Lady Grange’s Letters from St Kilda
The letters of Rachel Erskine, Lady Grange, who was exiled to St Kilda by her husband have now been made public by The Edinburgh University Image Collections.
The letters were smuggled to Lady Grange’s solicitor in Edinburgh and offer an incredible insight into the suffering and hardships she endured on the island.
Lady Grange spent nine years on St Kilda and was then moved on to various locations in the Western Isles including Harris, Uist and Skye.
St Kilda is the remotest part of the British Isles, it lies 41 miles (66 kilometres) west of Benbecula in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
The Story of Lady Grange
Lady Grange (Rachel Chiesley, 1682-1745) was married to James Erskine, the Scottish Lord Advocate. James was the second son of Charles, tenth Earl of Mar. After he was raised to the bench in March 1707, he took the name Lord Grange, and in 1710 became Lord Justice-Clerk. His wife was Rachel Cheisley, sister of Major Cheisley of Dalry, an area of Edinburgh. After James and Rachel had eight children together. After they had been married 20 years James is said to have taken a ‘insuperable aversion’ to her and they agreed to live separately. But James considered his estranged wife to be of danger to him and his standing in society saying she would spy on him and may have the means of implicating him with the Government (whether this means as a Jacobite sympathizer there is very little evidence). James concluded that he needed to get rid of her. Others around them said that Rachel was very jealous of his ‘irregularities’ and had a ‘fierce and revengeful’ temper and was the ‘victim of intemperance’.
It is believed that the plan of kidnapping her off to some remote place in the North was hatched, on her disappearance they were to circulate reports of her death. This went ahead and as her funeral was staged in Edinburgh she was abducted and imprisoned on North Uist before being taken, in 1734, to Hirta, the largest island in the St Kilda archipelago. While there she was not completely isolated – she had a constant supply of provisions and a woman to wait on her. She managed to alert friends to her circumstances by sending a letter to Edinburgh but they were unable to rescue her. After eight years she was eventually moved to Skye.
Dr Johnson is said to have told McLeod, the landlord of St Kilda that if he “would let it be known that he had such a place for naughty ladies, he might make it a very profitable island” (in Boswell’s “Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides”)
This plan involved Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat. He denied having any connection with this. Letters exist to his cousin Thomas where he wrote:
“As to this story about my Lady Grange, it is a much less surprise to me, because they said ten times worse of me when that damn’d woman went from Edinburgh than they can say now; for they said, it was all my contrivance, and that it was my servants that took her away; but I def’d them then, as I do now, and do declare to you, upon honour that I do not know what is become of that woman, where she is, or who takes care of her; but if I had contrived, and assisted and saved my Lord Grange from that devil, who threatened every day to murder him and his children, I would not think shame of it before God, or man; and where she is, I wish and hope she may never be seen again, to torment my worthy friend.”
Lady Grange in her statement dated 1741, is documented as saying:
“One of Lord Lovat’s lyes, which he said to John MacLeod, the young man of Dynwick, that I was going to kill my husband – you know that a lye.”
“I hear Alexander M’Donald in the Hasker is dead: His wife has since married .. she knows ’twas Lord Lovat and Roderick M’Leod that stole me. The minister’s daughters saw me taken out of Me M’Lean‘s house by Rod. M’leod.”
A letter to her Solicitor
A letter to her solicitor on January 20th 1738 gives an account of her treatment.
I have copied this out to the best of my ability, keeping the spelling mistakes and incorrect punctuation in. It is quite difficult to piece together, but does give a wonderful insight into her situation.
SIR, – It is a great blessing and happiness to a nation when the King imployeth such a nab as you are to Act and do for him who I’m perswadid his the aw and fear of God on him. Job was a just man and a perfect and the cause that he know not he searched out to deliver the poor and oppressed and him that had none to help him, a Patterne for on in your office. I have the Honour to be your Relation and I know you have much interest with Lord Greange if you can make Peace for me you know the promices that is to the Peace maker, you know I’m not guilty of envy crime except of loveing my husband to to much, he knowes very well that he was idol and now God his made him a rode to Scoureth me… you know he took a dislike and a hatred to poor unfortunate me …. we lived 25 years together few or non I thought soo happy there is no person but his a fault … ought he not to forgive me as he desires or expects to be forgiven of God …”
“… I would give a particular account but I must be short and I have a bad pin upon the 22nd of Jan 1732 I lodged in Margaret M’Lean house and a little before twelve at night some servants of Lovats and his Cousin Roderich Macleod he is a writer to the Signet they there had me down upon the floor in a Barbarous manner I cried murther murther then they stopp my mouth I puled out the cloth and told Rod Macleod I knew him, there hard rude hands belled and abased my face all below my eyes they dung out some of my teeth and tore my cloth of my head and tore out some of my hair. I wrestled and defend my self with my hands then Rod: ordered to tye down my hands and covered my face with a cloath and stop my mouth again they had westl’d so long with me that it was all I could breath, then they carr’d me down stairs…. I could not cry they carried me off very quickly with out the Ports, when they open’d the Chair and took the cloath off my head I saw I was near to the mutters of hill it being moonlight I then show’d them that all the linnins about me were covered with blood. they had there about 6 or 7 horses they set me on a horse behind was Mr Foster and tyed me fast with a cloath … we rode all night it being Saturday we met no body or day breake. They took me in to a house which belongs to …MacLeod advocate a little beyond Lithgow..”
“..they had a sloop waiting there for me… he ordered him to take me home to his own house and keep me till farther orders… on Sep 30 we can to the Isle it belongs to Sir Alexander MacDonald and this man is the tannent, after I was some time there he thought it a sin to keep me he said he would let me go for tho Sir Alex: should take the Isle from him he could not take his life. I sent a man for a boat and he ran away with my money. In June 1734 Rod: sent for the tenant of this Isle his name Alex. MacDonald to come to the Captain of Clan Ronalds house he told him I was to be taken with him, on the14 of June. John Macleod and his Brother Norman came with their Galley to the Husker for me they were very rude and hurt me sore. Oh alas much have I suffer’d often my skin mead black a blew, they took me to St Kilda. John Macleod is called Stewart of the Island he left me in a few days, no body lives in it but the poor natives it is a poor Isle. I was in great misery in the Husker but it ten times worse and worse here, the Society sent a minister here.”
End extract from this letter:
“I have given him a much fuller account then this and he writ it down. you may be sure I have much more to tell than this. When this coms to you if you hear I’m alive do me juster and relieve me, I beg you make all hast but if you hear I’m dead do what you think right before God.”
The solicitor forwarded this letter on and made people aware of Lady Grange’s situation on St Kilda.
In 1741 measures were taken for her release. This resulted in her being moved to Assint in Sutherland, and from there to the Skye where she ended her says in May 1745. Lord Grange lived out the later part of his life on London and died there on January 24 1754 at 75
Several of the letters have been digitised and can be accessed on our images website: http://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/qesrl7
This cleit (a beehive-type dwelling) is said to be the house in which Lady Grange was confined while banished to the island of Hirta. However, there is no evidence to support this. The date of her death is given variously as 1742 and 1746.
If you’re interested – my photos from my trip to St Kilda: