Each of Constance Nisbet Hamilton’s names represented a property with a house or a castle (or both) and a family lineage whose members had helped to shape the political map of both Scotland and the British Empire.
Her mother may have been described mockingly as a grand dame; she had married Robert Dundas, grandson of Robert Dundas of Arniston and great nephew of Lord Melville. As with Constance, Mary’s inheritance came principally from her mother, a repeating pattern in Winton’s history.
The story of Constance’s grandmother is the subject of several books, for she was amongst the most fascinating characters of her time. She was Mary Nisbet Hamilton and although not directly linked with Winton, her influence was felt on the Estate, as it was wherever she went.
Mary was two years old when Winton was bought by her grandmother for her uncle John Hamilton. She grew up at Archerfield and by the age of twenty-one, was described as being dark, lively and with a shapely figure. She played the pianoforte, loved reels and was the centre of attraction amongst Edinburgh society.
She was heir to a fortune not just from her father, William, but also from her mother, Mary Manners, daughter of the 2nd Duke and Duchess of Rutland. It was no surprise that she became noticed by the aspiring diplomat Thomas, 7th Earl of Elgin.
Elgin was a direct descendant from Robert the Bruce. He was a nobleman with a promising career, in which he negotiated with emperors and kings. He was polished, well educated and a member of the House of Lords.
Like Mary’s father who had improved Archerfield and added to the house with the help of Robert Adam, Lord Elgin was improving his estate at Broomhall in Fife and was intent on building a fine mansion. The match was one with extraordinary prospects when they married in 1799.
Elgin was offered the post of Ambassador to Turkey. On their arrival in Constantinople, they were greeted by the Selim and a warship carrying 1200 men and 132 guns. They brought over an orchestra as part of their cultural suite and having sent for her pianoforte, Mary used her childhood talents to teach the women Scottish reels!
A Turkish poet wrote that ‘her sugar lips are breeding sunshine and overspread the world with Heaven’s shine’.
Shortly after their arrival, Elgin set up staff to assess and record the antiquities in Athens which was then part of the Turkish Empire. A year later in 1801, after the birth of their son, Lord Bruce, Elgin was granted a permit which allowed the removal of the statues; many of the marble statues from the Parthenon were then shipped back to Britain by courtesy of the navy, aided no doubt by Mary’s charm. These became known as the Elgin Marbles.
The Elgins journeyed to France, however the value attached to holding Elgin ransom was not realised and all travellers were met with imprisonment at the Castle of Lourdes.
Mary tried to use her influence to persuade Bonaparte to release Elgin, and it was then that she began to rely on the assistance of Robert Fergusson of Raith. Mary’s involvement with Fergusson grew and although they managed to secure Elgin’s release from France in 1806, only two years later an Act of Parliament secured his divorce from Mary.
The dream alliance which had so much promise had been put under immense strain, even without a third member.
Mary went on to marry Fergusson and settled at Archerfield. A monument was erected in Haddington in memory of Fergusson by the Whig electorate, whom he represented in parliament for Kirkcaldy and then East Lothian. The inscription referred ‘to a kind landlord, a liberal dispenser of wealth, a generous patron of literature, science and art’.
In the statistical account for Dirleton in 1836, the entry for Mary states: ‘Her kindness and liberality to her tenancy are too well known to require notice and the estimation in which she is held by them all is the best proof she ever takes in their welfare’.