Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Jessie Margaret Saxby (30 June 1842 – 27 December 1940) was an author and folklorist from Unst, one of the Shetland Islands of Scotland. She also had political interests and was a suffragette.[1] Her writing career began in the 1860s with the publication of several poems and tales, and she went on to produce forty-seven books and about a hundred articles published in other printed media. She covered an eclectic mix of topics from folklore to romantic fiction, but much of her writing was devoted to adventure stories for boys.


Born on 30 June 1842 at Halligarth,[a]Halligarth is the house built for Jessie’s father in 1832; it was extended in 1839 with the addition of another house as the family grew in size.[2] Baltasound, on the Shetland Island of Unst, Jessie’s father was Laurence Edmondston, a medical doctor and naturalist; her mother was Eliza Macbrair (1801–1869),[3] a journalist[4] and published author from a Glasgow family.[3] The couple had ten other children including Thomas, a botanist.[4] By her own admission, Jessie received little formal education.[3]

Henry Saxby, a London-born ornithologist and doctor, became Jessie’s husband on 16 December 1859.[5] The couple had six children but their only daughter died in infancy.[3] They lived on Unst and Henry was a partner in his father-in-law’s medical practice until 1871, when poor health necessitated a move to Edinburgh.[5] The following year, in 1872, the family re-located to Inveraray, but Henry died aged 37 on 4 September 1873.[5] As a widow with a family to support, Jessie had to rely on the income from her writing[3] and returned to Edinburgh for 17 years before finally moving back to Unst in 1890.[1]


Jessie’s writing career began in the 1860s, when several of her tales and some poetry were printed. Lichens from the Old Rock, a poetry book, was published in 1868, the first of her forty-seven books.[3] She wrote on a wide variety of topics, including romantic fiction and folklore, but particularly boys’ adventure stories.[3] A hundred or so articles were also contributed to newspapers, journals, and magazines including Life and Work and The Boy’s Own Paper.[3] Echoing her contemporaries such as Lady Emily Gordon CathcartHeiress known for her stance against Catholicism and her leading role in the Highland Clearances, she wrote urging immigration to Canada, especially middle-class Scottish women, as she considered it offered them the opportunity for social and economic advancement.[6]


a Halligarth is the house built for Jessie’s father in 1832; it was extended in 1839 with the addition of another house as the family grew in size.[2]