There’s Something About Mary: Johnston v Paisley (1769)

This Tale from the Session Papers was found while undertaking research for Dr Chloë Kennedy’s project,  ‘Identity Deception: A Critical History’ at Edinburgh Law School. I thank James Hamilton and all at the Signet Library, for access to the Session Papers there and assistance.

James Paisley [or Pasley][1] was well satisfied with his choice: a pretty young woman had agreed to be his wife. His sisters and daughters could roll their eyes in disapproval all they liked. This was his choice and what right had they to begrudge him some late-life happiness?

Paisley checked his reflection in the pier glass. He put his shoulders back and smoothed his new velvet coat. For all that he had long passed his seventieth birthday, he had the look and air of a younger man. At least he had since he had set eyes on Miss Mary Johnston, the young lady he was about to propose marriage to.  She had turned him down once before: this time he expected success.

Mary’s youthful liveliness gave promise to the excellent nurse she would be when the time came. None of his relations seemed disposed to come to his aid and the prospect of increasing age was beginning to worry him. The daughter earmarked for the role of carer was herself in poor health. It was time to act.

He had been married twice before and had family aplenty, but he wanted something more.

Trusted friends made the necessary introductions. The courting couple’s visits were proper and pleasant. She sat with her sewing or played with her little spinning wheel as he described the life they would have together. He would provide security and she would want for nothing.

Mary would be an ideal wife. James was delighted that when he asked, for the second time, in February 1769, Mary said yes. James wanted to be married there and then, but  Mary, quite reasonably, wanted to delay the banns until she could notify her mother and brother.

The happy couple agreed that their nuptials would be celebrated when she returned from doing this. Her relations were as pleased as she was and she headed home with a light heart, safe in the knowledge that she would soon be the wife of a wealthy man, albeit one old enough to be her grandfather.

So she was greatly surprised to find upon her return that not only had Paisley broken the engagement, but also ‘most wickedly defamed and slandered her in her absence…writing the following letter to Miss Jenny Graham…’:

“Miss Graham, I cannot go out but I am dunn’d with poor Mally’s light carriage with the servants and others in the neighbourhood, which you cannot but know. If she behave so now, What will she do afterwards? which has given me more uneasiness than all I heard from Moffat. It is not my children, but every body will talk. I wish I may be preserved from danger at this time of life, and not be made a speech to the whole country. I hope there is no harm done, is all from, your most obedient servant. James Paisley.”

The letter was dated 4 April 1769. Furthermore, Paisley, according to Mary, ‘had industriously propagated…sundry false and groundless stories, tending to defame and slander her; by which she was been much wronged, injured, and affronted, and has suffered greatly in her good name and reputation, which hitherto she has preserved untainted.’[2]

Mary was outraged and spoiling for a fight. She took her cause to the commissary court seeking: marriage or £500 for damages as a solatium, and a vindication of her character. Paisley was also to appear in court to acknowledge that his allegations were false and he would be liable for costs of the process.[3] Paisley was assoilzied from the marriage,[4] but a proof was allowed to determine damages since the commissaries found that, in writing the letter, he had indeed caused Mary to be ‘wronged and injured’.[5]

Their dispute therefore continued to the Court of Session.

James tried to explain his change of heart in his Memorial. He came clean about his motivations for seeking a third wife. It is hard to believe that he would have courted Mary by offering the chance for her be ‘a nurse in his old age’, but that is what he now claimed. Mary had been presented to him as a good candidate as a wife. He did not know her character well and trusted those who made the recommendation. He also kept his plan to marry from his family.

He soon heard reports of the pursuer’s temper and character that convinced him to break off the match.

Mary had a different tale to tell. She emphasised that she came from a respectable family and that she had previously turned down an offer of marriage from James. It was he, not she, who was eager for the marriage. Upon her acceptance, James ‘was determined that not time should be lost’ and, far from it being a secret, he had ‘acknowledged it publickly and repeatedly to all the family at Westerhall’.

Mary found a different motivation for James’s decision to dump her:  ‘Mr. Pasley [sic] has several daughters, who expected to divide what he should leave at his death’. These daughters saw their father’s potential marriage to a young woman as a threat to their expected inheritances. They dissuaded him, highlighting the difference in age and Mary’s ‘smallness of fortune’.

Mary had gone in all innocence to share her happy news with her family only to find on her return a letter from her closest friend Miss Graham telling her that her suitor wanted to call the whole thing off.

A broken engagement was one thing: Mary could survive that. As far as she was concerned, if they were not to be married, she was entitled to damages. But their marriage plans had been made public. Had James broken their engagement privately, had their families not been informed, Mary would not have suffered any injury. Any number of reasons could be given as the reason. But James’s letter accused Mary of nothing less than of ‘indecent conduct’ and ‘that he expected he should be a cuckold’.[6] He claimed that writing to her friend was the ‘gentlest way he could take, to inform [her] that he had changed his mind’.[7]

For a modern reader, it is perhaps difficult to find this in James’s letter to Miss Jenny Graham. ‘…light carriage with servants and others’ hardly seems a pathway to adultery. There was clearly something about Mary that put James off his idea of her being the ideal companion for his old age. We’ll never know what Mary said and did. Had she been speculating about becoming a merry widow with handsome young men?

The judges of the Court of Session criticised the procedure of the cause when it came to them, but they were clear that ‘no action could be sustained in this country for the breach of a simple promise, unless something had intervened, such as bespeaking clothes, &c. in expectation of marriage’. They also observed that Paisley’s ‘drawing back was no injury to the pursuer’s character, and that the alleged calumny was of a trifling nature, and not to be regarded.’[8]

James Paisley married for a third time in 1772. Perhaps in Agnes Martin he at last found the companion he sought for his final years.

I have not yet been able to find out what happened to Mary. Did the damage to her reputation, as she thought, damage her prospects for marriage?

[1] My great-grandmother’s surname was Paisley before she married my great-grandfather. I have no idea if there is a connection, however remote, between the James Paisley studied here and me. For information on Paisley’s family, see

[2] Adam Ogilvie, Memorial for James Paisley, Esq; of Craig (18 Dec. 1770). Signet Library Session Papers: 154A;22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Francis Grant (ed.), The Commissariat of Edinburgh: Consistorial Processes and Decreets, 1658-1800 (Edinburgh, 1909), n. 551: ‘Process of Declarator of Marriage— Mary Johnstone, daughter of the deceased Johnstone of Selkoth, Esquire, against James Pasley of Craig, Esquire. The pursuer was 22 and defender 75. Defender had been twice married and had two married daughters. Defender assoilzed from conclusion of declarator (1769)’.

[5] Leah Leneman, Promises, Promises: Marriage Litigation in Scotland, 1698-1830 (Edinburgh, 2003), p. 108.

[6] James Ferguson, Memorial for Miss Mary Johnston daughter of the deceased Mr. Johnston of Selkoth, pursuer; against Mr. James Pasley [sic] of Craig, defender (19 Dec. 1770).

[7] [1770] Mor 13916, available at, accessed 21 Apr. 2020.

[8] Ibid.

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