Strange Tales and Stranger Truths

Chapter two of ‘Repeats its love’: Strange Tales and Stranger Truths [1]

Sir John Clerk, Baron of Taste died on the 4th October 1755 aged 78 years. In his last years he had affirmed to his family that he did not wish Mavisbank to become the family seat, for this, his villa, was for honestum otium. After his death, it would appear that despite a handful of good and honest chatelaines – in the most part devoted gardeners – otium faded from Mavisbank, and in particular from its park. Ambition must be that we can, in the 21st century, restore what we see here, on Roy’s Military map,[2] drawn around the time of Clerk’s death.

On his death Clerk passed his villa to his son James who not so many years earlier had returned from residence in Italy, where true to family tradition he had studied classics. James Clerk was also keen to express himself architecturally as his father had done so many decades before, and to present to Scotland his new Clerk seat. So in 1761, in the year following his mother’s death, Sir James resolved to sell Mavisbank, demolish the ‘wrinkled’ Newbiggin, and build his own Penicuik House. Like his father he prepared drawings, but this time under the guidance of John Baxter senior. It is recalled by family that James felt never better than when truly hands-on, and his craftsmanship was such that he carved for New Penicuik House, not just the family Coat of Arms, but all of the ornamental vases on the top of the house. As these words are now written, scattered around the pedicles of Penicuik House, Sir James’s vases spill upon the grass, broken, crumbling, and willing for restoration.

The sale of Mavisbank was completed in November 1761 between Sir James Clerk and his cousin Robert Clerk (1722-1814).[3] There had been timely death within the family, in that Robert’s father, Hugh Clerk, a wealthy Edinburgh Merchant had died in April of that year, and as first born son, Robert inherited a fortune. A Minute of sale survives between the cousins, outlining that Mavisbank was, apart from the ‘paintings’, sold complete for the principal sum of £5000 which would carry as an equivalent of over £7 million today. What is worthy of note, is that Mavisbank was in the continuing possession of Robert Clerk for 53 years up until his death aged 92 years in May 1814.

Only the barest details of Robert Clerk of Mavisbank survive. His father Hugh was of course the younger brother of the Baron and there appears to have been a rather close bond between them, and certainly a shared craving of culture wide. A series of letters survive between Hugh and John Clerk, discussing the training of Hugh in Holland, a minuet composed by John in 1734, the purchase of a painting called the ‘Dutch General,’ and their shared concern over Alexander, their younger brother, who had taken a sulk and was planning to set sail for Jamaica as his ‘paintings were not selling!’

Mavisbank was the first and only marital home of Robert Clerk and was purchased in July 1761 in the months before his marriage to Margaret Urquhart which took place at Craigston Castle – the Aberdeenshire seat of the Urquhart family. Beyond such matrimonial bond, Robert and Margaret have very little archival record, other than the sad fact that Mavisbank was not to enjoy the fun and laughter of children, with the couple ultimately dying childless. It is recorded that Robert Clerk’s coachman, Andrew Campbell,[4] died at Mavisbank in 1792, but as to the management of the house and ferme ornee we are left to speculate from faded landscape footprints (see Tom Addyman’s Conservation Plan 2005.[5]) One other clue survives: an oil painting of Mavisbank that hangs in Strathtyrum House in St Andrews. This painting was left to Robert’s nephew, James Cheape of Strathtyrum, and is accredited on its gilded frame to be the work of J.B. Ibbetson. Thomas Addyman, amongst others, has cast doubt over such accreditation. There is good reason for such reservation, particularly as the frame date is fifty years out, and more especially as the accredited artist, Julius Caesar Ibbetson (our Baron would have liked that name) died in 1817. Furthermore Ibbetson’s paintings were prized for their delicacy and sureness of line.’ The Strathtyrum painting is a fine picture, but the characters so romantically placed by the Mavisbank canal, lack proportion both bodily, and within, the landscape.


Figure 1: Mavisbank and its canal as depicted in the painting now hanging in Strathtyrum House, St Andrews

So the date of the Strathtyrum picture may remain obscure, but most certainly it was painted for Robert Clerk before his death in May 1814. It is worthy of note that Robert Clerk died in  his ‘town’ home on the North side of George Street, where all his servants had been relocated, and where he kept his money and all his wearing apparel. It would be reasonable then to consider that Robert Clerk, old and widowed, had retired to the city for ease of care, and had given over Mavisbank to the care of Graeme Mercer Esquire. There is some evidence for this, in that the National Archives retain a 134 page notebook belonging to Graeme Mercer, which outlines his administration as farmer of Mavisbank, complete with accounts, wages, and list of cows, between 1799 and 1819.[6] It is still not clear when Robert Clerk was widowed, but the impression given from his testamentary deed was that his Margaret (Urquhart) had died many years before. All this detail is given only to try and help date the Strathtyrum picture, the only surviving image of the period, and most particularly to help establish when the landscape was romanticised. It is tempting to speculate that Robert Clerk had the painting commissioned to take with him to his George Street House, and if so, the century’s turn would be a crude estimate. This leaves a conclusion almost tangible: was it in Robert Clerk’s tenure that the alleles were softened, the goose-foot demoted, the wilderness removed, yet the canal retained?

All three nephew benefactors of Robert Clerk did well, but none quite as gloriously as James Cheape of Strathtyrum, who in addition to the greatest third, was also bequeathed by his uncle ‘all the family pictures, and all other pictures and paintings, and all prints and books; rings, watches, seals and trinkets; carriage, horses, and harnesses.’ Alas wealth alone protects not from fickle mortality, and James Cheape survived his uncle by just a handful of years, leaving behind one of the largest testamentary instructions in Scottish Archival history.[7] Some readers may have been to the Open Golf Championships at St Andrews but are unlikely to have been guest of Strathtyrum, the house that sits alongside our world famous championship course. It was in 1821 that James Cheape bought the St Andrews links, infuriated at the rabbits destroying his lawns! Since then the Cheape family have held tight to the Royal tailcoat. Our current Prince William, who from youth has struck a national chord for his caring and sensible manner, spent his four student years in St Andrews, not in digs, but at Strathtyrum House rented from the Cheape family for £56,000 per month.  It is difficult not to see irony here, and to forgo the obvious pun on the name Cheape!

The sub-title for this section was drawn from a book of last year by Manoshi Bhattacharya ‘The Royal Rajputs.[8] Perhaps surprisingly, this carries forward our journey to Graeme Mercer Esquire, a forgotten surgeon, who having served in India in the ‘theatre of the Empire,’ returned to Scotland, to live out his life as farmer at Mavisbank. The posthumous search for pathology of mind, narrated most often by those who never lived within the lifespan of the departed, may be a field that fascinates us all, but should always be considered at risk of misinterpretation.[9] Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank, long dead, has little record, and certainly neither from diaries nor through family recall. Without some representation of consciousness (of thought) much that is recorded in history can only be abstraction of personhood.

That all said, Graeme Mercer did leave footprints upon continents afar, muddy in parts they may be, and forensically crude, they have revealed strange tales and stranger truths which like an Agatha Christie plot return us to Mavisbank where we find an old man dying yet wrestling with his past.

The first strange truth that emerged: Graeme Mercer was great-grandson of Charles II. His grandfather, George Swan (1658-1830), was one of the twelve illegitimate children the King sired by seven different mistresses! Ironically, given the Strathtyrum connection, Prince William, through his mother Diana, will become the first King descended directly from Charles II.

The seepage of Mercer’s blue blood through such scant history is indeed strange. It emerged back whilst researching into Edinburgh’s Victorian lunatic asylums.[10] This is the story. On Christmas day 1902 Elizabeth Silley was found by her daughter Evelyn dead in her bath; she was still wearing her nightdress, and the cause of death was said to be accidental drowning. Despite being the granddaughter of King Charles II, Elizabeth Silley was buried in a pauper’s grave along with ‘eight vagrants’ by the back of Kensington railway-yard. Her daughter Evelyn blamed her father, the architect George Michael Silley for her mother’s death, and despite her protestations, incarcerated by him for ‘uttering nonsense.’ Research by Miss Goldie-Scott in the asylum case notes for Edinburgh has turned the Christmas death of Elizabeth to murder and, in her words, released her grandmother from the ‘taint’ of madness. [11]Indeed letters survive in the case notes that indicate that Evelyn was of sound mind, but apparently on her father’s instructions they were never posted. “I have had an interview with Dr Moore this morning. He himself doesn’t think me insane, but he said my father did.” Evelyn was then discharged by the Commissioners of Lunacy who concluded that her admission “was irregular by reason of the fact that the certificates failed to disclose any indication of insanity.” Naturally perturbed by this, Goldie-Scot tracked down a distant aunt she had never met. “She was held down in the bath by her husband,” was the shocking disclosure, “It was very clever of him and he deliberately sent Evelyn up to find her.” Offering corroboration, necessarily coloured, a stained-glass window in St Barnabas Chapel was raised by friends of Elizabeth Silley. It depicts St Cecilia, who was sentenced by the Roman emperor to be stifled to death in her own bathroom!

Strangely, it was this bathroom murder that led to the hidden world of Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank, for the strangled swan – Elizabeth Silley, was Mercer’s cousin. It all goes back to Charles II and his son George Swan, who very late in life had two daughters. These two beautiful cygnets, Hannah and Elizabeth, were raised in Edinburgh and the latter was to be mother of Graeme Mercer. The other sister Hannah lived into great old-age in Little Lochend Close on the Royal Mile, who till her death, sat on the right of the Jacobite chief. Unusually tall in stature, and beautiful even in old age, her figure, with black velvet capuchin and cane, was long familiar in the streets of Edinburgh. Her grace it seems matched her adopted family name.

Graeme Mercer was born at Potterhill, Perth on the 4th July 1764. Twelve years later that date would finally be celebrated as the Americas ‘Independence Day.’ The formative years of Mercer are lost in time, and all we really know is that he was the second youngest of ten brothers, though three died in infancy. These cobs were raised in Perth where the Mercer family had resided ‘time immemorial.’  Indeed in St John’s Kirk there was a vault to John Mercer who died in 1280 that carried the following inscription: 

“So sicker ‘tis as anything on earth
are older than Old

Long of the Royal burgh they may have been, but the Mercers were redoubtable explorers and even before his birth Graeme Mercer had lost one uncle to cannon-ball in the Americas, and another uncle to spear in Jamaica. The generation that followed were none the less adventurous, with all seven brothers, including Graeme, venturing across the oceans; five to India, one to the Americas, and the last to Guadeloupe.

“Before my sight four times six years had seen.
Throughout six kingdoms had my body been,

Bore arms in each.”

Graeme Mercer trained as a surgeon gaining in Edinburgh, in 1784, his Licence to practice. Two years later he took sail to the continent where his military family were – literally – canons and in Burdwan, north of Kolkata he settled with his older brother Laurence and there mastered Persian.  On the century’s turn Graeme Mercer was appointed Assistant Surgeon and served as Secretary in the Nizam’s court during the second Mysore war. Clearly both able and trusted, he was soon promoted to Secretary at Scindia’s court for the East India Company and was chief aide to the Governor-General of India, Lord Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington. Scindia, now the Gwalior State, sits central in north India, and in the late eighteenth century was virtually an independent kingdom under Mahadaji Scindia who was the arbiter of power in Delhi, and victorious over not just the Rajputs but also the East India Company. His successor, Daulat Scindia failed to stem the British expansion led by Captain Lake and Graeme Mercer his diplomatic agent. Captain Lake had applied himself to the improvement of the East India Company army, making arms, infantry, cavalry and artillery, more mobile and more manageable. [12]

Lake-&-ToddFigure 2: General Lake and Lt-Colonel James Todd

In early September 1803, General Lake stormed the Aligarh Fort and followed this by taking Delhi and Agra. This defeat, followed within days later by Arthur Wellesley’s victory at the Battle of Argaon, compelled Scindia to come to terms, and a treaty was signed in December 1803.

In his last six years in India, Mercer was the envoy (and friend) of the so-called ‘unbefriended adventurer.’ This of course was Lieutenant-Colonel James Tod who literally put Central India on the map – for it was he who submitted to the Governor-General the results of the surveys carried out in Rajputana with Mercer!

Rajputana consists of the Indian desert on the west and the Aravali Range of Mountains in the east. The meaning of Aravali is The Refuge of Strength. It was in this period when Tod managed to conciliate and settle the feuds within the Rajput states and also managed to collect materials which went into the making of the Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan.

Colonel Todd would have rejoiced this spring, for in 2009, the Sanskrit epic that he himself saved, The Ramayana, was put on display by the British Library for the first time. ‘Prince Rama’ (considered to be the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu) carries mysteriously through a poem of 24000 Sanskrit couplets most sumptuously illustrated. Here below is Todd himself riding on an elephant decorated in the rich colour of Rama.

By 1811, Graeme Mercer’s Indian campaign was at last over; and whilst his military career may have been with Lake, lasting friendship was with Todd. Aged 50, Graeme Mercer retired from service to his home Mavisbank where he had made a home for his sister Ann, sister-in-law, and nieces. It is unlikely that Graeme Mercer was naturally disposed to honestium otium and so speculating we should perhaps consider that he was named after General Graeme of Gorthy, an equerry to King George III. The estate of Gorthy in Perthshire – a century before ransacked by Rob Roy and his men – was acquired by Mercer’s father in 1819 and passed on his death to his youngest son. Graeme Mercer, akin to the General, was an adventurer unsettled by retirement. Such conclusion is based upon the 134 surviving pages of Mavisbank administration – which carries a man interested only in practical working of the land and who brought military discipline and governance to his farm, estate workings, cattle and workers!

Mapping-central-IndiaFigure 3: Mapping central India: James Todd

 5th October 1815: “Mosman paid 1s for watching the garden at night.”[13]

Dryden, an estate that, quite literally, collapsed due to mineral undermining, was in Mercer’s time nestled next to Mavisbank. Now its only marking of being is its depiction, and rather beautifully for that, on General Roy’s 18th century map with vistas, follies, and avenue bound parks of axial symmetry. Limited investigation has revealed that Dryden house was built for the Lockhart’s of Lee, in an ‘H’ plan with portico, and decorated pediment topped with three urns. Dryden was purchased as an estate in 1819 by George Dempster Mercer, younger brother of Mavisbank. Owing to irremediable subsidence the house was abandoned as early as 1865 being finally demolished on that century’s turn. George Dempster Mercer made his fortune in indigo with the East India Company before setting up his own firm (Mercer & Co.) which collapsed in 1826. Fortunately however George had secured land and was one of 14 Investors who in 1835 took indenture of Port Phillip, now Victoria, Australia, from the native chiefs. There he built many properties, and named the two principal seats; Dryden and Tulchan (after his Perthshire residence Glen Tulchan.)

Dryden2Figure 4: Dryden House

Encircled by railings the private and forgotten Mercer Burial Ground is located in Glentulchan and is now so overgrown that only the gateposts are visible, each topped incongruously by storks. Here buried are the two Mercer brothers, Graeme of Mavisbank and George of Dryden. Forgotten they may rest, and in wilderness for all that, but their repose is with ‘pride & privilege’, for Tulchan sits within the Trinity College Glenalmond, where the likes of Victor Alexander Bruce, 9th Earl of Elgin (Viceroy of India), Torquhil Campbell, 13th Duke of Argyll, Baron Wilson of Tillyorn (colonial administrator )were educated. It was here that Graeme Reid Mercer, son of George Mercer of Dryden and nephew of Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank, rich beyond imagination from his father George’s investment in Victoria, wrote his book the Nightingale’s Trill.[14] Lovely as the nightingale maybe, this manuscript carries the sweet song of the mavis.

As oft as I roam by the Almond’s clear water,

Whether at skreigh of dawn or the soft gloaming hour;

My thoughts are absorbed by the innkeeper’s daughter,

The charming young Jessie, Glentulchan’s sweet flower.

If she only deigns a bright smile to cast on me,

Neither sunshine nor moonlight have o’er me such power;

Her grace and her beauty have wholly undone me.

Graeme Reid Mercer so undone by Glentulchan’s sweet flower, roamed for twenty years till he found his nightingale. That girl was Catherine, the daughter of Lady Mary Hay, who throughout her long, and most premature, widowhood had returned from Colliepriest in Devon, to the Edinburgh that had been her formation. Lady Mary, daughter of Dalhousie, lived for forty years at Linden Lodge, and was the honourable gatekeeper to Clerk’s Mavisbank. There can be little doubt, Lady Mary is the forgotten chatelaine of Mavisbank; in this we must remember her first marital home was the Drum (Somerville House in Vitruvius Scoticus), built also by William Adam, and one of several projects that immediately followed Mavisbank. We should also consider that Lady Mary’s two daughters both married into Mavisbank: Catherine to Graeme Reid Mercer and Caroline to George Clerk Arbuthnot (of whom more lately).

Let us now deal with Graeme Mercer’s last four years, for it is only in his demise that he reveals agonies of flesh so tantalisingly incomplete.

Graeme Mercer died at Mavisbank on the first Wednesday of October 1841. He was in his 78th year. His Testament and five revisions by codicil, reveal a man in torment, forced to face his past, and the not so ignoble pursuit of his fortune.[15] Mercer’s estate, sold completely by roup, amounted to nearly six thousand pounds, including Linden Lodge (on an open-ended lease to Lady Hay) and five houses in Perth. His Executors and benefactors were his brother George Mercer of Dryden (father of Graeme Reid Mercer) and his nephew Major William Drummond Mercer. Testamentary instruction was at outset straightforward: Graeme Mercer was bachelor and he had no children. Then in early February 1837 the first of many quick Codicils appears.

Detail here is not necessary, but the umpteen revisions made by Graeme Mercer reveal that he had at least seven ‘natural’ children; two daughters and five sons, born between 1818 and 1833, and seemingly all to a Lasswade girl of the name Elizabeth Lousie. Illegitimacy, like consciousness, not surprisingly escapes record, and so the following consideration is speculative, but if the correct Elizabeth Lousie has been identified she was already married and worked as a chamber-maid in the house of Mavisbank. For at least six years Elizabeth Lousie sought to secure rightful provision for her children, but despite a High Court appeal to Lord Moncreiff, and a subsequent Action raised at Westminster, she failed. The codicils rehearse familial torment between Mercer and his ‘concubine’ as he referred to her in his codicils; ‘. . . such appeal will only be under the view of annoying me.’ Interestingly, and this is sometimes seen as death approaches, Mercer relented somewhat, but in favour only of his two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, both of whom received a financial settlement. His five sons however received nothing.[16]

It is a trail too far and beyond the ability of this writer, to reveal the pathways taken by Graeme Mercer’s seven children. It is almost certain that they were all born at Mavisbank, but in later childhood were removed to Canada, to settle in one of the two districts – Walpole or Walsingham – both acquired by Mercer.

Yet more strange tales have been made available by technology that Mercer could never have imagined: for Graeme Mercer had more than seven children! ‘Dumfound the internet’ surely the groan heard from Mercer’s long unvisited Glentulchan graveside.

William Mercer, yet another child of Graeme, was born at Mavisbank in 1813. His mother was of the name Wilson, but records reveal that William was raised by his uncle, Major Wilson, adopted his name, and in 1832 emigrated to Canada. An inked image survives of William Mercer, the very first Grand Mason of Canada; if it is representative of him, stiff and tall necked, his forbearance was formidable!

Graeme Mercer Esquire, for his deed of loyalty, trusted nobody more his butler James Adam. Such is understandable, for it was James Adam that administered day-to-day Mavisbank for all the many years Mercer was on military campaign. Who died first, Master or Servant, is not clear, but 1841 saw the last breath of both. Perhaps some may appreciate irony here, but the butler’s only son, named (of course) Graeme Mercer Adam, was to prove himself rather extraordinary as Canada’s finest historical biographer. [17]

“There is a fascinating grace about all of Mr. Adam’s work . . . to admire the grace with which a sentence has been rounded, or to linger over its exquisitely balanced rhythm. Nature he loves with all his heart, and the descriptive passages are delightful.”


Figure 5: William Mercer Wilson

Jim Mercer, a family historian, has helped in compiling this account of Graeme Mercer and like the writer was born in Colinton, but now resides in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Jim explained in correspondence how as a child, whenever he asked his parents for an expensive toy he was told that he would get it when they got the Mercer millions.[18] Many young Mercers grew up with the legend of Andrew Mercer, a business man who died in Toronto in 1871, leaving a fortune. Family rumour abounded, some branches stating that he had made money in the goldmines, but other branches that it was through amassing ‘huge tracts of land.’ With this came the tantalisingly whispering recall that Andrew Mercer was illegitimate son of an army officer![19]

Here is the 1934 newspaper headline:


Riddle of Rich Man’s Birth

[1] Bhattacharya, Manoshi (2008) The Royal Rajputs (Strange Tales and Stranger Truths)

[2] General Roy (1746-1755) The Military Survey of Scotland

[3] National Archives of Scotland (1761) Minute of Sale by Sir James Clerk to Robert Clerk, merchant in Edinburgh, of that part of the barony of Loanhead called Mavisbank with the house and furniture, excepting the pictures, for the sum of £5,000; GD18/1700

[4] General Register Office for Scotland (1792) Andrew Campbell late coachman to Robert Clerk of Mavisbank TD Edinburgh Commissary Court; CC8/8/129; (2 pages)

[5] Simpson & Brown (2005) Mavisbank House and Policies: Conservation Plan: This study was commissioned by The Mavisbank Trust, a subsidiary of the Edinburgh Green Belt Trust

[6] National Archives of Scotland (1799-1819) Graeme Mercer, farmer, Mavisbank. Wages and expenses book; 153 pages; CS96/2012

[7] General Register Office for Scotland  (1825) James Cheape 4th May 1825 Esquire of Strathtyrum, spouse of Helen Moncrieff,; Trust Disposition and Settlement; Cupar Sheriff Court SC20/50/1; (97 pages)

[8] Bhattacharya, Manoshi (2008) The Royal Rajputs (Strange Tales and Stranger Truths)

[9] Post, Felix (1994) Creativity and Psychopathology: A Study of 291 World-Famous Men; British Journal of Psychiatry. Post, Felix (1996) Verbal Creativity, Depression and Alcoholism: An Investigation of One Hundred American and British Writers; British Journal of Psychiatry

[10] Gordon, Peter J. (2009) Monumental Madness; From notes of a private manuscript on the raising of the WallaceMonument in Stirling

[11] Goldie-Scot Vanessa ( May 2007) Her death wasn’t an accident or even suicide – it was murder; Scotsman

[12] Mercer, Jim (September 2009) Correspondence on Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank and his brother George Mercer of Dryden; Jim Mercer lives in Ontario and operates the Mercer Millions website

[13] National Archives of Scotland (1799-1819) Graeme Mercer, farmer, Mavisbank. Wages and expenses book; 153 pages; CS96/2012

[14] Mercer, Graham Reid (1875) The laird o’ Glenalmond, or The nightingale’s trill

[15] General Register Office for Scotland (1841) Graeme Mercer Esquire of Mavisbank in the parish of Lasswade Inventory; Trust Disposition; Settlement; Deed of Bequest Trust Settlement; Codicils. Edinburgh Sheriff Court Inventories; SC70/1/61; (13 pages)

[16] National Archives of Scotland (January 1846) Disposition and Assignation by the Directors of the Aberdeen Savings Bank in favour of the Trustees of deceased Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank, of GD81/161 to extent of £7,000. GD81/168

[17] Mercer-Adam, Graeme (1888) Prominent Men of Canada

[18] Mercer, Jim (September 2009) Correspondence on Graeme Mercer of Mavisbank and his brother George Mercer of Dryden; Jim Mercer lives in Ontario and operates the Mercer Millions website

[19] Mercer, Major William Lindsay of Huntingtower: “The Mercer Pedigree” compiled from various sources

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