Letters from the Past

"Lady Maria Dunbar to her mother, about 1798."

This letter is a purely family one. Regular readers may remember a letter in the March 2002 issue from Maria Dunbar to her mother in Ireland.  This one was written to Mrs. G. Hamilton, Loch Gear House, Inveraray, Scotland.  I cannot date it exactly, as Maria only begins her letter with  Edinburgh Jany 31st, and gives no year. Had she added which day it was, I could have identified the year.  The only postmark is the smudged Scottish bishop mark JA 31 which looks like the type in use from 1778-1806, and the 6d manuscript   to cover a distance of between 60 to 100 miles  (Edinburgh to Inverary is 68 miles)  was from 1796 to 1801  (so that does not help). (Fig.1

address panel

This is one of the things that makes collecting old letters so interesting, as they are all individual, and all need a different amount of research.
As the postmarks did not help,  I had to turn to the people mentioned in the letters to see if I could narrow it down any further. The writer, Maria Dunbar was the wife of Sir George Dunbar  who was the 4th Baronet, and Lt. Col of the 14th Light Dragoons.  He died on 15th October, 1799, and as she mentions him, the letter  has to be before that date.  Also  there is a mention of the ‘Late Lord Egglinton’ (actually incorrectly spelled, as it should be Eglinton)   and he died in  1796.  So it seems this has to have been written between 1796 and 1799.

So now to the letter,  where surprisingly she calls her mother ‘Madam’.

“My Dearest Madam,
I have been very ill or would have wrote to you weeks ago. I was alarmed at your long silence till I saw your friend Mr. Campbell who told me you were well and that he heard from you lately from Loch Gear. I cannot tell you how happy I was to find you continued in your present comfortable situation as you can have no idea of the discomfort of traveling in Scotland in the dead of Winter.  The road from this to Dumfries is peculiarly melancholy and terrific and had you got to Blackwood you would have found no accommodation fit for you,  as the Wedding Party from Liverpool had filled the house like an egg.”

(What a descriptive phrase that is. The reference to Dumfries would be because of the relatives William Copland, Sir George’s brother-in-law who lived at Colliston Dumfries.  The mention of the Liverpool wedding party was probably referring to the previous letter saying that the daughter of Sir George’s cousin in Liverpool had married Major Brooks of the 20th.  She then continues explaining why they are in Edinburgh.)

“Sir G and I came to Town about ten days ago but found the town so very full that neither house nor lodgings were to be got  for any money so we were perforce obliged to settle ourselves at an Hotel where we lived at an expense a faire peur. (frightful! An interesting use of a French phrase at this time.  The next paragraph is very interesting, explaining how Sir George has to find enough men to join the army, and is recruiting both in Scotland and in England.)

 Sir G is gone to Dundee with the hope of there completing his quota of men for his Lt Collcy (Lieutenant Colonelcy) of the 14th Dragoons, as a regiment of ‘Invicibles’  laying there were to be yesterday reduced by order of the Commander in Chief, and Sir George expects among the disbanded men to pick up nearly as many if not the whole of what he wants. If he fails in his expectation, which Heaven Forbid, he purposes immediately removing all his recruiting party to England, I believe to Sheffield, wherever they go I shall follow —   his four recruiting parties here  have only got one man so you will allow it is time to decamp — at Leeds we have been more fortunate.”

The next paragraph is about family friends etc., and I am surprised at a) the mention of the lady being eighty-five years old, not a common occurrence in the late 1790s, and b) the mention of a cancerous complaint. (Fig.2)

letter contents

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“I dined at your friend Dr Tennants on Saturday.(Sir George’s sister and her husband)  Mrs Tennant and he kindly enquired for you, particularly the Doctor who seems to take quite a lovers interest about you — poor man, he has got a cancerous complaint in his nose. He seems easy about it, and will not allow of any operation, which is a sad prejudice, and makes all his friends uneasy. The patch that covers the sore is now twice the size since I left this town in November last. This morning I called on my old friend Lady Do ?? (hole in the paper at this point) Buckingham, the late Lord Egglington’s sister whom I had not seen for six years. She had formerly heard me speak of my Dear Mother in terms addequate to such a parent and tho eightyfive years of age her recollection is such that she made every enquiry about you and rejoiced that you were in a place of safety.   She did not know Mr Campbell by the title of Lochgear his designation is    Asknish” 

A British friend, gave me this information — Loch Gair is an inlet on Loch Fyne on the A83 south of Inverary on the west side of Loch Fyne before it opens out near Lochgilphead. There is a place called ASKNISH near there which fits in with the remark in the letter. Blackwood could possibly be a place south of Glasgow, North of Lesmagow and east of Lanark.
The next part of the letter shows the kind of relationship she has with her husband – who obviously trusts her with all the correspondence. Her  mother would have appreciated the comment on Sir G. :

“By the bye Sir G called on Mr Campbell the very day after his visit to us which I mention as a kind of miracle for this Bart.  (Baronet — her husband!) seldom visits anyone.
Sir G has left all  his necessary business in my hands and I have all their accounts to settle this evening besides five private letters that stare me in the face. However I make the latter very easy as I never turn the first page but to you my Dearest Madam. 
I never hear from William.(her brother)  Have the goodness when you write to tell me something of  him and family.   Believe me, ever with true affection. Your most Dutiful Daughter.
M. Dunbar.

She finishes by putting a note at the top of the letter:  (Fig.3)

added note

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“When you write, address for me Douglas’s Lodgings No. 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh. Dr Madam write soon or we shall be gone.”
Despite the fact that  Maria Dunbar  the writer of the letter died 31st August 1808, I feel that she just jumps off the page, and must have been a real character.


 (with acknowledgements to Laura Wallace of Texas, Tom Jackson of Cumbria,  “Great Britain Post Roads, Post Towns and Postal Rates 1635-1839” by  Alan Robertson)
This article was first published in Stamp News the Australian monthly magazine.

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