Elliot, Jane (DNB00)

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ELLIOT, JANE or JEAN (1727–1805), poet, third daughter of Sir Gilbert Elliot, second baronet of Minto [q. v.], was born in 1727, at Minto House, the family seat in Teviotdale. It is said that she early gave evidence of unusual penetration and sagacity, and that her father, lord justice clerk of Scotland, took a pride in her criticisms on his law papers. Once, when she was about nineteen, she displayed much strength of character and presence of mind, by entertaining with graceful courtesy a party of Jacobites in search of her father as an obnoxious whig. He had had time to escape to the neighbouring crags and conceal himself, and the behaviour of his daughter completely outwitted his pursuers, who withdrew without accomplishing the object of their mission. Sir Gilbert was himself a man of literary tastes. Besides Jane there was another poetical member of the family, her brother Gilbert [q. v.] whose graceful pastoral, 'My sheep I neglected,' is honourably mentioned in the 'Lay of the Last Minstrel' It was Gilbert who is said to have suggested to Jane the subject of her exquisite ballad 'The Flowers of the Forest.' The story goes that as they were driving home in the family coach one evening in 1756, they talked of Flodden, and Gilbert wagered 'a pair of gloves or a set of ribbons' against his sister's chances as a writer of a successful ballad on the subject. After this there was silence, and by the time the journey was ended the rough draft of the song was ready. When presently it was published anonymously, and with the most sacred silence on the part of the writer herself and of her friends as to authorship, it won instant success. With the recent example of 'Hardy-knute' before them, and in consideration of the quaint pathos and the touching and remote allusions of the ballad, readers were at first inclined to believe that Miss Elliot's 'Flowers of the Forest' was a genuine relic of the past, suddenly and in some miraculous way restored in its perfection. Nor is this to be wondered at, for no ballad in the language is more remarkable for its dramatic propriety and its exhaustive delineation of its theme.

Within a few years after 1756 many changes took place in the family of Minto. Sir Gilbert himself died, and was succeeded by his son Gilbert; other sons were making their way in the world; and Jane Elliot with her mother and sisters left their home and settled in Edinburgh. One glimpse of the ladies in their city home may be taken from Lady Elliot Murray's 'Memoirs.' She visited her relatives in 1772, and found the 'misses,' she says, especially the elder ones, becoming 'perfect beldames in that small society.' Manifestly there was very slight chance of sympathy between the mutually excluding characters suggested by this criticism. According to those who knew her best Jane Elliot was possessed of a certain aristocratic dignity, which would render her, together with her rare intellectual resources, comparatively indifferent to the mere superficial glitter and bustle of social life. After her mother and sisters had died, and she lived alone in the house in Brown Square, Edinburgh, while cautiously coming forward with the fashions, she was slow to break with the past, and was prone to condemn the novelties following in the wake of the French revolution. She is said to have been the last woman in Edinburgh to make regular use of her own sedan-chair. Having lived in the city from 1782 to 1804, Miss Elliot spent her last days amid the scenes of her childhood, and she died either at Minto House or at Mount Teviot, the residence of her younger brother, Admiral John Elliot [q. v.], 29 March 1805.

Jane Elliot is not known to have written any other poem than the 'Flowers of the Forest.' Burns was one of the first to insist that this ballad was a modern composition, and when Sir Walter Scott wrote his 'Border Minstrelsy' he inserted it (in 1803) as 'by a lady of family in Roxburghshire.' Together with Scott, Ramsay of Ochtertyre and Dr. Somerville share the credit of discovering the authorship of the famous ballad.

[Tytler and Watson's Songstresses of Scotland, vol. i.; W. R. Carre's Border Memories; Professor Veitch's History and Poetry of the Scottish Border; Grant Wilson's Poets and Poetry of Scotland, vol. i.; Chambers's Scottish Songs prior to Burns.]

T. B.