Clan Maxwell Society


Jane, Duchess of Gordon, nee Maxwell — circa 1775

The Maxwell ancestor I would most like to meet was Lady Jane Maxwell. Born at Monreith in 1749, Jane was the fourth child of Sir William Maxwell and his wife Magdalene Blair. Monreith House was not built until fifty years later, so she would have been born in Myrton, the now ruined castle a short distance from the present house.


Her father, the third baronet, has been depicted as a drunk who allowed his family to exist in poverty in Edinburgh while he sold most of his estate to make ends meet. A fictitious novel even suggested that he owned a whisky still at Monreith. I have searched for it with no success! However, there is no evidence that Jane or her three sisters and two brothers were brought up in poverty. Their mother rented good accommodations in Edinburgh, and the daughters appear to have been educated to a high standard. They all made good marriages.


The Monreith Maxwells would have been considered a respectable family in that era. They were closely related to Maxwells at Caerlaverock, Earls of Nithsdale who in the 17th Century had been considered one of the most powerful families in Scotland. And their grandmother was the daughter of the 9th Earl of Eglinton, head of the great Ayrshire land owning family and distinguished member of Parliament.


It is true that Jane’s father was not particularly successful at running the 30,000 acres of good land and the rundown but attractive old castle which he had inherited. Agriculture was the only industry in Southwest Scotland, so prosperity was very much in the lap of the gods and weather. Sir William sold some of his outlying acreage when his financial fortunes waned, but he repurchased the land when family fortunes improved.


As for his “drunkenness,” I doubt if he drank much more than his contemporaries. However, his reputation certainly was not without blemish. I have checked parish records of church courts and found several interesting entries. One is for a blacksmith who was found shoeing a horse on the Sabbath, a serious crime. His defense was that “Sir William Maxwell had made me do it.” Another entry was a young unmarried girl who was found to be pregnant, and her defense was exactly the same, that “Sir William Maxwell had made me do it.”


As for his family living in an Edinburgh apartment, that would have been normal at that time. Titled Scottish land owning families often rented apartments in Edinburgh so their girls could receive further education, be launched on Edinburgh Society, and attend the Balls. This is exactly what happened. Lady Maxwell moved to Edinburgh in 1760 with her three daughters: Catherine, 13; Jane, 11; and Eglantyne, 9.


Edinburgh was quite different then than it is now. Where the railroad lines and stations now stand beside the castle was a large loch. The town was squeezed in along the High Street between the castle and Holyrood Palace, now known as the Royal Mile. The Maxwells rented a house on the second floor of Hyndford’s Close, about midway along the Royal Mile. Jane and her younger sister, Eglantyne, received early notoriety by riding pigs in the High Street. The unfortunate animals were owned by a nearby Inn and were let out daily for exercise.


Jane had a nasty accident as a 14 year-old when playing in the High Street. She somehow got a finger of her right hand jammed in the wheel of a cart which moved away and tore her finger off. There is at Monreith a letter written, left handed, by her after the accident explaining how it happened. After this, whenever possible, she wore gloves in which a wooden finger replaced the one missing. One of her macabre wooden fingers is still at Monreith. In later life she used to explain the loss of the finger by saying it was a coaching accident.


Jane did not waste her time in Edinburgh. She took singing lessons with an Italian called Tenducci, had drawing lessons, and became an accomplished dancer, attending the Balls at the Assembly Rooms. She also was taken in hand at 13 by Henry Hume, Lord Kames, an author and judge, then 66, who customarily invited intelligent young people to his house for reading and discussions. Among his other proteges were Boswell and Adam Smith, author of “A Wealth of Nations.” The old judge and Jane continued their correspondence until his death.


When Jane reached 16, she was so strikingly beautiful that a song was written about her: “Bonnie Jennie of Monreith, the Flower of Galloway.” That was also when she fell in love for the first and probably only time. The object of her affections was a young officer who was probably a Fraser, a relative of Lord Lovat. Soon after they met, he left with his regiment, probably to go to America, and word later reached her that he had died.


Jane married the following year to the 24 year-old son of the 4th Duke of Gordon. The young man, Alexander, lived in the Gordon townhouse almost opposite the Maxwells, and he had inherited a considerable fortune and the title at the age of nine. Tall and good looking with reddish hair, he was good natured and fond of the country and country pursuits. That was good since he owned a lot of the country, his estates being extensive due to his family having avoided the financial repercussions of the “45” rebellion which devastated so many of the Scottish Highland nobility.


A bride at 17, Jane was married on October 23, 1767 at the home of her elder sister, Catherine Fordyce. The Maxwells were naturally delighted at this marriage, as shown in a letter Sir William Maxwell wrote to his daughter a month before the wedding. “The man who is soon to honor you with his hand is by birth and fortune a match for any lady in Britain. But that is little, if you but heard or I could repeat the all concluding good character he had from that meddly of gentlemen where I was last. And men of sense say he is a pattern of those virtues now all most lost which can only constitute domestick happiness.”

With her son, George Duncan — National Galleries Scotland

It was while they were on honeymoon at the Fordyce’s country seat, Ayton in Berwickshire, that she received a note from her former love, very much alive, asking her to marry him. She is said to have read the note and fainted.


For the next 20 years, the Duke and Duchess lived at Gordon Castle in Morayshire which Jane’s husband enlarged to be one of the largest homes in Scotland – with a facade 600 feet long and an 84 foot high central tower. Part of the town of Fochabers had to be demolished and rebuilt elsewhere to make room for the extensions.


At Gordon Castle, she organized parties, planted trees, and took a keen interest in farming. She was a great enthusiast for local dancing and fiddle and pipe music. She is credited with establishing the Strathspey as a dance form.


The couple had five children at two year intervals. Her first, George, Marquis of Huntly, was born in 1770. The Duke also had an illegitimate son at about the same time, also called George, by a Mrs. Christie. Jane used to refer to “my George and the Duke’s George.”


She entertained on an increasingly lavish scale, with as many as 100 sitting down to dinner and guests staying for three months in the Castle. And in the 1780s, the Duchess started entertaining in Edinburgh, quickly becoming the leading hostess. She regularly gave soiree 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, and she became his chief sponsor, purchasing all his early published works. The best known portrait of Burns was painted 100 years after his death and is set in the Duchess of Gordon’s Edinburgh drawing room.


Despite her father’s pre-marriage warning that “London is not the high road to heaven,” the Gordons moved to London in 1787. They first rented a house on Downing Street from Lord Sheffield, then one in Pall Mall from the Duke of Buckingham, and finally one in St. James Square. And Jane continued her party-giving habit, but with a distinctly Scottish flavor. She made everyone dance Scottish dances. King George III adored her, and she supported the King, so she was allowed to promote her Scottish heritage more than others would have dared. She gave a ball at which she and the Duchess of York dressed in tartan when it was officially banned, and she arranged for the King to inspect troops dressed in tartan in Hyde Park.


It was in the Pall Mall house that she held her greatest parties. Close to Parliament in Westminster, she kept open house for the Tories. Pitt, the Prime Minister, and Dundas, the Lord Advocate were frequent visitors. And it was during this time that she arranged a truce between the King and his eldest son, the Prince Regent, whose debts had run up enormous debts. She arranged for his debts to be met, and this enabled the construction of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, one of the most delightful of the royal palaces, to be continued.


In 1793, the army was short of recruits, and she had a bet with the Prince Regent that she could raise more men than he. Although 49 by then, she was still extremely attractive. Her recruiting technique was, to say the least, unusual. She wore a military uniform and a large black feathered hat, touring Scotland to organize reels. Anyone who joined the reel joined the army and received the King’s shilling, the recruiting payment, from between the Duchess’ lips by kissing her. This was how the Gordon Highlanders were founded. Her total was 940 men.



In 1799, she became depressed and ill. Her eldest son, George, had gone off to the wars, and she wrote in a letter to a friend: “Oh where and oh where has my highland laddie gone?” Her second son, Alexander, died at 23, and her husband had moved his friend, Jane Christie into Gordon Castle and built a small house on the Spey, called Kinrara, for his estranged wife. Jane lived there for the next six years, continuing her entertaining and partying.

Having enjoyed life as a Duchess, Jane was determined to get her daughters well married, and she set out securing suitable husbands for them. In 1802, after the Peace of Amiens, she took her younger daughter, Georgiana, to Paris with a view to marrying her to the son of the empress Josephine. This would not have been popular so soon after hostilities, but nothing came of it. A short time later, Georgiana was reputed to be friendly, if not engaged, to the 5th Duke of Bedord, but he died before they could marry. Jane then arranged a meeting with the Duke’s younger brother who had inherited the title and recently been widowed with several children. All went as planned, and he soon married his late brother’s fiancee. Georgiana had ten children by the Duke, and she followed in her mother’s partying footsteps, entertaining frequently in her Bedford home, Woburn.


Jane then turned to finding a husband for Charlotte, the eldest daughter. She plotted to have her marry William Pitt, the Prime Minister, but her plan failed when Pitt’s close friend, Lord Dundas, took an interest in Charlotte. Neither potential husband worked out, and Charlotte later married Colonel Lennox, the future 4th Duke of Richmond.


General Cornwallis had returned to England from his disastrous command of the British troops during the American Revolution to be, rather surprisingly, treated as a hero and created a Marquis. Having fought with Jane’s brother at Plessey in India as well as in the American war, he would have been a friend of Jane’s. So his eldest son, Lord Brome, was therefore considered suitable for Louisa, the fourth daughter. Cornwallis refused to approve the marriage, however, citing madness in the Gordon family. The Duchess allayed his fears by swearing that there was “not one drop of Gordon blood” in this particular daughter. The marriage then proceeded. History does not relate who Louisa’s natural father was, but it is thought to have been Captain Fraser.


Susan, the third daughter, married the 5th Duke of Manchester, and Madeleine, the second daughter, married Sir Robert Sinclair, about whom little is known. Jane’s own marriage had been more of less an arrangement from the beginning. The return from the dead of her lover during the honeymoon was an inauspicious start. The Duke having an illegitimate son by Jane Christie at the same time as his heir was born was an unfortunate sequence, to be followed by the birth of her illegitimate daughter a few years later. The Duke openly kept his mistress at Gordon Castle while the Duchess seems to have preferred assignations with her lover on the windswept moors.


By 1805, the marriage was officially over, and the couple reached a financial agreement whereby the Duchess would be given a new house, capital payments, and generous annual supplements. The Duke was by then in financial difficulties, however; he acknowledged his liability to the Duchess, but he did not pay all the monies legally due her.


Jane was reduced to living in hotels, and she became increasingly eccentric. She was involved in an acrimonious dispute with her estranged husband over money, and she 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.


Jane, Duchess of Gordon, was painted by most of the leading English portrait painters, but she was known for her intelligence, infectious laugh, and sense of humor as well as her looks. She appears to have had an enormous amount of energy which she directed towards helping what she considered good causes. She left her mark on history by what she did to get Scotland and Scottish culture accepted by the new, strange German Kings of England.


And she is remembered in the lines of Robert Burns, of whose poetry she was an important early sponsor:

She kiltit up her kirtle weel

     To show her bonie cutes sae sma’,

And walloped about the reel,

     The lightest louper o’ them a’!

While some, like slav’ring, doited stots

     Stoit’ring out thro’ the midden dub,

Fankit their heels amang their coats

     And gart the floor their backsides rub;

Gordon, the great, the gay, the gallant,

     Skip’t like a maukin owre a dyke:

Deil tak me, since I was a callant,

     Gif e-er my een beheld the like!

Her contributions to posterity were not as great as James Clerk Maxwell, the physicist. And her political and artistic achievements were not as great as those of Sir Herbert Maxwell. But I think she is the Maxwell ancestor I would most like to meet.

[ From a 1997 address to the Clan Maxwell Society by Sir Michael of Monreith, baronet. ]

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