THIS is the tale of how a cuckolded and rapacious Scottish aristocrat and his passionate wife caused an international incident 200 years ago that is still troublesome today.

Among others to be mentioned will be Robert the Bruce; Emperors Napoleon Bonaparte and Selim III; a duke, earls and Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister to be assassinated; Horatio Lord Nelson and his lover Emma Hamilton; JMW Turner; the poets Byron and Keats; the actress Melina Mercouri; the comedic geniuses Spike Milligan and Stephen Fry, and Amal Clooney, the glamorous lawyer wife of film star George Clooney.

All that in a Scottish history column … but when you mention the Elgin Marbles, all starts to become clear.

It was 200 years ago next month that the Elgin Marbles began to be exhibited to the public in London. In July 1816, the British Government by Act of Parliament bought the Marbles from their “owner”, the 7th Earl of Elgin. He was paid £35,000 – about £3.5 million today, adjusted for inflation – for his collection of antiquities that came from all over Greece and not just the Acropolis in Athens.

Thomas Bruce was born in July 1766 at Broomhall in Fife, just above the village of Limekilns, the third son of the 5th Earl of Elgin and his wife Martha, daughter of a rich banker. Her two eldest sons, William, Lord Bruce, and William, the 6th earl, both died young, the former at just 10 weeks, and the latter at the age of seven in 1771, meaning that Thomas became the 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine at the age of only five.

The Bruces of Broomhall can trace their ancestry back to at least the original Robert de Brus, the 1st Lord of Annandale, progenitor of the line that included King Robert the Bruce, whose sword is still kept at Broomhall.

Young Thomas was a student at Harrow and Westminster schools then finished his education at St Andrews University and on the continent before joining the Scots Guards in 1785. Even from an early age he had his eye on a career as a diplomat as he studied the legal systems of other countries avidly. He also prospered in soldiering and studied military science in Germany. He became a Scottish Representative Peer in 1790 and his desired diplomatic career took off the following year when he was sent as a temporary envoy to Austria. He fully joined the diplomatic ranks with his appointment as an envoy in Brussels in 1792, and then Prussia three years later.

Back home he employed the architect Thomas Harrison to improve Broomhall and borrowed substantial sums of money for the project. It was Harrison who allegedly convinced Elgin of the glory of Greek and Roman antique art, and the earl became an enthusiastic convert. Elgin was advised that in order to become a full ambassador, he should acquire a wife – and he found a perfect candidate in Mary Nisbet, the daughter of a wealthy East Lothian landowner who was renowned for her beauty and refinement. Theirs seemed a perfect match, but Elgin was already suffering from a facial disfigurement…

In December 1798, Elgin was appointed “Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte (court) of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey” and four months later he married Mary, who also brought him something the impecunious earl needed badly – money.

As full Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Elgin was equipped with all the trappings, including assistants in various fields and a trip to Constantinople (Istanbul) aboard HMS Phaeton. He tried and failed to get England’s greatest artist JMW Turner to join his retinue, but settled for the Italian artist and antiquary Giovanni Battista Lusieri.

On the way to his posting, Elgin stopped off at Naples where they met diplomat Sir William Hamilton, also previously of the Scots Guards, and his wife Emma. The third party in what was clearly a ménage à trois was Admiral Lord Nelson. The Elgins then moved on to Constantinople and were grandly received by Emperor Selim III.

It is thanks largely to Mary’s meticulous records and his own letters that we know that Elgin became obsessed with obtaining ancient Greek sculptures and marble works, especially those by the legendary Phidias and his followers which decorated the Acropolis, the sacred hill of Athens where the Parthenon temple was the greatest building in Greek history.

He wrote to Lusieri in 1801: “The plans for my house in Scotland should be known to you… The Hall is intended to be adorned with columns... If each column were different... I should think that the effect would be admirable, but perhaps better if there were two of each kind. In either case I should wish to collect as much marble as possible. I have other places in my house which need it.”

He particularly wanted material from the Parthenon which was then in a sorry state, having been used as a mosque and then blown up in an explosion in the war between Venice and the Ottomans in 1687. Elgin never actually visited the site himself, but was told it was being used as a barracks with its various temples as target practice and local people had been taking away marble for building materials.

There were also visitors from other countries taking away “souvenirs”, especially the French, as Emperor Napoleon was very keen on such antiquities – their “souvenirs” of Athens can be seen in the Louvre to this day. Elgin obtained a firman or permit from Sultan Selim to take what he wanted – its provenance has long been disputed – and his instructions to Lusieri were all-encompassing: “The least thing from Athens is invaluable... The first on the list are the metops, the bas-reliefs, and the remains of the statues that can still be found. In particular the figures on the pediment of the Parthenon – at least the figure of the man – as many metops as you can obtain… I beg you therefore to put some on board ship. To sum up, the slightest object from the Acropolis is a jewel.”

Lusieri and Elgin’s chaplain-archaeologist Philip Hunt went to work with a vengeance and by the time they had finished both in Athens and at other sites around Greece and Turkey, Elgin was the owner of more than 220 tons of ancient sculpture, with the Parthenon marbles by far the most important. One shipment sank off the Ionian islands and it took three years and vast sums to recover the marbles on board.

It is often thought the Turks and Athenians did not care about the marbles, but the Irish artist Edward Dodwell was in Athens at the time and recorded his own and other people’s reaction: “It is indeed impossible to suppress the feelings of regret which must arise in the breast of every traveller who has seen these temples before and since their late dilapidation!

“Nor have I any hesitation in declaring, that the Athenians in general, nay, even the Turks themselves, did lament the ruin that was committed; and loudly and openly blamed their sovereign for the permission he had granted.”

Back home, Lord Byron led the condemnation of Elgin’s “looting”, as he saw it, and in 1810 the earl had to publish a defence of his actions. Three successive prime ministers, the Duke of Portland, the unfortunate Spencer Perceval and the Earl of Liverpool backed Elgin, however, while the poet John Keats would later write glowingly of the Elgin Marbles, as they were now officially referred to.

By the time Elgin was defending himself, he was already deep in debt. That was because of his hugely expensive divorce. It began in 1803 when the Elgins made the mistake of travelling home through France – Napoleon ordered the arrest of all travelers and Elgin was put under house arrest. By this time he was in poor health and his nose had been all but destroyed by his underlying disease for which he had taken mercury – then the only known treatment for syphilis.Mary was appalled at her husband’s awful looks but worked for his release and was assisted by a fellow Scot then in Paris, the wealthy and handsome Robert Ferguson of Raith in Fife. Their proximity led to intimacy and they began a passionate affair even as they worked to get Elgin home

.Elgin was released in 1806, and shortly afterwards he began proceedings against Ferguson, seeking £20,000 damages – about £1.4m today, adjusted for simple inflation – for his adulterous behaviour. Elgin was awarded £10,000 but that did not even come close to covering the costs of his divorce from Mary, which had to be done by Act of Parliament – the cost of which was utterly ruinous.

Elgin was soon desperate for someone to buy his marble collection, and though he never sold every piece – some marble can still be found in Broomhall – he was able to offer the government of the day a “bargain”. He had paid over £70,000 to bring the eponymous marbles to Britain and after a select committee cleared him of wrongdoing, a grateful government got the lot for half price, a snip at £35,000.

Elgin married his second wife Elizabeth in 1810. Their son James succeeded to the earldom and became Viceroy of India. Elgin retired to the continent and died in Paris in 1841, aged 75. His first wife Mary married Robert Ferguson and he survived the scandal of the divorce to become a respected MP and Lord Lieutenant of Fife.

The Elgin Marbles, now officially known by the British Museum as the Parthenon Sculpture, are, of course, quite priceless. Greece has wanted them back practically since they were removed, pointing out accurately that their country was under occupation at the time of Elgin’s actions. The campaign for their return from the Duveen Gallery in the British Museum got a major boost when actress turned culture minister Melina Mercouri made it a cause célèbre in the 1980s. Famous supporters of the campaign have included Dame Janet Suzman, Spike Milligan and Stephen Fry.

What complicates matters is that back in 1816, the British government bought the collection in good faith, and ownership was given to the trustees of the British Museum. Thus, to deprive the museum of its property will require an Act of Parliament that would be probably be in breach of UK and international law.

Had the collection stayed in Elgin’s or another individual’s private hands, the Greeks could have bought them back any time, but now they are officially a “British” national treasure. Amal Clooney represented the Greek government on their recent failed legal bid to have the Marbles returned. She advised that a case before the International Court of Justice might not succeed, and Greece has now said it will pursue international political and diplomatic means to get the Marbles back. They have already built the £150m Acropolis Museum with space left to house them.

The real problem for the British Museum and the UK government is that if the Elgin Marbles go home, China will want its Summer Palace treasures, Nigeria will want the Benin Bronzes and Egypt will want the Rosetta Stone – and those are just from the British Museum.

And among the first demands of the government of an independent Scotland would surely be the return of another priceless treasure mostly located in the British Museum – the Lewis Chessmen, one of the world’s great treasures of the Viking era. Norway might in turn claim them, which just shows how complex these issues are.

Maybe, just maybe, Lord Elgin deserved recognition for at least saving the Marbles from further destruction and depredation, but should the British government have sanctioned his actions which, if not outrightly illegal, were certainly morally dubious?

Here’s the rub – thanks mainly to his ruinous divorce, Elgin was in so much debt that he never saw a penny of that £35,000. It went straight to his creditors. And 200 years on, the love affair of Mary, Countess of Elgin, is still causing trouble.