The John Cayley who was killed for allegedly trying to have his evil way with an Edinburgh woman does not feature in the standard Peerages – maybe because the family was a little ashamed of him – but his death caused something of a furore at the time.
He was the son of Cornelius Cayley (1644-1734), one of the younger children of the first Cayley baronet. John was born in Yorkshire in 1682 and baptised at Brompton the same year. Like his father, and many gentlemen of the time, he studied law at one of the London Inns of Court.
In 1707 Scotland and England were united to form Great Britain, and after this a number of Englishmen were appointed to government positions in Scotland (the traffic was of course two-way – a number of Scots took up senior posts in England). One of these was John Cayley, who in 1714 was appointed one of the Commissioners of Customs in Scotland, with a salary of some £400 a year – quite a large sum in those days. He settled in Edinburgh, where he was known as Captain Cayley – he had previously served as an English army captain – or Squire Cayley. There he acquired a reputation as a “vain gay young man, pursuing the bent of his irregular passions with little prudence or discretion.” Among the women he pursued was the beautiful Mrs Macfarlane, the 19- or 20-year-old wife of one of his friends and daughter of a Jacobite sympathiser. He often entertained the Macfarlanes, and made her valuable presents. It is unclear to what extent Mrs Macfarlane encouraged John, or how far her husband was complaisant. Certainly her husband stayed friends with John, and it seems unlikely he did not suspect what was going on.
In mid September 1716 John Cayley was given leave to spend six weeks in England. The prospective absence from Mrs Macfarlane may have helped to precipitate the actions which led to his death. There are diverging accounts of what followed. What seems clear is that on the morning of Saturday 29 September 1716 Mrs Macfarlane visited John Cayley’s lodgings. According to one version she did so to see his landlady Mrs Murray, assuming that – as was his custom – John would be at his country residence outside Edinburgh. According to others, Mrs Murray tricked her into going, and then locked her in a room with John, who offered her “an insult of the most atrocious kind” and used “barbarous force”. There were also stories that he boasted semi-publicly of a liaison with her. At the time she was several months’ pregnant – whether the father was John Cayley or her husband is unknown.
The afternoon of the following Tuesday, 2 October 1716, John went to Mrs Macfarlane’s home, possibly to apologise. Her husband was absent. The maid showed him into the drawing-room, saying that her mistress was slightly indisposed. Mrs Macfarlane changed her clothes, even putting on clean underwear, and joined him, with nobody else present in the room. Some say she then led him to her bedchamber; others that he forced his way there. Whether she wanted to lead him on and then punish him is not clear: but she seems to have made no attempt to call servants. She went into a neighbouring closet and came back with a pair of pistols which John had lent her husband. She is said to have asked him to leave the house. According to this account, he then responded, “What, madam, d’ye design to act a comedy?” and she answered that “he would find it a tragedy if he did not retire”. At close quarters – possibly close enough for it to be an embrace for his clothes were burned by the powder from the shot – she fired one pistol and the bullet grazed him in the wrist. He drew his sword in self-protection, and she fired again, this time hitting him in the heart and killing him. There were no witnesses, so this account almost certainly derives from what she told her husband, and we must form our own views on how far it is true. Mrs Macfarlane left the room, locking the door. Mary Liddell, one of the Macfarlanes’ servants, testified that when Mrs Macfarlane came out of the room, “she saw her Linnings [linen underclothes] abused and much Ruffled, as also her gown after the same manner”. Mrs Macfarlane sent someone to fetch Mr Macfarlane from a nearby inn.
When he saw what had happened, her husband exclaimed, “Oh woman! What have you done?” He went and consulted friends, and on their advice secured his wife’s escape before telling the Edinburgh magistrates late that evening. The body was left where it was until the next day: witnesses described the bloody scene and how difficult it was to straighten the corpse to place it in a shroud.
There followed something of a pamphlet war. Mrs Murray, John Cayley’s landlady, issued a pamphlet denying that she had attempted to lure Mrs Macfarlane to a tryst with him. Others issued accounts supporting the Macfarlanes’ version of events. When she did not appear to answer charges of murder, John Cayley’s father and his younger brother (another Cornelius Cayley), both lawyers, arranged for “criminal letters” to be proclaimed, declaring Mrs Macfarlane an outlaw.
She was, though, never found. But one of the novelist Sir Walter Scott’s great-aunts recalled how as a child she stumbled upon a mysterious and beautiful lady pouring tea in the parlour: she was apparently the unfortunate Mrs Macfarlane and was being sheltered in a secret apartment by the mother of Scott’s great-aunt, who was somehow related to her, and who told her daughter that talking to anyone else about the encounter might cost “that lady her life”. Whether true or not, Scott used the incident in one of his novels, Peveril of the Peak.
The case raised a stir outside Scotland. The great satirical poet Alexander Pope wrote in a letter to one of his friends, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “Glory, the only pay of generous actions, is now as ill-paid as other just debts; and neither Mrs Macfarland for immolating her lover, nor you for returning to your lord, must ever hope to be compared to Lucretia or Portia.” And in the 19th century Mrs Macfarlane was still famous enough to rate a place in the Dictionary of National Biography.
As a final footnote to this story, given Mrs Macfarlane’s Jacobite connections and a degree of resentment in Edinburgh at the appointment of Englishmen to government posts in Scotland, is there a possibility that the killing was political, with Mrs Macfarlane involved in a frame-up of John Cayley? Remember, it was just after the end of the First Jacobite Rebellion – and one of John’s brothers, Cornelius (1692-1779) had just been appointed one of the prosecutors of Jacobite rebels. We shall, I think, never know.