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Lady of St Kilda

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The title or name of Lady of St Kilda has two known references relating to the islands of St Kilda:

  1. Rachel Chiesley - Lady Grange of Edinburgh, kidnapped and transported to Hirta in 1732.
  2. A 19th century schooner

Rachel Chiesley - Lady Grange of Edinburgh

The Lady of St Kilda was first used in the 18th century to refer to the Lady Grange of Edinburgh, Rachel Chiesley, kidnapped in 1732 and said to have been imprisoned on St Kilda by the Jacobites. Having allegedly overheard Jacobite conspirators in their house in Edinburgh, she threatened to expose them. In response, her husband, aided by a friend, removed her by sending her to a number of remote islands, and held a mock funeral for her in Edinburgh. Despite this, she remained married to him for 25 years, living on Hirta from 1734-42, before being taken to Skye where she died after a failed rescue attempt.

The 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (pub 1911) gives the following account:

James Erskine (1679-1754), was educated as a lawyer and became lord justice clerk of the Court of Session and Lord Grange in 1710. He took no part in the rising of 1715, although there is little doubt that at times he was in communication with the Jacobites; but was rather known for his piety and for his sympathy with the Presbyterians. He is more famous, however, owing to the story of his wife's disappearance. This lady, Rachel Chicely, was a woman of disordered intellect; probably with reason she suspected her husband of infidelity, and after some years of unhappiness Grange arranged a plan for her seizure. In January 1732 she was conveyed with great secrecy from Edinburgh to the island of Hesker, thence to St Kilda, where she remained for about ten years, thence she was taken to Assynt in Sutherland, and finally to Skye. To complete the idea that she was dead her funeral was publicly celebrated, but she survived until May 1745.

- Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edition (pub 1911)[1]

Another account notes that the the two separated in 1730, after which she began to harass and stalk him, spreading rumours that he was a Jacobite sympathiser. Her actions became intrusive, and led her being reckoned insane. Publicly declared dead, her funeral was staged in Edinburgh, while in reality Lord Erskine had abducted her to Hirta, where he confined her for 15 years. At one point she alerted friends of her predicament by letter - they attempted to rescue her, but fail. Finally moved to Skye, she was to die there in 1746.[2]

These various accounts of her incarceration vary as to their detail, but nevertheless maintain a common thread.

From the history of the Erskines:

Mr. Erskine’s wife, Lady Grange as she was called, was Rachel Chiesley, the daughter of Chiesley of Dalry, who shot President Lockhart, 31st March, 1689, in the Old Bank Close, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, in consequence of a decision given by him in an arbitration, that Chiesley was bound to make his wife and family an allowance. There can be no doubt that there was madness in her family, and the lady was a confirmed drunkard. She had been very beautiful, but had a most violent temper, and, becoming jealous of her husband, she employed spies to watch him when he visited London, and is said to have often boasted of the family to which she belonged, hinting that she might one day follow her father’s example. Her husband declared that his life was hourly in danger from her outrageous conduct, and that she slept with deadly weapons under her pillow. According to Wodrow, ‘she intercepted her husband’s letters in the post-office, and would have palmed treason upon them, and took them to the Justice Clerk, as is said, and alleged that some phrases in some of her lord’s letters to Lord Dun, related to the Pretender, without the least shadow for the inference.’ Carlyle says her husband ‘had taken every method to soothe her. As she loved command, he had made her factor upon his estate, and given her the whole management of his affairs. When absent he wrote her the most flattering letters, and did what was still more flattering: he was said, when present, to have imparted secrets to her which, if disclosed, might have reached his life. Still she was unquiet, and led him a miserable life.’ Though she had agreed, in 1730, to accept a separate maintenance, with which she would be satisfied, she still continued to persecute and annoy her husband in the most violent manner.

The outrageous conduct and alarming threats of this wretched woman at length caused Grange to take measures for her confinement in a remote and solitary spot in the Highlands. On the evening of 22nd January, 1732, Lady Grange, who was living in lodgings next door to her husband’s house, was seized and gagged by a number of Highlandmen who had been secretly admitted into her residence. She was carried off by night journeys to Loch Hourn, on the west coast Highlands, and was thence transported to the small and lonely island of Hesker, where she remained five years. She was then conveyed to St. Kilda, where she was detained for seven years more, and ultimately to Harris, where she died in 1745. It was not till 1740 that some rumours got abroad respecting her abduction, and the wretched condition in which she was kept, but no effective measures were taken for her release. She affirmed that the men who carried her off wore Lovat’s livery—probably meaning his tartan—and that Lovat himself had an interview at Stirling with the person in charge of her captors to make arrangements for her journey. Though that consummate villain denied the charge in the most vehement terms, there can be little or no doubt that it was true. ‘As to that story about Lord Grange,’ he said, ‘it is a much less surprise to me, because they said ten times worse of me when that damned woman went from Edinburgh than they say now; for they said it was all my contrivance, and that it was my servants that took her away; but I defied them then, as I do now, and do declare to you upon honour that I do not know what has 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.’

The Laird of M’Leod, to whom the island of St. Kilda belonged, was believed to have been Lovat’s accomplice in this lawless deed. ‘What was most extraordinary,’ says Carlyle, ‘was that, except in conversation for a few weeks only, this enormous act, committed in the midst of the metropolis of Scotland, by a person who had been Lord Justice-Clerk, was not taken the least notice of by any of her own family, or by the King’s Advocate, or Solicitor, or any of the guardians of the laws. Two of her sons were grown up to manhood; her eldest daughter was the wife of the Earl of Kintore; they acquiesced, in what they considered as a necessary act of justice, for the preservation of their father’s life. Nay, the second son was supposed to be one of the persons who came masked to the house, and carried her off in a chair to the place where she was set on horseback.’

A curious paper, written partly by Lady Grange, partly by the minister of St. Kilda, found its way to Edinburgh, and fell into the hands of Mr. William Blackwood, the well-known publisher. It was purchased by John Francis, Earl of Mar, and, along with some letters from that lady, was presented to the Marquis of Bute. This interesting document, which is dated January 21st, 1746, gives a long and minute account of Lady Grange’s abduction, and of the treatment which she received from her captors and successive custodians, which bears the stamp of truth. It was published in the Scots Magazine for November, 1817, by a gentleman who had obtained a copy of the paper.

- History of the Erskines[3]


Lady of St Kilda sculpture, Port Phillip Bay
Lady of St Kilda sculpture
Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne
© Ray Theron

The Lady of St Kilda was used in the 19th century, to name a 136 ton, two masted schooner, which was later converted to steam.

The ship was owned by Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, politician and member of a prominent British political family, and was named after the Scottish islands of St Kilda. The figurehead of the ship is said to have been modelled after Acland's wife, Lydia. During its life, the converted schooner visited the Scottish islands, bringing Victorian tourists on pleasure trips, and made a number of trips to Australia carrying cargo. Arriving in Port Phillip Bay, Mebourne, for the first time in July 1841, the area was named St Kilda soon after the visit, becoming a suburb of Victoria. Later, one of St Kilda's main shopping streets was named Acland Street, after the ship's owner.

The History of St Kilda (Melbourne) said of the ship: "She survived many storms. She was sun-blistered and weather-beaten, too . . . her bottom was full of barnacles and she was on sale by barter." There was also a small mutiny before the ship left for a trip to Canton, when three drunk seamen refused the captain's orders and became unruly when they were refused alcohol.

Lady of St Kilda mural, public domain, Wikipedia
Lady of St Kilda mural
Balaclava, south east St Kilda

The schooner is remembered in a mural installed on a railway overpass over the main shopping strip on Carlisle Street, Balaclava, in the south east of St Kilda. The original Lady of St Kilda no longer exists, however a replica, or rather sculpture, of the hull was commissioned for the Commonwealth Games of 2006, held in Melbourne, and lies on the shore of Port Phillip Bay, in sight of the pier. Originally created as a temporary structure, it was later it surrounded by an unsightly orange fence, deemed necessary by the demands Health & Safety requirements, and its future may be in doubt due to the cost of upgrading it to a safer and longer lasting structure.

The Encyclopedia of Australian Shipwrecks lists the Lady of St Kilda:

Lady of St Kilda. Schooner, 136 tons. Captain Lawrence. Arrived at Hobsons Bay from Plymouth, 6 July 1841, having been seriously damaged when off Cape of Good Hope. After a drunken brawl at williamstown, the vessel was anchored elsewhere and a t one stage drifted ashore on a sankbank off what then became known as St.Kilda’s beach, thus giving rise to the name of Melbourne’s interesting, and oft infamousl, beach suburb. Whilst in Port Phillip she was advertised for sale ‘in exchange for sheep’ but was eventually sold in Sydney, re-registered in 1843. Her register indicates ‘wrecked in Tahiti, date unknown’. [NH]

- Encyclopedia of Australian Shipwrecks[4]


1 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (pub. 1911)

2 The Living Age, Vol. 9, The Story of Lady Grange, issue 109, June 13, 1846, New York.

3 Extract from the history of the Erskines or erskine-uk.net

4 Encyclopedia of Australian Shipwrecks

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