Clementina Stirling Graham is a name all but forgotten, though she lived a long life and died as recently as the Victorian era. Though perhaps her life was not crammed with notable events, she was a well-loved character in her own area and beyond. The Grahams of Duntrune House were an old landed family who took a full part in the history of the area. Clementina’s father, Patrick Stirling of Pittendriech, adopted the surname of his wife, Amelia Graham, adding it to his own after she inherited Duntrune from her brother in 1802. Their child Clementina was born on 4 May 1782 in a house in the Seagate, Dundee, then the most prosperous street in the burgh, where her father was a prosperous merchant.
Although the Grahams were long representative in Angus, though at Duntrune were less rooted to that place than their near neighbours and relatives the Grahams of Claverhouse and Fintry. (They were therefore related to the famous/infamous Graham of Claverhouse/Bloody Clavers.) Duntrune had passed through several families, notably a branch of the Ogilvys and the Scrymgeours, before passing to the Grahams in the 17th century.
Clementina (1782 - 1877) was famous in her time as a society hostess in Scotland and the author of several books, very different in character from each other. In 1829 Clementina translated from the French a work by the Swiss author Jonas de Gélieu, The Bee Preserver, which was widely acclaimed for its system of honey producing without harming bees. She was a society figure in Edinburgh, associated with the cicle who produced the Edinburgh Review, and herself inherited the small estate of Duntrune when her brother William died in 1844. Clementina was allegedly attached to a young man who died at sea and she never married afterwards. For most of her life, after the gaiety of society life in Edinburgh, she seems to have enjoyed a sedate life in Angus.
Clementina was still a teenager when the formidable Lady Pitlyal entered her life and took over, for a while at least. Who was this shadowy noblewoman and where did she come from? The title of Pitlyal comes from a rather small and inconspicuous little body of water in the Sidlaw Hills near Auchterhouse, otherwise known as the Round Loch, and the kindred were a branch of that omnipresent Angus family the Ogilvys. Unlike those toffee-nosed nobles mentioned above, Lady Pitlyal adhered to the old-school type of Scotch noblewoman, determinedly auld-fashioned in her manners, speech and attitude. This was not to say she was not shrewdly intelligent, and certainly she was enigmatically witty. One saying she is credited with is the following, which certainly prefigures Oscar Wilde. ‘The only way to deal with temptation,’ said Lady Pitlyal, ‘is to give in to it.’
The story of Lady Pitlyal’s fame in Edinburgh society in the early 1820s was described decades later in Clementina’s book Mystifications, which was first privately printed in 1859. She describes Lady Pitlyal as follows:
She was a sedate-looking little woman, of an inquisitive law-loving countenance; a mouth in which not a vestige of a tooth was to be seen, and a pair of old-fashioned spectacles on her nose, that rather obscured a pair of eyes that had not altogether lost their lustre... She was dressed in a Irish poplin of silver grey, a white Cashmere shawl, a mob cap with a band of thin muslin that fastened it below the chin, and a small black silk bonnet that shaded her eyes... Her right hand was supported by an antique gold-headed cane, and she leant with the other on the arm of her daughter.
Among the people who were graced with a visit by the Lady was Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850), afterwards Lord Jeffrey. Turning up unannounced the elderly, couthy Angus auld-wife spun the lawyer a yarn about a tangled dispute about land ownership which she hoped he would resolve. Following that came this quote from the renowned mystical manuscript, discovered in the deepest windswept Sidlaws, known as ‘The Prophecie of Pitlyal’, whose allusive and mystical rhymes have been a little known enigma for centuries.
When the crown and the head shall disgrace ane anither,
And Bishops on the Bench shall gae a’ wrang the gither;
When Tory or Whig,
Fills the judge’s wig;
When the Lint o’ the Miln
Shall reek on the kiln;
O’er the Light of the North,
When the Glamour breaks forth,
And its wild-fire so red;
With the daylight is spread;
When woman shrinks not from the ordeal of tryal,
There is triumph and fame to the house of Pitlyal.
Jeffrey was even more confused by this olde-worldy mystery. But Lady Pitlyal’s last request threw him into utter bewilderment. Breaking off from more elevated subjects, Lady Pitlyal requested if he knew any good and honest supplier of false teeth in Edinburgh. Fearing he had misheard her, the judge had to ask her to repeat her request several times. After he gave her the details of several good dentists, Lady Pitlyal and her daughter vanished into the night. It was only after she had departed that Jeffrey realised he had been duped.
The garrulous old wifie was none other than the mischievous teenage Clementina who invaded the presences of the great and good in the capital to get a rise out of the ‘Mystification’ caused to her victims. This series of subtle and gentle pranking did not come to the attention of the general public until it was highlighted in the book called Mystifications, first privately published in 1859. Supported by her admirer Dr Brown the book then became something of a surprise hit in Britain and Anerica, running into several editions. These days it is almost entirely forgotten, and though it is a product of its day, it remains an enjoyable evocation of its era and the central heroine. Her high-spirits made her a favourite of Walter Scott and many others and she attracted the attentions of many eminent people throughout her life. (Thomas Carlyle stayed at Linlathen House, neighbouring Duntrune, in July 1852 and met Clementina while there.)
Clementina’s youthful excursions into mystification or guising followed a well-trodden hobby among the upper-middle, noble and even royal classes. There was a long-standing custom of disguising yourself as a joke and going incognito among unknowing people, unusually commoners. This pastime arguably goes back to the antics of the ‘Commons King’ James V, wandering unknown among his subjects (though his father James IV actually dabbled in this habit). Now, what was the motive of toffs in pretending to be peasants? Was it a by-product of class guilt, whereby they sought, psychically, to redeem themselves for betraying their nation, bowing down to the Act of Union, plus adopting plummy English accents instead of their ancestral ones? Probably not. They were rich, bored, and needed something to do. Although this niche area of pranking was indeed practised in England, it reached the point of perfection in Scotland.
But Clementina’s impersonations were a more of a fond remembrance of a type of Scot was was becoming an endangered species even in the pre-Victorian era, the self-consciously ‘auld farrant’ Scot who adhered to the native manners and attitudes inbred in their predecessors through hard centuries of experience. They were the class which contained lairds and supplied the legal profession and were commemorated in Dean Edward Ramsay’s Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character (1858). Although the latter focused on the humourous side of the diminishing Scottishness of the Scot, it is a reminder of how much prevalent anglification cost the culture of the country.
Miss Graham grew into the genteel lady that Lady Pitlyal was assuredly not, though she was focused on the well-being of her estate. Dr Brown wrote a tribute to her the day after she died on 23 August 1877 (published in his Horæ Subsecivæ):
This gifted, excellent, and most delightful old lady, the perfect type of a Scottish gentlewoman, died yesterday afternoon...at her beautiful seat Duntrune...above Broughty Ferry, overlooking the Tay, with the woods of Ballumbie on one side, and those of Linlathen, her dear friend Mr Erskine’s estate, on the other, and with St Andrews and the noble tower of St Rule standing out clear on the sky line to the south, Miss Graham was in her ninety-sixth year... she was as gay and truthful and artless as a girl...
When Dr Jenner’s great discovery [of vaccinating against Smallpox] was first announced it immediately attracted Miss Graham’s interest and... she used to reide about on her little white pony vaccinating with a needle every child whose birth she heard of in the neighbourhood. We have been told that in this way she protected from the terrible scourge of smallpox not less than about 300 infants. One farmer fiend had been one of her early patients. So carefully was it done that it used to be said that none of those operated on by Miss Graham ever took smallpox...
In her own county, where everybody knew her and she knew everybody and who their forebears were, she will be long remembered.
Unfortunately, the last sentiment is no longer true, but Clementina certainly deserves a place in the notable people born in Angus. Following her death the estate passed to her relative John Lacon, who died in 1894. Duntrune House is now a rather splendid looking small hotel (whose website details can be found listed on the right).