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14 Apr 2020

Henrietta Tayler: Scottish Jacobite historian and First World War nurse

Written by Maggie Craig
A pencil illustration of a row of four patients in beds in a ward, all holding an arm out to a nurse. The nurse holds cigarettes in her hand and stands at the foot of the bed at the right.
Henrietta Tayler giving cigarettes out during the First World War
Maggie Craig, a Scottish writer and historian, tells the story of one of her historical counterparts, whose own life was as interesting as the men and women she wrote about.

Helen Agnes Henrietta Tayler was born in London in 1869 but always considered herself to be a Scot. Through both her parents (William and Georgina), who were distant cousins, she belonged to the influential Duff family. Every summer, the Taylers travelled north to spend the summer at William Tayler’s childhood home of Rothiemay House, near Huntly in Aberdeenshire. There were three children: Constance, Hetty (as family and friends always called her) and younger brother Alistair. In Banffshire, William Tayler was known as the Laird of Glenbarry, a title his son would inherit.

A black and white photograph of a very grand house, with many different wings and extensions. It has turrets and towers. Ivy grows up the walls.
Rothiemay House

There were frequent visits to Duff House in Banff, the beautiful William Adam mansion at the mouth of the River Deveron. William Tayler had been born there, the grandson of the 3rd Earl Fife. Supremely ‘weel-connecktit’, Hetty and her siblings came to know many lairds’ houses across Banffshire and Aberdeenshire. This was living history, with charter rooms bulging with documents and houses full of paintings and artefacts galore. Their imaginations fired, Hetty and Alistair went on to forge a life-long research and literary partnership.

Their first published work was a two-volume history of their own family and its many branches. The Book of the Duffs was published in 1914. When the First World War broke out later that year, Hetty signed up as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse with the Red Cross. As a VAD, she helped to look after Belgian refugees fleeing from their war-devastated country and the invading German army. Returning to Banffshire, she became matron of a VAD hospital for wounded servicemen at Earlsmount, a large house in the town of Keith.

Eager to serve abroad, she then went to care for Belgian children in the small part of their country still under Belgian control. With the pounding of the guns on the Western Front shredding everyone’s nerves and terrifying her young charges, Hetty was a soothing presence. Her philosophy of life could be summed up by the famous (if now rather overdone) Second World War slogan: Keep calm and carry on; do whatever you can to help and look for something to laugh at wherever you can find it. She was a short woman, barely five feet tall, but she had a big heart, an inquiring mind, a great sense of humour and a ready smile.

Over the course of the war, she nursed and cared for soldiers and civilians in some of the most dangerous corners of Europe. In Italy, she nursed servicemen suffering from influenza or ‘the Spanish flu’ during the global pandemic of 1918–19. ‘We did all our work in eucalyptus masks and everything was disinfected, even our letters’ wrote Hetty in a short memoir of her experiences: A Scottish Nurse at Work. A talented linguist, she was always willing to learn another language to help her communicate with her patients.

A black and white photograph of a lady sitting on a stool in a yard, with a toddler on her lap. The lady wears a cloth headdress and a long cream dress. The toddler has a big smile. Washing hangs from a line in the background.
Hetty and Sefke

Hetty put her language skills to good use after the war, when she and her brother did research on the House of Stuart in archives in Paris and the Vatican. In 1934, they started looking through the Stuart Papers at Windsor Castle. These had been bought on behalf of George IV even before the death of Charles Edward Stuart’s brother Henry, who was a cardinal of the Roman Catholic church.

The letters and papers were bound into over 500 volumes and were not then indexed. Undaunted, Hetty and Alistair were, she wrote, proud to have been the last historians ‘to sail the uncharted seas of the Stuart Papers, making on the way the most thrilling discoveries.’ They did all this in the days before photocopying, when everything had to be painstakingly transcribed by hand.

One of the most thrilling of those discoveries was the journal of John William O’Sullivan, one of the Seven Men of Moidart, the companions who travelled to Scotland with Charles Edward Stuart. As Adjutant-General and Quartermaster-General of the Jacobite army, O’Sullivan was the closest of the prince’s special advisers. The Taylers published his diary in 1745 and After in 1938. As with all their works, they appended footnotes and a commentary – this was especially helpful for, as with many people in the 18th century, O’Sullivan’s spelling was bad.

On 14 September 1745, O’Sullivan wrote that they had stopped at ‘Banacburn’ and sent to ‘Sterling’ for ‘Bear, Bread, Chees &ca, to refraish the men.’ After the Jacobite victory at Prestonpans, he wrote that it was decided to throw ‘a ball for the Ladys’ at Holyroodhouse. He added an admiring comment about Charles refusing to dance, saying he had ‘another Air to dance, [and] until that be finished, I’ll dance no other.’

Two more books were published based on their research at Windsor: The Stuart Papers at Windsor and Jacobite Epilogue: A Further Selection from the Stuart Papers at Windsor. In total, the brother-and-sister team published numerous articles and 30 full-length works, many dealing with the history of the ’45. One of their most engaging works is Jacobites of Aberdeenshire & Banffshire in the Forty-Five, which they dedicated to their cousin Walter Biggar Blaikie, a Jacobite scholar and editor of Origins of the ’Forty-Five. His extensive collection of prints and papers are now in the National Library of Scotland.

Henrietta Tayler never married nor had children, but she was honorary auntie to many in her extended family. Alistair died in 1937. Devastated though she was by the loss, she kept writing. Hetty died in April 1951 at the age of 82, shortly after completing an article for the Scottish Historical Review on the accidental fatal shooting of Angus MacDonell by his own side in Falkirk after the battle there in January 1746.

Hetty was buried beside her mother and brother in the Brompton Cemetery in Kensington in London. The Taylers’ meticulous scholarship and Hetty’s ability to put the information across in a lively and entertaining manner forms a huge amount of what we know about the Jacobites of 1745. She was a remarkable woman.

A front cover of a book by Maggie Carig, showing the photo of a lady with a toddler on her knee, a bright red poppy, a white poppy and a pencil illustration of two nurses carrying a stretcher.
The front cover of ‘Henrietta Tayler: Scottish Jacobite Historian and First World War Nurse’

Maggie Craig is the author of Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45, Bare-arsed Banditti: The Men of the ’45 and Henrietta Tayler: Scottish Jacobite Historian and First World War Nurse. She has also just published her new book One Week in April: The Scottish Radical Rising of 1820, which is available to order from her website
You can follow Maggie on Twitter @CraigMaggie.

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