photo of Barabara MacLean

Barbara McLean

Marjory Fleming wrote only 9000 words of prose and 560 lines of verse, dying before her ninth birthday, yet Robert Louis Stevenson declared that she "was possibly – no, I take back possibly – she was one of the noblest works of God." She was celebrated by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Mark Twain who wrote "she was made out of thunder-storms and sunshine, and not even her little perfunctory pieties and shop-made holinesses could squelch her spirits or put out her fires for long ... and this tainted butter soon gets to be as delicious to the reader as are the stunning and worldly sincerities around it every time her pen takes a fresh breath" - and in our times by Karl McDougall, Candia McWilliam and Liz Lochhead, and was described by Elizabeth Bowen as capturing "the immortal now"of a child.


Born at Kirkcaldy in 1803 the daughter of a magistrate and niece of a minister, Marjory had an older sister and two brothers and a younger sister, on whose birth she was sent to live with a widowed aunt in Edinburgh. Aunt Marion Keith's home was on North Charlotte Street in Edinburgh's New Town whose first phase was then under construction.  George III's 50th year on the throne was celebrated in lines written by Margery in 1810. Britain was at war with France throughout her life, so militiamen were a common sight and the fear of invasion very real  - the escape of French prisoners from Edinburgh Castle would provide the plot for RLS's St Ives - and the prevalence of hanging and transportation as punishments contributed to a strong sense of justice which prompted Marjory to demand such a fate for a turkey that killed its own offspring. Only the well-off could afford even then to live in the New Town, and Henry Cockburn wrote of the green turf with trees leading to woodland along the Water of Leith where the cry could be heard of the corncrake nestling in the grass. Kirkcaldy was not so grand, "Presbyterian not Anabaptist" in Marjory's description and whereas boys went to school girls were taught at home : a letter written shortly before her death revealed a busy but privileged schedule of Bible study, sewing, play, grammar and knitting.


There was a family connection with Sir Walter Scott, and Marjory's first editor Dr John Brown wrote an account of Marjory's life in which Scott swept her up in his arms and had her read poetry to him in his home, but Brown's tendency to mawkishness calls the veracity of this into doubt and it seems more likely that he was appealing to the Victorian obsession with the death of children. It was he who introduced the soubriquet Pet, for Marjory had been known in her lifetime as Madie, Midge or Muff. In the 1930s Robert MacLeod put her rhymes to music, calling her the Little Friend of Sir Walter Scott, which cemented the legend.


Aunt Marion had two daughters and two sons. James disapproved of Marjory's noisiness, telling her to go off and dance, but the relationship with Isabella was a constant theme of Marjory's life, the two playing in Charlotte Square with other children who were described as crying like a pig during the painful necessity of putting it to death. They played with pigeons, cats, dogs, turtle-doves and even a monkey called Pug who Marjory said had as many visitors as did she or her cousins.  Marjory sometimes invented words or shoved them in just to complete a rhyme - as in :


A Sonnet on a Monkey

O lovely O most charming pug
Thy graceful air and heavenly mug
The beauties of his mind do shine
And every bit is shaped so fine
Your very tail is most divine
Your teeth is whiter than the snow
You are a great buck and a bow
Your eyes are of so fine a shape
More like a christian's than an ape
His cheeks is like the rose's blume
Your hair is like the raven's plume
His nose's cast is of the roman
He is a very pretty woman

I could not get a rhyme for roman
And was obliged to call him woman.


Sonnets  including the above and Three Turkeys were set to music by Richard Rodney Bennett. She was given an orange, a scarcely imaginable luxury at a time when people rented pineapples so as to display them on their tables. Travel by carriage was so difficult in those days that going to even quite local destinations might entail a stay lasting several days. Marion's in-laws were at Ravelston House, now part of Mary Erskine's School, and one summer was spent at Braehead House near Cramond, whose freehold had been granted by King James V to Jock Howieson for protecting the king from danger while travelling incognito on condition that whenever the sovereign crossed the Brig he should be presented with a pitcher of water and a towel - a tradition that continued until the 1930s. Craigie Hall was leased to George Craigie, whom Marjory described as  a "great buck and pretty good-looking" which perhaps indicated that Craigie had the knack not possessed by many adults of being able to talk to children as individuals. Marjory wrote of love, declaring that Mr Balfour had offered to kiss her despite being espoused and his wife pregnant.


Isabella was Marjory's tutor, and much of her writing was in the form of letters to her cousin. Arithmetic was not her favourite subject, the "plaege" of her multiplication tables being "a most devilish thing", but together they read adventurously including the poems of Burns, Pope and Gray, the Arabian Nights,  the Newgate calendar, and 'tails' by Maria Edgeworth and Hannah More. In history they studied the Stuart kings and especially Mary Queen of Scots who was the subject of her longest poem. Religion was characterised by the devil and the wild leash, and Marjory could roar herself into a temper tantrum, sometimes attributed to an excess of senna, which was followed by an outpouring of remorse to Isabella as her her mother-substitute.


For the last eighteen months of her life, Marjory kept a diary. After returning to Kirkcaldy in 1811, she was never again to meet Isabella, but her final poem, an "ephibol" - one of those invented words - expressing her love for her cousin was sent from her sick-bed just four days before her death. We can now see the probable cause to have been meningitis. She was buried at Abbotshall Church in the town, and her plain tombstone was joined in 1930 by a sculpture, the work of Pilkington Jackson.