Thomas Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie

The Earl of Kellie.

Thomas Alexander Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie (1 September 1732 – 9 October 1781), styled Viscount Fentoun and Lord Pittenweem until 1756, was a Scottish musician and composer whose considerable talent brought him international fame and his rakish habits notoriety, but nowadays is little known. Recent recordings of his surviving compositions have led to him being re-evaluated as one of the most important British composers of the 18th century, as well as a leading exponent of Scotland's music.


His father Alexander Erskine, 5th Earl of Kellie, was incarcerated at Edinburgh Castle for supporting the Jacobites in the Jacobite rising of 1745. His mother, Janet Pitcairn, was the daughter of a celebrated physician and poet. Thomas attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and around 1752 left for Mannheim in Germany to study under the elder Johann Stamitz and returned to Scotland in 1756 as a virtuoso violinist and composer, nicknamed "Fiddler Tam".

He began propagating the modern Mannheim style, of which he was to become widely acknowledged as the leading British exponent. Six of his three-movement "Overtures" (Symphonies) were published in Edinburgh in 1761. James Boswell borrowed five guineas from Erskine on 20 October 1762, and on 26 May 1763 took him on a visit to Lord Eglinton's in London, where the overture the Earl composed for the popular pastiche The Maid of the Mill (at Covent Garden in 1765) became exceptionally popular. In 1767 the Earl returned to Scotland, where he became a leading light of the Edinburgh Musical Society, acting as deputy governor, and as an able violinist directed the concerts in St Cecillia's Hall in Niddry Street (formerly Niddry's Wynd), Edinburgh.

An active Freemason, he was elected the fourth Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the Ancients at London in 1760 and served in that office for six years. He also served as the twenty-fourth Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland from 1763 to 1765.

His dissolute lifestyle extended to founding an (all-male) drinking club, and reportedly the playwright Samuel Foote advised Kellie to put his red nose into his greenhouse to ripen his cucumbers! He tended to compose on the spot and absent-mindedly give music away without further thought for it. His health suffered and he visited Spa, Belgium, but while returning was "struck with a paralytic shock" and while stopping for a few days at Brussels was attacked by a "putrid fever" and died.


His brother Archibald (b. 22 Apr 1736; d.8 May 1797) became 7th Earl of Kellie, but he died unmarried with no heir. The title went to the 7th Earl's third cousin once removed, Charles Erskine, 8th Earl Kellie, whose father, also named Charles Erskine (1730-1790), was 6th Baronet of Cambo (one of the Erskine Baronets) and the son of David Erskine, Lyon-Clerk who died 7 Oct 1769. Another of David's sons, was Thomas Erskine, 9th Earl of Kellie. When the 9th Earl died in 1828, his brother, Methven Erskine became 10th Earl Kellie.


Erskine composed the Overture to Isaac Bickerstaff's comic opera, The Maid of the Mill, which was performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden early in 1765.[1]

Until the 1970s only a small number of his compositions was thought to survive, though the discovery in 1989 of two manuscripts containing chamber works at Kilravock Castle has doubled the number of his surviving compositions – notably with nine trio sonatas and nine string quartets. Interest in him was recently revived by John Purser, among others, and a CD of his works has now been made.


  1. ^ Purser, John (2019), The Scots who helped mould Mozart?, The National, Monday 23 December 2019, pp. 20 - 21
  • David Johnson,Music and Society in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (2nd edition, Edinburgh, 2003)

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Masonic offices
Preceded by
The Earl of Blessington
Grand Master of the
Antient Grand Lodge of England

Succeeded by
Hon. Thomas Mathew
Preceded by
The Earl of Elgin
Grand Master of the
Grand Lodge of Scotland

Succeeded by
James Stewart
Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
Alexander Erskine
Earl of Kellie Succeeded by
Archibald Erskine