Margaret Macaulay is the author of The Prisoner of St Kilda (Luath Press, 2009) and she spent 7 years researching the story of Rachel, Lady Grange. A programme by Kenneth Stevens on Radio 4 (I hope it may still be available for a few days) prompted me to write about Rachel and her astonishing story.
Margaret says that she only started to research the story after her own daughter visited St Kilda on a work party. Margaret realised that very little was known about Lady Grange – and everything that was known had been told from a male point of view. That sounds so familiar – and is true of so many female figures throughout history!
Born in 1679, Rachel Chiesley was the daughter of John Chiesley, who notoriously murdered Lord Lockhart, the judge who had sentenced against him in an alimony lawsuit. On 2 April 1689 Rachel’s murderer father was hung outside St Giles, in the High Street, Edinburgh. The pattern on the cobblestone – known as the Heart of Midlothian – now marks the door of the Old Tolbooth prison where the gibbet stood.
Although tainted by her father’s crime, Rachel married James Erskine, Lord Grange, in 1707 – the same year as the Act of Union which brought Scotland under English rule. After the marriage, as wife of Scotland’s Lord Justice Clerk, Rachel enjoyed a fashionable life in the heart of Edinburgh, as well in the Grange’s country residence in Prestonpans. The portrait in the National Gallery of Scotland was painted at the time of her marriage. The couple lived 25 years together and had a happy life, to start with, but their relationship soured after James Erskine set up his mistress – Fanny Lindsay – in London and probably entertained others at Preston House. Incidentally, Preston House (which no longer exists) played a key role in the Jacobite victory at Prestonpans in July 1745 (on the Prestonpans Tapestry see my earlier blog and the tapestry website).
The real problems between James Erskine and his wife, however, were not his extra-marital affairs – for all that Rachel was distraught by his behaviour – but rather something even more emotive, and dangerous: politics. Lord Grange was the brother of the Earl of Mar, who led the 1715 Jacobite rising but then disastrously abandoned the rebels and sailed to France with James Stuart (the Old Pretender). Mar never returned and died in Aix-la-Chapelle in 1732.
Whatever his faults in his dealings with his wife, James Erskine, Lord Grange, was a convinced supporter of the house of Stuart. If this had become public knowledge, Lord Grange would have immediately forfeited his position in the Union Government. Therefore, when Rachel threatened to expose him as a Jacobite, Grange was forced to take immediate and decisive action: he and his wife separated. Rachel was described as being “embarrassing and notoriously aggressive”, so – fearing further scandal and the threat to his reputation – on 22 January 1732 Lord Grange gave orders for her to be abducted from her lodgings in Edinburgh.
She was dragged away, bundled onto a horse and taken to Linlithgow, and then to Stirling. Some months later, she was taken through the Highlands and across the Minch, to the tiny island of Heisker, part of the Monach Islands, about 13 km west of North Uist, where she remained for two years. The photo below shows the island on an idyllic day, but just imagine it in winter, when bitter cold winds roared across the Atlantic (open sea from here to America), accompanied by driving rain and sea spray.
and shipped to St Kilda. She spoke no Gaelic, the St Kildans no English, although – Macaulay adds – they were undoubtedly kindly people. After seven years – during which time she was confined to a cleat (a small stone shelter, typical of the island) and survived on a limited diet, mainly consisting of gannet meat (very different to the fashionable fare she would have enjoyed in Edinburgh!) – she convinced the minister on St Kilda to smuggle messages to her solicitor in the capital city. They arrived two years after she wrote them and provoked a scandal. By some miracle – given the power of her opponents – these letters (described as a “treasure house of material”) have survived in the Edinburgh University Library Collection.
Thomas Hope, her lawyer, reacted immediately and sent a ship, the Arabella, to rescue her. But Erskine had Rachel spirited away again. She was taken from island to island, and at last to Skye, where she died in 1745 – the very year when Prince Charlie landed.
That year James Erskine married his mistress Fanny Lindsay but his involvement in the Jacobite rising came to an abrupt end when Prince Charlie and his followers were defeated at Culloden on 17 April 1746.
The exact site of her grave seems unclear, since apparently two or three funerals were held. However, this marked grave at Trumpan, Skye, is generally thought to be her burial place. RIP.
The excellent Women of Scotland website has images of her grave at Trumpan (here), as well as an extract from Rosalind Marshall’s entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women.