Adam Smith, Mary Somerville and Gordon Brown are not the only bright sparks to have hailed from Kirkcaldy. Admired by Sir Walter Scott, whom she knew, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, Marjory Fleming was a child prodigy poet born in the town on 15 January 1803, the third child of accountant James Fleming and his wife Isabella. Isabella was a surgeon’s daughter and, as a gifted intellectual herself, Marjory’s first teacher. Marjory spent most of her sixth, seventh and eighth years in Edinburgh being tutored by her teenage cousin, Isabella Keith. Isabella is mentioned is the somewhat odd opening line of Marjory’s famous journal: ‘Many people are hanged for Highway robbery Housebreking Murder &c. &c. Isabella teaches me everything I know and I am much indebted to her she is learnen witty & sensible.’
Marjory returned to Kirkcaldy in July 1811, but wrote on 1 September to her cousin, ‘We are surrounded with measles at present on every side’. She herself contracted measles in November and although she apparently recovered, died in December from what is now thought to have been meningitis. She was a month short of her ninth birthday.
Marjory was an accomplished and witty poet and diarist although she was not published until 50 years after her death. Her writings became hugely popular in the Victorian period albeit with the published editions severely altered as some her her language was thought inappropriate for an eight year old. The first account of her was given by a London journalist in the Fife Herald and reprinted as a booklet entitled Pet Marjorie: a Story of Child Life Fifty Years Ago. The nickname ‘Pet’ and the spelling of her name with ‘ie’ were inventions of her biographer: both appear on Marjory’s gravestone in Abbotshall Kirkyard, Kirkcaldy erected in 1930.
Marjory’s precocious intellect is noted in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: ‘She records enjoying the poems of Pope and Gray, the Arabian Nights, Ann Radcliff’s ‘misteris [sic] of udolpho’, the Newgate calendar, and ‘tails’ by Maria Edgworth and Hannah More.’ Her abilities are also apparent in the pithy comments in her journal and in her valiant attempts to write in rhyming couplets.
Robert Louis Stevenson is quoted as saying, ‘Marjory Fleming was possibly – no, I take back possibly – she was one of the noblest works of God.’
The manuscripts of Marjory Fleming’s writings can be seen in the National Library of Scotland.