THERE are those who think Scottish history is all about battles, kings and clever inventive men, and if women get a mention it’s usually because they are doomed queens or wives and mistresses.

Female medical pioneers do get recognition, but not enough in my view. In short, Scottish history is male dominated and women are too often assigned secondary roles. Which is why I have considerable hesitation in telling the story of an extraordinary Scotswoman who was most famous for being a courtesan.

Nevertheless, the tale of Grace Elliott, who died in this week in 1823, is well worth telling simply because she was one of the most fascinating women of her time, and who survived the Reign of Terror in France after the Revolution. Not only did she live through that horrific period, but she lived to tell the tale in a book that became a 19th-century bestseller.

It is undeniable that she was a courtesan, which in the late 18th century was a woman who attached herself to a rich and powerful man and became his companion and lover in return for being “kept” – a high-class form of prostitution, you could argue, but done quite openly and with the requisite etiquette.

Elliott was much more than that, however, as she was also a spy, a writer and the subject of fine portraits by Thomas Gainsborough, no less.

Born in Edinburgh in 1754, Grace Dalrymple’s real first name was an old Scottish female name, Grissel, which was the name of her mother, Grissel Brown, the daughter of an army colonel. Grissel Brown had married Heugh (Hew or Hugh) Dalrymple, an army captain who became an advocate in Edinburgh and later served a brief term as Attorney General of Grenada.

Heugh was caught having an affair with a lady and separated from his wife, Grace being brought up by her Brown relatives.

She was sent to a French convent school, and on her return to Edinburgh she went to live with her father. She had grown into a tall and beautiful girl,

bilingual and with a lively intelligence. A wealthy doctor, John Elliot, was smitten by the 16-year-old Grace and proposed marriage, despite being at least 20 years her senior.

Records show they were married in London on October 19, 1771, and Grace was introduced to London society. Before she was even 20 she and Elliot were estranged, and the marriage effectively ended when Grace had an affair with Lord Valentia, an Irish peer. Elliot sued Valentia for “criminal conversation” and won £12,000 in damages – equivalent to nearly £2 million today – and divorced Grace.

Her reputation in ruins, Grace Elliott – she always used a double “t” in her signature to differentiate herself from her former husband – was sent to France and another convent by her family, but in Paris to view the Pantheon she met another aristocrat, this time the English Lord Cholmondeley.

He, too, was instantly smitten, and in 1776 he insisted on returning Grace to London where she became his mistress. She was back in smart society, as shown by the fact that the leading painter of the age, Thomas Gainsborough, painted her twice in 1778. One of the portraits is on display in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was at this point that Grace’s life became very complicated. After an affair with the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, Grace gave birth to a daughter, Georgiana Augusta Frederica Seymour, on March 30, 1782. The trouble was that three other men – Lord Cholmondeley, Charles Wyndham, and George Selwyn – also claimed paternity, and despite the Prince accepting responsibility, it was Cholmondeley who brought up Georgina Seymour, as she became known, as his child.

In 1784, the Prince of Wales introduced Grace to the Duc D’Orleans, and by 1786 was living in Paris as his mistress with her own grand home and an income from him.

The French Revolution in 1789 saw the Duke support the revolutionaries and change his name to Philippe Égalité, but eventually he was guillotined during the Reign of Terror in 1793.

At the height of the Revolution, Grace was acting as a spy for the British and also intriguing to save her aristocratic friends, leading the Revolution’s various police officers to search her house repeatedly. One of the aristos, the Marquis de Champcenetz, was saved by her hiding him between the mattresses of her bed as she pretended to be seriously ill.

We know all that because she wrote Journal Of My Life During The French Revolution, published posthumously in 1859 and recognised as one of the best accounts by a woman of life in France during the period 1789 to 1795.

Grace was incarcerated in four different prisons and though numerous aristocrats around her were guillotined, the Reign of Terror came to an end with the execution of Maximilien Robespierre in July, 1794, and she was free to return to England. Cholmondeley and others came to her aid, but after Napoleon began to rule France she returned there – it was reported that she had received a proposal from the Emperor, but that seems unlikely, not least because she was well into her 40s when he came to prominence.

She did find another man to keep her, the wealthy Mayor of Ville-d’Avray to the west of Paris, and lived there in style until her death on May 16, 1823.

The remarkable life of Grace Elliott has been recounted in various books, and featured in the film L’Anglaise Et Le Duc, (known as The Lady And The Duke here) which was directed by Eric Rohmer in 2001.