Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland

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The Countess of Sutherland
'Elizabeth, Duchess-Countess of Sutherland' by George Romney, Cincinnati Art Museum.JPG
'Elizabeth, Duchess-Countess of Sutherland' by George Romney
Born Elizabeth Gordon
(1765-05-24)24 May 1765
Died 29 January 1839(1839-01-29) (aged 73)
Resting place Dornoch Cathedral
Title Duchess of Sutherland, Countess of Sutherland
Known for Her part in the Highland Clearances
Predecessor William Gordon, 18th Earl of Sutherland
Successor George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower
Spouse(s) George Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland (1785–1833)
Parents William Gordon, 18th Earl of Sutherland (father)
Mary Maxwell (mother)

Elizabeth Sutherland Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland (née Gordon, 24 May 1765 – 29 January 1839), also suo jure 19th Countess of Sutherland, was a Scottish peer from the Leveson-Gower family, best remembered for her involvement in the Highland Clearances.


Elizabeth was born at Leven Lodge near Edinburgh,[1] to William Gordon, 18th Earl of Sutherland and his wife Mary (c.1740–1766), daughter and coheir of William Maxwell. Her parents died of "putrid fever" in Bath in 1766, a few weeks after her first birthday. As the younger and only surviving child, [2] she succeeded to her father's estates and titles. Her title of Countess of Sutherland was contested by Sir Robert Gordon, Bart., a descendant of the 1st Earl of Gordon, but was confirmed by the House of Lords in 1771.[3]

Childhood and marriage[edit]

Elizabeth Sutherland spent most of her childhood living in Edinburgh and London, where she was educated between 1779 and 1782. On 4 September 1785, at the age 20, she married George Granville Leveson-Gower, Viscount Trentham, who was known as Earl Gower from 1786 until in 1803 he succeeded to his father's title of Marquess of Stafford. In 1832, just six months before he died, he was created Duke of Sutherland and she became known as Duchess-Countess of Sutherland.[2]

Scottish clearances[edit]

As an example of ... "clearing" ... the Duchess of Sutherland will suffice here. This person, well instructed in economy, resolved ... to turn the whole country ... into a sheep-walk. From 1814 to 1820 ... 15,000 inhabitants, [or] about 3,000 families, were systematically ... rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut which she refused to leave. Thus [the Duchess of Sutherland] appropriated 794,000 acres [321,320 hectares] of land that had ... belonged to the clan. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6,000 acres [2,428 ha] on the sea-shore – two acres per family. The 6,000 acres had until this time lain waste, and brought in no income to their owners. The Duchess ... actually went so far as to let these at an average rent of 2s. 6d. per acre... The whole of the stolen clanland she divided into 29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single family, [and] for the most part imported English farm-servants. [By] ... 1835, the 15,000 Gaels were already replaced by 131,000 sheep. The remnant ... flung on the sea-shore tried to live by catching fish. They ... lived ... half on land and half on water, and withal only half on both.

–Karl Marx, 1867, Capital, Volume 1.[4]

Under the terms of the marriage contract, control, but not ownership, of the Sutherland estates passed from Elizabeth to her husband for life.[a] The couple also purchased additional land in Sutherland, so that by the 1820s they owned well over two-thirds of the county.[2]

Interested in improving the yield that she could obtain from her estate, Lady Sutherland was the driving force behind notorious, large scale clearance that were to take place in Sutherland, in the name of modernisation and efficiency. She started gradually, but as the techniques proved to be financially beneficial for her family, she accelerated and intensified the process.[2] She instigated the eviction of tenant farmers and crofters, who were moved to smaller, less-viable holdings on the coast, to make way for large sheep farms and other projects. Lady Sutherland visited her estates regularly and was fully aware of what her policies meant for the tenants dispossessed of land on which their families had lived for generations. She and her supporters "considered the changes necessary, inevitable, and benevolent ... endeavoured to counteract the adverse publicity surrounding the clearances, but with little success".[2]

Lady Sutherland, along with her factor Patrick Sellar and auditor James Loch, had a reputation for being especially cruel and insensitive.[5] The clearances brought widespread condemnation, and the Highland Land League eventually achieved land reform in the enactment of Crofting Acts. These measures could not bring economic viability, however, and came too late at a time when the land was already suffering from depopulation.[6] For example, on seeing the starving tenants on her husband's estate, she remarked in a letter to a friend in England, "Scotch [sic] people are of happier constitution and do not fatten like the larger breed of animals".[7]

Other interests[edit]

Lady Sutherland twice raised a volunteer regiment, the "Sutherlandshire Fencibles", in 1779 and 1793, which was later deployed in suppressing Irish rebellion of 1798.[1]

In 1790 her husband was appointed Ambassador to France and she accompanied him to Paris. She was able to witness the revolutionary events first-hand and wrote descriptions about the political turmoil in France at that time.[2] Lady Sutherland and her husband had difficulty obtaining permission to leave Paris and did not finally travel to London until 1792.

During the 1790s, Lady Sutherland became a leading figure of the social season in London. Her dinner parties and balls were attended by royalty, nobility and leading politicians, both foreign and domestic. She and her husband became close friends with George Canning who considered her beautiful, intelligent, and charming - a view not shared by members of her own class and sex, who thought her overbearing.[2]

When not in public, Lady Sutherland's interests included corresponding with Sir Walter Scott and, as she was a gifted artist, painting watercolour landscapes of the Sutherland coast and of Dunrobin Castle, among other subjects.[2] She was also an accomplished oil painter. She drew and etched a series of views in the Orkney Islands and north-east coast of Scotland, which were published between 1805 and 1807.[1]

Lady Sutherland spent a lot of time raising her four children. She placed a special emphasis on maximising the wealth of her sons and (as was common at the time) obtaining the best possible marriages for her daughters. Eric Richards observes that she "dominated her sons and probably her husband as well".[2]

Shortly before his death in July 1833, her husband was created Duke of Sutherland and Lady Sutherland became the Duchess of Sutherland. After her husband's death her Scottish estates were managed for her on her behalf. She died, aged seventy-three, on 29 January 1839 at Hamilton Place, Hyde Park, London. She was buried on 20 February 1839, with great pomp at Dornoch Cathedral, in Sutherland.[1][2] Her comital title passed to her eldest son, George.[1]


On 4 September 1785, Lady Sutherland married Lord George Leveson-Gower and they had four surviving children:


  1. ^ "The marriage settlement instituted a fresh enfeoffment in terms of the entail on the Sutherland estates, which were arranged on life rent to her husband" (Richards 2004, ref:odnb/42000).
  1. ^ a b c d e White 1953, p. 563.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Richards 2004, ref:odnb/42000.
  3. ^ (Richards 2004); Lundy 2003; Chisholm 1911
  4. ^ Karl Marx, 1867, Capital Volume One Chapter Twenty-Seven Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land (2 October 2016)
  5. ^ Prebble 1963, Chapter 2.
  6. ^ Janet Mackay, Highland Clearances, electricscotland.com; accessed 5 May 2016.
  7. ^ Blamires, Steve (2005), The Highland Clearances - An Introduction, The Clannada na Gadelica, a Gaelic culture education facility, archived from the original on 20 June 2006 [unreliable source?]


External links[edit]

Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
William Sutherland
Countess of Sutherland
Succeeded by
George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower