Edinburgh World Heritage - Learn more about Mary Balfour’s life, which proved as romantic as a novel


Learn more about Mary Balfour’s life, which proved as romantic as a novel

Mary Balfour, born in Orkney in 1778, was a pioneering female novelist.  Her first novel Self Control, published in 1811, was a great success at the time.  It has not retained popularity in the way that the works of her contemporary Jane Austen have.  Jane read Self Control and in a letter to a friend described it as an ‘excellently-meant, elegantly-written work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it’.

In 1798 Mary met her husband Alexander Brunton. Alexander was born in 1772, the son of a shoemaker.  He is a good example of a Scottish lad o’ pairts, a talented boy from a humble background who benefited from a good education and got on in the world.  He became a Doctor of Divinity and Minister of the Tron Kirk on Edinburgh’s High Street.  He was also appointed as Professor of Oriental Languages at the College, now Edinburgh University.

The story of Alexander and Mary’s meeting and marriage is like something out of a romantic novel.  Her family were prominent in Orkney society and did not think he would make a suitable son-in-law.  So they shut Mary up on the small island of Gairsay to keep the couple apart.  Nothing daunted, Alexander rowed out to the island and he and Mary eloped together!

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