The Duchess Blair

Published in Windlesora 27 (2011)

©2011, WLHG

One of the residents of The Willows in Dedworth had lived a life full of scandal and intrigue that included a prison sentence. But was it her own fault? Looking at her background and the rest of her family it looks more like a case of the heart ruling the head.

Born Mary Caroline Mitchell, daughter of Rev. Richard Mitchell DD, a professor at Oxford University, she had several brothers who attained high positions including a judge and a High Commissioner.

In 1872 she married Captain Arthur Kindersley Blair of the 71st Highland Light Infantry. They had a daughter, Irene Mary. Captain Blair was a dependent of George, 3rd Duke of Sutherland and in 1883 he was shot by the Duke in a hunting accident near Pitlochry and died as a result.

The Duke was a member of the Sutherland-Leveson-Gower family, well known in Windsor, and he attended Eton College. He had married Anne Hay-Mackenzie at Cliveden and they had five children. Anne died in 1888 when her husband was in Tampa, Florida with Mrs Blair. They had apparently been living together for some time and married only four months after the first Duchess died. She became known as ‘The Duchess Blair’.

The Duke’s children were not happy at all about the marriage and their anger rose when the Duke died in 1892 leaving everything to his second wife. The 4th Duke, Cromartie Sutherland-Leveson-Gower had a title but no estate to go with it.

A long legal battle ensured to retain the property of Sutherland Castle for the new Duke and at one meeting with her solicitor in London, the Duchess removes a paper from the bundle of documents and took it to the fireplace and burned it. She claimed it was a private letter from her husband to her and it was his dying wish that she would destroy it.

This explanation was not good enough for the President of Probate, Divorce, and Admiralty Division and she was found guilty of contempt of court, sentenced to six weeks in prison, fined £250, and had to pay the costs of both sides. She spent the sentence in Holloway Prison and was released on 29 May 1893.

At the end of the sentence, she went to her home at The Willows. She had some good friends because she was given a solid silver casket with five £50 notes inside inscribed:

“This casket (with £250, the amount of the fine imposed) was presented on 29th may, 1893, to Mary Caroline Duchess of Sutherland, by a number of sympathising English and Scotch friends, as an expression of their indignant protest against the severe order made by a Judge for her having unflinchingly carried out a dying request of her husband.”

The financial problem was eventually sorted out with the Duchess giving up her rights to the Sutherland estate and Castle for half a million pounds. With this money, she built Carbisdale Castle just outside the boundaries of the family estate at Culrain. It has been called the castle built in spite. It was started in 1906 and was not finished until after her death. It is now a Scottish Youth Hostel.

She married again. This time her husband was Sir Arthur Rollit, MP for Islington. It was his second marriage. His first wife had died while he was Mayor of Hull, his hometown. She was a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society and supported Windsor Rose Show and other local horticultural shows.

She was in the news once more in 1898 when her jewellery (valued at £30,000) was stolen by international jewel thief William Johnson, known as ‘Harry the Valet’. The Duchess and her husband were travelling from Paris to London with one of her brothers, his wife, her footman, and a maid. The thief was caught and given a seven-year prison sentence but the Duchess only got £4,000 worth of her jewellery back.

She died at a nursing home in Leeds in May 1912. Her remains were first returned to Windsor but she was buried in the Sutherland Family Mausoleum in Staffordshire, the seat of the Dukes of Sutherland.

Pamela Marson