Mary Duff

Mary, like Williamina Belsches, was a figure of exquisite romance, having been the object of Lord Byron's first childhood love. Williamina did not live to enjoy her reputation and gained her immortality as Scott's muse; whereas Mary, while the poet gave her fame, was remembered as a paragon of Enlightenment womanhood thanks to her own lasting beauty and good sense.

Lived
1788-1858
Origin
Hatton
Father
Alexander Duff of Hatton
Mother
Mary Leslie of Glenmyre, of the family of Melross (5 p.246)
Address
26 Castle Street
Wealth at death
£700 in Scotland but she had additional wealth in England.
Story
She was the same age as Lord Byron and as children they went to dancing school together, where he fell in love with her. He wrote in 1813,
'I have been thinking a good deal lately of Mary Duff. How very odd that I should have been so utterly, devotedly fond of that girl, at an age when I could neither feel passion, nor know the meaning of the word... I recollect all we said to each other, all our caresses, her features, my restlessness, sleeplessness, my tormenting my mother's maid to write for me to her... I remember, too, our walks, and the happiness of sitting by Mary, in the children's apartment, at their house not far from Plainstones in Aberdeen, while her less sister Helen played with the doll, and we sat gravely making love, in our way. How the deuce did all this occur so early? where could it originate? I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; and yet my misery, my love for that girl were so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since. Be that as it may, hearing of her marriage several years afters was like a thunder-stroke -- it nearly choked me -- to the horror of my mother and the astonishment and almost incredulity of every body. And it is a phenomenon in my existence (for I was not eight years old) which has puzzled, and will puzzle me to the latest hour of it; and lately, I know not why, the recollection (not the attachment) has recurred as forcibly as ever. I wonder if she can have the least remembrance of it or me? or remember her pitying sister Helen, for not having an admirer too? How very pretty is the perfect image of her in my memory -- her brown dark hair and hazel eyes; her very dress! I hould be quite grieved to see her now; the reality, however beautiful, would destroy, or at least confuse, the features of the lovely Peri who then existed in her and still lives in my imagination, at the distance of more than sixteen years.' (3 p.29)
The poems she inspired are quoted below. In 1879 Banff historian and contemporary James Imlach recalled,
'Byron is vivdly in my mind, as a smart little fellow, exactly of my own age... the youth then visiting the young Duffs of Hatton... All dancing school partners of mine. How bewitching was Mary, no wonder he young Lord lost his heart.'
George Huntly Gordon wrote on seeing the announcement of her death, 'I observe... the death of the lady... who certainly lighted the first flame in the too-susceptible heart of my illustrious namesake... When I saw her she was in the zenith of her beauty.' (5 p.247) As a middle-aged port-merchant's wife, Mary still had the power to charm another romantic soul, the young John Ruskin, who described her in Praeterita:
Mr Cockburn was primarily an old Edinburgh gentleman, and only by condescension a wine-merchant... Mrs Cockburn was even a little higher, -- as representative of the Scottish lady of the old school, -- indulgent yet to the new. She had been Lord Byron's first of first loves; she was the Mary Duff of Lachin-y-Gair. When I first remember her, still extremely beautiful in middle age, full of sense; and, though with some mixture of proud severity, extremely kind. They had two sons, Alexander and Archibald, both in business with their father, both clever and energetic, but both distinctly resolute -- as indeed their parents desired -- that they would be gentlemen first, salesmen second... Alexander had much of his father's humour; Archibald, a fine, young, dark Highlander, was extremely delightful to me, and took some pains with me, for the sake of my love of Scott, telling me anything about fishing or deerstalking that I cared to listen to.' (4)
Chapel connection
1810 (baptism). They had a family vault at St John's.
Married
1805
Spouse
Robert Cockburn
Children
Ellen (1810), Robert (1812)
Related to
Helen Duff, sister

Sources

  1. Registers of Charlotte Chapel (NAS CH12/3)
  2. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1818
  3. Thomas Moore, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (J.J. Harper, New York, 1830) vol.1
  4. John Ruskin, Praeterita chapter 5, in The Works of John Ruskin ('Library Edition') edited by E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London, George Allen, 1912) vol.35 p.102-3
  5. Alistair and Henrietta Taylor, The book of the Duffs (Constable and co, Edinburgh, 1914)
  6. Inventory National Archives of Scotland SC70/1/97/629
  7. Will National Archives of Scotland SC70/4/58/9
  8. There is a portrait of her in the Cockburn Family Records (Foulis, Edinburgh, 1813)

Mary Duff and Lord Byron

Mary appears in a verse of Don Juan (1821), Volume 5, Canto V, stanza 4:

I have a passion for the name of 'Mary,'
For once it was a magic sound to me;
And still it half calls up the realms of fairy,
Where I beheld what never was to be;
All feelings changed, but this was last to vary,
A spell from which even yet I am not quite free:
But I grow sad -- and let a tale grow cold,
Which must not be pathetically told.

In 1807 or 1808, three years after her marriage, he had written her Song

When I rov'd, a young Highlander, o'er the dark heath.
And climb'd thy steep summit, oh! Morven of Snow,
To gaze on th torrent, that thunder'd beneath
Or the mist of the tempest that gather'd below;
Untutored by science, a stranger to fear,
And rude as the rocks, where my infancy grew,
No feeling, save one, to my bosom was dear,
Need I say, my sweet Mary, 'twas centered in you.

Yet, it could not be Love, for I knew not the name,
what passion can dwell in the heart of a child?
But, still, I perceive an emotion the same
As I felt, when a boy, on the crag-covered wild:
One image, alone, on my bosom imprest,
I lov'd my bleak regions, nor pated for new,
And few were my wants, for my wishes were blest,
And pure were my thoughts, for my soul was with you.

I arose with the dawn, with my dog as my guide,
From mountain to mountain I bounded along,
I breasted the billows of Dee's rushing tide
And I heard, at a distance, the Highlander's song:
At eve, on my heath-cover'd couch of repose,
No dreams, save of Mary, were spread to my view,
And warm to the skies my devotions arose,
For the first of my prayers was a blessing on you.

I left my bleak home, and my visions are gone,
The mountains are vanish'd, my youth is no more;
As the last of my race, I must wither alone,
And delight but in days, I have witness'd before;
Ah! splendour has rais'd, but embitter'd my lot,
More dear were the scenes, which my infancy knew;
Though my hopes may have fail'd, yet the are not forgot,
Tho' cold is my heart, still it lingers with you.

When I see some dark hill point its crest to the sky,
When I think of the rocks, that o'ershadow Colbleen;
When I see the soft blue of a love-speaking eye,
I think of those eyes that endear'd the rude scene;
When, haply, some light-waving locks I behold,
That faintly resemble my Mary's in hue,
I think on the long flowing ringlets of gold,
The locks that were sacred to beauty, and you.

Yet, the day may arrive, when the mountains, once more,
Shall rise to my sight, in their mantles of snow;
But while these soar above me, unchang'd as before,
Will Mary be there to receive me? ah no!
Adieu! then, ye hills, where my childhood was bred,
Thou sweet flowing Dee, to thy waters adieu!
No home in the forest shall shelter my head,
Ah! Mary, what home could be mine, but with you?

Back to index