Meeting Report: Maria Riddell — the Friend of Burns

14 February 2014
Elaine Kennedy

Elaine Kennedy, former curator of Dumfries Museum and current editor of the Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, undertook at short notice to fill a gap in the programme, brought about through illness. Her talk was much appreciated.

Her subject, 'Maria Riddell — The Friend of Burns', relied largely for source material on Sir Hugh Gladstone's Presidential Address to the Society in 1914. Burns' biographical details are familiar to most Dumfries audiences; Maria's are less well-known.

Maria Banks Woodley Riddell (1772–1808), born and educated in England, was one of seven children of William Woodley, owner of plantations in the West Indies and Captain-General of the Leeward Islands. It was in the West Indies that she met and married Lieutenant Walter Riddell, a widower and brother of Robert Riddell of Friars' Carse, Dumfries. Their first daughter, Anna Maria, was born in London in 1791. Walter made part-purchase of Goldielea estate, near Dumfries, which he renamed Woodley Park in his wife's honour. A second daughter, Sophia, was born in 1792.

While in the Leeward Islands in 1790 she had collected material for a book that was published in 1792 entitled: Voyages to the Madeira, and Leeward Caribbean Isles; with Sketches of the Natural History of these Islands by Maria R. She is now acknowledged as one of the earliest women writers to publish such a study in English.

Late in 1791 Maria Riddell met Robert Burns, farmer turned exciseman, who had moved from Ellisland and was now living in Bank Street, Dumfries. Burns was already a celebrity and through their friendship she became a more famous personage in history. For instance, Burns supplied her with a letter of introduction to William Smellie, first editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, when she visited Edinburgh in 1792. Burns warned his friend not to dismiss lightly this "lively West-Indian girl".

Burns went on to list her achievements. She wrote poetry; she played the harp and piano; she sang and wrote songs. She was a keen student of Natural History and a linguist. Like the two Roberts, Riddell and Burns, she was a political radical, a supporter of the French Revolution and of parliamentary reform in Britain. Having much in common, she and Burns corresponded in 1792 and 1793.

Late in 1793 a quarrel arose between the Riddells and Burns, about which there has been much speculation and controversy. Initially Burns tried to heal the breach with Maria. On finding "cold neglect", he vented his anger in ill-natured poems. Sir Hugh Gladstone commented: "Whatever may have been low and despicable in Burns' nature is nowhere more clearly seen than in his attacks on Maria Riddell". In less than a year they were again exchanging poems and songs, sharing books and discussing current affairs.

In the interim life had become difficult for Maria. Her husband had financial difficulties and was mostly away from home. She was reduced to living at Tinwald House, which she described as "a crazy, rambling, worm-eaten, cobweb-hunting chateau of the Duke of Queensberry."

She moved from there to Halleaths near Lochmaben where she and Burns met for the last time. She sent her carriage for him to come and dine with her in July 1796. Close to death, he met her with the memorable words: "Well, Madam, have you any command for the other world?"

The appreciation of Burns, which Maria was invited to prepare for the Dumfries Weekly Journal, is generally accepted as one of the most informative first-hand descriptions of Burns as a writer and as a man. Possibly harking back to their estrangement she wrote: "He was candid and manly in the avowal of his errors, and his avowal was reparation." (Elaine urged her audience to seek out this article of about 6,000 words in order to gain a true picture of him.)

Maria facilitated the acquisition of material for Dr James Currie's biography of Burns. Furthermore, she maintained her interest in his widow, Jean and the family.

In 1797 she left Dumfriesshire for good and went to live in Dorset and later London. That year her daughter Sophia died of whooping cough. Her husband, who had deserted her, died in the West Indies in 1802. In that same year she edited The Metrical Miscellany of songs by herself and eminent people of the day. She began to move in the highest society, including royal circles. Sir Walter Scott was enchanted by her.

She married a landowner from Flintshire, Colonel Phillips Lloyd Fletcher, in 1808. Sadly she died in December of that year at the age of 36 years, one year short of the lifespan of Robert Burns.