Traquair House, A Family Life Revealed

traquair houseThe book, ‘Traquair House, A family Life revealed’ on the history of Traquair house has just been published. Written by Catherine Maxwell Stuart, she explores the lives of the Stuart family over five hundred years, with the house, a focal point.  The House was a former hunting lodge and is a white-washed Castle set in extensive grounds. The book brings another are alive through letters and photographs between 1491 and 1875 to piece together long-forgotten lives. Catherine is a descendent of the Stuarts and current owner of the property. Talking to her last September , a petite blonde, at the estate offices in the grounds of the house, she told me that the book took 18 months to write, and that she decided to write the book with archivist Margaret Fox.  This occurred when her interested was piqued due to a number of small exhibitions at the house, by Margaret, based on material from the archives. ‘It grew arms and legs’ she says, ‘and developed into a history of the Stuart family’

According to Catherine, Christina’s story is an interesting one, because was the only member of the family to emigrate: ‘It’s a lovely, romantic story’ continues Catherine. In 1770, Christina met Cyrus through her brother, while he was a law student at Edinburgh University, and married him against her father’s wishes, John Stuart, the 6th Earl of Traquair. It is presumed they eloped. 

Christina went on to become the original first lady of America, and the only Scottish one, and is therefore played an important part in Scottish history. This book explores her life through photographs and correspondence, and the lives of other family members, between 1491 and 1875. Cyrus went on to become one of America’s founding fathers and final president of the confederacy. He governed between 22 January 1788 to 4 March 1789. Directly after this the constitution was signed and George Washington became the United States’ first president.

Christina had been painted as one of the first ladies by Cyrus, reveals Catherine, as she started the tradition of visiting dignitaries being invited back to the home, and offering hospitality. This was an early form of political networking.

However, Catherine feels that although Christina had a hospitable side, she may also have been quite reserved.  Continuing ‘she must have had some spark in her, for she went against her father’s wishes. Despite this, she wasn’t a great society lady, for after the period as president, they effectively retired to Williamsburg’. 

 Beset by money worries, life wasn’t perfect for Christina after she got married, Catherine believes Cyrus could be unpleasant. Catherine goes on to say that he was constantly writing to her father asking for her money, and there is evidence of this in the book.  As well as this, Christina had to stay at Traquair for two years after her marriage, while Cyrus studied law at chambers in London. This was until, in a letter sent from her father to his eldest son John suggests the removal of Christina and her child from the house, for her brother was due to marry and reside there.  Other evidence for his unpleasantness occurs when in the letter from Cyrus to John, Cyrus unleashes his anger at the family, believing they are in the wrong, calling them for example ‘without fortune, beauty accomplishments…’ and that ‘it seems she is thought of such consequence as to disturb the peace of the new married couple, and he doesn’t understand why. Christina and Cyrus departed for America on the 6th of August 1773; Catherine believes her father never really forgave her for going off with him and their relationship was affected; for she didn’t make contact with him for twenty years. Catharine feels that ‘the situation with the family was really sad.

According to the book, Christina had been entitled to a fortune which she did not receive in the end says Catherine.  Cyrus had tried many times to extol this money from her family. According to Catherine, Cyrus had perceived that she was from a wealthy family, but it had already lost a lot of their wealth, due to their Catholic faith and political allegiance. Catherine adds that they had not lived on much money, but is not sure why, despite Cyrus having inherited a plantation.

Despite the financial problems, the Griffins had two boys and two girls, and educated them well. They also moved from New York to Philadelphia before settling in Virginia. After his post as the final president of the confederacy, Cyrus became the Judge of the US district court of Virginia.

  Family disagreements arose due to the family’s dislike for Christina, according to Cyrus’s letters. He believes this dislike extended to himself, rather than having begun due to him. This dislike seems to seep into the rest of their lives in America, and is evident from Christina’s numerous letters, which were never replied to.  She believes, unlike Cyrus, that it was due to their dislike for him, which she feels had no foundation. These issues must have caused her pain, and were probably the reason she never returned to Scotland. Catherine believes she didn’t return because ‘she had burned her bridges with her family, she knew she had to stay with her husband’. The fact that she wasn’t getting any replies, and the situation with her father, leads Christina to believe that she was distraught at being cut off by her family. Also that due to the lack of response, it would have been a risk to return and that this was a ‘gruesome’ situation.

This situation is confirmed through a letter by her son John.  He discusses Christina’s feelings: ‘the anxiety my mother must feel from not having heard from you for a long time’, and her possible ‘apprehensions and fears’ due to this.

According to a letter Christina wrote to her cousin Lady Winifred Maxwell, life had been a struggle for her.  Writing about how expensive things were, she also discusses how she had not heard from her two sisters over the last twenty years, and only once from her brother.  She also worried about being forgotten by her family, and had been glad to be remembered by her brother.

Ultimately, Catherine regards Christina as having been happy with Cyrus; despite other troubles, for she surely would have returned if things had gone wrong. Christina herself said in regards to Cyrus in a letter to her brother on 1788,   that ‘he makes me the most affectionate husband and best father in the world’.

Her obituary acknowledges she had suffered, and that she had borne this with ‘fortitude and resignation’. It also states that she was ‘virtuous’ and ‘pious’ and that she had many friends due to her ‘amiable qualities’. Christina died in October 1807, and Cyrus three years later.  They are buried close together in Williamsburg. Cyrus must have ended his life with very little money regards Catherine, for he didn’t want much spent on his grave. Although there is nothing belonging to them left behind, except their tombstones and their house, Catherine says that their descendants often visit Traquair. This is of the ways their memory is kept alive.

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