The story of Pearlin’ Jean is one of Scotland’s traditional ghost tales. As the property with which the story is associated was demolished in 1848, it is perhaps one that has faded a little from the collective conscience. However it certainly remains a classic, documented by no less than the Grand Dame of British ghosts, Catherine Crowe in The Night Side of Nature (1848), and the inimitable Elliot O’Donnell in Scottish Ghost Stories (1911). There is even a tune named after her in traditional Scots music.
Like many other Scottish tales, Pearlin’ Jean has a couple of different versions. As to their truth, it’s hard to tell, but all of them are linked to one real historical figure, Sir Robert Stuart, or Stewart, the first Baronet of Nova Scotia. Admittedly, owing to the nature of the Baronetcy of Nova Scotia being handed out like sweeties to aristocrats Scottish Royalty wanted to keep buttered up, it’s most likely he wasn’t the first, but that’s another story. In this particular tale, Sir Robert forms the nasty male of dubious morals that broke the heart of the young lady who was to become Pearlin’ Jean.
Before dealing with the different versions of her story, a few facts need to be established. The main location of the story was Allanbank House, which sat on the north bank of Blackadder Water, near Edrom village, Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders. After Allanbank met its doom in 1848, another mansion sat on the same site from 1848 until 1969. This later house doesn’t feature in the story; Pearlin’ Jean perhaps decided to go into retirement following the demolition of the original house. Sir Robert Stuart was made Baronet in 1687, meaning Pearlin Jean’s tale starts sometime before the Scottish Englightenment.
The version of the story told by Elliot O’Donnell goes thus: when Sir Robert Stuart was in his youth, he undertook a tour of France. During this trip he met Jean, beautiful young French girl who was a Sister of Mercy nun. Stuart persuaded her to forgo her vocation and leave the convent for him. However, in a short while, the fickle young Stuart became bored with Jean, and abandoned her, returning to Scotland. The reasons why he left are unclear. When he returned home, he met and became engaged to a young Scottish woman of his own social standing. Meanwhile, in France, Jean was determined not to let her young beau get away, especially as she gave up everything for him. She came to Scotland and traced Stuart to Allanbank. But in the process, she discovered to her ire that he was about to marry another.
Jean finally caught up with Stuart as he was leaving the gates of Allanbank with his fiancée in a carriage. The irate Jean leapt onto the fore wheel of the carriage and was about to give the pair a piece of her mind. Stuart tried to dismiss her, but Jean refused to back down. Desperate to make sure his fiancée didn’t find out the truth, Stuart ordered the carriage man to drive on, resulting in Jean’s dress catching in the spokes of the carriage wheels and dragging her to her death beneath the horses’ hooves. O’Donnell speculates that this may have been deliberate on Stuart’s part. As it was, O’Donnell says that the young couple carried on with their planned drive, as if nothing had happened.
In the autumn following Jean’s death, her blood soaked, pale and glassy eyed wraith was waiting for Stuart at Allanbank’s gates when he returned home. At first he wasn’t sure who it was, and got a dreadful fright when he leaned out the carriage to have a look. That evening he locked himself in his bedroom and refused to come out. O’Donnell writes, “After this he had no peace – Allanbank was constantly haunted.” The wrathful ghost of Jean caused the massive oak doors of the house to open and slam shut themselves, and her rustling silks could be heard in the house’s bedrooms and long corridors, along with the clipping of her high heels.
James Robertson goes into great detail about Pearlin’ Jean in his 1996, coincidentally also titled Scottish Ghost Stories, giving two variations of the story. The first places Jean’s demise in France, her ghost travelling across the sea to wreak her revenge. In this Stuart had been sent to France as part of his education, and met Jean, said to be either an Italian or French nun, but who doesn’t appear to be tied to the convent. She fell in love with Stuart, and he rather taken by her, although Robertson argues that Stuart perhaps didn’t have the most honourable of intentions. Stuart planned to return to Scotland, perhaps summoned by his father.
He didn’t tell Jean. She arrived at his lodgings just as he was leaving, and begged him to take her with him. Stuart ordered the coachman to drive on, to which Jean responded by saying if Stuart wouldn’t take her, she would follow him. The order to drive on was reiterated, and Jean grabbed the bridle of one of the horses. The coach started moving quickly, causing Jean to lose grip and fall under the horses. To Stuart’s horror, her head was crushed beneath the coach wheels, killing her. Stuart had her body removed and the coach cleaned. The coachman was also induced to verify Stuart’s account the incident as being an accident involving a stranger. Thinking that it was all over, Stuart headed home to Scotland.
On his arrival back at Allanbank, Stuart glimpsed the pale, bloody ghost of Jean hunched over the archway of the house gates.
The other version told by Robertson goes that when Allanbank House was knocked down in 1848, the locals were intrigued by an abandoned room in the house. It was coated in layers of dust and cobwebs, the remains of a long dead fire lying in the grate. Allegedly it was the room used by Pearlin’ Jean during the few happy months she lived at Allanbank. Jean was the daughter of a wealthy Flemish merchant, who caused a stir when Sir Robert Stuart, this time a rather icy, but handsome middle aged man, brought her back to Allanbank as his mistress. It was a common practice at the time, but it created a stushie amongst the right thinking gentry when Sir Robert flaunted her openly. The servants built up a good relationship with Jean, but Sir Robert became disenchanted with her. He left her at Allanbank and spent an increasing amount of time in Edinburgh.
Jean became regarded as a problem by Sir Robert when he met a woman he deemed would make a good wife. The fact that Jean was pregnant complicated things. Eventually, she had a daughter. Jean was given money, ordered to return to Europe and to stay away with the baby. She was instructed to be gone by time Sir Robert and the new Lady Allanbank returned to take up residence. Jean left as requested. Her fine silk dresses and jewellery were left behind, perhaps because they were a reminder of her time at Allanbank.
Some weeks passed by, and soon Sir Robert Stuart and Lady Allanbank came trundling along in their carriage to start married life in Allanbank House. Out of the bushes by the side of the carriageway leapt a woman clothed in rags and clutching a baby. The woman launched herself before the horses, and was killed under their trampling hooves and carriage wheels. No surprises that it was Jean. Her baby daughter was more fortunate and fell clear, surviving. The cat was out of the bag – the new Lady Allanbank discovered the truth about Jean, not to mention that she also had a young step-daughter to raise.
No matter what story is true, Allanbank House had the reputation thereafter as being haunted. Seriously haunted. One question you may ask is how did Jean come to be known as “Pearlin’ Jean”? The name arose from the clothing favoured by Jean – a coif, a tight fitting cap enclosing the head, and a dress made from lace in a style known in Scotland as Pearlin’. Jean’s ghost was often reported to be attired in such a way on the rare occasions she was seen. The sight was somewhat gruesome with her bloody head and shoulders, courtesy of her nasty ending. Perhaps this served to add a little extra to the guilt Sir Robert Stuart was meant to feel at his callous treatment of Jean in life. Nineteenth century author Thomas Dick Lauder added a rather eye popping suggestion for Pearlin’ Jean’s appearance: a skeleton wrapped in a winding sheet, topped off by a rich froth of pearlin’ lace. Quite…
The ghost was encountered on a regular basis by Sir Robert Stuart, his wife and family. The poltergeist-like slamming of doors as described by O’Donnell, the terrifying visage of Jean glimpsed briefly at the end of the corridor and the whisper of silks and the clip of high heels on the stairs plagued the family. Sir Robert was supposed to be heard pleading with Pearlin’ Jean to leave his family in peace. No one liked to pass the now abandoned room Jean used to occupy, and servants refused to enter it at night. On the wall, alongside portraits of Sir Robert and his wife, hung a picture of Jean. Frequently, Lady Allanbank asked for it to be removed, but each time it was, the ghostly activity worsened. The picture remained in place for years after the couple’s death.
The servants of Allanbank often encountered Pearlin’ Jean, most often being heard than seen. They weren’t scared of her, and in fact felt sorry for her, given her tale. One former servant, Jenny Blackadder, who later worked as a nanny, often told her charges of Pearlin’ Jean. Charles Kilpatrick Sharpe was cared for by Jenny as a child and was left terrified by the tale. It was he who shared the story with Catherine Crowe. Jenny Blackadder often included the experience of her husband Thomas with Pearlin’ Jean during the pair’s courting days. Thomas was due to meet Jenny in a glade of trees one evening not far from Allanbank. He was early, and anticipated a wait, but was surprised to see a young woman already standing at the appointed meeting place, who he took to be Jenny. However, he soon realised it was Pearlin’ Jean and fled. A rather confused Jenny was not happy at being stood up, but when she found out why, she was highly amused at her beau’s terrified reaction. Jenny herself often heard the ghost when carrying out her duties at Allanbank.
By 1790, the house was rented out to a family who knew nothing of the ghost. This was soon rectified when Pearlin’ Jean kept two of the ladies up all night with the swishing of her silk gowns as she paced unseen about their room. They found out all about Jean the following morning.