On 'Lady Grange on St Kilda'

by Guusje Groote

The tragic figure of Lady Grange is portrayed by Morgan from a very sympathetic point of view. It is a fictionalised historical account presented from Lady Grange's own perspective. Lady Grange (Rachel Chiesley, 1682-1745) was married to James Erskine, the Scottish Lord Advocate, but he repudiated her. After their separation in 1730, she started pestering and stalking him. She spread rumours that he was a Jacobite sympathiser, hence "sleekit Jacobite" (l. 10). Lady Grange became a serious impediment to James Erskine and she was considered insane. Not much later she was declared dead and while her funeral was staged in Edinburgh she was abducted by Lord Erskine to Hirta, one of the remote islands belonging to the storm-swept islands of St Kilda. In total she was imprisoned there for 15 years. Eventually she managed to alert friends to her circumstances by sending a letter, but they proved unsuccessful in rescuing her. She was eventually removed to Skye, and died there in 1746.
Morgan's sonnet contains many subtle references related to known facts about Lady Grange's life. For example, in line 11 Morgan plays on a letter written by Lord Grange in which he states that "she came into this court, and among that mob shamelessly cried up to the windows infurious reproaches, and would not go away"(1). In turn it is not very surprising that this court is "Niddry's Wynd", Lord Erskine's house.
Morgan almost presents a fictionalised autobiographical account of Lady Grange's story. As the sonnet is presented within quotation marks, it is Lady Grange's own narrative. It is uttered directly to the reader and as a result this personal account comes across as very reliable. Unlike many historic accounts that briefly note the insane wife of James Erskine, Morgan brings a pitiful human being to life. He gives a voice to an outcast of society, a person who would otherwise not be listened to. Lady Grange does not play the part of the madwoman but she indirectly returns the question of who the real insane person is. Morgan emphasizes this in the last line, with its tragic repetition "out of mind, out of my mind."
No answer is given to the question whether Lady Grange was really insane. However, even if she was not mad before her husband took her away, she was doomed to become mad on Hirta. That is what the shrieking birds and this remote environment do to people after so many years.

 

(1) The Story of Lady Grange, in: The Living Age, vol. 9, issue 109 (June 13, 1846), New York.

 

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