Majoribanks of the Lees
“Sir John Marjoribanks of Lees in the County of Berwick Baronet Member of Parliament for said county Representative of the ancient family of Marjoribanks of Leuchie oldest son and heir of Edward Marjoribanks of Lees Esquire by Grizel, daughter of Archibald Stewart Esquire.”
The device with accompanying quotation is derived from the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland by kind permission of the Lord Lyon King of Arms. It was matriculated in 1818 a few years after the grant of his baronetcy, shortly after the death of his father Edward in 1815.
However, neither Sir John nor his father was by any means the first Marjoribanks to have an interest in Lees. The story is rather complex but starts with Edward’s great-uncle James, the youngest in his generation of a well-known Edinburgh family which had matriculated arms as Marjoribanks of Leuchie. Being a wealthy man, soon after his daughter Elizabeth had married James Pringle younger of Lees, James bought the estate and paid off the massive debts with which it was encumbered. In 1752 his son (also James) drew up an entail in favour of another James Pringle, reserving the reversion of the estate, should the Pringles die out – and James Pringle had no sons at the time – to Marjoribanks of Leuchie.
As it happened, this family too had suffered a remarkable lack of male heirs. Edward was James’s older son, but by 1762 his brother John had “gone to India and died.” Thus, quite unexpectedly, Edward, by now the sole remaining male heir of Leuchie, who had been peacefully pursuing a career as wine-merchant and possibly surreptitious Jacobite agent in Bordeaux, found himself inheriting Lees. He therefore brought his wife Grizel Stewart and baby son John to Lees, gave up his previous trade and settled down to life as a country gentleman. Note:- There is some dispute about the date of this inheritance, and it is possible that he did not actually take possession for some years, but there is good authority for accepting 1762 as the latest date for his inheriting the property.
Lees was an attractive, though not particularly large estate on the banks of the Tweed. An old verse cited by Charles runs:-
“While summers glow and winters freeze
Ye’ll see a braw lad at the Lees;
And Tweed’s fair mirror as it passes
Shall aye reflect its bonny lasses.”
Edward was already a Burgess and Guild Brother of Edinburgh and divided his time between Bordeaux and Hallyards, which had for several generations been the seat of his particular branch of the family. It now lies buried under the land of Edinburgh’s Turnhouse Airport.
Relatively little is known of Edward’s life at Lees; he does not seem to have been inclined to take part in the great affairs of the day, but it appears that he maintained his family’s interest in the profession of banking – his grandfather, another Edward, for instance had been town treasurer of Edinburgh. It was to his sons’ enormous benefit that he struck up a friendship with Thomas Coutts, who ran his private banking firm and made it famous throughout the island. There is a letter in the archives of Coutts’ Bank in the Strand from Edward to Coutts which bears witness both to their easy friendship and Edward’s business-like interest in the affairs of those of his sons and grandsons whose fortune depended on Coutts’s generosity.
In person Edward was stately and handsome with perfect formal manners, although as he aged his natural quick temper easily turned to rage – almost to madness. However, he was hospitable and maintained a welcoming establishment at the Lees – not as grand, perhaps, as the Home estate at the Hirsel the other side of the road, but much more homely. It was Edward, too, who was the first occupant of the attractive Family graveyard in Abbey Road, Coldstream, looking down over a green sward to the River Tweed running below.
Very much more is known of his eldest son John, the most distinguished man ever to have resided at the Lees. Indeed, all Edward’s five sons were very prominent men in their own right: in addition to John, Campbell was twice chairman of the East India Company, the most prestigious corporation in the kingdom: Stewart owned a shipping company and was M.P. for Hythe for many years: Edward became senior partner in Coutts’ Bank: and James became a judge in the East India Company’s administration of India. Perhaps none of this would have happened without Thomas Coutts’s assistance, but in fact all five of them made a great success of the positions to which he had helped them.
However, little is known of John’s education and early life. The first evidence we have is a letter from his mother to Sir Robert Murray Keith, asking for his help in preparing John, then aged 15, for a military career: ‘I am told he is a good classical scholar, but being deficient in other branches of education which are indispensable both for the soldier and the gentleman … it will be an advantage for him to spend a twelvemonth abroad to acquire … the French and German languages’. Keith, British envoy at Vienna and a family friend, obtained a place for the boy with General Douglas at Bois-le-Duc, who gave him a sound pre-military grounding. On his return further family influence obtained him a commission and he eventually rose to the rank of captain in the Coldstream Guards without having to do any serious soldiering.
When not with his regiment he appears to have lived with his parents at the Lees for most of the 1780s and it was towards the end of this period of youth and relative irresponsibility, that he fathered a son by a local girl. He acknowledged the boy and set him up in a small way of business in Coldstream as a cordwainer (shoemaker), for he was never mean or lacking in a sense of social responsibility. The descendants of this family are still settled in the area today. However, in 1787 an association began which would change his own and his brothers’ lives for ever, when his father introduced him to Thomas Coutts (1735-1822); Coutts in turn introduced him to John Stuart, Baron Cardiff, and later 4th Earl and 1st Marquess of Bute, an influential nobleman. Coutts, a man of their father’s generation rather than their own, acted as a kindly but firm uncle to John and his four brothers and set their feet confidently on the way to respectable prosperity.
In 1791, in a shrewd career move, John married Alison, daughter of William Ramsay, a wealthy banker in Edinburgh. He brought her home to his fine new house in Eccles, Berwickshire, fathering four sons and five daughters. He gave up army life and his third son Charles records of the next decade: ‘Among this hard-drinking set, most of them greatly his inferiors, were several of the best years of my father’s life thrown away’. It is true that the local gentry were hardly models of propriety, but when one considers that Charles was only born in 1794 and was removed to Edinburgh for his education while still a small boy it must be questioned how much he actually knew of his father’s affairs. In fact he appears to have disliked him, and there are more complimentary marginalia inserted in Charles’s memoir by his younger brother David. A lesson, perhaps, against trusting too far the validity of primary sources!
No doubt there were indeed some dissipated nights at Eccles House, but in fact John was doing quite well, although he was not as yet particularly wealthy. Shortly after his marriage his father-in-law had extended an invitation to become a partner in the bank of Mansfield, Ramsay, which at least secured his future. Here Charles snipes again, saying that his father had not the talents required of a banker, being inclined to an enthusiastic dash at a project rather than the steady unemotional application required in the banking business. In this case Charles was perhaps on firmer ground, for John in practice was never a very diligent banker; most of the family’s traditional stock of banking talent seems to have been absorbed by his younger brother Edward, senior partner in Coutts & Co. for many years.
His father-in-law was not on the warmest terms with him – it was not in his nature – but induced him, around the turn of the century, to return to live in Edinburgh, he bought No. 29 Charlotte Square, a fine new square at the end of George Street. Probably the need to educate his sons also influenced the move. It appears, too, that it was at this time he became a Mason, probably at Ramsay’s instigation; this was to prove an important step for the future, for it brought him into contact with the most eminent men in Scotland.