The first lady of Belmont: Taking on a new house
The first lady of Belmont was Elisabeth Nicolson, who married Thomas Mouat in April 1776. Then aged 21, she had grown up in Lerwick as the ward of her uncle William, after losing both her parents and then her younger brother. The Nicolson household was warm, noisy, chaotic and casual. Her aunt regularly produced a new baby to add to the family, a process which over 20 years resulted in a tally of 16 children. The older girls inevitably grew up coping with the domestic and logistical implications of these frequent additions, a learning curve appropriate to their own probable futures.
Betty learnt little from books, probably a lot about how men behaved in their cups. Her uncle had inherited the Nicolson estate; he was a merchant and smuggler, turning an honest penny when he must and circumventing national laws when he could. His niece was a desirable catch in the marriage market – she stood to inherit the assets of her late mother’s brother, her uncle Henderson. A more enlightened view of what a young woman could offer in addition to pecuniary assets – an informed mind, an improved understanding (as it was put by a famous contemporary) – did not figure. Betty could hardly quibble even if she had wanted to. Lochend House had offered a refuge to an abandoned, insecure child; she repaid it with passionate loyalty to her uncle and aunt.
The inadequacies of her upbringing, however, did not make the first years of her marriage easy. There is no reason to doubt Betty’s ability to run a house; domestic organisation she knew about. But there was more. Betty was faced with finding her way in a new place with new people, with a new husband. Diffident and uncertain, she found her new family’s expectations hard to cope with, and her poor education did not help. She naturally wished to please, but felt unequal to the task.
Meanwhile Belmont itself needed a lot of attention. Outside there was work to be done in laying out the gardens and enclosed spaces, building a new byre and barn, and digging the ground to prepare for planting. This was seasonal work, carried out slowly over years as time, finance and personnel permitted. Labour was always a problem, because at this time half of the lands in Unst lay unoccupied, houses crumbling slowly to ruin.
At Snarravoe, the nearby township above the loch, half the lands lay unused, and not all the houses were occupied. Of those that were, the Peterson and the Clark families had been there over generations. Both John Peterson and William Clark were familiar figures at Belmont – they had almost certainly helped to build the house, and then turned their attention to the surrounds. That year they spent four days working with James Ommand, the gardener at Lunna, who had been sent across by his boss, Thomas Mouat’s uncle, to help with the new gardens at Belmont.
The graves of Thomas Mouat and his wife Elisabeth Nicolson at Lund Kirkyard