Manitoba History: Remembering Lady Selkirk

by Hubert G. Mayes

Manitoba History, Number 13, Spring 1987

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In a secluded cemetery in south-west Scotland the grave of Lady Selkirk receives few visitors. Some would say that this is no cause for surprise: it was her husband who left a lasting mark on this province, and her own role in the history of the Red River Settlement was brief and probably of minor importance. It is true, of course, that Lord Selkirk is the pre-eminent figure. His colonization projects, extending over a period of nearly two decades, earned him a solid place in Canadian history, and his writings, which include a vast amount of correspondence, will no doubt continue to interest scholars for years to come. But his wife Jean, Countess of Selkirk, also deserves our attention, not just because she was the spouse of one of our most famous historical figures, but because she played a part in the establishment and defence of the Red River Settlement which should not be forgotten. Her involvement in her husband’s greatest enterprise emerges from the frequent references to her in the biographies of Lord Selkirk and in the works dealing specifically with the settlement at Red River. However, to my knowledge, no systematic study of her contribution to Canadian history has been carried out. It would be a fitting subject for a serious scholar.

“Selkirk corner” of the cemetery, with celtic crosses in the foreground.
Source: Hubert G. Mayes

My interest in Lady Selkirk has two sources. First, I am impressed by the energy and loyalty with which she supported her husband’s ventures, particularly after their arrival in Montreal late in 1815. It is obvious that she was much more than an aristocratic young woman who restricted herself to domestic concerns and social amusements. Second, as a professor of French I became deeply interested in the human side of the Selkirk story as it unfolded in France from the time of the family’s arrival in the autumn of 1819 until the Earl’s death in Pau in April 1820. It was natural that my interest in the personal story would also lead me to find out what I could about the life of Lady Selkirk after she became a widow with three children and heir to her husband’s heavy burdens. Lord Selkirk had suffered severe financial losses, both in his colonization schemes and in his legal battles with the North West Company. Furthermore, his reputation had been seriously damaged in the Canadian courts and the success of the Red River Settlement was still far from certain. Lady Selkirk was to live a long life (she died in 1871 at the age of 85) in the shadow of these circumstances. As my curiosity about the life of the Countess increased, the thought occurred to me that I might some day make a kind of pilgrimage to her grave.

In the autumn of 1986 a trip to Britain gave me an opportunity to translate this thought into action. As no printed information about the location of the grave seemed to be available, I decided to start my search in Kirkcudbright (pronounced ker-koo’-bree), a small town situated just to the north of the Selkirk estate on St. Mary’s Isle. On the bus from Dumfries I was told that the person best qualified to help me was Mr. Tom Collin, the curator of the Stewartry Museum in Kirkcudbright. This was a stroke of good fortune. Mr. Collin, a long-time resident of the town, was well informed about the Selkirks and had in fact assembled an interesting display on Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl (“our” Lord Selkirk), in the Museum. He informed me that the graves of the Selkirks were in a small rural graveyard called the Galt-way cemetery, located a few miles south of Kirkcudbright. He produced a printed description of the cemetery, comprising a numbered plan of the graves as well as a record of the inscription on each tombstone. He then very kindly offered to drive me to the graveyard, which is situated on the farm of Sir David Hope-Dunbar, a descendant of Isabella, the Selkirks’ elder daughter. Close to the driveway leading into the farm (called Banks Farm) we stopped to ask some workmen for directions. They reminded Mr. Collin of the way to the cemetery (it was many years since he had seen it), and said that since the Hope-Dunbars were away, we would not be able to ask their permission to pass through their property. However, the men were quite sure there would be no objection.

After we had driven through the barnyard and opened and closed several gates leading from one field to the next, Mr. Collin spotted a tombstone in a small grove of trees. As we walked around the grove looking for a gate in the fence which surrounded it, a flock of sheep, probably unaccustomed to such intrusions, paused in their grazing to stare at us. Once we had found the gate, we made our way to a clearing where the small, well-kept cemetery was almost completely hidden from view.

First we looked at the stones marking the location of the church which had once stood on the site; then at the opposite end of the cemetery, as the plan had indicated, we found the graves of the Selkirk family. We examined the stone on Lady Selkirk’s grave, then immediately to the left, the headstone of Dunbar James, the Selkirks’ son (the sixth Earl) and his wife, Cecely Louisa. To the immediate right was the grave of Katherine Jean Wigram, the Selkirks’ second daughter, and her husband. Katherine might be called the “Canadian” Douglas, since she was born in Montreal in 1817. On the right of this grave is astone in memory of Isabella, the daughter mentioned above, and her husband, Charles Hope. Nearby are the graves of two of Lord Selkirk’s sisters and that of Captain John Hope and his wife. The name of Captain Hope was already familiar to me because on Lord Selkirk’s tombstone in Orthez, France I had seen the inscription stating that Captain Hope, Selkirk’s grandson, had the grave restored in 1913. The Galtway cemetery also contains the graves of Captain and Mrs. Hope’s children, of a daughter of Isabella and Charles Hope, and of James Wedderburn, Solicitor-General of Scotland, a brother of Lady Selkirk. The headstones are made of several materials, but most appear to be a type of stone which is vulnerable to weathering, so that the lettering is becoming very hard to read. Fortunately, the cemetery record in the Museum can be consulted for the most difficult inscriptions. Lady Selkirk’s reads as follows:

widow of
who died 8th April 1820 at Pau
and was interred at Orthez
in France
and daughter of
James Wedderburn Colvile
of Ochiltree
BORN 3rd MAY 1786
DIED 10 JUNE 1871

Lady Selkirk’ grave.
Source: Hubert G. Mayes

The inscription in the record actually gives “Pall” rather than Pau, and “Weddeburn” rather than Wedderburn, but it seems likely that these are errors made by the transcriber or the typist. I confess that the terseness of the information left me feeling somewhat disappointed. When one remembers the painting of the beautiful and cultivated woman reproduced in John Morgan Gray’s book on Selkirk, and especially when one thinks of the extraordinary qualities of the Countess, an inscription in which she is identified only as the wife of one man and the daughter of another seems sadly inadequate, although it was in no way unusual for the times.

After leaving Banks Farm and rejoining the road leading back to Kirkcudbright, the visitor has a fine view of St. Mary’s Isle, the wooded peninsula at the mouth of the river Dee which was the site of Selkirk’s birthplace. There is little of historic interest on the Isle now, as the Selkirk home was destroyed by fire in 1940. In the town, however, set into the stone wall surrounding Kirkcudbright Parish Church, is a cairn and bronze plaque in honor of Lord Selkirk, erected in 1978 by the Historic Sites Advisory Board of Manitoba in cooperation with the District Council of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.

Because of the difficulty of access to her grave, it is unlikely that many Manitobans will go to the Galtway cemetery to honor the memory of Lady Selkirk. However, by sharing my experience and the pictures accompanying this article, I hope to have reminded my compatriots of her connection with our province, and to have, in a small way, paid her a collective tribute.