“She kiltit up her kirtle weel tucked/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 dike, Deil tak me, since I was a callant/Gif e’er my een beheld the like!”
—On the Duchess of Gordon’s Reel Dancing (published March 27, 1789 – London’s Star newspaper, Peter Stuart, ed.)
Much has been written on Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon (1749?-1812). I shall not attempt to review it all in this post, but suffice it to say she was born in Scotland, either in Edinburgh or her family estate at Myrton, and made a brilliant marriage to the Duke of Gordon. She was alleged to have been desperately in love with a Fraser lad who she thought had died. Sadly, she was already ensconced in the Bog-of-Gight stronghold of Gordon Castle when her lover resurrected–too late for her to accept his proposal of marriage.
Twenty years and five children later, Jane embarked on a new career. She was determined to go to England’s capitol to be its society queen, much as she was in Edinburgh. The trouble was, London already had one–Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. It was a fair guess that she would not tolerate a rival. No matter. She was a member of the Whig party with the Prince of Wales as its head. The Whigs were rather keen to add another duchess to their political power. The Duchess of Gordon must have seemed a sure thing seeing as she would be in need of friends in a town too starchy for Scots.
To everyone’s surprise, Jane rebuffed their efforts. She had no interest in sharing her social triumphs with another woman. And more importantly, if she was to succeed in bringing Scotland back into royal favor, she needed a king, not a prince.
This was 1787, when the English monarchy was still very hostile to all things Scottish, and particularly those with a taint o’ the Highlands–like the storied Gordon clan. Who could forget that their ancestor, the Cock o’ the North, defeated seasoned English troops at the Battle of Hadden Rig and rebelled against his sovereign Queen? True, the present duke’s father had supported the Hanoverians against the Jacobites, but had he not also housed and feted the so-called Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, at Castle Gordon itself?
George III had reasons of his own to be suspicious of this Scottish duchess. His uncle was the Butcher of Culloden, a man who presumably made sure his nephew would never forget the events of “the Forty-Five.”
But the duchess looked nothing like a heathen Jacobite traitor. She was beautiful, educated and had made fast friends with His Majesty’s future prime minister, William Pitt the Younger. What harm could there be if Her Grace wore tartan at a ball or invited His Majesty to inspect his troops dressed in the plaid? Dash it, she was rather good at bringing fresh troops from the Highlands to the Union Jack. And she did so in the most picturesque way, taking the king’s shilling, customary payment for the recruit, and placing it between her teeth to be paid in full with a kiss from her own lips.
The Whigs were gnashing their own teeth. The duchess they once thought to number among their supporters was now a bitter rival. And nothing short of bad press was going to bring her down.
The duchess had famously patronized a handsome Scottish poet, one Robert Burns. The Romantic style was just beginning to blossom in England and the poet had a particular way of inspiring a longing for all things Caledonian, from frosty rivers to snow-capped hills.
Give me the groves that lofty brave/The storms, by Castle Gordon.”
Yet there remained a lingering bias against the Scots themselves. They were widely considered a crude, backward people. This prejudice was a fuel easily ignited. It was not long before Burns and his patroness were victims of a scurrilous ditty printed in a Whig newspaper, fed by the rumor that Her Grace had worn a made-over gown (gasp!) in London that was apparently seen in Edinburgh the year before. And not only that, the paper spitefully claimed it was the duchess’ own uncouth minstrel who had set the disgrace to verse:
She was the mucklest of them aw,/Like Saul she stood the tribes aboon;
Her gown was whiter than the snaw/Her face was redder than the moon.
Three days later, On the Duchess of Gordon’s Reel Dancing, printed at the top of this post, appeared in the same London paper. Burns’ use of the vernacular language that had charmed many was amplified to a degree that would make even the most amateur poet wince. One can only imagine Burns’ chagrin. He could not have foreseen that such political diatribe ascribed to him could be used against his countrywoman, the duchess who had given him his start.
Worse, even today there are many who attribute On the Duchess of Gordon’s Reel Dancing to Robert Burns. It is at best a clumsy doggerel, its overblown vernacular language celebrated because it appeals to the provincial notions held of the Scots even today. The ultimate irony is that the piece was designed purely to distort and degrade the love that neither duchess nor poet was ashamed to display for their homeland.
Both Burns and Her Grace died in straightened circumstances. The poet’s funeral, following his death from ill-health at the age of thirty-seven, took place on the day his last child was born. The Duchess of Gordon died in the Hotel Pultenay, separated from her husband and financially bereft.
You can read more of the author’s take on history and romance at her blog www.angelynschmid.com