we re­dis­cover the story of Ed­in­burgh so­ci­ety gal Lady Anne Barnard – who scan­dalised 18th cen­tury so­ci­ety

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

SHE was born in Fife to a no­ble Scot­tish fam­ily, wrote the bal­lad Auld Robin Gray – ac­claimed by Sir Wal­ter Scott and for which she is still re­mem­bered – and lived vividly at the cen­tre of Ge­or­gian so­ci­ety. So why is she ar­guably bet­ter known to­day in South Africa than in her na­tive land? As the bi­og­ra­pher of Lady Anne Barnard, it is a ques­tion I puz­zled over for years.

There is no short­age of sig­nals as to her pres­ence in his­tory. The el­dest child of the Fifth Earl of Bal­car­res, Anne Lind­say grew up in the bril­liant mi­lieu of the Scot­tish En­light­en­ment, sharp­en­ing her wits among the likes of David Hume and Adam Smith. James Boswell used to re­late a story from their Scot­tish tour how this 23-year-old “lady of qual­ity” could hold her own in ex­changes with Sa­muel John­son.

Es­capades there were aplenty. She played a cen­tral role in the Prince of Wales’s se­cret mar­riage to an al­lur­ing widow and went off to ob­serve France dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion while in the throes of a tur­bu­lent love af­fair. All these ad­ven­tures were set down in the pa­pers, di­aries and jour­nals she kept through­out a be­wil­der­ingly busy life.

There were also scan­dals – the rep­u­ta­tion the young Lady Anne Lind­say gained in po­lite Ed­in­burgh so­ci­ety as a heart­less co­quette and, af­ter her es­cape to Lon­don, an in­ci­dent in­volv­ing a dis­si­pated young lord that had her dubbed “the Devil in Scar­let” by Lord By­ron’s mother-in-law. These left scars. As be­came clear when I dis­cov­ered her pa­pers, it was Anne’s sen­si­tiv­ity about her past that re­solved her, in ef­fect, to blot out her story.

But, to go back to the start, how did she end up in Africa?

Anne Lind­say was born in an age when the daugh­ters of im­pe­cu­nious lairds were com­monly mar­ried off to men of for­tune. Such was the fate of her younger sis­ter, Mar­garet, with whom she shared a pri­mor­dial bond and who was swept away to Lon­don when just 17 by a 40-year-old in­vest­ment banker named Alexan­der Fordyce. The mar­riage was a dis­as­ter. Fordyce, the son of an Aberdeen hosier, gam­bled a mile too far and al­most sin­gle­hand­edly brought down the en­tire bank­ing sys­tem in 1771.

From the out­set Anne stood her ground against a sim­i­lar match. When Ed­in­burgh’s lit­er­ary host­ess Ali­son Cock­burn tried to part­ner her with a wealthy nabob back from In­dia, it set a pat­tern of re­sis­tance. Suitor af­ter suitor was re­jected. As Anne ex­plained it, “I am fond of amuse­ment be­cause I am young and have tasted so lit­tle that it has not lost its rel­ish yet.”

Her wit and tal­ents – for writ­ing, mu­sic and art – were cel­e­brated early on. She sang with the cas­trato Giusto Ten­ducci for the Ed­in­burgh Mu­sic So­ci­ety in 1768, and though many of her draw­ings and paint­ings re­main un­seen, some have found their way into the world. It was mainly as a poet, though, that her name en­dured in Scotland.

Anne was in­spired to write Auld Robin Gray while sep­a­rated from her sis­ter and set this lament for a girl caught in a love­less mar­riage to a tra­di­tional song she and Mar­garet used to sing to­gether. It be­came a cul­tural land­mark, passed down orally un­til – to­wards the end of her life – Scott iden­ti­fied her as the au­thor and ar­ranged its pub­li­ca­tion. Wil­liam Wordsworth called it one of “the two best bal­lads per­haps of mod­ern times”.

She was 23 when she met James Boswell and Sa­muel John­son at Pre­ston­field dur­ing their tour of the High­lands and is­lands. Her ex­cite­ment was still pal­pa­ble when she wrote to Mar­garet a few days later. “The fig­ure of the Doc­tor [John­son] is a moun­tain of de­for­mity and dis­gust. His colour is sal­low, his mo­tions par­a­lytic, his sen­tences pro­nounced to be re­peated. He was silent for the first hour, till he had fed the an­i­mal part, which he con­ducted nas­tily. That over, he as­sumed a more ques­tion­able shape.”

The fun be­gan when she de­cided to “rouse the lion”. Ban­ter that John­son might have been born il­le­git­i­mate led to her quip, “Would not the Son have ex­cused the Sin, Doc­tor?” As she re­ported to Mar­garet: “The dose took. He be­came ex­ces­sively agree­able & en­ter­tain­ing.” Boswell went on to in­clude it in his ac­count of the tour as a jest John­son used to re­peat when in good hu­mour.

But her de­fi­ance of con­ven­tion, her re­peated re­jec­tion of suit­ors, sat ill with pil­lars of re­spectabil­ity such as Lord Kames, Ed­in­burgh’s lead­ing judge and moral­ist. Kames once sen­tenced an old chess part­ner to death with the words: “That’s check­mate to you, Matthew.” When Anne re­jected his son, he called her “a witch and a she-devil”.

Try­ing to turn a page, she fled to Lon­don, but with her credo for love and mar­riage in­tact. “Mat­ri­mony, I am not ready

for thee!” she wrote. “To say Yes to a proposal that would thwart the heart as long as I ex­isted? To cheat an hon­est man out of the only for­tune he can ex­pect to get with me, a free heart? No, I can’t.”

Anne’s fam­ily, the Lind­says of Bal­car­res, could have served as stan­dard bear­ers for that gen­er­a­tion of Scots who car­ried the Union flag around the globe and, for good and bad, shaped Bri­tain’s em­pire. She had been told by her fa­ther: “You are born af­ter the Union. Scotland is no more and never likely to re­vive.” Of her eight broth­ers, four would en­ter the army, two went to sea and one joined the East In­dia Com­pany. Three died in dif­fer­ent cor­ners of the world and a fourth spent years in a Mysore dun­geon.

Her own jour­ney to a dis­tant land was slower in com­ing and due en­tirely to the part­ner­ship she forged with an­other Scot. Henry Dun­das met Anne soon af­ter his elec­tion to Par­lia­ment. He was near to di­vorc­ing his first wife on the grounds of in­fi­delity – though his own li­aisons were nu­mer­ous – and iden­ti­fied this gifted young woman as a part­ner in his en­deav­ours. Dun­das was on his way to forg­ing the An­gloS­cot­tish al­liance that turned him into the “un­crowned king of Scotland” in Pitt the Younger’s gov­ern­ment.

Bril­liance in com­pany quickly es­tab­lished Anne as a fig­ure in Lon­don so­ci­ety. The Prince of Wales be­came a close friend. Suit­ors flocked to her door, and for the first time she was gen­uinely at­tracted – first to a hand­some wastrel, Lord Went­worth, then a dam­aged, ma­nip­u­la­tive politi­cian, Wil­liam Wind­ham. Both love af­fairs ended painfully but with­out the dis­as­ters that would have come from mar­ry­ing ei­ther.

Mean­while, how­ever, rep­u­ta­tion started to catch up with her. Lon­don loved scan­dals and though Lady Anne Lind­say never gained the no­to­ri­ety of Frances Vil­liers or Mary Coke, she had at­tracted a good deal of gos­sip while ap­pear­ing to con­tem­po­raries as ec­cen­tric – what a later era would have termed bo­hemian. She lived in­de­pen­dently, buy­ing, dec­o­rat­ing and rent­ing houses in fash­ion­able lo­ca­tions such as Berke­ley Square and speak­ing what the di­arist Lord Glen­bervie called “a frank, vul­gar sort of half-Scotch”.

All the while she and Dun­das re­mained on close terms, as friends and al­lies rather than, it would ap­pear, as lovers. He did pro­pose to her at least once be­fore mar­ry­ing for the sec­ond time, an­other high-born Scot­tish woman. The like­li­hood that Anne would find a spouse her­self ap­peared to have passed when, soon af­ter­wards, she re­ceived what was her 13th proposal at the age of 42. An­drew Barnard, a hand­some but un­known for­mer army of­fi­cer, was 30. She ac­cepted, and be­gan the big­gest ad­ven­ture of her life.

Barnard had lit­tle prospect of gain­ful em­ploy­ment when Dun­das of­fered him the post as sec­re­tary at the Cape of Good Hope. Few aris­to­cratic women of the time opted to sail across the world in dan­ger­ous and in­sup­port­able con­di­tions in or­der to live in

Clock­wise from top left: David Hume; James Boswell; Lord Kames, whose son was one of 12 suit­ors Lady Anne re­jected; and Sa­muel John­son

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