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Issue 77 - The Mole-catcher's wife

Scotland Magazine Issue 77
October 2014


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The Mole-catcher's wife

John Hannavy explores the literary world of Tibbie Shiels

On a hillside overlooking the Loch of the Lowes just off the A708 some 45 miles south of Edinburgh stands a monument to James Hogg, in his day one of that group of Scottish writers whose work and fame spread far beyond the country’s borders. Hogg came from simple beginnings and, in an 1813 edition of his early poem The Queen’s Wake, he was described as ‘a common shepherd, bred among the mountains of Ettrick Forest, who went to service when only seven years of age, and since that period never received an education whatever.’ Unlike Robert Burns, who had a formal education, Hogg was almost completely self-taught, albeit growing up in an environment where songs, verses and music were central features of his life.

A small cottage nestling nearby, between St Mary’s Loch – the largest loch in the Borders – and the Loch of the Lowes, may seem an unlikely setting for literary gatherings in early 19th century Scotland, especially given the challenges of transport in the 1820s. Yet it was to that little cottage that many of the literary ‘greats’ of 19th century Scotland – James Hogg himself, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Carlyle and many others – regularly journeyed for dinner and engaging conversation.

“St Mary’s Loch abounds in fish of various sorts,” wrote Robert Chambers in
The Picture of Scotland first published in 1828, “and is much resorted to in summer by anglers. For the better accommodation of such enthusiasts, there has lately been erected at the head of the loch a small neat house, kept by a decent shepherd’s widow, who lets her spare room for any length of time at a small rent, and who (expertus loquor) can provide her lodgers with as halesome and agreeable country fare as may anywhere be found. It is hardly possible to conceive anything more truly delightful than a week’s ruralising in this comfortable little mansion, with the means of so much amusement at the very doors, and so many interesting objects of sight and sentiment lying closely around.”

The ‘decent shepherd’s widow’ was Isabella Richardson, and Chambers had visited her house, St Mary’s Cottage, in 1827.

Isabella – who preferred to be known as “Tibbie” or “Tibby”, had been widowed in 1824 at the age of 40 when her husband, Robert Richardson, a 38 year-old mole-catcher, died leaving her with six children to raise. Tibbie had reverted to her maiden name of Shiel shortly thereafter. Intriguingly, she frequently referred to herself as Tibbie Shiels, although her gravestone bears the name Shiel.

St Mary’s Cottage had been built only a year before Richardson died – not as an inn or boarding house, but simply as the family home. Taking in lodgers was the only way she knew of making some money.

Tibbie’s life had been a hard one, and she had entered service in 1794 – at the age of twelve – at Ettrick Hall, the home of Robert and Margaret Hogg. Robert was a farmer, and his wife was an enthusiastic collector of folk songs and ballads.

The Hoggs’ son, James, born in 1770, became firm friends with Isabella – indeed it has been suggested that he was probably acquainted with her even before she went to work for his mother. James Hogg, of course, went on to achieve great and lasting fame as ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’. Their friendship endured until Hogg’s death in 1835, and at the time of Tibbie’s bereavement, that friendship would throw her a valuable lifeline, and ensure her own place in history.

Leaving service with the Hoggs at the age of twenty-two, Isabella married Robert Richardson, and over the following years they had three sons and three daughters, moving with their family to St Mary’s Cottage in 1823.

By the mid 1820s, Hogg was at the height of his fame, and counted amongst his friends and acquaintances, several of Britain’s literary giants, the most successful of whom, Sir Walter Scott, lived just a short ride away at Abbotsford.

The little inn by St Mary’s Loch became a regular haunt for both Hogg and Scott in the mid 1820s, and was occasionally visited by both men when entertaining others poets and writers at their respective homes. Few inns can boast late night drinking sessions by groups of eminent writers and thinkers. While few others might have initially believed that Tibbie’s idea of turning her house into an inn would ever amount to much, she herself was absolutely confident of her future fame.

So famous did she become that, at the time of her death in 1878, no lesser newspaper than
The Scotsman gave her a lengthy and detailed obituary – which was even picked up and published in full in the New York Times. The story of her little inn had clearly crossed to the other side of the Atlantic!

Not even Tibbie could have anticipated that a century and a quarter after her death, her inn would still be thriving, and her name still well known to all who walk the border hills. She had become a legend. She was certainly not wrong when she told Dr. Chambers “Oh ay; folk a’ ken me best as Tibby Shiels; and I dare say when I’m dead and gane, this place here will still be ca’ed Tibby Shiels.”

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