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THE INFAMOUS DUCHESS OF SUTHERLAND

Posted on: April 13, 2014

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I’ve occasionally come across references to this lady from reading LEJOG (Land’s End to John O’Groats) books, and from the fleeting remarks about her she plainly wasn’t a particularly nice person. That would be putting it mildly I guess.

Elizabeth Leveson-Gower was born on 24 May 1765 in Edinburgh, the only child of William Sutherland, the 18th Earl of Sutherland. Just after her first birthday, both her parents died of a fever in Bath, England, leaving her as their sole heir. She was raised by her grandmother, both in Edinburgh and in London, and in September 1785, at the age of 20, she married George Leveson-Gower, Viscount Trentham, a man so rich he was described by a contemporary as “a leviathan of wealth”. They had four children together, two boys and two girls. Elizabeth was obsessed with gaining wealth for her sons, and good marriages for her daughters, which I suppose to be fair wasn’t exactly unusual amongst the aristocracy of that time!

George was made Ambassador to France in 1790, and Elizabeth accompanied him to Paris. It was a pretty eventful time to be there. The French Revolution was just gaining momentum, and George and Elizabeth barely managed to get out by the skin of their teeth two years later. You might think that, having witnessed a revolution first-hand, Elizabeth might have learnt that the aristocracy aren’t invulnerable, but it doesn’t seem that way.

What made Elizabeth so notorious was the Highland Clearances, a particularly dark chapter in Scottish history. The Sutherlands owned over a million acres of land in northern Scotland, and the family wanted the land cleared of small farms and tenants to make way for large, progressive sheep farms. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was a bad time to be a Highlander. After the collapse of the Jacobite uprising in 1745, the age-old clan system had collapsed. In previous times the nobility had been able to make use of the men on their land by employing them as “cannon fodder”, as their own private army, and Elizabeth did indeed have her own regiment which she sent off to the Napoleonic Wars.

Between 1811 and 1821 around 15,000 people were ruthlessly cleared from the Highlands. Crofts were torched and set alight, and people had to flee, hurriedly grabbing whatever possessions they could quickly lay their hands on. The burnings became so bad that at one time it was said that a dense fog of smoke blanketed the land, even floating out to sea, causing chaos to shipping. On one occasion alone, one witness reported that 250 crofts were burning at one time. Whole settlements were swept away, and the area became depopulated as a result.

Elizabeth’s arrogance was incredible. On seeing the starving tenants on her husband’s estate, she wrote to a friend that the “Scotch people are of happier constitution and do not fatten like the larger breed of animals”. Either she had a very warped sense of humour, or I suspect she would have scored pretty highly on the Psychopath Test!

Elizabeth was a gifted artist, and a leading light on the London social-scene, where she is said to have captivated British Prime Minister George Canning with her beauty and her charm. Not everyone saw her that way, many found her overbearing. Elizabeth died in London in 1839, and was buried with much pomp at Dornoch Cathedral. Her legacy of the misery caused by her ruthless actions 200 years ago still lives to this day.

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