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The Elgin Scandal - who was Robert Ferguson?

Portrait of Mary Nisbet by Baron Gérard François, 1804.

We all know about the Elgin marbles; but who was mineral collector Robert Ferguson, whom Elgin sued in a scandalous divorce? Cherry Lewis* reports.

Geoscientist 21.04 May 2010

Robert Ferguson of Raith (1767-1840) was not only the love-rival of a member of the Peerage, but a Fellow and trustee of the (then) newly-formed Geological Society of London, and one of its first four Vice Presidents (1810-1815). All four Vice Presidents were also Fellows of the Royal Society who had established large and important mineral collections, and whose patronage was therefore keenly sought in order to bestow prestige and credibility on the young Society (despite the high-profile scandal in which Ferguson had recently been embroiled).

Ferguson was born into an extremely wealthy Scottish family and when a boy at Raith (the family estate in Fifeshire) he and his brother Ronald were tutored by John Playfair (1748-1818), James Hutton's defender, who instilled in Ferguson a love of science and literature1. In 1793 Ferguson set out for the Continent, spending the next 11 years travelling in Europe and seeking minerals to add to his collection that was eventually ‘surpassed by few private collections in the kingdom’2.

While he was abroad, Britain and France were continually at war except for one short peace during 1802. But in May 1803 hostilities again broke out and Ferguson, then in Paris, became trapped there as a prisoner of war, along with Lord Elgin (1766-1841) and his beautiful 25-year-old wife Mary (1778-1855), heiress to the vast Nisbet fortune. While they were held in Paris, Ferguson was frequently invited to the Elgin's hotel and while Elgin was imprisoned in Pau, he began a passionate relationship with Mary2.

Profile of Robert Ferguson engraved by William Penny of Midcalder, near Edinburgh, from a bronze medallion. Ferguson gave it to his wife as ‘a little surprise’.


During his enforced stay in Paris, Ferguson became a member of the Institute of France1, becoming ‘acquainted with the most celebrated men of science in Paris'2. His relationship with these men, and the strings pulled from Britain by Joseph Banks (1743-1820) eventually led to his release. He arrived back at Raith in October 1804; however, it seems he subsequently returned to France to escort Mary Elgin home when she in turn was released from Paris in February 1805, for it was reports of Ferguson's presence on the boat to England that first alerted Elgin to their affair3. He had them watched and intercepted many of their letters that were described at the ensuing trial as 'the most ridiculous medley of love and madness' that would 'disgrace the worst novel of the last century' 4.

Elgin was released in July 1806 and confronted Mary, who confessed to the affair. Divorce at that time was almost unheard of; furthermore, it would be necessary to take the case through both the English and Scottish courts, at huge expense and scandal for the loser. Nevertheless, believing he would get his hands on his wife's money if he divorced her (he needed it in order to bring the “Elgin Marbles” marbles from the Parthenon to England), in December 1807 (just a month after the Geological Society was founded) Elgin sued Ferguson for the breakdown of his marriage, claiming £20,000 in compensation. The Act of Parliament that divorced Elgin and Mary was passed in 1808 and following the case in Scotland, Elgin was awarded damages of £10,000. However, Mary’s powerful family connections ensured that she protected her vast fortune, although Elgin retained sole custody of their four surviving children, forbidding them any contact with their mother.

In March 1805 Ferguson had been made a fellow of the Royal Society and in 1806, MP for Fifeshire. Living in London, he became a patron of science and was one of the 16 subscribers to Count de Bournon’s (1751-1825) treatise on aragonite5. Meetings about this publication eventually led to the founding of the Geological Society. De Bournon, one of the Society's 13 founders, had been a refugee from the French Revolution when he came to England in 1792. He was immediately elected to the Royal Society because of his expertise in mineralogy. Mineral collecting was very much in vogue among the wealthy elite and de Bournon was employed by some of these men to look after and enhance their collections. Unfortunately, his main patron, Sir Charles Greville (1749-1809), died unexpectedly in 1809, leaving de Bournon with a much-reduced income. Ferguson was one of the four people asked by Parliament to place a value on Greville's collection, which was then purchased by the British Museum for £13,727.

Letter from Count de Bournon addressed to Robert Ferguson.


De Bournon had worked on Greville's collection for 18 years and rather naturally expected to be appointed to the job of cataloguing it for the British Museum, but an archive of Ferguson’s papers recently purchased from the family by the University of Bristol contains letters between Ferguson and de Bournon that reveal de Bournon’s mounting frustration when he is offered a derisory salary for doing the job, and his later despair when it transpired that Joseph Banks, then President of the Royal Society, had appointed someone else. De Bournon consequently determined to ‘leave mineralogy for ever’, ignoring Ferguson’s attempts to persuade him otherwise.

As well as correspondence with de Bournon and other mineralogists, the Ferguson archive includes a rare copy of the Geological Society’s Charter of 1838, much material sent out by the Society in its first few years and his contemporary notes on chemistry and geology.

Following the death of his father in 1810, Ferguson returned to Raith to manage the estate. By all accounts he was a model landlord to his tenants and was so 'beloved by them'1 that they erected a 45-foot-high monument in Haddington to commemorate him. On top of the column is a colossal statue of the man, sculpted from a single block of granite. At the bottom are four allegorical figures representing justice, geology, art and agriculture – his four main interests.

Following their scandalous affair, Ferguson and Mary lived quietly together at Raith but seem not to have married until 18213. When Ferguson became an MP in 1831 they moved to his house in Portman Square, London, where he died in 1840. Mary then returned to her family home and after Elgin’s death in 1841 was finally reunited with her children.


  1. Conolly, MF. 1866. Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Men of Fife. Inglis and Jack, Edinburgh.
  2. Lloyd, B. 2000. The journals of Robert Ferguson (1767–1840). Mineralogical Record, 1–19.
  3. Vrettos, T. 1997. The Elgin Affair. Secker and Warburg, London.
  4. Alger, JW. 1904. Napoleon's British visitors and captives 1801 - 1815. Archibald Constable and Co., Ltd, Westminster.
  5. Lewis, CLE. 2009. Doctoring geology: the medical origins of the Geological Society. In: Lewis, CLE & Knell, SJ (eds) The Making of the Geological Society of London. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 317.

* Dr Cherry Lewis is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. E: [email protected]