Mary Erskine founded two boarding schools for girls in Edinburgh. The first was for the daughters and granddaughters of merchants in 1694; it is now known as the Mary Erskine school. Her second foundation was the Trades Maiden Hospital, in 1704, which educates the daughters and granddaughters of Edinburgh’s craftsmen and tradesmen. It is administered by a board of Governors which includes the Deacons of all the Incorporated Trades.
Mary Erskine was born at Garlet House, Clackmannanshire, and was baptised in the parish of Clackmannan on 12th May 1629; her parents were Robert Erskine and Beatrix Stupard. Mary’s father is supposed to have been a distant relative of the Earl of Mar, whose surname is also Erskine, but the exact relationship has not been established. Mary had two younger siblings, Cicilia, born 1632, and William, born 1635. Nothing else seems to be known of her life until May 1660, when she became engaged to marry her first husband, Robert Kennedy, writer (lawyer) in Edinburgh. They were married in Edinburgh on 19th July 1661, having signed their pre-nuptial contract of marriage on 21st June. She was 32 and Robert Kennedy was 28.
They had at least three sons and two daughters, as far as the Edinburgh parochial register shows:
1) Thomas, baptised 6th July 1662
2) Eupham, baptised 26th June 1664
3) Robert, baptised 6th October 1665
4) Mary, baptised 3rd September 1668
5) John, baptised 27th October 1670
Thomas, the eldest, was named in honour of Thomas Wallace, advocate, (who became a baronet in 1669), who was Robert Kennedy’s employer. Eupham, the elder daughter, was named after Wallace’s wife, Eupham, daughter of William Gemmell of Templeland.
None of the five children survived childhood, all of them apparently predeceasing their father, who was buried in the Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh, on 18th February 1671, aged only 37. Mary inherited all her husband’s estate, which amounted to a total of about £1,967. The loss of all five children, while not an uncommon event in the seventeenth century, must have been a great sadness to Robert and Mary. It is possible that it could be one of the factors which caused Mary Erskine to turn her attention away from domesticity and towards business instead, as a refuge from her disappointed expectations.
Having lived as an eligible widow for a little over three years, Mary Erskine married for a second time, on 23rd September 1675, at the age of 45. Her new toy-boy husband, who seems to have been much younger than herself, was James Hair, a newly-qualified apothecary with a shop in the High Street, whose father was identified in the Burgess Roll as James Hair in Glentochar. The couple began to build up a portfolio of properties in Edinburgh on both sides of the High Street and in Cowgate, both commercial and residential. This formed the basis of Mary Erskine’s future wealth and it is what enabled her to be so generous in her donations to her two principal foundations near the end of her life. James Hair died in July 1683, so Mary was once again left a widow. There being no children of this marriage, it was easy for her, unencumbered by any distractions of motherhood, to turn her mind to the serious business of making money in order to use it for philanthropic purposes.
When she was widowed for the second time she was aged about 54 and she had another twenty-four years to live; it was during that time that she made her fortune. She gave money to several impoverished relations and it seems, reading between the lines, that she did not expect some of her “loans” which she made to needy friends to be repaid. She made a number of charitable donations to worthy causes, including George Heriot’s School and the poor people of Edinburgh and Canongate, but her two outstanding gifts, both made in her lifetime, were the major endowments gifted to the Merchant Maiden Hospital (now the Mary Erskine School) and the Trades Maiden Hospital.
She lived to the age of 78, long enough for her to have had the satisfaction of seeing the constitutions of both her hospitals ratified by the last Parliament of Scotland. She died on 2nd July 1707 and was buried in the Greyfriars Burial Ground two days later. There was no gravestone to mark the place but fortunately the exact spot is known from another source, in the southern-most corner of the enclosure which afterwards became known as the Covenanter’s Prison.
In 2014 the Governors of the Trades Maiden Hospital were given permission to put up a memorial entablature immediately below the one already provided by the Merchant Company. It is a single piece of Yorkshire sandstone with a moulded border and it bears this inscription:
IN GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE
WHO WITH THE CONVENERY
OF THE TRADES OF EDINBURGH
TRADES MAIDEN HOSPITAL
AND WAS BURIED HERE
4TH JULY 1707