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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Riddell, Elizabeth Kennedy (d. 1801)

The daughter of William Kennedy who came from a Galloway family, but settled in Manchester as a fustian merchant. James Currie, Burns's future biographer, was smitten by her charms when a schoolboy at Dumfries. She married Robert Riddell of Glenriddell in 1784. Although Burns's friendship with her husband must often have brought her into contact with the poet, Burns recorded only conventional tributes about her goodness, and never seems to have manifested any of the personal interest he had in her husband and her sister-in-law, Maria.

It now seems beyond dispute that the affair towards the close of 1793 which interrupted Burns's friendship with the Robert Riddells occurred at Friars' Carse, and that the victim was Mrs Robert Riddell. Tradition, wholly unsupported by any first-hand evidence, avers that the male members of the party had been discussing the Rape of the Sabine Women when left alone after dinner, and that on their return to the drawing-room, they staged a somewhat too realistic enactment, Burns's victim being his hostess. The poet, disgraced, was ordered from the house. Next day, he wrote a strange letter which, De Lancey Ferguson suggests, was to Mrs Robert Riddell, the theatrical tone suggesting that he may well have hoped thereby to talk his way out of the social consequences of the situation:

'I daresay that this is the first epistle you ever received from this nether world. I write you from the regions of Hell, amid the horrors of the damned. The time and manner of my leaving your earth I do not exactly know, as I took my departure in the heat of a fever of intoxication, contracted at your too hospitable mansion; but, on my arrival here, I was fairly tried, and sentenced to endure the purgatorial tortures of this infernal confine for the space of ninety-nine years, eleven months, and twenty-nine, days, and all on account of the impropriety of my conduct yesternight under your roof. Here am I, laid on a bed of pityless furze, with my aching head reclined on a pillow of ever-piercing thorn, while an infernal tormentor, wrinkled , and old, and cruel, his name I think is Recollection, with a whip of scorpions, forbids peace or rest to approach me, and keeps anguish eternally awake. Still, Madam, if I could in any measure be reinstated in the good opinion of the fair circle whom my conduct last night so much injured, I think it would be an alleviation to my torments. For this reason I trouble you with this letter. To the men of the company I will make no apology. Your husband, who insisted on my drinking more than I chose, has no right to blame me; and the other gentlemen were partakers of my guilt. But to you, Madam, I have much to apologise. Your good opinion I valued as one of the greatest acquisitions I had made on earth, and I was truly a beast to forfeit it. There was a Miss I- too, a woman of fine sense, gentle and unassuming manners — do make, on my part, a miserable d-mned wretch's best apology to her. A Mrs G-, a charming woman, did me the honor to be prejudiced in my favor; this makes me hope that I have not outraged her beyond all forgiveness. — To all the other ladies please present my humblest contrition for my conduct, and my petition for their gracious Pardon. O all ye powers of decency and decorum! whisper to them that my errors, though great, were involuntary - that an intoxicated man is the vilest of beasts — that it was not in my nature to be brutal to any one — that to be rude to a woman, when in my senses, was impossible with me — but -

'Regret! Remorse! Shame! ye three hellhounds that ever clog my steps and bay at my heels, spare me! spare me!
'Forgive the offences, and pity the perdition of, Madam
Your humble Slave,
(Robt. Burns),

But, the 'humble Slave' was not forgiven, either by Robert Riddell, who died the following April, or by Mrs Robert Riddell. That she was of a narrow and unforgiving nature is further suggested by what happened to Friars' Carse. Under the terms of the will, it could have gone to Walter Riddell, who would have had to pay his widowed sister-in-law an annuity. Writing to an unidentifiable correspondent, called McLeod, from Dumfries on 18th June 1794, Burns said: 'The fate of Carse is determined. A majority of the trustees have fixed its sale; our friend John Clarke, whom you will remember to have met with here, opposed the measure with all his might; but he was over ruled. He, wishing to serve Walter Riddell, the surviving brother, wanted the widow to take a given annuity. and make over to him the survivancy of the paternal estate; but, luckily, the widow most cordially hates her brother-in-law, and, to my knowledge would rather you had the estate, though five hundred cheaper, than that Wattie should.'

Mrs Robert Riddell removed to Edinburgh, after her husband's death, to live with her father, who had retired there, and Rachel Kennedy, her unmarried sister. She ended her days at Bath, nursed by Rachel during her last illness. She was buried in St James's Churchyard, Bath, on 24th December 1801.

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