Mary Erskine

Other names: 
Born 1629, died 2 July 1707

Mary Erskine married Robert Kennedy, a writer, in 1661. He died in 1671 and in 1675 she married James Hair, a druggist (apothecary), who died in 1683. She had one daughter, Euphame.

On the death of her first husband, Mary Erskine became a shopkeeper; on the death of her second, she paid off his debts and became a successful businesswoman. She rented out property and was a moneylender (also described as a private banker) to businessmen, professionals, and to some women, usually widows continuing their husbands’ business or starting their own.

In 1694, she responded generously to a proposal by the Edinburgh Merchant Company to establish a foundation in the Cowgate, Edinburgh, for the schooling of the daughters of Edinburgh burgesses. The aim was to board and educate orphaned, impoverished girls of the city’s middle classes. The Merchant Maiden Hospital was founded on 4 June 1694.

In 1706, Mary Erskine bought land and buildings for the Hospital and, on her death in 1707, bequeathed a large sum to the foundation, and a similar sum to the Incorporations of Trades who had followed the example of the Company of Merchants to found their own (Trades’) Maiden Hospital. Her foundation became the Edinburgh Ladies’ College in 1896, and was named the Mary Erskine School in 1944 – one of the oldest girls’ schools in the world.

Mary Erskine was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.

The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women
Based on an entry by Jane McDermid
The Merchant Maiden Hospital
Sommerville, MKB (1970, repr. 1993)