Rev. William Robb and the Countess of Kelly

In an earlier post I reproduced a poem by my 3 x great uncle, Rev. William Robb, which was published in the December, 1807, edition of the Anti-Jacobin Review. It was entitled ‘Verses on education, written by desire of the Right Honourable Countess of Kelly’.

Who was the Countess of Kelly and how did William know her?

Anne, Countess of Kelly (or Kellie) was married to Thomas, the 9th Earl of Kelly. They lived at Cambo House, near St. Andrews in Fife.  It would seem that the couple, like their predecessors at Cambo, were generous supporters of the Episcopal church in the district, contributing for example to the building of the chapel at Pittenweem. William Robb served at Pittenweem from 1787 to 1789 and at St. Andrews from 1789 to 1818, so he might have had dealings with the earl and countess in either capacity. The Earl of Kelly died in 1828 and his wife in the following year; they had no children.

Anne was the daughter of Adam Gordon of Ardoch, and the story of how she met her future husband, Thomas Erskine, later Earl of Kelly, reads like the stuff of legend, complete with shipwrecks and foundling children. What is indisputable is that Anne Gordon married Thomas Erskine in 1771 in Gotenberg, Sweden, where he was a merchant, and they took possession of Cambo in 1799, when Thomas succeeded to the Kelly title.

My main source for information about the Earl of Kelly’s support for the church at Pittenweem, William Blatch’s Memoir of the Rt. Rev. David Low (William Robb’s successor as minister at Pittenweem) also contains fascinating insights into the difficulties faced by the Episcopal church in the aftermath of the ’45 rebellion. Blatch’s account of Rev. Low’s time at Pittenweem may also offer, indirectly, some clues as to the kind of life led by William Robb, both there and later at St. Andrews. He notes that David Low was only 21 years old when he took up the post at Pittenweem: we may note that William Robb was himself only 24 (and like his successor, unmarried) when he arrived there and 26 when he moved on to St. Andrews. And the following description of Low’s relationships with the local gentry might also have been true for William, and explain how he came to be writing poems for the Countess of Kelly, and acting as chaplain to a peer of the realm:

he became at once a welcome visitor, and at length a cherished friend, at almost every county mansion for miles around [...] Mr. Low being unmarried became more than a frequent casual visitor at the houses of the gentry: he was received there as a member of their families, residing the whole week at one mansion, and the next week at another, and thus traversing the range from Cambo in the east to Largo in the west, and finding himself everywhere a welcome guest.

Curiously, Blatch doesn’t mention William Robb by name.  He’s referred to indirectly, sandwiched between accounts of the incumbencies of George Gleig and David Low:

The successor of Dr. Gleig remained at Pittenweem only two years and on his removal to St. Andrews in Sept. 1789, the vacancy was supplied […] by the Rev.  David Low.

The omission of William’s name is curious. Perhaps the author didn’t know it, though that seems unlikely, given his obvious access to church archives. Perhaps there was a cloud over William’s departure, but this too is difficult to believe, since he went on to be curate and then priest in charge at St. Andrews, surely a more prestigious church? It could be that William’s stay at Pittenweem was always meant as a stop-gap while a permanent replacement for Dr. Gleig was found: after all, this was William’s first posting, and we know that he was still seeking ‘further instructions in the principles of our church’ from the priest at Meiklefolla only five years earlier.

Still, there is obviously much that we don’t yet know about the Rev. William Robb, including the details of how he came to be appointed chaplain to Lord Elibank, and the nature of the ‘mental disease’ from which he eventually died in 1830.

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