The Mackenzies

Musicians | Number 41

Number 41 was the nineteenth century home of a highly musical family. Its head, Alexander Mackenzie, joined Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal  Orchestra as a violinist when he was 13. He went on to study in Dresden and London, then returned to lead the same orchestra. He died in his 30s, leaving little money and six children. His wife Jessie, who had been largely disowned by her well off family for marrying a musician, took a job managing a lace shop in George Street to support her children.

Four of those children inherited their father’s musical gifts.

His eldest son Alexander was apprenticed as a child to the Town Musician in Sondershausen. He pursued a highly successful musical career in London and became President of the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1888 to 1922, His achievements earned him a knighthood.

Alexander's younger brother Johnny also showed musical promise. A talented violinist, he hoped to follow his father as leader of the Theatre Royal Orchestra. But he suffered badly in the Edinburgh winters from asthma and bronchitis. His doctors feared consumption and persuaded his mother to send him to Australia. Once there, he found work with an orchestra in Melbourne, but within a few years was reduced to a precarious living touring mining towns with a company of singers, fiddlers and dancers, and drinking heavily.

The third son Joey had a fine tenor voice and played the flute. Sadly, he became mixed up in scandal after an incident in a gay brothel where a society figure was badly injured. Though he had gone there only to sing and played no part in the incident, the disgrace was such that his mother was persuaded to send him to Canada. He died soon afterwards of tetanus after being run over by a carthorse.

Isabella matched her brothers’ talents. She was a gifted pianist, who studied in Dusseldorf, then taught music and played concerts in Edinburgh. When she accompanied her mother on a trip to Capri, she is said to have treated the island to lively reels and strathspeys. For a time she worked as a musical governess to the daughters of a wealthy German American family in London. Returning to Edinburgh after a failed romance with a man above her station, she was quickly despatched to Australia to find and help her brother Johnny. After many adventures there, and a narrow escape from death, she married a radical writer who had befriended her on the boat out. They returned to London. She had three daughters, taught music, lived in great poverty, was abandoned by her husband, then finally returned to Edinburgh to live with her mother.

These family stories were explored in detail by Isabella’s daughter Cicely Fairfield, also known as Rebecca West, in her memoirs. She was outraged at the harsh impact of Victorian conventions and Heriot Row society on the lives of her mother and grandmother. We know Cicely under another name – Rebecca West. She was described by Time Magazine in 1940 as ‘indisputably the world’s number one woman writer’.  Educated at George Watson’s Ladies College, she became an actress, a suffragette, then a campaigning  journalist, war reporter and writer.


he found work with an orchestra in Melbourne, but within a few years was reduced to a precarious living touring mining towns with a company of singers, fiddlers and dancers, and drinking heavily