I breakfasted with Lord Hailes and gave him my book. I dined with my father, Lord Coalston, &c., at the Solicitor's with the ladies of Cromartie. Lady Augusta, the famed beauty, did not strike me. I then went to an Ayrshire ball at Fortune's. My book was published this day, and felt my own importance. I danced with the Countess of Crawford, so opened the ball. I was quite as I wished to be; only I am positive I had not so high an opinion of myself as other people had.
diary of James Boswell, Thursday, 18 February 1768
So the 27-year-old Boswell puffs himself up on what should be one of the great days of his life, the publication
of his Account of Corsica
and his enrolment into the ranks of celebrated
authors. He had lived in London, studied in Holland, and toured the Continent, meeting Johnson
, and Rousseau
, and had travelled to the little island of Corsica
where a brave people were fighting for their independence
. With his Account
he hoped to bring their plight to wide attention.
Yet all his dwelling upon this and his illustrious legal colleagues, his balls and dissipations, his charming companions, cannot conceal the anguish in this snippet: Lady Augusta, the famed beauty, had not struck him.
Lady Augusta struck everyone. You were no-one in polite Edinburgh society unless you had lost teeth to Lady Augusta or spent a good week in plaster after one of her unprovoked assaults. As early as October 1765, with the irreparable maiming of a promising amateur historian, Sir William Cumbernauld, to a 17-year-old Augusta "out" in society for only six weeks, her potential had been apparent.
She came from a long line of violent Highlanders. Sir Lionel de Kilbeastie had slapped Robert the Bruce for keeping a dirty cave, Sir Alexander Kilbeastie had headbutted the King and his Lord High Marshal on the eve of Flodden Field (for which he was rewarded with the Earldom of Duffup), and Augusta's own father had gained the admiration of Bonnie Prince Charlie by poking him stoutly in both eyes as they shared an oak tree together, while English troops searched the fields beneath them.
At the tender age of five Augusta would bite the parish priest for giving his sermon in a sing-song tone, and she was 'blooded' at the age of nine with the death of a too-trusting groom atop Skulloch Tor. By the time of her sixteenth birthday she had killed two of her maids, an ostler at an inn where the cockaleekie soup was cool, a gardener's boy, two beaters, and her childhood playmate Lady Margaret Guilfoyle. Her mother had lost a leg, her two brothers had fled to sea, and the cats of Duffup Castle emerged only by night, fighting owls for their prey.
She took Edinburgh by storm. At Lady Crossach's rout she pitched the Duke of Argyll into the moat and drowned a wine-waiter in the punch; at the Duchess of Arbroath's cotillion she pushed the Prince of Wales and an actress who had just triumphed as Ophelia into the flower beds; and at Mrs Craigmuire's thé dansant she had charged the entire officer corps of the 14th Highland Foot from across the crowded ballroom, working up such speed that carpenters had to be called the following day to remove Colonels Hume and Galashiels from the Grinling Gibbons fireplace two rooms away, and Captain Strachan's tattered wig was recovered, weeks later, from the works of the church clock.
Boswell fancied himself as a ladies' man. A month's hospitalization would have set him up for life with the womenfolk, if observed as one of Augusta's favourites. Alas, he went on to be a lawyer and writer of sorts, but never really shrugged off the memory of her disdain that night.