Scottish Philanthropy Snippet – Mary Erskine

Saturday 29 September 2018

Mary Erskine (1692-1707)

Background: The Reformation dealt a serious blow to charitable educational provisions in Scotland. The seizure of church monies meant that bequests providing for education and relief were largely lost, and few new resources had been forthcoming. The resulting educational gap was particularly noticeable in the larger cities. In response, a number of generous bequests from the wealthy, and increasingly important, burgess class started to fill this gap. One of the first of these bequests was Mary Erskine’s gift for the education of merchants’ daughters in 1694.

Mary Erskine: Little is known about Mary’s origins. Born around 1629, she came from old Scots aristocracy and married into the rising burgess class. On the death of her second husband, the druggist, guild merchant and burgess James Heir, she used the inheritance to establish a private bank through which she accumulated a substantial fortune. 

Image: Grave of Mary Erskine

The Bequests: Planning to create and, in effect, endow a girls’ hospital (i.e. a boarding school) aimed at the maintenance and education of girls, Mary approached the Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh for assistance. Set up in 1681, the latter not only protected and assisted Edinburgh’s merchants but also focused on the management and spending of charitable funds. The Company agreed to take on the idea but estimated that more than 20,000 Scots pounds would be needed. As this exceeded the 10,000 merks ‘for the maintenance of burgers’ children of the female sex’ that Mary had provided (Master of the Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh writing in 1694 and quoted in Towill, 1956:4), the Company launched a ‘fund for the lasses’. This had an immediate response from merchants and others in Edinburgh and beyond. Combined, the resources led to the establishment of the Merchant Maiden Hospital for the housing and education of the destitute daughters of Edinburgh’s merchants. As finding suitable and affordable accommodation proved difficult, the Company initially leased a ‘Gallerie’ and a ‘sellar’ with a ‘pitching chimney’ to the Hospital. When the lease expired in 1706, Mary Erskine bought a ‘great lodging and yard’ in Bristo and gave it to the Company for use by the School.  

Image: Trades Maiden Hospital

Not to be outdone by Edinburgh’s merchants, the Incorporated Trades – the banding together of Edinburgh’s craftsmen – started to fundraise for a similar school for their daughters and granddaughters. To this initiative, the Trades Maiden Hospital, Mary also made such a major contribution that she was named a co-founder of the Trades Maiden Hospital. The two schools existed side by side in rivalry for over two hundred years. 

As is so often the case in philanthropy at this (and later) time, donations were not without strings. In the case of the gift to the Trades Maiden Hospital, it was agreed that in perpetuity two governors  should be chosen from the Erskine family (Towill, 1953: 1-43). In both schools, rights of presentation (of prospective pupils) were in the hands of the various merchants/trades bodies, each of which paid a levy towards the funds. Preference had to be given to daughters or grand-daughters of burgesses; certain private benefactors, including Mary and her successors, could present any girl who was ‘an object of charity’ (Towill 1953: 4).

Mary died in 1707 living long enough to see the Scottish Parliament ratify the constitutions of both her schools (Towill 1953, 1956). She is buried in Edinburgh’s Geyfriars Kirkyard.

Subsequent developments: Towill’s rich account of the subsequent history of the Merchant Maidens Hospital has all the makings of a girls’ school farce crossed with a Charles Dickens novel. There is a seemingly endless search for suitable premises in areas that remain ‘salubrious’ (rather than deteriorating), drunken and punitive teachers, diseases and epidemics, complaints regarding the sufficiency of the girls’ diet, the design and colour of uniforms, and the rebellious older, teenage, girls who went out at night without permission and ‘kept company with .. young men at unreasonable hours’ (quoted Towill 1956: 55).

Image: The Mary Erskine School, Edinburgh

Funding problems and changes in ideas about the content and style of girls’ education is a recurring theme in the schools’ histories. The curriculum changed partly in response to the number of girls leaving to become governess from the mid-nineteenth century on, and this coupled with funding difficulties and other factors, encouraged the admission of day girls and paying pupils.

In 1944 the Merchant Maiden Hospital was named The Mary Erskine School in honour of its founding benefactor. The school stood for many years at the west end of Queen Street but was demolished for redevelopment and is now located in Ravelston, Edinburgh. In 1971 the Trades Maiden Hospital moved to Melville Street opposite the chapter house of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.

As Towill notes (1953: 42), the two Mary Erskine foundations adopted different solutions to their largely common problems (funding and changes in expectations and regulation of girls’ education); having been so similar, one (Merchant Maidens) became a large fee-paying day school; the other (Trades Maidens) retained its hospital/boarding facilities but sends its pupils to other schools for education. 

Lessons for Philanthropy: Paying to start something is one thing. Successfully running it over the longer term is quite another. Both schools had permanent endowments but, over the years, they regularly struggled to find appropriate premises and staff.

Needs change, as do ideas about how they may be met. Boarding schools – being maintained – undoubtedly filled a very important, and valued, function in Mary’s day but later were seen as either unnecessary or potentially damaging. Similarly, ideas about the function and content of education for young women changed dramatically, as well as the value of educating young women separately. In addition, the regulatory environment – non-existent in Mary’s day in relation to education – has changed beyond anything she could have imagined.

Apart from some problems regarding the deed in relation to qualification for entry and the balance between maintenance and education, it seems that Mary’s bequests were sufficiently ‘loose’ to respond to many of these changes: the line between clarity and specificity in a philanthropic endowment is always a fine on.



Towill, E.S. The Minutes of the Merchant Maiden Hospital in The book of the Old Edinburgh Club, Volume 28. Old Edinburgh Club. 1953.  

Towill, E.S. The Minutes of the Merchant Maiden Hospital in The book of the Old Edinburgh Club, Volume 29. Old Edinburgh Club. 1956. p. 3. 


Images Sources:

Mary Erskine’s grave: and,_Greyfriars_Kirkyard.JPG

The Mary Erskine School:

Trades Maiden Hospital:×189.jpg

Posted in