Elizabeth Grant

Writer | Number 4

Elizabeth Grant (1797-1885) was born in Edinburgh's New Town, but spent much of her childhood far to the north, at Rothiemurcus on Speyside.  Her father combined management of a Highland estate with work as an MP and as a lawyer. He struggled to make ends meet, while retaining the social and practical obligations that went with being a Highland laird and a successful advocate. Finally, the family moved to India where a judgeship was found for him. Elizabeth went on to marry Henry Smith, an army officer and landowner. They lived in Ireland and France. 

Her memoirs paint a vivid picture of her life, particularly upper class social life in early 19th century Edinburgh.  Hard winters made it difficult to travel, so many well off families left their estates and hired accommodation in the New Town from autumn to spring. In 1814, the Grants moved into 4 Heriot Row for a winter of balls and dinners.

Here are two extracts from her memoirs.

"It was cold, wretched weather, snow on the hills, frost on the plains, a fog over the ferry. We were none of us sorry to find ourselves within the warm cheerful house... at No 4 Heriot Row. It was not a large house having no upper storey... The situation was pleasant, though not at all what it is now. There were no prettily laid out gardens then between Heriot Row and Queen Street, only a long slope of unsightly grass, a green, fenced by an extremely ugly wall abandoned to the use of washerwomen. It was an ugly prospect and we were daily indulged with it, the cleanliness of the inhabitants being so excessive that, except of Sundays and the 'Saturdays at e'en', squares of bleached linen and lines of drying were ever before our eyes."

The second extract follows support by her father for the unpopular Corn Law Bill and the interruption of her mother's 'card and conversation' party.

"Our first intimation of danger was from a volley of stones rattling through the windows which had been left without closed shutters on account of the heat from the crowded rooms.  A great mob had collected unknown to us, as we had musick within and much noise from the buzz of the crowd.  A score of ladies fainted, by way of improving matters. Lady Matilda Wynyard, who always had her senses about her, came up to my mother and told her she need be under no alarm.

The general, who had had some hint of what was preparing, had given the necessary orders and one of the Company, a highland Captain Macpherson, had been dispatched some time since for the military. A violent ringing of the door bell and then the heavy tread of soldiers' feet announced to us our guard had come. There followed voices of command outside, ironical cheers, groans, hisses, a sad confusion. At last came the tramp of dragoons under whose polite attentions the company in some haste departed.

Our guard remained with us all night and ate up the refreshments provided for our dismayed guests, with the addition of a cold round of beer which was most fortunately found in the larder. Next day quiet was perfectly restored, the mob molested us no more and the incident served as conversation very usefully for a week or more."

Elizabeth’s family rented other nearby New Town houses in the following winters. Her depiction of life and society at that time – sometimes kindly, sometimes critical - has a lot in common with today’s gossip columns.

American Civil War General Ulysses Grant claimed descent from her branch of the Grant family.

For further reading, try 'Memoirs of a Highland Lady: Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurcus', in 3 volumes, published by Canongate Publishing.

A score of ladies fainted, by way of improving matters