The Duchess and I

Scottish National Portrait Gallery Frieze

Scottish National Portrait Gallery Frieze

As you enter the main hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 150 titans of Scottish history gaze down at you, providing a dramatic introduction to the subjects awaiting you inside the galleries. This impressive chronological frieze by William Hole begins in the stone age, carrying right through till the late 17th century when the painting was completed.

Situated on the upper floor of the hall amongst the frieze and historical murals sits an interactive exhibit that calculates which figure from Scottish history you are most alike. By entering a series of personality traits and physical attributes, the computer programme will trawl through the gallery’s collection to find you your very own Scottish historical counterpart.

After entering my traits and characteristics, the computer whirred into life and reported back that I am most like Jane Gordon, Duchess of Gordon (c. 1749-1812). The Duchess was a hugely ambitious, outspoken, witty woman who was perhaps most well-known for hosting exquisite and exclusive parties for the Tories. Maybe there was a glitch in the matching system on the day I visited – I’m a rather softly-spoken, creative leftie who would never be caught dead hosting a Tory event.

Jane, Duchess of Gordon and son George - George Romney 1778

Jane, Duchess of Gordon and son George – George Romney 1778

‘She looks as fierce as a dragon and contents herself with spending her breath upon politics, and ringing a daily peal in the ears of her poor husband, with whom, Lord William says, she squabbles more than ever.’
- Lady Louisa Stuart on the Duchess of Gordon

Lady Jane Maxwell was born in either 1748 or 1749 to Sir William Maxwell, 3rd Baronet of Monreith, and his wife Magdalene Blair. Sir Maxwell was a drunk who sold most of his 30,000 acre estate in order to make ends meet while Magdalene raised and educated Jane and her other two daughters in a rented flat on Hynford’s Close just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It was quite normal at the time for titled, land-owning Scottish families to send their daughters to Edinburgh where they could receive further education and be launched upon Edinburgh society.

Lady Jane is said to have been a rather boisterous child, with reports stating she would ride on the backs of pigs set loose in the wynds of Edinburgh’s Old Town. At the age of 14, while playing in the High Street in Edinburgh Jane got her finger caught in the wheel of a cart, tearing it clean off. From then on she wore gloves wherever possible with a wooden finger inside. At the age of 16, Jane is said to have been so beautiful that songs were composed in her honour, including Bonnie Jennie of Monreith, the Flower of Galloway. It was around this time that Lady Jane fell in love with a young Fraser officer. Soon after they met, he was shipped to America with his regiment where he was reportedly killed.

In 1767 at 24 years of age Jane married Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon and chief of Clan Gordon. It was on their honeymoon that Jane received a note from her lost love stating that he was in fact still alive, asking for her hand in marriage. She is said to have fainted upon reading the note. This episode provided the basis of Ciji Ware’s 1989 book Island of the Swans, based loosely on the life and loves of the Duchess. The couple would go on to become one of Britain’s most well-known power couples of the time, influencing politics, fashion and the upper echelons of British society. They had seven children together, however their marriage quickly proved to be a loveless one, with the Duke and Duchess partaking in multiple affairs.

Gordon Castle circa Jane Gordon's tenure

Gordon Castle circa Jane Gordon’s tenure

The Duchess entertained on a lavish scale at her residence in Edinburgh and the family home of Gordon Castle, one of the largest homes in Scotland. She was the authority of fashion in Edinburgh, regularly hosting soirée evenings where up and coming artists were asked to entertain. It was in her drawing room that Robert Burns first read his poetry to Edinburgh society, with the duchess becoming his chief sponsor and also purchasing all his early published works. In 1780 the Duchess and her family moved to London where she continued to host parties for the Tories with a distinctly Scottish flavour. She championed wearing tartan, which at the time was still outlawed. Friends in high places meant she was able to get away with it – even King George was said to be a big fan of the Duchess.

Gordon Highlanders

Gordon Highlanders

Perhaps the most well-known tale of the Jane’s exploits is the part she played in the raising of the Gordon Highlanders. In 1793 the French Revolutionary Government declared war on Britain, however the British Army was largely short of recruits, so the Duke of Gordon was tasked with raising a Scottish highland regiment. The Duchess waged a bet with the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, that she could raise more men than him, and set about her task by employing a rather unusual recruiting drive. Aged 45, Jane traveled about the Gordon estates in Scotland dressed in a military uniform and a large black highland bonnet. Recruits were offered a King’s shilling for joining, with Jane enticing them even more by offering the shilling from her lips in the form of a kiss. The Duchess raised over 940 men, with the regiment existing until 1994.

Despite the unhappiness in her marriage the Duchess took great joy in seeking the best marriage matches for her children. She managed to arrange for three of her five daughters to marry Dukes and even took one of her daughters to Paris to try and secure a marriage with Emperor Josephine’s son. General Cornwallis’ son Lord Brome was considered a suitable match for Louisa, the fourth Gordon daughter. However the General refused to approve the marriage citing madness in the Gordon family. The Duchess is said to have allayed his fears by saying there was not one drop of Gordon blood in this particular daughter – with historians suggesting Jane’s lost love Captain Fraser was the father. Louisa and Lord Brome were married in London in April 1795.

By 1805 the marriage between the Duke and Duchess was officially over, after a lengthy separation during which the duke moved his mistress Jane Christie into Gordon Castle. A financial agreement was reached where the Duke would provide a house and financial security to the Duchess, however he failed to keep his word once he ran into financial strife. The Duchess was forced to live in hotels in the later part of her life and died in 1812 at Poultney’s Hotel, Piccadilly, London, surrounded by her four daughters and surviving son. Her body was taken north to be buried at the old Celtic Chapel by the banks of the Spey at Kinrara. There her husband carried out her final wish and erected a monument to her on which were recorded the marriages of her children.


About Nadine Lee

Originally from New Zealand, Nadine is a documentary researcher now based in the north east of Scotland.

View all posts by Nadine Lee →

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