The aristocrat who 'imprisoned' his twin sons on Scottish islands for 26 years

One of the men escaped from his keeper after being rescued by a Quaker.

It was a case that held Scotland enthralled as the peculiar - and perhaps cruel - details of life within one of the country’s then most high-ranking aristocrat families unravelled in the public eye almost 200 years ago.

If the Earl of Balcarres believed sending his twin sons to two Scottish islands to hide their ‘imbecility’ would keep his family story hidden, he was sorely wrong. A highly publicised rescue mission led by a Quaker in 1835 led to newspapers full of the latest high-society sensation with months of very public recriminations to follow.

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The 6th Earl of Balcarres, a military man and colonial administrator who served as the governor of Jamaica from 1795 to 1801, arranged for his sons, Edwin and Richard, to be exorcised from family life with Edwin sent to Papa Stour in Shetland and Richard to Shapinsay in the Orkney Isles. Indeed, some accounts claimed they died during childhood.

Papa Stour, to the left of the picture, where Edwin Lindsay, the son of the 7th Earl of Balcarres, was held for 26 years before he managed to escape. PIC: Carroll Pierce/geograph.orgPapa Stour, to the left of the picture, where Edwin Lindsay, the son of the 7th Earl of Balcarres, was held for 26 years before he managed to escape. PIC: Carroll Pierce/geograph.org
Papa Stour, to the left of the picture, where Edwin Lindsay, the son of the 7th Earl of Balcarres, was held for 26 years before he managed to escape. PIC: Carroll Pierce/geograph.org

On Papa Stour, Edwin remained for some 26 years until a travelling Quakeress, Miss Watson, discovered the nobleman in a shepherd’s house . After she aided his escape to London, the story appeared in national newspapers with the Society of Friends then publishing a full account of the episode, including a defence put forward in newspaper columns by the 7th Earl of Balcarras, the brother of the twins, who criticised the interference in the “delicate family circumstances.”

The pamphlet, published in 1837, said: “That any human being would incarcerate a brother for the long period of 26 years on one of the most miserable islands of Shetland, is in itself incredible.

"On this remote island, ragged, despised and ill -treated , did the benevolent Miss Watson discover the brother of the wealthy Earl of Balcarres and from his lips did she learn the shocking and frightful truth that he was detained there against his will by the orders of the noble Earl.”

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Alexander Lindsay, 6th Earl of Balcarres, the former governor of Jamaica, who sent his twin sons to separate Scottish islands after they were diagnosed with a brain injury which was likely inflicted during their mother's pregnancy. PIC: CC.Alexander Lindsay, 6th Earl of Balcarres, the former governor of Jamaica, who sent his twin sons to separate Scottish islands after they were diagnosed with a brain injury which was likely inflicted during their mother's pregnancy. PIC: CC.
Alexander Lindsay, 6th Earl of Balcarres, the former governor of Jamaica, who sent his twin sons to separate Scottish islands after they were diagnosed with a brain injury which was likely inflicted during their mother's pregnancy. PIC: CC.

In response to his brother’s escape, the 7th Earl, whose family seat was Balcarres House in Colinsburgh, Fife and who inherited title and fortune from his father in 1825, including vast riches from his ownership of enslaved people in Jamaica, wrote to several morning newspapers

He claimed his twin brothers suffered a head injury which “destroys intellect” with the “malady” predicted to increase as they got older.

The Earl wrote: “Suffice it then to say, that having been tried both in the naval and military service, and found incompetent to remain in either, or to conduct himself in the common usages of life, my father placed him, with his own consent, about 25 years ago, with a most worthy and respectable gentleman in Papa, in the Shetland Islands, where he had full range and complete personal liberty, which he could not have enjoyed elsewhere .”

He claimed at the time of his father’s death in 1825 his brother was on Papa Stour “perfectly happy and contented and has been most kindly treated.”

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Edwin Lindsay claimed the Earl’s letter was “obviously absurd and daringly false” adding that he was “struck, maltreated and abused” while on Papa Stour.

Meanwhile, his twin Richard died on Shapinsay in 1833 with his forgotten grave discovered on the island in 1984.

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