. She returned to Elgin and within a month of William's death, she was pregnant again. But she knew that Ferguson had affected her, and when Elgin urged her to go home without him, she told him he was destroying her by forcing her away. She should perhaps have been more explicit at that stage. Mary went back to her parents' house in Portman Square, London, and while she was there she was safe, until she moved to 60 Baker Street. Ostensibly she was looking forward to happiness with Elgin. She may have wanted to get away from her mother. Whatever her motives, she created an opportunity for Ferguson which he exploited. Ostensibly he was working for Elgin's release; in reality he was wooing his wife. By December he was putting Mary under pressure. They discussed the pressures Elgin had subjected her to. Elgin had admitted in Lourdes that he had put the marriage under strain. Lucy was born on 20th January 1806, and Mary wrote to Elgin saying she would not become pregnant by him again, and she became Ferguson's mistress. Elgin did not take the letter seriously, especially as he received further letters of reassurance. Her parents knew nothing of all this.
Elgin was released in July 1806, and matters came to a head. Mary maintained her ban on intercourse but offered to live with him otherwise. Elgin refused this arrangement and Mary went to Archerfield with the children. Apart from the problem with his marriage, Elgin was concerned about his own health and his finances. On the question of the marriage, Elgin wrote to Lady Beverley and asked her to intercede. As Mary insisted friendship was all she had to offer, he stopped writing. In September he came north to persuade her. He opened a letter from Ferguson to Mary which, having been unclearly addressed, was accidentally put in his mail. He confronted Mary, she confessed, he informed Mrs. Hamilton Nisbet and so put the house in a turmoil. Elgin then departed for Broomhall, leaving behind his horses, coach and groom.
Despite all this, he was willing to continue the marriage, but only on the basis of a full normal marriage. For whatever reasons, Mary could not face this prospect. She realised that the scandal of it might bring her parents to the grave, but even to accept the compromise position would be an agony because she was by this time so involved with Ferguson. So much so that she said she felt as if the dead William at Dunfermline was really theirs. This feeling was presumably because she had been in Paris with Ferguson during the pregnancy. She wrote to Ferguson: "I feel I cannot live without you; only death can set me free". Elgin was faced with a problem: he could acquiesce, but he was not prepared for celibacy. He also needed to be sure of an heir. He wanted a brother for Lord Bruce, and if he accepted the situation as it stood, he would be shown to the world as a compliant cuckold. On the other hand, if he went for divorce there would be painful consequences for them all, and it would end the hope of the rich Hamilton Nisbet estates being joined to his own, at least in his time. That hope died entirely with Lord Bruce in 1840. They did in due course pass to his eldest daughter, but that was not what he had hoped to achieve.
It is necessary to remember that this affair, though it was played out in an age in some ways no more moral than our own, was one where divorce was largely unknown. The situation was further complicated by the high standing of the parties involved, and the fact that both English and Scottish legal processes had to be gone through. English law required a special Act of Parliament, and the grounds had to be laid in the civil courts. In December 1807, Elgin raised an action against Ferguson. He sued for £20,000. It was a fairly civilised case and Elgin was awarded £10,000. The Act of Parliament that divorced them was passed at vast expense in 1808. Ferguson ceased to be an M.P. until 1831. In March 1808 Elgin raised an action in Scotland. This was necessary because both parties were domiciled in Scotland and held or had prospects of estates there. Adultery was a basis for divorce in Scotland. The case was uglier in Scotland, and Mary's lawyers fought hard to prevent Elgin getting a claim on the Hamilton Nisbet estates.
Elgin took severe steps, but he had been placed in an intolerable position. He refused to let the children have any contact with her mother. He emerged to a second and apparently happy marriage. He had his children, and Broomhall with the various projects there in which he was involved. He had the Marbles, though they proved a financial burden. He had lost the rich prospect of the Hamilton Nisbet wealth which would have done so much to secure his position, made worse by the expenses of the legal actions and the problems of the Marbles. Mary had been placed under intolerable strain and no doubt bitterly missed her children. She had no further children in her second marriage.
Checkland says that Mary had a future simply as the notorious wife of Robert Ferguson. This is rather misleading. Mary must have missed her children terribly, but Robert Ferguson was not a nobody. The estate of Raith was richer than Elgin's Broomhall. The Hamilton Nisbets defended her position in the lawsuit, and seemed to make no effort to bypass her in their inheritance. It seemed that, given time, they accepted the position, so that Bruce would inherit in due course. Elgin came to hate Ferguson, who became M.P. for Kirkcaldy burghs in 1831, 32 and 37, and East Lothian from 1835-7. He was made Lord Lieutenant for Fife in 1837, a post that Elgin had coveted and only briefly held. Ferguson died in London in 1840, aged 73. The Whig electors who valued his success in 1835 and his contributions to Parliament, erected the huge memorial in Haddington by Robert Forest. It features his statue on a column, with a square base with figures representing Justice, Geology, Art and Agriculture, emblematic of his interests. The inscription, erected by the tenantry of East Lothian, is "to a kind landlord, a liberal dispenser of wealth, a generous patron of literature, science and art". Allowing for the circumstances, this is a remarkable testimony, and must give a fair indication of the measure of regard in which Ferguson was held.
Elgin believed it would affect his daughters' marriage prospects to visit their mother. In 1821, however, Lord Bruce came of age and proposed to visit her on his way to Paris. Elgin delivered him to her and she was delighted. In 1824 Bruce had a serious epileptic attack in Paris, and went into decline. His health caused increasing problems and tension with both his stepmother and his sister, Matilda. He died at Bath in 1840, and with him passed the hope of joining the Elgin and Hamilton Nisbet estates.
William Hamilton Nisbet died in 1822, and we find Mrs. Hamilton Nisbet Ferguson carrying on the work her parents had begun. According to Robert Chancellor Nesbitt in "Nisbet of that Ilk", she succeeded to the joint estates in 1834 on the death of her mother, but according to the heritors' record of Stenton parish, she is shown as patron and chief heritor in 1826. It would seem that she would have inherited the bulk of the Nisbet Hamilton estates in 1822, and the Christopher estates in 1834. Her mother was also shown as a heritor at Stenton, and presumably had a life interest in part of the estate.
Mrs. Hamilton Nisbet Ferguson was responsible for various improvements on the Biel estate and, in particular, for the elegant new church at Stenton built by Wm. Burn, largely at her own expense, both as principal heritor, and because she was given leave by the others to spend more. The new statistical account of Dirleton in 1836 comments that "her kindness and liberality to her tenantry are too well known to require any notice, and the estimation in which she is held by them all is the best proof of the interest she ever takes in their welfare. She is the constant friend of the poor and to her taste, no less than her liberality, is the village of Dirleton indebted for the many unrivaled improvements which of late years it has undergone". These including the building of the manse and the improvement of the Kirk.
This testimony, together with that on her husband's memorial in Haddington, even allowing for the circumstances of their production, suggests the couple fulfilled a public role and were held in exceptional esteem. By then, they were elderly and can be forgiven for leading a relatively retiring life.
Meanwhile, Lady Mary Bruce had married Robert Dundas in 1828, a member of the leading Tory family. He was the grandson of Robert Dundas of Armiston, and the great nephew of Lord Melville. Mary came next in line after the failing Lord Bruce, and after his death in 1840 was her mother's heiress. There seems to have been no question of dividing the inheritance between the three daughters. It is interesting that in Debrett Lady Mary's husband is referred to as Robert Dundas of Bloxholm, and had assumed the surname of Christopher only, and subsequently added Nisbet Hamilton. Did Mary or her mother settle Bloxholm on him then, and how did that square with Elgin's view? Dundas also became M.P. for Lincoln and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and a Privy Councillor in 1852. Lady Mary inherited the Hamilton Nisbet estates on her mother's death in 1855. Checkland says that she became a classic grande dame and that her half sisters laughed at her. Probably both they, and Lady Lucy, were jealous. Lady Matilda died in 1857. This Mary and Robert were the parents of Constance, the subject of the second part of this booklet. Constance was thus the grandaughter of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin.
What then emerges in our picture of this rich lady who lay in a nameless tomb for over sixty years? She was clearly a young woman with a lively personality and a great interest in life. She tried to fulfill a difficult role in a foreign country to the best of her ability and despite lack of experience and training, she was caught up in international events. She tried hard to use her talents and influence to improve her husband's position. She became involved in an emotional tangle and succumbed. We do not know why Elgin was in the end to repel her so badly, but by the stand she took he was forced to sue for divorce. However, she emerges after a doubtless bleak period as a kindly and highly thought of proprietress of her large estates in East Lothian.
II. A shy lady and her estates: the Hon. M.G. Constance Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy
There were scenes of unusual activity on the roads in East Lothian very early in the morning of 11th September 1888 as the local nobility, fashionably dressed in their carriages, the tenant farmers in their gigs, the local clergy and important figures from the burghs and villages in traps, or on horseback, or even foot, in their Sunday best, made slow progress to the new chapel of Biel. This had been built by Rowand Anderson for the new owner, Miss Nisbet Hamilton. Many must have been on the road about all night, for some arrived by 7.30 a.m. for the 8.30 start of what was the Scottish wedding of the year.
The Scottish Press gave it the kind of coverage reserved in our day for the Princess of Wales. In contrast, in September 1891 the marriage of the only daughter of a Scottish Duke to a French Count went almost unnoticed. The difference is explained in part by the much larger part played in nineteenth century rural affairs by the great estates. The wedding was unusual because it was that of a great heiress in charge of her own affairs, an unusual case for the time. The scale of the lady's local influence had been demonstrated the year before, at the celebrations of the Queen's Golden Jubilee on 21st June 1887. The first of series of assemblies sponsored by our bride-to-be was described as follows in the Haddington Courier of 24th June 1887:
"Innerwick Yesterday, the first of the series of festive gatherings, given on her East Lothian estates in honour of the Queen's Jubilee by Miss Nisbet Hamilton, took place, no fewer than 500 people being entertained in the beautiful glen, the green sward of which during the afternoon, presented a most animated appearance. The sports began about two o'clock, when all kinds of games were engaged in, young and old vying with each other in the exhibition of their loyal attachment to the Queen. Refreshments of the most substantial character were provided, copious libations of tea being accompanied by meat sandwiches, mutton pies, and a liberal allowance of delicious cake. The East Linton brass band was in attendance, and provided excellent music, to the livelier strains of which the younger portion of the company engaged with much spirit in reels, polkas, and other favourite dances. "
Other entertainments followed at Dirleton (1100 guests), Winton (800) and Biel (1200) - in all, 3600 friends, tenants, servants etc. were entertained, not counting those on her two English estates. Loyal messages were sent, that from Dirleton by the novel method of carrier pigeon, and from Biel a loyal poem written by Jessie McVicar of the dairy.
How did these estates come to be in the hands of a single woman? She was the Hon. Mary Georgina Constance Nisbet Hamilton, who was born in 1843. She was the only child of Lady Mary Bruce and her husband Robert A. Dundas, who had married in 1828. Her inheritance had come to her from her mother who died in 1883. She in turn had inherited it mainly from her mother, Mrs. Nisbet Hamilton Ferguson, formerly Countess of Elgin. This inheritance had consisted of the Hamilton estate of Biel, including the village of Stenton, the Nisbet estate of Dirleton and Innerwick with the ancient castle of Dirleton, the mansion house of Archerfield, and the ruined castles of Innerwick and Thornton, and the Christopher estates of Bloxholm and Wellvale in Lincolnshire. In addition, Miss Nisbet Hamilton in 1885 had inherited the Hamilton estates of Winton and Pencaitland from her relative the Dowager Lady Ruthven.
By any standards it was a vast inheritance. It was made up in East Lothian of three mansion houses in good order, containing a fine collection of pictures, objects d'art, curios, plate and furniture, of four villages which her family had largely built and cherished, and in the forty farms some of the best in Scotland. The prosperity of the estates was demonstrated by the amount of building that had been done over the years. It is also testified to by various writers, but most fully by A.G. Bradley in his book When Squires and Farmers Thrived (1927), written about his stay in East Lothian in 1870 as a student at Fenton Barns, a farm on the Dirleton and Archerfield estate. This was the peak of British agricultural prosperity, and Fenton Barns, farmed by George Hope, was famous throughout Europe. Bradley pays tribute to the standard of farming both in terms of efficiency, and the prosperity of the surrounding countryside.
Bradley found Archerfield to be a great country house, but formal, ceremonious and dull. R.A.C. Nisbet Hamilton, Constance's father, was a junior member of the Dundas family who controlled the political life of Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century. He had probably married Lady Mary Bruce as much for her wealth and the political influence it would give him, as for her social position. When she inherited her properties he first assumed the name Christopher in 1835, and then Nisbet Hamilton in 1855. Appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1852, it was said his function was to give parties for the Conservative Party. If so, the peak of his entertaining must have been in on 20 August 1859, when the young Prince of Wales visited Bass Rock and Tantallon Castle and stayed at Dirleton with Mr. and Lady Mary Nisbet Hamilton.
When Bradley met the 27 year old Constance in 1870, he described her as plain featured, with a reputation for cleverness, and a great heiress. There was talk of suitors, perhaps even German Royalty. She was carefully chaperoned and shy, but Bradley said that, even then, she had the look which showed she would settle the matter for herself. This she did in due course. Her choice was Henry T. Ogilvy, the son of Sir John Ogilvy, Bt., a Liberal M.P., which would not have endeared him to her father, who had shocked even some of his Conservative friends when he gave notice to quit to George Hope of Fenton Barns for no other fault than standing as a Liberal candidate. Constance may also have been influenced by the fact that she had seen how her father had gained control over her mother's inheritance.
By the time she married her position was improved by the Scottish Married Woman's Property Act of 1881, which at least secured her income to her, though it was less generous than the English act of 1882. The Settled Land Act of 1882 must also have been of value to her and her husband when they came to develop Gullane in the 1890s. Nevertheless, she bestowed a great position on her husband by her marriage to him. By the time she married she was 45 and beyond the age of safe child-bearing. This created inheritance problems and must have affected her attitude to her great possessions.
Bradley suggests that by 1870 a great social divide had developed in Scotland between the gentry and tenantry, brought about by the growing fashion for an English education. This had created a language barrier and was creating a religious one. He gives evidence for this at Archerfield in Robert Nisbet Hamilton's time, but there is some evidence to the contrary in the formation of the Dirleton Golf Club. Mr Nisbet Hamilton was a keen golfer and encouraged all connected with the estate to play on the 13 hole course at Archerfield. Dirleton Golf Club was formed in 1869 and later in the year was renamed Archerfield Golf Club as a compliment to Miss Nisbet Hamilton, who had presented a medal. As we have seen, relations were certainly cordial by the time of the Golden Jubilee in 1887.
This more open attitude is also shown in the list of guests at the wedding in 1888 which, in addition to the nobility and gentry, included the tenants of the farms on the estates as well as the important figures from the local burghs.
The wedding itself was obviously carefully thought out. The arrangements had regard for the devout Episcopalianism of the couple. The elaborate service started at 8.30 a.m. and was followed by Holy Communion. It was celebrated in the new Chapel at Biel, dedicated to St. Margaret of Scotland. The chapel could only hold some of the many guests: between one and two hundred, but we know from a later inventory it was normally seated for 102. Everything else that was fitting for such an important occasion in the lives of the bride and bridegroom, and indeed the people on their estates, and of the area, was done.
Though the marriage began at 8.30 a.m. a substantial crowd had gathered by 7.30 a.m., hoping for a seat or good view. The bride entered unobtrusively, presumably from the house, with no bridesmaids, to be given away by her cousin, Mr. Robert Dundas of Armiston, to join the waiting Mr. Ogilvy and his best man, Lord Sherborne. She was suitably attired in white velvet brocade and white satin with Brussels lace, wearing several pieces of diamond jewellery, including five diamond stars as buttons and a tiara. Three brooches were wedding presents from the bridegroom.
The chapel was richly furnished with the crucifix of beaten silver embellished with precious stones. The altar had two rows of candlesticks ; there were three silver sanctuary lamps. Some of the items in the chapel were given as wedding presents, for example the silver bowl and jug from the Earl and Countess of Haddington, and the Venetian silver Sanctuary lamps by Mr. and Mrs. R. Bruce. A sixteenth century Italian Cope was given by Mr. and Mrs. Cyril Flower and used during the service, as was a Jacobite Prayer Book given by the Bishop of Edinburgh. Three Gothic arches of white heather separated the chancel from the nave. The full choral service was conducted by Bishop Dowden of Edinburgh, using Lady Robert Manner's (the bride's great, great grandmother) prayer book, which had exceptionally large print and which had been used by Archbishop Socker at King George III's marriage.
After the wedding the new Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy arms were flown from the flagstaff, replacing the Hamilton Arms which had been up earlier. Just as the whole company could not be accommodated in the chapel, so they fed in relays at the wedding feast at 11 a.m., purveyed by Summers and Sons of Princes Street. About 12 noon the cake, 25 inches in diameter and four feet high, with banners showing the Coats of Arms of the various families of the bride and groom, was cut by the bride and handed round. The Rev. J. Marjoribanks of Stenton proposed the marriage toast. After this, the company and most of the house party dispersed. The honeymoon was to be spent at Biel where, in the afternoon of the wedding day, the couple planted a purple beech to the east of the house.
The day was not quite over, for the various villages were in fete and this culminated in bonfires, illuminations and fireworks. At Dunbar celebrations extended to rolling tar barrels - suggesting peoples' enthusiasm overcame the decorous celebrations. The sense of joy even extended to the East Linton Combination Poorhouse, where a special tea was followed by a pleasant social evening in which references were made to Miss Nisbet Hamilton's many kindnesses.
When one considers the low-key approach to Royal visits today, and the problems encountered in mounting simple celebrations for local or national events, this all sounds remarkable - even the wedding presents. For example, the people of Dunbar, better class and poor, subscribed for a massive Boule clock, the children of Gullane School gave a prayer book mounted in ivory, and an antique silver gilt casket was given by Holy Trinity Congregation in Haddington. The numerous gifts were perhaps in part a measure of thanks for interest shown and favour conveyed, and in part as a measure of real affection.
After the marriage the couple seem to have settled down to fulfill their responsibilities on the bride's estate. The day by day management was in the capable hands of the factor, Robert Higgins, who lived at Ninewar and was paid £240 p.a. Entertainments continued. In 1889 there was a great New Year Fete at Biel, in part a marriage festival, with two marquees with tea for 1000 followed by dancing and fireworks. A series of musical entertainments were arranged over the years at Winton, Biel and Archerfield, a tradition continued by Sir David and Lady Ogilvy.
Their interests also took a more serious turn. Soon after his marriage Mr. H.T. Hamilton Ogilvy laid the foundation stone of the Episcopal School at St. Paul's Cathedral in Dundee, on 27 March 1889, and was presented with a silver trowel by the architect. One suspects the couple may have made a generous contribution to the project. At about the same time a small orphanage, St. David's, was established at Biel for 12 poor boys from Dundee. The boys wore kilts and formed the choir in the chapel. The Country Life article of 1902 says that letters of appreciation were still coming from boys who had been there. In 1906 the Church Lads Brigade from Edinburgh had a highly successful camp in the grounds of Biel. Mrs. Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy continued to be interested in golf and her husband was President of the Archerfield Club. They also played an important role in promoting golf elsewhere, leasing the ground at Muirfield to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and giving land to golf clubs in Gullane and North Berwick. The couple were also deeply involved in the supply of clean water - a major issue of the day - to Gullane and Dunbar.
The couple took an interest in church building. Mr. Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy almost at once became trustee of St. Baldred's Episcopal Church in North Berwick, of which R.A.C. Nisbet Hamilton had been one of the original trustees. The couple were involved in the building of St. Anne's Church, Dunbar, from 1888-1890, also designed by Rowand Anderson. Henry Ogilvy was to be buried in the new burial ground he laid out next to the cemetery at Pencaitland. It was dedicated in 1911 to St. Michael and All Angels, and was intended as the site for an Episcopal church. Perhaps owing to falling income, the Great War and the social changes that followed it, it was never built. A great cross is still there to commemorate the piety of this devoted couple. As principal heritor of some 9 parishes, Mrs. Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy contributed much to the maintenance of parish churches and manses, including major alterations at Stenton in 1891-2 by James Jerdan, and at Dunbar Parish Church in 1896-7.
Bradley commented that while the couple were happy together, the gift of judicious management of a great estate in difficult times was denied to them. While this may be true, they were certainly not alone in being affected by the great agricultural depression caused by the importation of cheap grain from North America after 1875. The British ruling classes were slow to realise the dangers of free trade in a changed economic climate. Bloxholm was sold and its gates brought to Winton. Archerfield was let from time to time, other economies were practiced.
During the Edwardian period Biel was clearly the couple's principal residence. The Country Life article of 30 August 1902, and another in the Scots Pictorial in 1912, give full descriptions of the mansion. A remarkable range of flowers was cultivated at Biel. In addition, the grounds contained many fine specimen trees, including a Cedar brought in a pot from London by the Second Lord Belhaven, who opposed the Union of 1707. It perished in a strong gale on 5 November 1926. More trees are listed by Thomas Hannan in his Famous Scottish Houses (1928, but again in print). As was the fashion of the time, animals were kept, including ostriches and emus. Excitement was caused in 1894 by the escape of a kangaroo into the park.
The house contained many treasures, including paintings by Van Dyck, Lely, Gainsborough, Kneller and Murillo, and amongst the other treasures was a necklace which had belonged to Queen Elizabeth. In the years before the Great War, Archerfield was let to, among others, the Prime Minister Asquith. Some pictures may have been moved then to Biel. Mrs. Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy was to bequeath many of the Biel and Archerfield paintings to the National Gallery of Scotland.
In 1900 H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Edward of Saxe Weimar, a nephew of Queen Adelaide, visited Biel and had luncheon. Later in the summer H.R.H. the Duchess of York visited Yester and made an afternoon visit to Biel.
In 1904 Herbert K. Ogilvy, second son of Henry's brother Sir Reginald, married Lady Christian Bruce, daughter of the Earl of Elgin, and a kinswoman of Constance Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy. She was descended from the seventh Earl, who had been so anxious to secure the Nisbet Hamilton inheritance to the Elgin title. About this time Constance took stock of her affairs, to consider providing an income for her heir in entail, J.P. Grant. Otherwise, he was faced with going to Nigeria, then known as the White Man's Grave.
Constance's husband, Henry Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy died on 19 December 1909. His obituary notices tell us he was a Deputy Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace in the county, and a member of the County Council. He was Chairman of the Lunacy Board and the Bill Committee, and member of several School Boards and Parish Councils. He was a keen curler and President of the Biel and Dirleton Curling clubs, and Patron of that at Winton. Two services were held at Biel and one at St. Baldred's, North Berwick. The funeral came from Biel to Pencaitland at two o'clock and the service was performed according to the Anglican rite.
After her husband's death, his widow lived a quieter life mainly at Winton. During this period she perhaps gained the reputation that led to my title, visiting the farms but saying little or nothing. Devoted to the memory of her husband with whom she had been so happy, she expected the tenants to have their photographs in their dining rooms. She visited the schools in the villages and seemed a very formal old lady to the children.
Once more, there was building work. Gilbert Ogilvy designed the laundry at Winton for her, and in 1914 she fitted it out as a convalescent home for officers. The War Office declined it and she dismantled the fittings, at which point the War Office changed its mind.
Mrs. Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy died on 25 June 1920. Her funeral service was held in the Inner Hall at Winton, and she was buried beside her husband in the new burial ground at Pencaitland. Many tributes were paid to her generosity, to her support of the Church, especially the Episcopal church, to her accomplishments, to her interest in local affairs, her love of music and history, to her patriotism and finally to justify my title, in the words of the Parish Minister of Pencaitland "To outsiders she might seem stiff and proud, but under great shyness there was a very humble and tender heart. No good object appealed to her in vain and she was ever ready to help where there was distress."
The estates of Biel and Archerfield passed to Lt. Col. J.P. Nisbet Hamilton Grant D.S.O. of Kilgraston, who was descended from Lady Lucy Bruce. He died in 1950 and Biel then passed to his relative, Vice Admiral Basil Brooke. In 1952 Admiral Brooke demolished the chapel built by Rowand Anderson in 1883, and most of the building done by William Atkinson in the early nineteenth century. The porch was resited. He sold Biel to Charles J. Spence Esq. in 1958. Admiral Brooke died in 1982.
The Winton Estate was bequeathed to Gilbert Ogilvy. Herbert Ogilvy had succeeded to the Ogilvy Baronetcy because his nephew had been killed in action in 1914. Gilbert had already been involved in building projects at Winton. His elder son, David, inherited it from his father in 1953 and, as Herbert died in 1956 without an heir, he also inherited the Ogilvy title. Sir David Ogilvy died in 1992 and was succeeded by his only son, Francis, as 14th Baronet of Inverquharity and Laird of Winton.