Violet Jacob: Early Life (1831-1916)

violet jacob 6

Violet Jacob

(Violet Augusta Mary Frederica Kennedy-Erkskine)

  Violet Jacob, an unconventional and daring woman who often roamed India’s deserted places, who once crossed a field of corpses to pick a flower, and who always spoke for the marginal society, wrote a wide variety of genres that sparked interest amongst all social classes. However, Jacob’s work and her adventures remain buried from the public’s eye. She is a forgotten poet, a forgotten adventurer. Let us not forget Violet Jacob.



Violet Jacob (nee Erkskine), a Scottish poet, painter, and novelist, was born at the House of Dun, in Angus, the east coast of Scotland, on September 1, 1863. Her father, William Kennedy-Erkskine, was the 18th laird of Dun, while her mother, Catherine, was a daughter of William Jones, a wealthy landowner in Henllys, Carmarthenshire Wales. Tragedy struck the Erkskine household several times, which may account for the underlying darkness in Jacob’s later writing. Her father died when Violet was still a child, and her brother, born a year after her, lived for just only three days (Anderson, “Introduction” 2). The misfortune in the household continued. Her sister, Millicent, died suddenly at the age of 16, appendicitis being the probable cause, and her last surviving sibling Augustus, 19th Laird, died at sea at the age of forty-two (2).

Jacob was born into an ancient family, and several of her ancestors were prominent figures. Sir John Erkskine, the 5th Laird of Dun, rose in the Scottish Church to be moderator of the general assembly. He was friendly with John Knox, an important leader of the Protestant Reformation, and Queen Mary of Scotland (who was later executed for plotting the assassination of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I). The House of Dun was built for David Erkskine, 13th Laird and a noble Scottish judge, who was also a covert Jacobite (Anderson “Jacob”). Violet’s grandmother, Augusta, who died in 1865, is also a person of interest. She was an illegitimate daughter of William Duke of Clarence (later King William VI) and Dorothy Jordan the actress. During this time society frowned upon illegitimate children, however Violet recognized her as the last “historical” figure in her family (Anderson “Jacob”).

On October 27, 1894, at the St. John’s Episcopal Church, Violet married Arthur Otway Jacob (1867-1936), an Irishman who served as lieutenant with the 20th Royal Hussars, a calvalry regiment of the British Army (Anderson “Jacob”).  Soon after the birth of their son and only child, Arthur Henry Jacob, also known as Harry, Violet’s husband made her long-time desire to travel abroad come true. Lieutenant Jacob’s regiment was transferred to central India.

Posthumous letters and diary entries indicate that her residence in India were the happiest years of her life. She loved the freedom, embraced the culture, and warmed up to the locals. She visited many cities of Central India, but above all preferred the villages and small “unimportant” places (Anderson, “Introduction” 4). During her time in this beloved country, she learned Hindustani, worked as a nurse in the local military hospital, and spent a lengthy amount of time painting. She often rose early in the morning to make use of the cooler weather, exploring the grounds for a perfect subject before sitting down to paint. She especially loved to paint flowers. She illustrated five volumes of Indian flowers, which now reside in the Library of the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh (5).

Violet Jacob’s letters and diary entries illustrate a woman far from conventional. They present her as a fearless woman: “One who does not flinch at a rat running across her pillow in a tent at night, or recoil from vultures gathered over a corpse” (6).The letters and diaries also demonstrate a determined and intrepid woman, curious for the unknown. She once wrote in late 1895, soon after her arrival to India:

I’m dying to see something of this country outside the watertight little world of the cantonment. Nobody seems to know anything about it and I mean to see it for myself. People say to me ‘there’s nothing to see,’ and ‘you’ll soon tire of that,’ but I know myself and I think I know them and their sort, and I’m going. (quoted in Introduction 6)

Following her diary entry, she soon recorded her expeditions of travel and adventures. On one occasion, as she searched for a rare flower, she stumbled upon a perfunctory cremation ground. Spotting the flower from a far, she leaped into the bushes in front of her, landing a foot away from a half burned body of a man. As she looked around, mounds of ashes and remains littered the grounds. But rather than turning back, Jacob pushed through the horrific scene and picked the flower (122). Jacob’s unconventionality shines on other occasions. She seized a stick out of a man’s hand who threatened to attack her and chased him down when he ran away, and though it is not as exciting, she took up fishing with her husband and did not hesitate to touch the fish (123). Jacob proves to be quite different than most women of the late 19th century.

Arthur Jacob’s regiment was sent to South Africa from 1901-1902 to take part in the South African War. Immediately following, the Hussars moved them to Cairo, Egypt (1903-1904). At one point during her residency in Cairo, Jacob found herself in distress. Susan Tweedsmuir, a friend of Violet Jacob and later the wife of John Buchan, a Scottish novelist and the 15th Governor General of Canada, recollected in an autobiography that “Violet had published a small book of poetry, which made her a little suspect to the military of Cairo.” (Scottish Poetry Library). It is unknown to how Jacob handled the problem, or to why the military held concerns, all Tweedsmuir mentioned was “her charm and beauty and aptitude for getting on with people helped her to live down even poetry.”

Arthur Jacob rose from lieutenant to the rank of major during his time spent in the military. He could have moved up the ladder, but he refused further promotion as he suffered badly from asthma, which later forced him into retirement (Anderson “Jacob”). The exact dates of Jacob’s retirement are unknown, but when he did retire the family moved to England and lived in various English garrison towns, including Llantomas, Herefordshire, located near Hay-on-Wye, Wales, known as the town of books (“Hay-on-Wye”).

Jacob lost her mother in 1914, and the outbreak of World War One furthered her grief. Violet’s son, Harry, died at the age of twenty in France from wounds received at the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916. He fought for the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, and he is mentioned in their Roll of Honour for his bravery (Anderson “Introduction” 14). Violet never fully recovered from his loss. His death marks the great grief of Violet Jacob’s life.

Publication, Poetry and Themes

Jacob’s letters and diary entries illustrate that she often broke the rules of feminine behaviour, and her work demonstrates a similar sense of individuality. During the 19th century, the Scots vernacular was often associated to lower-class society. Jacob, born into an aristocratic family, wrote most of her work in Scots and the Angus dialect. For a woman of her stature, Jacob’s use of Scots would have been considered vulgar or distasteful, but to Jacob using Scots was her desire to write of, and through her people (Scottish Poetry Library). When asked how the aristocratic Violet Jacob could have such a lively command of Scots, a native of Dun, possibly a servant, replied: ‘as a bairn she was aye in and oot amo’ the plooman’s feet at the Mains O’ Dun’ (as a child, she was always in and out among the ploughman’s feet at the Mains of Dun) (Anderson “Introduction” 1). The servant’s comment intimates that as a young girl, Jacob differed from most aristocratic children–levels of class did not interfere with her opinions of others.

house of dun

Jacob grew up in the House of Dun. The estate stayed within the Erkskine family from 1375 until 1989, when it was handed over to the National Trust for Scotland.

Jacob grew up and was educated at Dun and showed an early interest in art and literature. In 1888, and in her mid 20s, Jacob published her first book The Baillie MacPhee. It was a comic narrative poem in Scots, written collaboratively with William Douglas Campbell. Jacob, an excellent artist, also provided the book with its illustrations (Anderson “Jacob”). The book was not well received in comparison to her future works. Her first full-length novel The Sheepstealers (1902), written during her time in India, attracted considerable attention as well as The Interlopers (1904), famous for its remarkable Scots dialogue (Makar File). Though the novels make their mark in the Scottish literary canon, Flemington (1911) is her most significant achievement. John Buchan described the novel in a letter dated December 31, 1911 as “the best Scots romance since The Master of Ballantrae” (Anderson “Jacob”).

Though Jacob is best known for her fiction, she also writes children’s books and poetry. Jacob packs her children’s books with fantasy and encourages children to use their imagination. Jacob published very few children’s books, so little is known. However, she published much more poetry and received considerable attention. Jacob published five volumes of poetry drawing heavily on folk song and ballad traditions. She initially published her works in Country Life, then onto Northern Numbers and Scottish Educational Journal. John Buchan also included her in The Northern Muse. One of her greatest compilations of poetry includes Songs of Angus, which came out in 1915. The poems are simple in their language and imagery and spoken almost exclusively by poor rural people, most of whom are exiles (Scottish Poetry Library). In Jacob’s introduction to Songs of Angus, John Buchan describes her writing style as “The meters are cunningly chosen, and are most artful when they are simplest. She eschews facile rhymes and worn epithets and escapes the easy cadences of hymnology” (viii).

Though Jacob is a well rounded traveller, much of her work is rooted in her native region of Scotland. She often writes about farms, landscapes, and towns, but most of all she speaks and evokes images of the people of Scotland. She also draws on her knowledge of her families past. In her novel Flemington, the main character David Logie of Banillo resembles her ancestor David Erkskine, the Scottish judge and covert Jacobite, and the House of Dun is almost certainly the prototype for the House of Banillo (Anderson “Jacob”). Like the novel, the house was attained by the National Trust for Scotland. Her family’s history also accounts for her sympathy for the unconventional found in much of her work. Jacob had a great sympathy for the lives of others, especially the poor, the vagrants, and the exiles (Scottish Poetry Library). Her grandmother, an illegitimate child, influences Jacob’s work. In her poem “The End O’t’,” she gives voice to a pregnant girl abandoned by her family (Scottish Poetry Library). Though pregnancy out of wedlock and illegitimate children were considered societal taboos, Jacob denounced the conventional and opened up her heart to the marginal.

Works Cited

Anderson, Carol. Introduction. Violet Jacob: Diaries and Letters from India 1895-1900. By Violet Jacob. 1990. Great Britain: Canon Gate, 1990. 1-19. Print.

—. “Jacob , Violet Augusta Mary Frederica (1863–1946),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Online ed. May 2006. February. 2013.

Buchan, John. Preface. Songs of Angus. By Violet Jacob. Great Britain: Hassell, Watson and Vinney, 1923. vii-x. Online.

Makar File. The Makars’ Literary Tour: at the Writers’ Museum. Violet Jacob (1936-1946). Scottish Literary Tour Trust, 2003. February. 2013.

Scottish Poetry Library. “Violet Jacob (1863-1946).” Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013. Online.

“Hay-on-Wye.” Wikipedia. March 20, 2013.


Further Resources

Carol, Anderson.”Tales of her own Countries: Violet Jacob.” Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillian Ed. A History of Scottish Women’s writing. Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

Gordon, Katherine. Introduction. Voices From Their Ain Countrie: the poems of Marion Angus and Violet Jacob. Glascow: ASLS. 2006. Print.

MacDiarmid, Hugh. “Violet Jacob.” Scottish Educational Journal. Reprinted in Contemporary Scottish Studies. Manchester: Carcanet, 1995. Print.

National Library of Scotland




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