Scottish Philanthropy Snippet – Mary Louisa Maclagan

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Mary Louisa Maclagan (née Kerr, 1853-1943)

Background: Mary Louisa Kerr was born on 7th May 1853 in Ontario, Canada, to Scottish immigrants Archibald Kerr and Catherine Maclaren. Having made a fortune in Canada, the family returned to Scotland in 1861 and settled in Edinburgh. On 7th April 1876, Mary Louisa married David Douglas Maclagan, himself a member of a well-respected and well-to-do Edinburgh family reknown for its philanthropic activities and contributions to the city. Initial residing at 5 Eton Terrace, Edinburgh, the couple had four children. Of these, twin sisters Mary Dalrymple Maclagan and Ann Stewart Maclagan also became prominent actors in Edinburgh’s philanthropy scene. Mary Louisa died on 29th September 1943. She is burried in the Maclagan family graveyard, Laggan Wood, Comrie, Scotland, an area where the Maclagans spent the summer months and where David Douglas and Mary Louisa built their own house, ‘House of Ross’, in 1909.

Image: Maclagan Family Burial Ground, Comrie

Philanthropy: Alongside Patrick Geddes, widely considered as a key figure in the development of contemporary city planning and environmentalism, Mary Louisa Maclagan was a founding member of the Edinburgh Social Union (ESU). Set up in 1885, the ESU was based on a number of revolutionary ideas, including: that social processes and spaces are interwoven; that the physical environment, economic activity, and community wellbeing are linked; and that a holistic approach that takes all of these aspects into account needs to be pursued to improve social conditions and community welfare. Focusing on improving the atrocious living conditions and slums that had developed in parts of Edinburgh, the ESU thus comprised four Guilds: Housing (for the improvement of dwellings), Art (for the decorating of public places), Education (for supplementing existing agencies), and Recreation (through supplying musical and other entertainment). Emphasising the importance of self-sustainability in addressing social problems, the ESU pursued an approach that combined free market principles with philanthropic endeavours.

Image: James Court, Edinburgh

Mary Louisa was instrumental in both the founding and running of the ESU: she was the first secretary of the Art Guild, a member of the Executive Committee (1885-1920), and, from 1889, Treasurer to the Housing Committee. In this latter role, Maclagan had the greatest impact. She suggested that the ESU should have companies and other townspeople purchase housing for the poor, the management of which could be left to the Housing Guild. Referred to as ‘managed philanthropy’, under this system the ESU managed the renovations and running of housing for the working class. Within these properties, they also provided education and training facilities, libraries, workshops, and social events. Their focus was not on increasing the quantity of housing available for the working class, but on improving the quality of available housing, such as standards of ventilation and sanitation. In addition to managing various ESU activities directly, Mary and her husband also purchased property at 6 James Court for the ESU to manage. Starting with just two properties in 1885, by 1897 the ESU managed 23 properties which collectively housed 450 families.

Relevance for understanding philanthropy: Mary Louisa Maclagan’s philanthropic activities significantly highlight the importance of donor voice and control in managing local activities. Drafted by Mary Louisa, the ESU enforced strict tenancy rules in the properties it managed, mandating regular rent payments, cleanliness and good behaviour. Those tenants who failed to meet these standards were swiftly removed from the premises. In doing so, the ESU committees imposed their value system upon their tenants. Mary Louisa’s influence in the ESU also serves as a valuable example of women in philanthropy and how their input has often been ignored; despite Mary’s vital contributions to the establishment and running of the ESU, Patrick Geddes is frequently given the main, and sometimes sole, credit for the organisation’s success.



Morris, R.J. (2013). White Horse Close: Philanthropy, Scottish Historical Imagination and the Rebuilding of Edinburgh in the Later Nineteenth Century, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 33(1), pp.101-128.

Stephen, W. (2014). Learning from the Lasses: Women of the Patrick Geddes Circle, Edinburgh: Luath Press Ltd.


Image Sources:

James Court, Edinburgh:×343.jpg

Maclagan Family Burial Ground:

Posted in