The Duchess of Sutherland

Anne Sutherland Leveson Gower, Duchess of Sutherland (1829-1888), was a Scottish noblewoman most famed for her friendship with Queen Victoria for whom she was Mistress of the Robes from 1870 to 1874. She married the future 3rd Duke of Sutherland George Leveson-Gower in 1849. In the same year she succeeded to her father’s title and became 1st Countess of Cromartie in her own right; a title eligible to be passed on to her younger sons and daughters.

When the 3rd Duke inherited his title in 1861 he accrued lands and estates that made him the tenth richest man in the Western world. Only to Tsar Alexander II of Russia whose coronation he attended owned more land. The Sutherlands owned 1.4 million acres of land in Britain, Dunrobin Castle in Scotland and Trentham Hall, Cliveden and Stafford House in England. Stafford House (now called Lancaster House) was within the precincts of St. James’s Palace. When Queen Victoria came to call on the Duchess, she famously said ‘I have come from my home to your palace’.

The Duchess’s custom at Henry Poole & Co began in 1875 when she ordered country clothing including a stalking cape to be worn at Dunrobin Castle. The Sutherlands’ marriage was an unhappy one due to the Duke’s many infidelities. The Duchess even considered starting divorce proceedings but was discouraged on the advice of Queen Victoria. The marriage collapsed in the early 1880s when a guest of a house party at Pitlochry Castle, a Captain Arthur Blair, was shot dead and it emerged that the Duke had formed a relationship with his wife Mary Caroline Blair.

Mrs Blair is one of the great villains of late Victorian high society. In 1887 the Duke of Sutherland became gravely ill while staying at Trentham Hall in Staffordshire. The Duchess hastened to his side only to find the Widow Blair already there. The 3rd Duke’s children never forgave him for this lapse in taste. The Duke recovered but a year later his estranged Duchess fell ill at Stafford House. The Duke and Mrs Blair were abroad and the Duchess died without seeing her husband again. Four months later the Duke scandalised society by marrying Mrs Blair who wasted little time in raiding the late Duchess of Sutherland’s wardrobe and jewel box much to the disgust of the Duke and Duchess’s children.

Duchess Blair as she became known didn’t enjoy her moment in the sun for very long. No respectable household would receive her. Shortly before the Duke’s death in 1892 he changed his will to disinherit his children and leave the Sutherland estates to Duchess Blair. The Duchess was subsequently arrested, charged and convicted for burning the Duke’s papers in an attempt to secure the inheritance. She was imprisoned in 1893 for six weeks and the Duke’s will was revoked. Duchess Blair came to an arrangement with new Duke of Sutherland who settled sufficient funds upon her to build herself a fanciful residence Carbisdale Castle in Scotland between 1906 and 1917. The ‘Castle of Spite’ was so named because the fourth face of the clock tower visible from the Sutherland estates was left blank: the inference being that Duchess Blair would not give her step family the time of day.

(c) James Sherwood

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