Anyone who assumes the sort of guests found on “Dr. Phil” or “The Jerry Springer Show” are a modern aberration has yet to meet Lord and Lady Grange, the pride of 18th century Scotland. The Mrs. was the daughter of an executed murderer and liked to think of herself as a chip off the old block. Her spouse was a Lord Justice-Clerk of Scotland, a leading Hanoverian, a prominent light of the Presbyterian church, and a husband who solved his matrimonial unhappiness by imprisoning his wife on a remote island for the last thirteen years of her life.
The marriage of James Erskine, Lord Grange and Rachel Chiesly was of the shotgun variety. And with these two, it should come as no surprise that this was quite literally the case. When Grange, who prided himself on his womanizing ways, met the beautiful and fiery Miss Chiesly, he was quite happy to sleep with her. When she became pregnant, he was equally eager to abandon her. This proved to be a grave error. Legend has it that one morning she stalked into his home holding a marriage bond in one hand and a pistol in another. After dropping a few significant reminders about her paternal heritage, Miss Chiesly announced she would be an honest woman or Grange would be a dead man. His choice. Erskine picked the former, although they would both quickly regret his decision.
The marriage, (which took place around 1707,) and nine children failed to have a good influence on Lord Grange—at one point he was described as “engaged in a course of debauchery at Edinburgh” that “interrupted his religious exercises”—and his Lady was not the woman to take an unsatisfactory spouse calmly. She was, in the words of an acquaintance, “unquiet.” Her habitual fits of rage—against her husband, against her children, against stray passerby, against the world--were terrifying. She drank even more than the prodigious quantities consumed by her husband (and was an even meaner drunk.) Connubial bliss reached the point where she became fond of sleeping with loaded guns and razors under her pillow. It is almost too appropriate that when not engaged in his busy legal career and earnest religious studies, Lord Grange, who was a great bibliophile, developed a deep interest in demonology and witchcraft. (In 1718, Grange complacently recorded in his diary that “I drank and whor’d and followed sensual pleasures, but I never gave over reading, tho’ my lewdness hinder’d exceedingly my profiting at any study.”)
By the 1720s, Grange’s life showed danger of turning from the merely hellish to something far more dangerous. He had enemies in the Kirk—in 1726 he complained that he was being “represented as a hypocrite and pretender to religion”--and he was increasingly suspected of Jacobite tendencies. Worse still, “That plague of my life,” as Grange called his helpmeet, was exploiting these rumors, loudly accusing him and his friends of treason. Finally, in 1730, Lady Grange was induced to agree to a formal separation. In exchange for a hundred pounds a year, she was to depart her husband’s house for good.
She did not take her dismissal well. She developed a habit of making a raucous spectacle of herself in front of his estate—always when there were visitors. “She cried and raged,” he wrote, “against me and mine, watched for me in the streets, chased me from place to place in the most indecent and shameless manner, and threatened to attack me on the Bench.” After Lady Grange broke into his house, stole the household accounts, and “committed outrages,” Grange was forced to have his house protected round-the-clock by the Town Guard. She intercepted his letters, in the hope of finding proof of her treason accusations, and, every now and then, tried to kill him.
Most would think this delightful pair richly deserved each other, but Grange felt otherwise. After conferring with certain of his friends, an elaborate trap was laid for his wife. It is often stated as fact that Lady Grange had finally acquired evidence that would establish her husband’s treasonous support for the Stuarts, thus forcing Grange to take extreme measures, but other historians question this. It seems equally likely that Grange simply wanted to be rid of his pesky spouse for good, but convinced his accomplices that she was politically dangerous to them all, in order to secure their cooperation.
On the night of January 22, 1732, as Lady Grange was preparing for bed, a group of men broke into her bedroom, and, after a violent fight, she was gagged, bound, carried off in a waiting coach, and eventually imprisoned on various locations in the Outer Hebrides—an area which, in those days, was nearly as remote as the moon. She wound up on what she later described as “the vile, nasty, stinking, poor isle of St. Kilda”—and this description was not hyperbole.
Lady Grange’s disappearance aroused amazingly little interest. Even her children, (whom she had all disinherited many years before,) viewed her sudden absence as an unexpected blessing rather than an alarming mystery. After a short time, her husband announced that she had died--he even held a funeral service--and most were content to leave it at that.
However, after eight years, she was able to smuggle to her business agent in Edinburgh, a Mr. Hope, two letters announcing her plight. The news produced much publicity, but no practical results. Hope made some efforts to have her either released or rescued, but no one in authority seemed to take the Grange abduction as anything more than a private domestic matter with a happy enough ending. In the meantime, Lady Grange’s captors, in an effort to forestall any rescue attempts, kept her on the move, until she died on the island of Skye on May 12, 1745. Soon after she was buried in the local churchyard, a second, “mock” funeral, featuring a coffin filled with stones, was held. It is unknown why this was done. Perhaps, knowing Lady Grange’s indomitable nature, they wanted to make sure the burial “took.”
It is pleasant to note that Grange gained little from the removal of his wife. He dabbled in politics, with disastrous results. He gained a seat in the House of Commons, but his maiden speech—which dealt with his pet topic of witchcraft—was said to have “set the House in a titter of laughter.” (A contemporary described Grange as having “neither learning nor ability. He was no lawyer, and he was a bad speaker.”) His latter years were also plagued with financial problems. After the death of Lady Grange, he married his chief mistress, a coffee-house keeper named Fanny Lindsay. Although the new Lady had dreams of social conquest, she and her husband were seen by the local gentry as disgraceful outcasts, forcing them to depart for the less judgmental atmosphere of London. Lord Grange died obscurely in that city on January 20, 1754.
Lady Grange’s melancholy fate has, over the centuries, been immortalized in poems, plays, and novels, all depicting her as a martyred heroine. Her spirit may be taking some consolation from the fact that in a sense, she has had the last laugh on her despised spouse.
Written content of this post copyright © Undine, 2015.