The strange life of the Reverend Cathcart Leslie, minister of the parish of Borthwick in Midlothian, and his extraordinary marriage and tragic end


This is the first of a series of three pages involving people with the surname 'Scheniman' in Scotland and their Willison, Dempster and other relatives in the 18th and 19th centuries:

  1. The strange life of the Reverend Cathcart Leslie, minister of Borthwick

  2. George Willison, portrait painter

  3. The Scottish Schenimans


When one wishes to learn about a minister of the Church of Scotland, the first port of call is the set of volumes of the Fasti Ecclesiæ Scoticanæ compiled by the Rev. Hew Scott. The first volume's entry for Cathcart Leslie merely records his date of ordination and death, and his wife's name and date of death; one can further deduce that Borthwick was the only charge he ever held. Slim pickings indeed, and not perhaps so unusual for a minister of the later 16th or early 17th centuries. But Leslie lived in the nineteenth. Some further digging is needed.

His background

Cathcart Leslie was born on 16 April 1802 at Kingsbarns in the East Neuk of Fife, and baptised there 12 days later, the last of the eleven children of a farmer there, William Leslie, by his second wife, Barbara Glass. William had married his first wife, Barbara Edmond, in 1775, and had had three children by her. She died about 1783 and William's eldest child by Barbara Glass was born in 1785. Both his wives hailed from St Andrews, Barbara Glass being the daughter of Andrew Glass, a bailie of that city.

William Leslie's origins have yet to be discovered but, from various sources, he would appear to have been rather prosperous. The records of the Farm Horse Tax of 1797-98 show that on 15 Sept 1797 he possessed 18 horses, an impressive number [NRS E326/10/2/310]. His address is given as "Kingsbarns", so it appears that he lived in the village itself; his monument in the kirkyard - a fine table stone - bears the inscription [Monumental Notes]:

Sacred to the memory of William Leslie, farmer, Cessnock in Kingsbarns, who died 13 April 1819, aged 70. And of Barbara Glass, his spouse, who died 20 August 1815, aged 55. And of James, their son, who died 28 April 1839 aged 42.

Cessnock, or Cessneuk, is a two-storeyed 18th century house facing on to the Square in the village [Smith 2009], and William may have been the owner rather than the tenant.

William drew up a trust deed and settlement, dated at St Andrews, 13 March 1815. This, together with an inventory of his moveable estate, was recorded on 5 October 1821 in the records of the Commissary Court of St Andrews [NRS CC20/7/13 pp. 141-155] The inventory valued his estate at £5391/11s/7½d [Note 1]. Of this total, £2033/10s/4d was owed to William by Thomas Erskine, 9th earl of Kellie, the very man whose lands of Kingsbarns had been farmed by William. A further sum of £530/0s/8d was owed to William jointly by Cathcart Dempster (Dean of Guild of St Andrews and husband of Barbara Glass's younger sister Mary Glass), Andrew Christie (Provost of Cupar and husband of Cathcart Dempster's younger sister, Margaret) and Harry Hope Esq. in Falkland (Harry Hope of Millfield (d. 1828), writer, town clerk of Falkland and married, firstly, to Cathcart Dempster's elder sister, Mary).

The trust deed reveals that nine of William's 14 children were still living in 1815 [see details at the foot of this page]. So, as the youngest child, Cathcart's prospects were modest, his father's prosperity notwithstanding.

His life

Nothing has come to light regarding Cathcart Leslie's education; presumably, he attended the village school in Kingsbarns and may later have been sent into St Andrews for further schooling. There is no indication that he graduated from or even attended a university. The first certain evidence of his existence after his baptism appears in issues of the Edinburgh Advertiser of 1823 and 1824, as holder of a licence to kill game, when he was still living in Kingsbarns [EA 9 Dec 1823, p. 376 & 7 Sep 1824, p. 153].

In 1828, he sought preferment for a position from Robert Dundas, 2nd viscount Melville, but this would seem to have fallen on deaf ears [NRS GD51/6/2278 of 19 Mar 1828]. In his request, he is designed "preacher, assistant at Crichton", that is, he was working as assistant, first to the Rev. John Kellock Cunninghame (né Kellock) and thereafter, to the Rev. John Crawford, successive parish ministers of Crichton in Midlothian - hardly a lucrative position.

His brother Methven Leslie, a salt merchant in Glasgow, died there on 25 March 1834, and Methven's trust deed [NRS SC36/48/24 pp. 587-593] named "the Reverend Cathcart Leslie, Assistant Minister in the parish of Crichton" as one of the trustees. Cathcart gave up the inventory of his brother's estate, valued at £740/15s/6d. Methven left an only child of 12 years, William.

The postal directory of 1837 lists Cathcart as living at Ford Cottage, beside the River Tyne on the road from Pathhead to Ford, and the 1841 census records him there as a preacher of the gospel, with a female servant, Ann Ronaldson. That same year, Methven's 19-year-old son William was living in Pathhead and listed as a merchant. In June 1846, Cathcart obtained his first and, as it transpired, only charge, being presented to the neighbouring church and parish of Borthwick by Robert Dundas of Arniston [GC 16 Jun 1846, p. 4], vacant following the death of the Rev. James Souter. He was ordained and inducted to Borthwick on 11 August 1846. Initially, he moved house to Roslin in the parish of Lasswade, the postal directory of 1846/47 listing him in the manse there. (Now "The Old Manse", 29 Manse Road, it had been built in 1832 next to the no longer extant chapel of ease that had been erected in 1826/27.) By 1851, he was living at Currie House in Borthwick, with Ann Ronaldson, now his housekeeper, and a young female servant. His nephew William was still in Pathhead in 1851, listed as grocer, draper and inspector of poor. William died the next year in Leith Walk, Edinburgh but was buried at Borthwick; his burial record has "Inspector of poor, South Leith" [OPR burial register, Borthwick, 28 Apr 1852]. His uncle Cathcart may have secured him the appointment in Leith, a job that may well have contributed to William's early death.

In August 1854, Cathcart travelled north to Arbroath to perform the marriage of his niece, Barbara Glass Leslie, daughter of his late brother Andrew, to the Rev. Mr Charles Merson, at that time an assistant minister in Arbroath [ElgC 18 Aug 1854, p. 2].

The next news of Cathcart Leslie is the record of his death on 26 May 1856, aged 54, not in Borthwick as might have been expected, but in Lancaster in England, at the "King's Arms" in Market Street - possibly the same building as the present Royal King's Arms Hotel. He had, apparently, killed himself by cutting his throat [GA 30 May 1856, p. 2]. No explanation exists for his being in Lancaster, nor any explanation for his suicide, other than pecuniary embarrassment.

The inquest

As he had died in England, there had to be a totally redundant coroner's inquest. But the reports, in the wake of the inquest, that appeared in many of the newspapers in 1856, do provide some interesting detail.

He had arrived in Lancaster by the 10.30 train from the south on the night of Saturday, 24 May 1856, and had then taken a bus to the King's Arms Hotel. He had spent Sunday quietly at the hotel, had breakfast on Monday and had asked to be called when the bus was ready to take him to the railway station, where he intended to get the 11 a.m. train north. When the boots went to his room to call him for the bus, he found him in a pool of blood. The head waiter being called, he found Cathcart's head to be "nearly severed from his body", a bloody razor lying beside him. There were also some cuts on his left wrist. Lancaster's police superintendent documented Cathcart's belongings, which included £53/10s in gold and £1/17s/2d in loose change, and a gold watch with an inscription indicating that it had been presented to him by his congregation at Crichton, "in testimony of the sincere esteem and respect for him as their religious instructor and private friend. 20th Oct. 1831.". A telegram was sent to the chief constable in Edinburgh for further information and a reply received. The coroner and a jury met the next day at the King's Arms, but the inquest was adjourned in expectation that one of Cathcart's acquaintances might attend.

On the Wednesday, the inquest resumed, when Mr Moffatt, an Edinburgh solicitor had arrived [Note 2]. He described Cathcart as being of very gentle manners and a very popular preacher. He could only think that Cathcart's suicide had been caused by money worries caused by an (unidentified) now-deceased nephew, who had been a drain on Cathcart's resources. That nephew was evidently William, Methven's son, who had followed his uncle to Crichton, but he was in his grave by 1852. The jury decided Cathcart had cut his own throat in a fit of temporary insanity and the body was buried the same day at Lancaster [31 May 1856: LG p. 5; BC p. 2; WG p. 5 - the most detailed article].

The inventory of his estate

The inventory of his moveable estate was given up by his niece, Mrs Barbara Glass Leslie or Merson, on 19 June 1856 [NRS SC70/1/95 pp. 55-61]. His estate was valued at £873/19s/4¾d. Of that sum, £68/4s/5¾d was the half year's victual stipend due to him from the six heritors of the parish. The stipend seems fairly low for a minister of the established church at the time; the minister of the rural parish of Blackford in Perthshire had a total stipend of £267 in 1855, of which only £32 seems to have been money, the rest meal and barley. However, the Free Kirk minister at Blackford received only £132 in all in 1854/55 [Sawkins 2023].

The court case

Matters might have ended there; his successor as minister of Borthwick, the Rev. James Reid, was duly admitted on 1 October 1856. But they didn't. In 1857, one Catherine Mitchell raised an action in the Court of Session, claiming to be Cathcart's widow. The defenders included Cathcart's nephew James Miln Leslie, eldest son of his late brother James, by now a wine merchant in Philadelphia [NRS CS230/M/16/3; Doodles]. The Lord Ordinary, Lord Ardmillan (James Craufurd), played safe and repelled Catherine Mitchell's claim on the grounds that there was no documentary proof of marriage nor any evidence of cohabitation. But Catherine appealed and matters took a more complex turn.

Catherine had been born in 1801 in Dundee. Her mother was Rose Scheniman, daughter of Charles Ferdinand Scheniman, a music teacher who had been employed as harpsichordist by the Edinburgh Musical Society in the years 1773-79 [Macleod 2001; Edwards 2015]. Rose's brother Ferdinand Nathaniel Scheniman was an accountant in Edinburgh, and lived in Howard Place there, married to a daughter of the portrait painter George Willison; her grandfather, Ferdinand Scheniman, had been organist of St Peter's English Episcopal Chapel in Montrose for almost 50 years. Catherine's father Alexander Mitchell hailed from Kingoldrum in Angus. He farmed at Mains of Gray in the parish of Liff and was also a corn merchant in Dundee. Both the 1841 and 1851 census list Catherine with her father in Dundee, at Miln Bank and Paton's Row, respectively. In short, Catherine, as was remarked by the judges in the appeal hearing, came, like Cathcart, of respectable family.

But someone else was living with the Mitchells in both years, namely Bruce Leslie, Cathcart's immediately elder sister. In 1851, Bruce Leslie is listed as a visitor, but it seems that she was in reality a perpetual visitor. It is impossible to know whether the sister first met Catherine and then introduced Cathcart to Catherine, or if Cathcart met Catherine and Bruce then became acquainted with Catherine through Cathcart, but in any case, in December 1822, Cathcart and Catherine became betrothed with her father's consent. But her father very reasonably objected to their marrying until Cathcart had a charge and was in a position to support his daughter adequately. By December 1827, it must have appeared to both Cathcart and Catherine that they could no longer postpone marriage, he now having at least secured an assistant's post at Crichton, so they married at Mains of Gray. Without, it seems, telling anyone else whomsoever.


The appeal, held on 16 March 1860 in the First Division of the Court of Session, was based on the existence of some thousand letters, written by Cathcart and Catherine to one another, over the period of almost 30 years from the time of their supposed marriage, and preserved in the 280 pages of the court case. In these letters, they consistently addressed each other as husband and wife and made plain their longing to live together at such time as Cathcart's means were adequate to maintain Catherine. She waited patiently for that day to arrive, and one might imagine that it had when he obtained his charge at Borthwick. Catherine certainly thought so, as her frustration became apparent, though she continued to hold out for better times.

The appeal was held before Lords Ivory (James Ivory), Deas (George Deas), Curriehill (John Marshall) and the Lord President (Duncan McNeill of Colonsay & Oronsay). Lord Ivory was in two minds about whether the letters were sufficient evidence to prove a marriage, but at last decided in favour. Lord Curriehill apparently expatiated at length, though his arguments did not find their way into the newspapers; he too judged in Catherine's favour. The Lord President was of the contrary opinion.


It was left to Lord Deas to expound at some length the nature of marriage in Scots law, and his arguments were reported in detail in the press. He noted that the leading principle was that consent makes marriage. No ceremony, no previous notice or following publication, no consummation or cohabitation, no writing or even witnesses are necessary. Consent requires no third party to be present. The only requirement is that at some arbitrary future date, some satisfactory evidence be found to show that consent had previously been given, deliberately and seriously. But Lord Deas went further. He noted that even consent was not essential, as a promise of marriage, subsequente copula makes marriage, even if the parties concerned did not mean it. So marriage could exist by promise subsequente copula or by habit and repute, without the parties knowing that they were married. In consequence, at any time, many people would not know whether they were married or not, and it would be impossible to decide, in the case of many children, whether or not they were legitimate.

Lord Deas went on to describe both Cathcart and Catherine as coming of respectable families and of similar age, education and social position. (Had Catherine been a housemaid, he might have judged differently.) In spite of the lack of any evidence of their marriage agreement of December 1827, there was a clear difference between the way they addressed each other in the five preceding years from their mode of address in the 29 following years, in which they regularly refer to themselves as husband and wife. Catherine had had several offers of marriage but rejected them all. It appears that Cathcart spent what free time he had with Catherine and his sister Bruce, and sent such small sums as he could to Catherine. Moreover, in October 1846, he joined the Ministers' Widows' Fund, at a cost to them, as Cathcart put it, of £7/17s/6d a year, for annual payment of about £47 to her in case of his death [DPCA 20 Mar 1860, p.4; MR 23 Mar 1860, p. 7].


In short, there was adequate evidence to satisfy Lord Deas that marriage had been constituted. And that was the majority verdict of the court. The entire reason that no public declaration of marriage had occurred was the debt of some seven or eight thousand pounds, with ever mounting interest, that Cathcart had burdened himself with. It's unclear whether that debt arose entirely from the assistance given to his nephew William. There is some suggestion that Cathcart had planned to leave for Australia or America, presumably to escape his creditors, and that would perhaps explain the original rationale for his trip to the south.

Subsequent to the case, the Dundee Advertiser [AH 24 Mar 1860, p. 9, after the main article] commented on the gossip that had occurred in Dundee where both parties were well known. Catherine's father was a town councillor; she was held to be, when young, "the handsomest girl in the Carse of Gowrie" and "remarkably intelligent, witty and cheerful".


1. Any attempt to estimate the present-day value of the various sums of money mentioned is met by too many uncertainties.

2. Apparently Henry Moffat of Eldin, S.S.C. (1812-1897), who acted as agent for Catherine Mitchell in the subsequent case in the Court of Session. Eldin House at Lasswade was originally the property of John Clerk of Penicuik.

Family notes


William LESLIE (c.1749-1819) mar.(1) Barbara EDMOND (1748-c.1783). Issue:

  1. Robert (1775-)
  2. Agnes (1777-) mar. John BOWSIE
  3. Janet (1780-)

William LESLIE (c.1749-1819) mar.(2) Barbara GLASS (1763-1815). Issue:

  1. William (1785-)
  2. Christian (1787-)
  3. Andrew (1788-1821), farmer in Boghall, Kingsbarns, mar. Jessie TOD (1800-1861). Issue:

    • George Tod (1818-1845)
    • Barbara Glass (1819-1895) mar. the Rev. Charles MERSON (1822-1869). No issue.

  4. Barbara (1790-)
  5. Margaret (1793-)
  6. David (1795-)
  7. Methven (1796-1834), salt merchant in Glasgow, mar. Elizabeth TURPIE (1800-). Only child:

    • William (1822-1852)

  8. James (1797-1839) mar. Mary MILN (1802-1885). Issue:

    • James Miln (1826-1863), wine merchant in Philadelphia
    • Barbara Glass (1828-1904)
    • Catharine (1830-)
    • William Methven (1833-)
    • Andrew (1835-1836)
    • George Robert (1837-1874) in USA

  9. Stewart (1798-)
  10. Bruce (1800-1856)
  11. Cathcart (1802-1856)


Alexander MITCHELL (1775-1853) mar. Rose SCHENIMAN (c.1775-1843). They had 8 children, including:


NRS - National Records of Scotland Catalogue

OPR - Old Parish Registers of the Church of Scotland at ScotlandsPeople

Newspapers (at British Newspaper Archive except EA):

Doodles and Discoveries: Scottish Court of Session Papers - this Edinburgh University blog of 30 Nov 2018, discussing digitisation of the papers of the Court of Session, mentions the court case and illustrates two snippets.

Edwards, Thomas Hayward An investigation and re-evaluation of Vocal Music in Edinburgh 1750-1800, Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2015, pp. 253, 260, 275, 280 (Edwards calls him "Scheinman" and states Scheniman was born in Banff - he was however baptised in Dundee)

Macleod, Jennifer The Edinburgh Musical Society: Its membership and repertoire 1728-1797, Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2001, p. 303

Fife Family History Society, Monumental Notes, part 2, Publication No. 38, 2008, p. 55. (sourced from a transcription made by an unknown person in or about 1879, in St Andrews University Library, MS37478)

Sawkins, J.W. The Financing of Ministerial Stipends in the Established Church of Scotland: the Rural Parish, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 74, no. 3, pp. 535-570, 2023.

Smith, Ian B. Kingsbarns, Kingsbarns Community Council History Group, 2009, p. 15.

This page new 4 Aug 2023