The History of Leith

November 29, 2011

Katherine Nairn

A prisoner in the Tolbooth who created an intensity of interest in the minds of contemporaries was Katherine Nairn, the young and beautiful daughter of Sir Robert Nairn, Bart., a lady allied by blood and marriage to many families of the best position. Her crime was a double oneā€”that of poisoning her husband, Ogilvie of Eastmilne, and of having an intrigue with his youngest brother Patrick, a lieutenant of the Old Gordon Highlanders, disbanded, as we elsewhere stated, in 1765. The victim, to whom she had been married in her nineteenth year, was a man of property, but far advanced in life, and her marriage appears to have been one of those unequal matches by which the happiness of a girl is sacrificed to worldly policy. On her arrival at Leith in an open boat in 1766, her whole bearing betrayed so much levity, and was so different from what was expected by a somewhat pitying crowd, that a storm of just indignation was roused, and she was with some difficulty rescued from rough treatment by the authorities; but in her case, as in some others, the strong walls of the old Tolbooth proved incapable of retaining a culprit of courage and high position. The final passing of the fatal sentence had been delayed by the Lords on account of the lady’s pregnancy. Mrs. Shields, the midwife who attended her accouchement (and who was a public
practitioner in the city so lately as 1805), “had the address to achieve a jail delivery also.” For three or four days previous to the concerted escape she pretended to be afflicted with a maddening toothache, and went in and out of the Tolbooth with her head and face muffled in shawls and flannels, and groaning as if life were a burden to her. At length, when the warders and sentinels had become fully used to see her thus, Katherine Nairn came down one evening in her stead, with her head enveloped, with the
usual groans, and holding her hands upon her face, as if in agony. The warder of the inner door, as she passed out, gave her a slap on the back, calling her a “howling old Jezebel,” and adding a
” hope that she would trouble him no more.”
In her confusion, and perhaps ignorance of the city, she knocked at the,door of Lord Alva, in James’s Court, mistaking his house for that of her father’s agent. The footboy who opened the door had a candle in his hand, and having been in court during the time of her recent trial, immediately recognised her, and raised the hue and cry. She then fled down a neighbouring close, and achieved concealment for a time in the immediate vicinity of the Tolbooth, in a cellar about half-way down the old back stairs of the Parliament Close belonging to the house of her uncle, W. Nairn, advocate (afterwards Lord Dunsinane), from whence she was conducted to Dover in a post-chaise by one of that gentleman’s clerks, who was kept in constant dread of discovery by the extreme frivolity of her conduct. From Dover, disguised in the uniform of an officer, she safely reached the Continent, and afterwards America, where she is said to have married again, and died at an advanced age, with the faces of a numerous progeny around her bed.
source-Old and New Edinburgh

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