Stories beget stories – it’s one of my favourite things about them – and archives are built on precisely this strength. Archival collections, like those at the University of Edinburgh, do not simply store and preserve artefacts, but actually become a medium through which stories, both existing and those yet to be told, can find a voice. As these musings might already indicate, I’ve been recently reminded of the centrality of stories to archives through my time as a volunteer in the Digital Imaging Unit working on various papers related to Rachel Erskine, née Chiesley (bap.1679-1745), or, as she is more infamously known, Lady Grange.
Lady Grange married her husband James Erskine, Lord Grange, in Edinburgh when she was in her late twenties. After many unhappy years, the couple negotiated their separation in 1730, but tensions continued to grow high. The fiery Lady Grange finally threatened to publicize evidence that linked her husband to the 1715 Jacobite uprising. Deeming her a risk, Lord Grange plotted with fellow Jacobites Simon Fraser (Lord Lovat) and Norman MacLeod to kidnap and expel his wife. The brutal attack took place swiftly. On 22 April 1732, Lady Grange was beaten, bound, and carried away from her home at the age of 53 without anyone reporting the incident. After being moved around the Highlands, she was eventually brought to the St Kilda islands, where she was effectively imprisoned in poor living conditions. On 20 January 1738, Lady Grange managed to get letters off the islands detailing her plight, although these letters would take another two years to reach her solicitor Charles Erskine in Edinburgh. A rescue attempt was organized in 1741 by Erskine with the help of Mr. Hope of Rankeillor, another of Lady Grange’s supporters, but by then, Lady Grange had been moved. She would die in 1745 on the Isle of Skye in the absence of any rescue.
That we know as much as we do about Lady Grange is partly due to the fascination that her story has always inspired in those who come across it. As early as the 1770s, we can see Lady Grange’s story entering the literary imagination, with Samuel Johnson mentioning her in his 1775 book A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and William Erskine ventriloquizing her in his 1799 poem Epistle from Lady Grange to Edward D—. But, the power of Lady Grange’s story and afterlife also comes from the fact that her own words persist in the form of letters, as do the words of those who knew her. Thus, quite fitting to a life marked by outspoken strength, the story of her afterlife is not solely, or even primarily, dependent on the voices of literary men who used her for inspiration.
At least 100 years after Lady Grange wrote her story on St Kilda in 1738, antiquarian and bookseller David Laing (1793-1878) found the infamous original letter (La.II.201, f.2). The letter is written in Lady Grange’s own hand and describes her abduction and subsequent imprisonment in brutal detail. As Laing notes, the writing becomes increasingly condensed as Lady Grange struggles to fit in everything near the end of her last page. The whole letter conveys a sense of the urgency and frustration that Lady Grange must have felt.
Over time, Laing was also able to collect other letters related to Lady Grange, including a 1730 letter written by Lady Grange to her husband setting out her terms for separation (La.II.201, f.1) and a letter written by Lord Lovat on 16 September 1732 (La.II.201, f.7), in which he bitterly denies rumours that he had a hand in Lady Grange’s disappearance, while nonetheless expressing a desire that “that devil” of a woman should “never be seen again.” Laing’s collection even includes a letter from Hope to Erskine (La.II.201, f.5) on 13 December 1740, following Hope’s receipt of Lady Grange’s letter, which had finally made its way to Edinburgh. In this letter, Hope expresses his heartache over Lady Grange’s plight and implores Erskine for a meeting the next day so that the two men could plan suitable action.
Interestingly, Laing’s collection also includes copies of letters, and gives some insight into how the story of Lady Grange continued to circulate apart from the original letters that Laing came to archive. It seems that Lady Grange managed to get a second letter off the islands in 1741, which included a request that whoever received the letter should recopy its contents and circulate it. This request was clearly carried out (a good deed bolstered perhaps by the fact that her story had achieved some notoriety following the recent arrival of her 1738 letter). While Laing did not find the original 1741 letter, he did collect one of its copies (La.II.201, f.4), believed to have been owned by the Revd William Carlyle. Laing further notes that a similar copy of this 1741 letter was published in the “Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, being a Series of the Scots Magazine for November 1817, Is. 333”, showing that interest in Lady Grange had persisted. Laing also collected, and perhaps even commissioned, handwritten transcriptions of Lady Grange’s 1738 letter and of Hope’s 1740 letter (La.II.201, f.3 and f.6 respectively).
It must be said that Laing did more than just collect letters related to Lady Grange; he worked to remind historians and antiquarians that they existed, while growing the archive of Lady Grange in the process. Laing wrote an article titled “Mrs. Erskine, Lady Grange, in the Island of St Kilda” (La.II.201, f.8), which was published on 8 June 1874 for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and discusses some of the Lady Grange papers, as well as reproducing parts of Lady Grange’s original 1738 letter. In 1876, Laing published an updated version of this article under the revised title of “An Episode in the Life of Rachel Erskine, Lady Grange. Detailed by Herself in a Letter from St Kilda, January 20, 1738, and Other Original Papers”. Thus, the collection of Lady Grange papers that the University of Edinburgh Special Collections inherited when Laing donated his manuscript collection in 1878 was already marked by a proliferation of copied letters and critical articles that add to, and inevitably shape, our received version of Lady Grange’s story.
And so it goes, story to story. Since 1878 and the entry of the Lady Grange papers into the University’s Special Collections, new stories have emerged that draw on Lady Grange and expand our awareness of her life. In 1897, Alexander Innes Shand wrote a children’s romance story in 1897 titled The Lady Grange; mention is made of her in Andrew Lang’s 1907 History of Scotland from the Roman Occupation; R.W. Seton-Watson wrote a 1931 article for History titled “The Strange Story of Lady Grange”; in 1984, Scotland’s soon-to-be Poet Makar Edwin Morgan wrote a poem titled “Lady Grange on St Kilda” in his collection Sonnets from Scotland; and in 2009 Margaret Macaluey published her book The Prisoner of St. Kilda: The true story of the unfortunate Lady Grange. 2009 also saw the excavation of the Grange home in Prestonpans, East Lothian (The Times 6 June 2009). Even this blog post itself, developed as I lost myself in the Lady Grange papers, becomes a small addition to the rich layering of stories that simultaneously archive and comprise the afterlife of Lady Grange.
Bridget Moynihan, English literature PhD, University of Edinburgh
Further information about Lady Grange and St Kilda can be found below. This link shows the site where Lady Grange lived on St Kilda (although in an earlier building)
While these links have general information and images of St Kilda
Thank you for this! Just one minor point: the Charles Erskine that Rachel wrote to was not her personal solicitor. He was an advocate and Solicitor General for Scotland from 1725 to 1737 – the post he would have held at the time of the kidnapping. (Hence ‘the Solicitor’.) By 1738, when she managed to get the letters out, he was Lord Advocate but he got the letter all the same. As she mentions, he was her kinsman by marriage as well as someone in a powerful position so a good person to contact for help. Not that this detail matters all that much – it’s one of the great stories from Scottish history.
Thank you for that clarification Karen! Much appreciated (and I think details do certainly matter).
Fascinating thanks – over decades I’ve researched the tale and wrote it up in book form , largely for my own interest. If you or anyone you know would like to have the material – fully referenced – to knock into a book for publication you are very welcome to it. I’m too old and decrepit to take it further !
Thanks for your comment! I will pass this on to my colleagues in the Centre for Research Collections,
I am interested in her travels as far as Balwuhidder and any reference to a MacGregor Keep where she was briefly lodged according to text I read many years ago but cannot replicate.
I believe that I know where the remains of the Keep might be.
Thanks for your comment. If you want to find out more about the Lady Grange papers we have in our collections you could contact the Centre for Research Collections by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org