The History of Leith

July 17, 2012

Captain James Macrae

Here, at Marionville, for some time before 1790, lived Captain
James Macrae, formerly of the 3rd Regiment of
Horse (when commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel
Sir Ralph Abercrombie), and now known as the
6th Dragoon Guards, or Carabineers; and his story
is a very remarkable one, from the well-known
names that must be introduced in it. He was
Macrae of Holemains, whom Fowler, in his Renfrewshire
Sketches, styles ” a Goth who committed
a most barbarous deed by demolishing the great
and splendid castle–(of Houston) in 1780, and
applied the stones to the building of a new village
for lappet weavers.”
During his occupation of Marionville, his tastes
and family being gay and fashionable, the house
was the scene of constant festivities and private
theatricals, of which many such notices appear in
the papers of the time, like the following from the
Advertiser of April, 1789 :—
” On Tuesday last, the tragedy of Venice Preserved was
performed before a genteel and select company at Mr.
Macrae’s Private Theatre at Marionville. The following
were the principal Dramatis Persons:—
Priuli . . . . Mrs. Hunter.
Pierre . . . . Captain Mackewan.
Jaffier . . . . Mr. Macrae.
Renault . . . Mr. Welwood.
Bedamar . . . Mr. Cowling.
Duke of Venice . . Mr. Justice.
Belvidera . . . Mrs. Macrae.
The play gave very great satisfaction. Mrs. Macrae and .
Captain Mackewan, in particular, performed in a style of
superior excellence.”
Captain Macrae, in addition to being a man of
fortune, was well-connected, and was a cousin of
that good Earl of Glencairn who was the friend
and patron of Burns, while through his mother he
was nearly related to Viscount Fermoy and the
famous Sir Boyle Roche. He was a man of a
generous and warm disposition, but possessed a
somewhat lofty and imperious sense of what he
deemed due to the position of a gentleman; and
being yet young, he was about to return to the
army when the catastrophe occurred which caused
his ruin. All allowed him to be a delightful companion,
yet liable to be transported beyond the
bounds of reason at times by trivial matters.
” Thus,” says Chambers, ” a messenger of the law
having arrested the Rev. Mr. Cunningham, a brother
of the Earl of Glencairn, for debt, as he was passing
with a party from the drawing-room to the
dining-room of Drumsheugh House, Macrae threw
the man over the stairs. He was prompted to this
. act by indignation at the affront which he conceived
his cousin, as a gentleman, had received
from a common man. But soon after, when it was
represented to him that every other means of
inducing Mr. Cunningham to settle his debt had
failed, and when he learned that the messenger had
suffered severe injury, he went to him, made him a
hearty apology, and agreed to pay 300 guineas by
way of compensation.”
His wife was Maria Cecilia le Maitre, daughter of
the Baroness Nolken, wife of the Swedish ambasambassador.
While resident occasionally with her cousin
in Paris Madame de la Briche, the private theatricals
they saw at her magnificent house in the
Marais led to the reproduction of them at Marionville.
There the husband and wife both took
character parts, and Sir David Kinloch and the Mr.
Justice already mentioned were among their best
male performers; and often Mrs. Macrae herself.
The chief lady was Mrs. Carruthers, of Dormont,
in Dumfries-shire, a daughter of Paul Sandby, the
eminent artist, and founder of the English school
of water-colour painting, who died in 1809.
Marionville was quite the centre of fashionable
society; but, manners apart—alternately stately
and rough—how strange to-day seems what was
fashionable tKen in Edinburgh ! the ladies with
head-dresses so enormous that at times they had to
sit on the carriage floor ; the gentlemen with bright
coloured coats, with tails that reached to their
heels, breeches so tight that to get them on or off
was a vast toil; waistcoats six inches long; large
frilled shirts and stiff cravats ; a watch in each fob,
with a bunch of seals, and wigs with great side
curls, exactly as Kay shows Macrae when in the
act of levelling a pistol.
In the visiting circle at Marionville were Sir
George Ramsay, Bart., of Banff House, and his
lady, whose maiden name was Eleanor Fraser, and
they and the Macraes seem to have been very intimate
and warmly., attached friends, till a quarrel
arose between the two husbands about a rather
trivial cause.
On the evening of the yth April, 1790, Captain
Macrae was handing a lady out of the box-lobby
of the old theatre, and endeavoured to get a sedan
for her conveyance home. Seeing two chairmen
approach with one, he asked if it was disengaged,
and both replied distinctly in the affirmative. As
Macrae was about to hand the lady into it, a footman
came forward in a violent manner, and seizing one
of the poles insisted that it was engaged for his
mistress, though the latter had gone home some
time before; but the man, who was partly intoxicated,
knew not that she had done so.
Macrae, irritated by the valet’s manner, gave him
a rap over the knuckles with his cane, to make him
quit his hold of the pole ; on this the valet called
him a scoundrel, and struck him on the breast.
On being struck over the head, the man became
more noisy and abusive; Macrae proceeded to
chastise him, on which several bystanders took
part with the valet; a general brawl seemed about
to ensue; another chair was got for the terrified
lady, and she was carried away. The details of
this brawl are given in the ” Life of Peter Burnet,
a Negro,” published at Paisley so lately as 1841.
Peter was a livery servant in Edinburgh at the
time. Learning that the valet was one of Lady
Ramsay’s, Macrae came to town next day to explain,
and met Sir George in the street. The latter,
laughing, said that the man, being his lady’s footman,
prevented him being concerned in the matter.
Macrae, still anxious to apologise to Lady
Ramsay, proceeded in quest of her to her house
in St. Andrew Square, but found her sitting for her
portrait in the studio of the then young artist,
Henry Raeburn; before him, it is said that he
impulsively went on his knee when asking -pardon
for having chastised her servant, and then the
matter seemed to end with Macrae ; but it was not
so. Soon after he received an anonymous letter,
stating that there was a strong feeling against him
among the Knights of the Shoulder-Knot; one
hundred £md seven had resolved to have revenge
upon him for the insult he had put upon their fraternity;
while James Merry, the valet, whose
bruises had been declared slight by Dr. Benjamin
Bell, instituted legal proceedings against him.
Exasperated by all this, Macrae wrote to Sir
George, insisting that the prosecution should be
dropped, or Merry discharged ; but Ramsay seemed
disinclined to move in the matter, and a long and
eventually angry correspondence on the subject
ensued, and is given at length in the Scots and other
Edinburgh magazines of the day ; till, in the end,
at Bayle’s Tavern a hostile meeting was proposed by
Captain Amory, a friend of Macrae’s, and pretty
rough epithets were exchanged.
Duly attended by seconds, the parties met at
Ward’s Inn, on the borders of Musselburgh Links,
on the 14th of April. Sir George Ramsay was
accompanied by Sir William Maxwell, Macrae by
Captains Amory and Haig. Benjamin Bell, the
surgeon, was also one of the party, which had
separate rooms. A compromise seemed impossible
—as Sir George would not turn off the valet, and
Macrae would not apologise—they walked to the
beach, and took their places in the usual manner,
fourteen paces apart. On the word being given,
both fired at the same moment. Sir George took
a steady aim at Macrae, whose coat collar was
grazed by the bullet.
Macrae afterwards solemnly asserted that he
meant to have fired in the air ; but, on finding Sir
George intent on slaying him, he altered his reso
lution, and brought him to the ground by a mortal
wound. As usual on such occasions, consternation
and distress reigned supreme; the passionate
Macrae was sincerely afflicted, and it was with
difficulty that Sir William Maxwell could prevail
upon him to quit the field. Sir George lingered
for two days, when he expired.
Macrae’s days of pleasure at Marionville were
ended for ever. He fled to France, and for a
time took up his residence at the Hotel de la
Dauphine, in Paris. The event created a great
sensation in Edinburgh society. Macrae left behind
him a son and daughter. As Sir George Ramsay
was childless, the baronetcy went to his brother

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