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People of Angus

Susan Scott Carnegie 1744 - 1821

Susan Scott Carnegie book cover

Susan Scott was born into a wealthy family with influential friends in many walks of life. Her father was the Treasurer of the Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was here she probably met the great men and women of her age - the thinkers and the planners. Susan grew up seeing the old, dirty, crowded streets of Edinburgh swept away for the improved New Town. Caring people tried to think of a way poor people need not be reduced to begging on the streets.

Life in the countryside at Benholm, Montrose, her birthplace, was very different. Rough tracks led into the towns. People drowned regularly just trying to cross rivers because there were no proper bridges. Susan loved the countryside but she noticed how poor the labourers and their families were. The Church supported the poorest from the Sunday collections. However, some people did not give as much as they could. Some just did not think about it.

Susan was taught at home by a governess. She enjoyed drawing, poetry, languages and writing letters to friends. In 1769, she married George Carnegie of Pittarrow, a man who has become wealthy in Sweden and bought an estate at Charleton. They started married life at Charleton House and had nine children. Only the first died in infancy which is a very good record for those times.

Susan’s father made sure she had property settled on her and this gave her power to help others. Women were not expected to live a public life but Susan was determined to put her money and influence to good use. Her strong practical mind saw that the organisation of the Church relief to the poor could be better organised and managed. The Kirk Session had to give out badges to permit begging in times of famine and distress.

To aid the Kirk Session, Susan had a long leaflet printed and circulated, outlining the good they did and exactly how they could be helped more. She told the Montrosians that the well-off contributed to a general fund in Brechin and Forfar to help all kinds of people - not just those who went to a certain church. She showed the way to improvement by suggesting people should give to the Church collection, according to their station in life. A young woman could well forfeit a pretty ribbon and put extra in the plate. A young man could do without that ounce of tobacco! Ladies of leisure could actively help a poor neighbour by knitting for them - something practical. The Kirk Session worked together with Susan Carnegie and they improved the lot of the poor in Montrose.

In those days, the mentally ill and insane were herded together in the Tolbooth at the back of the Town House, Montrose. They were kept behind bars, like animals in a cage. Some were chained, lying in straw. There was no lighting, heating or glazing. People fed them through the bars. Provost Alexander Christie worked with Susan to get subscriptions going for a proper asylum. Not everyone was keen on the idea but Susan’s printed pamphlets and constant letter writing brought money from as far away as India. By 1781, the first asylum in Scotland was built in the Links, Montrose.

Inside the asylum, the patients were encouraged to spin yarn, sew, knit, read, paint and do gardening. Mrs Carnegie tried to show mental illness was not a crime to be punished. She worked for the rest of her life to improve conditions for the poor as well as those for the mentally ill.

In 1815, with the help of the Church, Susan Carnegie set up a Savings Bank as an idea for self-help and independence. Usually she got up about 5.00 am to deal with all her correspondence and good schemes. At the same time she often undertook the fostering of orphans or friends. Her life was completely dedicated to the good of others less fortunate than herself.

Bibliography: Susan Carnegie by Alexander Maccormack published by the University of Aberdeen.

Susan Carnegie’s personal papers are held by University of Aberdeen’s archive.

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