The shelves of John Murray seemed filled with books by its strong-minded, often indomitable women writers when I went to work there in 1972: Jane Austen, Queen Victoria, travellers like Isabella Bird, Freya Stark and Dervla Murphy. Elizabeth Grant was one of whom I had not heard; idle curiosity drew me to her but I was soon engrossed. Born in 1797 she died in 1885, her posthumous fame beginning with the publication of her memoirs, edited by her niece (also Lytton Strachey’s mother) in 1898. The Memoirs of a Highland Lady went through four printings that year and has been reprinted regularly ever since, for readers are fascinated by its picture of the life of a Highland laird’s family in the twilight years of the clan system, at Rothiemurchus, the beautiful ‘Gateway to the Cairngorms’ near Aviemore. Adding to the interest are the casual though then unexceptional cruelties of her upbringing, a mysterious tale of star-crossed love and the eventual ruin of the family fortunes brought about by the political pretensions and financial incompetence of her father.
The memoirs were written between 1845 and 1854, but both before and during these years Elizabeth also kept a diary. In 1980 a selection from this was published as The Irish Journals of Elizabeth Smith, 1840–50. Suddenly it was as if a portrait in profile had changed to a full-face one, and to the girl and young woman on Speyside, in Enlightenment Edinburgh, Regency London and Bombay there had been added the wife of Colonel Smith of Baltiboys in County Wicklow, 14 miles south of Dublin, busy improving their property, before facing the awful famine years from 1845, as one potato crop after another failed.
At Rothiemurchus there was no question of going to a nearby shop for the necessities of life. Instead there were ‘such spinnings and weavings, and washings, and dyeings, and churnings, and knittings, and bleachings, and candle-makings, and soap-boilings, and feather cleanin
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