Mary Erskine lived from 1629 to 2 July 1707. She was a successful financier and a promoter of female education. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Little is known of Mary Erskine's early life. In 1661 she married a writer, Robert Kennedy. He died in 1671, and in 1675 she married John Hair, with whom she had a daughter, Eupheme, before his death in 1683.
After the death of her second husband, Mary established herself letting out property she owned in Edinburgh. She also became an upmarket moneylender or private banker, dealing with clients including professionals and businessmen, and women seeking to carry on their husbands' businesses after widowhood or establish businesses of their own.
In 1694 she was approached by the Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh to help establish a school in the Merchants' Hall in Edinburgh's Cowgate to educate the daughters of Edinburgh burgesses. The Merchant Maiden Hospital was established with considerable support from Mary Erskine and opened its doors on 4 June 1694. In 1706 Mary provided premises and land to allow the school to relocate and expand, and on her death the following year, she left a large bequest to the school. In 1870 the school was renamed as the Edinburgh Educational Institution For Girls and in 1889 it became Edinburgh Ladies' College. Since 1944 it has been known as The Mary Erskine School and currently caters for some 700 pupils. It is one of the oldest girls' schools in the world.
This biography draws on research first published in "The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women".