Friday 1 March 2024

Death of the Divine Miss Markland

In September of 1851 the death of a woman woman in Greenock was announced in newspapers both locally and much further afield.  It was not usual in those days for the death of an ordinary woman to be announced in such a way, but Jean Findlay was different.  She was well known to many because, in her youth she had been one of Scot's poet Robert Burns' Belles of Mauchline.  She was the "divine" Miss Markland (sometimes written Murkland).

Jean Markland was the daughter of George Markland and his wife Agnes Shaw.  The couple married in 1761 and Jean was born in 1765.  Burns poem “Belles of Mauchline” was written in 1784 - 

In Mauchline there dwells six proper young belles,
The pride of the place and its neighbourhood a';
Their carriage and dress, a stranger would guess,
In Lon'on or Paris, they'd gotten it a'.
Miss Miller is fine, Miss Markland's divine,
Miss Smith she has wit, and Miss Betty is braw:
There's beauty and fortune to get wi' Miss Morton,
But Armour's the jewel for me o' them a'.

On 16 September 1788 at Mauchline, Jean Markland married James Findlay a customs officer.  He worked at Tarbolton, Ayrshire and later, in 1792, moved to Greenock where he was a tide surveyor.  James Findlay died in 1834 (age 80) and was buried in the Inverkip Street cemetery in Greenock.  Jean died in 1851 and her death was reported in newspapers throughout Britain.

Plaque in Mauchline marking the home of Jean Markland

It is curious to note that in reports of her death it was stated “In ordinary circumstances, the departure from this life of a respectable lady, ripe in years, would not have afforded matter of general interest, but it happens that the deceased was one of the very few persons surviving to our own times, who intimately knew the Peasant Bard in the first flush of his genius and manhood …”. 

Jean Markland's home in Mauchline

James Findlay as an Excise Officer in Tarbolton was asked, in a letter dated 31 March 1788 to “instruct the bearer, Mr Robert Burns, in the art of gauging, and practical dry gauging casks and utensils; and that you fit him for surveying victuallers, rectifiers, chandlers, tanners, tawers, maltsters etc; and when he has kept books regularly for six weeks at least, and drawn true vouchers and abstracts therefrom (which books, vouchers, and abstracts, must be signed by your Supervisor and your self, as well as the said Mr Robert Burns), and sent to the Commissioners at his expense; and when he is furnished with proper instruments, and well instructed and qualified for an officer, then (and not before, at your perils) you and your Supervisor are to certify the same to the Board, expressing particularly therein the date of this letter; and that the above Mr Robert Burns hath cleared his Quarters, both for lodging and diet; and that he has actually paid each of you for his instructions and examination; and that he has sufficient at the time to purchase a horse for his business”.  The note was signed by A Pearson, Excise Office, Edinburgh.

James Findlay was employed as a customs officer on the River Clyde and would have been involved in looking for smugglers up and down the coast.  Robert Burns also spent some time as a "gauger" (customs officer) and you can find an interesting article about his time in that employment on the website of Alexandria Burns Club.

Picture courtesy of Greenock Burns Club

When James and Jean Findlay lived in Greenock, the had a cottage at the Bay of Quick - might even be the one in this picture.  (Bay of Quick was approximately where the Container Terminal is now, at the east end of the Esplanade.)

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