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Lady Mary Shepherd: Scotland’s great forgotten philosopher

17th Feb 2022
Lady Mary Shepherd: Scotland’s great forgotten philosopher

By Simon Bendle, Mercat Storyteller

You’ll hear plenty of great stories about interesting women from the past on our Edinburgh history and ghost tours. But we’re always working to include more. And the remarkable Scottish philosopher Lady Mary Shepherd certainly deserves a look-in.


Born on New Year’s Eve 1777, Shepherd grew up near Edinburgh on the estate of her aristocratic father, 3rd Earl of Rosebery, where she was privately educated. This was the so-called Age of Reason. The time of the Scottish Enlightenment, when intellectuals began to openly question received wisdom and embrace the idea that humanity could improve itself through rational thought. 

 

Women side-lined during Enlightenment

 

But it was also the age of men. Women weren’t invited to the party. They were barred from becoming doctors, lawyers and church ministers, and they were therefore largely excluded from the social and professional networks that linked Scotland’s male literati.


That didn’t stop Lady Mary Shepherd. Despite the obstacles facing women at this time, she established herself as one of the great thinkers of her day, writing two well-received books in the 1820s in which she challenged the conclusions of the great Scottish philosopher David Hume.

 

Dazzling Circle of Intellectuals


 A bright and funny woman, she married an English barrister called Henry John Shepherd, dividing her time between Edinburgh and London. Both homes were hubs of intellectual debate and discussion. Her social and academic circles included some of the greatest philosophical, literary and scientific figures of the time, including the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage, the economist David Ricardo, and the writers Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Shepherd died in London on 7 January 1847, aged 69, and afterwards her name faded from history. But perhaps it’s now time for that to change. Perhaps the remarkable Lady Mary Shepherd should once again be brought into the spotlight and given the recognition she so clearly deserves.

Discover more of Edinburgh's history and the key figures from its past on our Edinburgh history tours. 

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