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Elliot, Jean [Jane]free

(1727–1805)
  • Murray G. H. Pittock

Jean Elliot (1727–1805)

by unknown artist

Elliot, Jean [Jane] (1727–1805), poet, was born in April 1727 at Minto House, near Hawick, Roxburghshire, the third daughter of Sir Gilbert Elliot (bap. 1693, d. 1766), second baronet and (as lord justice clerk of Scotland) Lord Minto, and Helen (bap. 1696, d. 1774), daughter of Sir Robert Stuart (Stewart) of Allanbank, baronet, and Helen Cockburn. Gilbert Elliot (1722–1777) and John Elliot (1732–1808) were her brothers. She did not marry. Miss Elliot showed herself from an early age to be a lady of bearing and determination. During the Jacobite rising of 1745 she, when only eighteen, entertained a party of Jacobites at Minto while her father took refuge among the neighbouring crags. Her claim to fame rests upon one poem, written as the result of a wager with her brother Gilbert, later to be the third baronet and himself the author of the 'graceful pastoral' (DNB) 'My Sheep I Neglected'. The brother and sister were travelling together in the family coach near Selkirk, discussing the battle of Flodden, when Gilbert wagered 'a pair of gloves or a set of ribbons' against his sister's ability to write a good ballad on the subject. According to tradition, of the eighty ‘flowers’ of Selkirk Forest who had gone to Flodden only William Brydone, town clerk of Selkirk, had returned, bearing as trophy an English flag. It was this story that very probably formed the basis for Miss Elliot's 'The Flowers of the Forest', written in response to her brother's wager, with its powerful use of Scots contrasting markedly with Mrs Alison Cockburn's ‘polite’ version, which was almost certainly written earlier.

So the story goes: indeed it is sometimes said that a 'rough draft of the song' (DNB) was ready by the end of the journey during which the wager was made. There is, however, room to doubt the complete originality of what was indeed a highly successful version of a Flodden ballad. It has long been known that the traditional air survived, as did two lines of 'The Battle of Flodden'—'I've heard them lilting at the yowe-milking' (Elliot, 454) and 'The flowers of the forest are a' wede away' (Eyre-Todd, 1.204). In addition, the view was early voiced (by David Herd) that Miss Elliot's 'Flowers' was 'a version made up from various copies of the old ballad collated' (Henderson, 416). Current scholarship does not allow for a definitive answer, but the likelihood is that there was a significant existing framework for this most famous modern ballad composition. Although Jean Elliot remained unwilling to claim authorship of 'The Flowers of the Forest' because of her social status, the fact of it was widely known and she was called ‘the Flower’ in consequence (Graham, 337). It was not her only poem, and some of her other verse is printed in The Border Elliots and the Family of Minto (1897). 'The Flowers of the Forest' was printed in David Herd's Scottish Songs (1776) and by Sir Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–3). It should be noted that the manuscript of 'Flowers' left at Minto differs from the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border text.

When her father died in 1766, Miss Elliot took a significant role in the disposition of his affairs. Subsequently she moved to Edinburgh, where she was described as 'a prodigious fund of Scottish anecdote', though it was also ungallantly said that she 'did not appear to have ever been handsome' (Elliot, 455). On the other hand (or perhaps only more politely), she was described as having 'a sensible face, and a slender, well-shaped figure' (Tytler and Watson, 1.200). From 1782 to 1804, she lived in Brown's Square in the capital; she died at Mount Teviot (or Mounteviot), Roxburghshire, the seat of her brother Admiral Elliot on 29 March 1805. In character she was elegant, fashionable, and intelligent, 'from her youth … remarkable for her discrimination, discretion, and self-control'. She was 'fond of French literature' (ibid., 200–01), though not of the French Revolution, and by her old age she was apparently the 'only lady' in Edinburgh to use a 'sedan chair' (Eyre-Todd, 1.204).

Sources

  • G. F. S. Elliot, The border Elliots and the family of Minto (1897)
  • S. Tytler and J. L. Watson, The songstresses of Scotland, 2 vols. (1871)
  • H. G. Graham, Scottish men of letters in the eighteenth century (1901)
  • C. Kerrigan, ed., An anthology of Scottish women poets (1991)
  • C. Craig, ed., The history of Scottish literature, 2: 1660–1800, ed. A. Hook (1987)
  • A. Bold, Scotland: a literary guide (1989)
  • G. Eyre-Todd, ed., Scottish poetry of the eighteenth century, 2 vols. (1896)
  • D. Gifford and D. McMillan, eds., A history of Scottish women's writing (1997)
  • T. F. Henderson, Scottish vernacular literature: a succinct history, 2nd edn (1900)
  • J. H. Millar, A literary history of Scotland (1903)
  • W. Donaldson, ‘The Jacobite songs of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Scotland’, PhD diss., U. Aberdeen, 1974

Likenesses

  • drawing, wash, Scot. NPG [see illus.]
  • painting (after miniature), repro. in Graham, Scottish men of letters, 336
W. Anderson, , 3 vols. (1859–63)
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)