As you walk through the gorgeous rooms at Culzean Castle many of the paintings will catch your eye. We have generations of the Kennedy men immortalised in their splendour. Renowned artists such as Pompeo Batoni, Charles Lutyens and John Fernley, are only some of the famous names who have painted members of this family. Instead what you may struggle to find is a portrait of a Kennedy-born lady. Where are the daughters and sisters of these powerful men? The truth is, they are not at Culzean, all except for one. The real question then is: what makes this lady so remarkable from all the others? In 1689 a daughter of Sir Archibald ‘The Wicked’ of Culzean and Elizabeth Leslie was born. She was given the name Susanna, and she grew up to become one of the most highly praised ladies in society. She was a renowned hostess, a literary patron and an exceptional beauty.
Ladies of the Scottish aristocracy were expected to be educated in the art of feminine accomplishments. They were given crucial deportment lessons teaching them how to walk, talk, behave and dress appropriately in society. They were trained how to manage a household and host parties according to their station, a role that Susanna excelled in. Her daughters took after her, being reputed for their exquisite beauty and manner of deportment, which was dubbed the ‘Eglinton Air’. Susanna’s charm and ease within society was equally matched by her quick wit and intelligence. She was comfortable conversing on a range of subjects, from the typical ladies’ conversation on music, art and literature to the more unusual knowledge of science and philosophy. Her education was further broadened to include three languages: French, German and Italian. As a consequence of her accomplishments Allan Ramsay praised her ‘superior wit and sound judgment….accompanied with the diviner charms of goodness and equality of mind.’ Thus, it is unsurprising that Susanna applied her knowledge to matters of business, overseeing family owned coal mines and later establishing a brewery as well. Admittedly Susanna did have some eccentricities too, she is rumoured to have kept pet rats, which she trained to come on command and even dance.
Another skill of Susanna’s has recently been investigated by Elizabeth Cary Ford: the flute. Although previously believed to be an instrument only played by men in the early eighteenth century, a few rare ladies did play an inverse flute or recorder. On account of this knowledge Sir John Clerk of Penicuik sent Susanna a flute with a rolled poem tucked inside. His poem alludes to his deep affection for her and his envy of the instrument’s closeness:
Since I to her my liberty resign,
Take thou the care to tune her heart to mine.
Although Susanna equally considered John Clerk as a potential future spouse, her father insisted she wait for a man nearly thirty years her senior. Despite the relationship with Clerk not developing any further, Susanna continued to play her flute. This is evident from the dedication to her by William McGibbon in his 1734 Sonatas for Two German Flutes or Two Violins and a Bass, which implies she was a known player who could perform his music.
As well as being highly accomplished, Lady Susanna was physically beautiful too. King George II proclaimed her to be ‘the most beautiful woman in my dominions’ when she attended his court in 1730. Many amorous suitors agreed, which led to the production of numerous writings in her honour, such as The Lovely Eglintoune by Hamilton of Bangour. Susanna literally stood above the crowd on account of her being over six feet tall. A feature, which no doubt, singled her out from the rest. According to Robert Chambers she had a delicate pale face of ‘bewitching loveliness’ that required no make-up. Instead of the poisonous concoction of white lead, wax and mercury water used by other ladies; Susanna daily washed her face in sow’s milk. This ritual helped her to maintain her youthful complexion, like ‘rhododendron and rose flowers dipped in milk’ as stated by an admiring Robert Campbell. As the decades passed she appeared unchanged expect for a slight fading of her blue eyes, remaining a handsome stout lady in her eighties. It is therefore easy to understand why so many men fought duels and dedicated works to her, Susanna was a physical embodiment of beauty and grace combined.
In 1709 Susanna broke the hearts of many desirous suitors, when she became the third wife of Alexander Montgomerie, 9th Earl of Eglinton. Many believed Susanna was destined to become the Countess of Eglinton after a hawk landed upon her shoulder one day when out walking around Culzean. Around the bird’s neck were silver bells engraved with the Earl’s name. Although he already had children with his first two wives, Margaret Cochrane and Anne Gordon, he had no male heirs. His three sons to Margaret had died before him, leaving him with only daughters. Thus he was desperate to have more children with his young bride. The couple produced daughter after daughter, and the lack of a son vexed the Earl to consider a divorce. Susanna apparently refused to submit to her husband’s decision, only willing to accept if he could return her dowry, beauty, youth and virginity. Her steadfastness was rewarded; within a year from this potential separation a son was born. Lady Susanna gave him eleven children in fifteen years, eight daughters and three sons. Only one of her children died young, her first son Lord James Montgomerie, at the age of six in 1724. All of her remaining children reached adulthood, a blessing in a time of high infant mortality. In 1729 her husband Alexander died, leaving Susanna a widow at the age of forty. She dedicated herself in the raising of her children and managing the estate until her second son became of age.
Here are a few details on the lives of Susanna’s children below:
1) Lady Margaret Montgomerie d. 30 March 1799. Married Sir Alexander Macdonald in 1739.
2) Lady Susan Montgomerie d. 27 July 1754. Married John Renton of Lamberton.
3) Lady Frances Montgomerie d. c January 1755. Unmarried
4) Lady Christian Montgomerie d. 19 July 1748. Married James Moray, 13th of Abercairny.
5) Lady Grace Montgomerie d. 15 June 1751. Married Charles Byrne 1751.
6) Lady Charlotte Montgomerie d. 7 October 1732 of a fever. Unmarried.
7) Lady Elizabeth Montgomerie b. 4 July 1710, d. 19 February 1800. Married Sir John Cuninghame, 10th of Caprington, 3rd Bt.
8) Lady Helen Montgomerie b. 16 January 1712, d. 14 January 1747. Married Hon. Francis Stuart.
9) Lord James Montgomerie b. c 1718, d. 1 September 1724
10) Alexander Montgomerie, 10th Earl of Eglinton b. 10 February 1723, d. 25 October 1769. Unmarried. Killed by trespasser Mungo Campbell.
11) Archibald Montgomerie, 11th Earl of Eglinton b. 18 May 1726, d. 30 October 1796. Married twice: Lady Joan Lindsay then Mary Jervis. Two daughters Mary and Susanna.
You will be able to see from the dates that only three of her children outlived her. In the twenty-first century it is difficult to imagine the pain of enduring the death of a husband and eight children. On 18 March 1780, Lady Susanna died in Auchans Castle at the age of ninety-one. She lived a remarkable full life as a beacon in Scottish society. Samuel Johnson declared that: ‘Her figure is majestic, her manner high-bred, her reading extensive and her conversation elegant. She has been the admiration of the gay circles of life.’ Her portrait at Culzean gives evidence to his words; her beauty, grace and character is evident for all to see to this day.
Blog written by Kirstie Bingham, Culzean Castle Guide