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Sir Walter Scott Novel

There is a remarkable story, factual, concerning how Sir Walter Scott, in his role as principal clerk to the Court of Session, became aware of legal proceedings involving retention of an estate in the Carruthers family.  Scott had this story in mind as he developed the plot, and wrote his novel Guy Mannering.

This story underscores the significance of hereditary estate retention throughout history.  The Carruthers family owned the Mouswald land from 1320 until 1588 - 258 years.  The Holmains estate was in the Carruthers family from 1361 until 1772 - 411 years.  A. Stanley Carruthers in his book Records of the Carruthers Family, published in 1933, called the Woodfoot and Milne branches of the family "probably" the senior traceable branch of the family.  However, both Milne and Woodfoot are extinct in the male line. 

This brings us to the Carruthers family of Dormont.  The ancestor of this branch was William Carruthers, 3rd son of John Carruthers, 5th Lord and 1st Baron Holmains.  He received the Charter of Carsopeland from his father in 1552.  James Carruthers, the 13th Laird, currently heads the Dormont family - 456 years later. 

Can you imagine the difficult circumstances people must have had to go through to keep an estate in the family for over 450 years?  Elsewhere on this web site you can see where Carruthers estates were lost due to murder, bank failure, non-freedom of religion and marriage with no male heirs.  How the Carruthers family of Dormont has been able to retain one estate for over 450 years is nothing short of remarkable.  But this story involves a legal case that was finally closed after going before the House of Lords for a second time, almost 80 years after an illegitimate child was born. 

Details of this story can be found in Records of the Carruthers Family, in Michael Robson's book Surnames and Clansmen - Border Family History in Earlier Days,  along with the Court of Sessions records.

Extracts are provided below.

Francis, the 5th Laird of Dormont, succeeded his grandfather in 1725.  In 1731 he married Margaret, daughter of Sir Alexander Maxwell of Monreith.  In 1735 he made a post-nuptial contract of marriage to himself and his heirs male, whom failing the heirs male of any other marriage, whom failing to any daughter he might have by Margaret Maxwell.  A clause stipulated that if a daughter was excluded from the estate by any term in the deed, she should get £1,000 sterling. 

Margaret had a way of living beyond their means and the resulting financial hardship caused Francis to give up his life as a leisurely country gentleman and make some additional money.  His chosen path was in selling and delivering Galloway cattle, a potentially prosperous venture, but one that kept him away from home for extended periods of time.  During one extended absence trying to settle a lawsuit in England, he received word from home that "Mrs. Carruthers's conduct with regard to a handsome stout fellow of a gardener named Bell at Dormont, was not a little suspicious".   When he got home, it was obvious that his wife was "with child".  He steadfastly exclaimed that he was not the father since he had been away from home for "nearly a whole year".  

Francis then decided to get rid of his wife by getting a divorce.   However, the questioning of the staff only provided him with suspicious circumstances, not the proof he needed at that time to justify divorce proceedings.  Undaunted, he decided to proceed anyway with the divorce action.  But, before the proceedings could be finished, after having been married ten years without a child, Margaret had a daughter, Elizabeth, on May 28, 1741.  Francis, naturally refused to acknowledge the child as his daughter.   But, since he was not divorced, the law said that the child was a legitimate heir.  Francis' divorce from Margaret was finalized on January 6, 1742.  Not too long after delivering her child, though, Margaret fell ill and died.  While this death solved the expense problem, there still was an open question about inheritance of the child, and Margaret was no longer around to answer any questions.

Francis did not seem interested in marrying again and continuing to try to have a male heir.  Under the previous entail, there was some question as to whether or not a male child by a 2nd wife would take precedence over a female heir by his 1st wife.  Therefore, Francis spent his energy trying to prove that Elizabeth was illegitimate.  But, his time away from home turned out to be 9½ months, and under the law, since he had been home within 10 months, the child was legitimately his.

He refused to see the infant Elizabeth, "alien to his blood", and arranged for her to be brought up in Northumberland, in what Sir Walter Scott called the "wildest part of the Cheviot Hills" at the home of "an ignorant and low farmer" named Thomas Robson.  He was paid to bring her up as his own daughter and never let her know that she had any other father.  She was known as Betty Robson.  Francis apparently did provide money for her support every year.  However, like most Cheviot farmers, Robson spent his evenings drunk and, over the years let out more and more of the story.

Elizabeth, like her mother Margaret, turned out to be an exceedingly beautiful woman, with men courting her from all over the area.  In 1758, at the age of 17, she ran off with Henry Routledge of Cumcrook and Nether Hill.  They ran away to Edinburgh and got married.  Henry, aware of her circumstances, wrote to her presumed father, Francis Carruthers, for permission to marry, but he never answered. 

Henry, although from a landed family, was a 4th son of a small estate burdened with debt, so he inherited very little.  Struggling at the poverty level, and pressed to pay off debts, the couple was desparate enough to approach Francis Carruthers for money.  They started with high demands, requiring part of the Dormont estate while Francis lived, and all of it at his death.  Getting nowhere with this demand, they eventually settled on signing a "Deed of Renounciation of all Claim upon the Estate of Dormont" for £650.  Immediately after this, Francis executed another document providing Dormont would go only to his male heirs, failing any then to his brother William Carruthers and his male heirs - finalized December 8, 1759.

Francis died in 1773 and his brother, William, headed the estate for the next 14 years.  William, and the next 2 generations after him, gained little from inheriting Dormont, since the estate was still in debt, almost to the extent of its whole value. 

The Routledges were unable to make the £650 last very long.  They continued scraping by, now needing to also support 2 children, John and Anne.  Sir Walter Scott stated that Henry Routledge died in the Carlisle jail.  Elizabeth died in 1768, leaving the 2 children in dire circumstances.  The plot now thickens once again.  Given that Margaret Maxwell had been a sister to Sir William Maxwell, a cousin to the mother then took it upon herself to raise the 2 children.  The cousin, by this time, was known as the Duchess of Gordon.  The Duchess had John and Anne educated and procured a job for him in India.  She also arranged a good marriage for Anne, to Mr. Majendie, the Bishop of Bangor. 

In 1806, John Rutledge returned from India.  He had prospered.  While visiting Cumberland, he is believed to have crossed to Dumfriesshire and stopped at an inn close to Dormont.   Here he learned, quite by chance, of his mother's connection with the Carruthers family.  He at once raised an action to set aside the settlement of the estate made in 1759 by Francis. The two main questions were (1) was the deed of 1759 valid, seeing that it had not been challenged for over forty years; (2) did the discharge given by Elizabeth on receipt of the £650 exclude her heir's rights to the estate under his grandmother's marriage contract in 1735.  It took exactly 14 years to reach an ultimate decision.  By that time John Rufledge was dead,  but his sister, Mrs. Majendie, had continued the lawsuit.  The suit was heard in every court in Scotland, even argued twice at length, before the House of Lords.  At various times, the decision had been made in each party's favor.  However, the final decision handed down in 1820, was in the favor of William Thomas Carruthers, grand-nephew of Francis, and the 8th Laird of Dormont.

Sir Walter Scott published his novel Guy Mannering in 1815.

The Guy Mannering novel may be obtained here:

                                                                                                                                                                 

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