Catherine Sinclair: A Forgotten Scottish Writer

In Women’s History Month, Beverley Casebow introduces us to a fascinating yet little-known 19th-century Scottish philanthropist and writer…

Edinburgh is known for having more statues of dogs than of women, but few passersby may realise that the 60-foot Gothic-inspired monument at the corner of North Charlotte Street and St Colme Street, just a few minutes’ walk from Charlotte Square, commemorates the achievements of an almost forgotten Scottish 19th-century philanthropist and writer, Catherine Sinclair.

The monument – in the style of an Eleanor cross – was funded by public subscription after Sinclair’s death in 1864, and erected four years later. The inscription focuses on her many philanthropic and charitable works across the city, but also acknowledges her fame as a writer, and mentions her most celebrated and enduring work, ‘Holiday House’.

Catherine was born on 17 April 1800, one of thirteen children and the fourth daughter of Lady Diana Macdonald and Sir John Sinclair, first baronet of Ulbster. John Sinclair was a prominent politician and agricultural reformer, and was actively involved in public life in Edinburgh at the time, but he is perhaps best known for compiling ‘The Statistical Account of Scotland’ – a complete survey of life in Scotland published in the 1790s, and an invaluable source for historians and family researchers today.

The Sinclair girls were known as being unusually tall, and the pavement outside the family home in George Street became known locally as the ‘Giants’ Causeway’.

Catherine, who never married, became her father’s secretary when she was 14, and spent long hours each day working from dictation. The discipline of this labour, and the experience of working and corresponding with renowned writers and scholars, stood her in good stead for her own future career as a writer.

Catherine continued to work with her father until his death in 1835, after which time she had more leisure to pursue her own literary ambitions. Her first published work was a horror story – ‘The Murder Hole: an ancient legend’ – which appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1829.

This was followed by ‘Modern Accomplishments’, a novel of fashionable life, in 1836, and a sequel, ‘Modern Society’, in 1837. From 1838, she also wrote a series of travel books, beginning with ‘Hill and Valley, or Hours in England and Wales’.

Catherine Sinclair was best known, however, as a writer of children’s fiction, and she began by inventing stories to entertain her young nieces and nephews. ‘Holiday House: a Series of Tales’, first published in 1839, remained popular and in print for over a century. The book was very unusual at the time for portraying and celebrating children as ‘noisy, frolicsome, and mischievous’, and became a landmark in children’s literature, signalling a move away from ‘improving’ stories to novels of childhood adventures.

As well as writing, Sinclair devoted much of her time and money to philanthropic projects. She established soup kitchens and an industrial school for girls in Edinburgh, and was also responsible for the first public drinking fountain in the city, located at the intersection of Lothian Road and Princes Street from 1859 to 1926. The fountain was eventually removed due to the increase of traffic in that part of the city (original site pictured below).

The fountain head was saved and can now be found along the Water of Leith pathway at Steadfastgate, beside Gosford Place, Bonnington (see also header picture) Catherine Sinclair set up a Volunteer Brigade for the boys of Leith, one of the first of its kind, and the fountain head was placed at Steadfastgate in 1983 as part of the centenary commemorations to mark the founding of the Boy’s Brigade.

Catherine Sinclair died at the home of her brother John in Kensington, London, on 6 August 1864, and is buried in the churchyard of St John’s Episcopal Church at the west end of Princes Street. An account of her funeral in The Scotsman, 17 August 1864, tells us that the service was attended by ‘the girls employed in the cooking depots established by Miss Sinclair, the children attending the school which she founded, and many recipients of her munificent private charity’ and that the approach to the chapel ‘was lined by the 12th Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers – a company which she formed.’

Links and further information

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry on Catherine Sinclair written by Charlotte Mitchell

Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, entry on Catherine Sinclair

(Photo of Catherine Sinclair courtesy of the National Library of Scotland archive & Eleanor Cross at Steadfastgate by Robin Barnes)

Beverley Casebow is a member of Edinburgh Writers’ Club, and won first prize in their latest general article competition with this entry.


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