This thread was originally written and published in November 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
There’s an old Georgian big hoose in the east of Edinburgh called Marionville. It lends its name to a few streets and a fire station. It’s your typical regular, 3-storey, 5-bay, 6-over-6 window, sandstone job and is otherwise unremarkable for Edinburgh.
Unremarkable that is until you find out a little bit about the place’s history! It was built in the 1760s-80s by the Misses Ramsay of Old Lyon Close, milliners renowned in the burgh for their ribboned hats. Indeed the house was initially scornfully nicknamed the Lappet Ha‘, Lappet referring to the woven lacework that was common in Georgian women’s hats. Ha’ for Hall; the house that lappet built.
The misses Ramsay saw out their days in their fine house and gardens (Dudgeon marked on the map was a later owner), and it passed in 1787 to one James Macrae (no relation to the man who would become the City Architect)
James Macrae of Holmains Esq. liked to be known as Captain Macrae on account of his service in the Irish Carabiniers, (the 6th Dragoon Guards) a cavalry regiment loyal to the Hanoverians. By accounts he was both a sophisticated, cultured charmer and an arrogant, pompous “Goth”.
Macrae had a quick temper and an overinflated sense of his own status. He was nicknamed the “fortunate duellist” on account of his propensity to call for satisfaction and on not being dead. He practised by firing at a barber’s block kept specially for the purpose, or so John Kay caricatured him.
Things started out well for Macrae at Marionville. He bestowed the name on it for his wife, Maria Cecile le Maistre and it soon built up a reputation as a home of the “gayest private theatricals, perhaps in Britain“.
Being wealthy and aspirational with tastes “gay and fashionable” the Macraes had a theatre built in the house where they themselves took the starring roles. The great and the good of Edinburgh were invited and the shows were a hot ticket in town, being well reviewed in the papers.
Maria Macrae was the daughter of the Swedish ambassador’s wife and had spent time in Paris with her cousins. It was there she got a taste for the private theatricals of the time and it was she who was chiefly responsible for reproducing them at Marionville.
The Macrae’s inner circle was a centre of Georgian high fashion in Edinburgh, the women wore head-dresses so tall that they had to “sit on the carriage floor” and the men wore “bright coats with tails to their heels” and “wigs with great side curls“.
The innermost of the circle were the Ramsays (no relation to the Misses), this was Sir George Ramsay of Bamff, 6th Baronet and his wife, Eleanor Fraser. They were “warmly attached and intimate” with the Macraes.
So all was good. Everyone was happy and Marionville was the place to be seen around town and Macrae was highly regarded in the “right” circles. But his pomposity and temper would be his unravelling. An example of this was when a messenger of the law tried to arrest his cousin, the Reverend John Cunningham, Earl Glencairn, at a private party in Drumsheugh House. Macrae was outraged that a common man would insult a gentleman, and threw the messenger over the stairwell
When it later came to light that Cunningham was a debtor who had refused all chance to settle his obligations and that the messenger had been gravely injured, Macrae made an apology to the messenger and paid compensation of 300 guineas to settle out of court.
And then came the fateful night of April 7th 1790. Macrae had been out at the theatre and, being a gentleman, was helping a lady to get a “chair” to convey her home (Sedan chairs at this time were still the public transport of choice for the moneyed classes around the New Town).
Macrae had secured the lady a chair when a liveried footman appeared on the scene and seized one of the poles of the chair to reserve it for his mistress. The outraged Macrae rapped the impertinent servant’s knuckles with his cane
The footman, not to be cowed, denounced Macrae as a scoundrel and punched him in the chest. Macrae struck him across the head with his cane and an almighty fracas ensused, sucking in passers-by on both sides.
Somehow the conflict was defused and the lady was spirited to safety in another chair. And there it might have ended until Macrae was made aware that the footman in question was an employee of his dear friend, Sir George Ramsay. So the following day, Macrae came back to town and sought out Ramsay who informed him that the servant in question was recently engaged by his wife and he felt that he had no hand in the matter. Macrae insisted that he would therefore apologise to the lady at once.
Hurrying to the Ramsay’s house on St. Andrew Square, Macrae found the lady sitting for an up and coming your artist, one Henry Raeburn, and going down on one knee he begged forgiveness for having chastised her servant. And there it would have ended.
…a few days later at Marionville, an anonymous letter arrived stating that Macrae had meddled with the “Knights of the Shoulder Knot” (the name given to footmen for their elaborate uniforms) and they would have their revenge for the insult to their brother
The footman, James Merry, took this further by making it known he would take legal proceedings against Macrae for the injuries he had suffered. Piqued, Macrae wrote to his friend Ramsay and demanded that the man be put in his place and discharged. For whatever reason, Ramsay declined to satisfy his friend’s demands and the two entered into a protracted series of increasingly intemperate letters. This culminated in Macrae having his messenger inform Ramsay that he was not a gentleman, but a scoundrel!
That was that! Macrae had overstepped the mark for sure, Ramsay was a proper gentleman, not someone you could go around insulting. The intermediary, one Captain Amory, arranged a meeting of both parties in Bayle’s Tavern at which “rough epithets were exchanged“. The outcome was inevitable and satisfaction was demanded. And although it was Macrae who called it, he let it be known that he considered Ramsay the challenger, for refusing to deal with his servant.
The time and place was set for the shore outside Musselburgh at noon the next day. What better place to settle your differences than in the cool sea breeze of the Honest Toun? The next day, the two gentlemen, each with another in tow as second, met at Wards Inn off the Links. A surgeon, one Benjamin Bell, was sensibly arranged for.
Macrae demanded Ramsay dismiss his servant, at which point he would apologise profusely for all that had followed and consider it closed. Ramsay demanded an apology before any further progress could be made. Both sides were intransigent. The seconds which each side had brought to counsel them declined to suggest a compromise and so it was that the pair took a pistol each, made their way to the allotted spot on the Links and walked 14 paces away from each other.
Ramsay shot first and nicked the collar of his friend, grazing the neck. Macrae later claimed that he had always intended to shoot high, but was outraged his friend had nearly killed him so settled the matter once and for all by not missing. For a sure shot like Macrae, the outcome was inevitable and Ramsay was mortally wounded.
The dark deed done, Macrae was suddenly remorseful and had to be convinced to leave his dying friends’ side by Ramsay’s second, Sir William Maxwell. Edinburgh society was outraged and it was Macrae, the lesser gentleman, that they squarely blamed for this calamity. Being a proper upper class scandal, the papers and journals of the time made sure it was all written down and printed (then, as now, controversy was good for sales) and Macrae was immortalised as “The Fortunate Duellist” by Edinburgh caricaturist John Kay.
Potentially facing a murder charge, Macrae abandoned Marionville and his family and fled to Paris, accompanied by his second; Captain Amory. They took up lodgings in the Hôtel de la Dauphine. A summons soon arrived from Edinburgh to return and face the law. Ignoring it, both were declared outlaws and consigned themselves to live out their days in exile. To add insult to Macrae’s injury, 2 years later the Sheriffs awarded damages and compensation to the footman for his original injuries, which were paid from Macrae’s estate in his absence.
Macrae stayed in Paris a further year until the coming of the French revolution compelled his to flee further, this time to Altona in Italy. He had hoped that the passage of time would allow him to return home to Marionville, but society and the law were resolved against it.
And so it was that the gayest house in town fell into “an air of depression and melancholy such as could barely fail to strike the most unobservant passenger”
Macrae was soon forgotten by the chattering classes of Edinburgh. That is until 1814, when publisher Robert Chambers relates that “a gentleman of my acquaintance was surprised to meet him one day in a Parisian coffee house“. “The wreck or ghost of the handsome, sprightly man he had once been.” “The comfort of his home, his country and his friends, the use of his talents to all these, had been lost, and himself obliged to lead the life of a condemned Cain, all through the one fault of a fiery temper“.
Captain Macrae, late of Marionville, died alone in Paris on the 16th January 1820, 30 years an exile from his home, wife and 2 children. “Captain Macrae was a strange character. To those of his own class a tyrant and bully. To those below him he was kind and obliging”.
Since the 1920s, Marionville was owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Edinburgh and St. Andrews, and was the manse for St. Ninian’s & Triduana’s church, which was built in the grounds at this time. The house was sold into private use within the past few years.
The church, which was never actually completed to the intended design, is actually the work of that most British of architects, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (of red telephone box and Battersea power station fame).
A flick through some old Post Office directories suggests that in Victorian times, Marionville was being used by Dr. Guthrie’s “Original Ragged Industrial School”
It’s last occupant before the church took it over would appear to be one Miss W. Crawford Brown. There are also Marionvilles listed in Sciennes, Merchiston and Portobello, so the name obviously stuck, but in Edinburgh at least there can be only one original!
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[…] you wander down Smokie Brae towards Marionville Fire Station and Restalrig, you can still find the back gate of the old […]
[…] is also for Marionville, named for Maria Cecile le Maistre, wife of Captain James Macrae. If only for an excuse to re-tell that story, but also the house is highly unusual as it was built for two self-made women, the Sisters […]