She ran her husband's landed estate and saved it from financial ruin, and wrote a romantic novel as well as a little children's story that exists in manuscript form. In the mid-1750s she travelled to the Low Countries to visit to her exiled Jacobite brother, Sir James Steuart, and to take in the sights. Her letters and journals written at that time were published late in the nineteenth century, and are considered one of the best surviving examples of the old Scots dialect that was rapidly fading in her time among her class in favour of "politer" English.
"This puts me in mind of the Jews, who are the drollest set I ever saw. We call them, by way of reproach, smouce, but that is only a name for a certain sort of them.
They wear their bairds, and the women you will know by a sort of mutch [a cotton cap] they wear with a double row of plaits, so that you see none of their hair, and close battered [plastered] to their faces, so that you see none of their hair, and some has a curl of wool round their faces by way of a wigg, some black and some white.
I went into their synagogue one morning, and they were in service, but what kind I could not find out, but I suppose it was a fast-day, for there were two men standing on the altar [bimah], I suppose, for it was raised higher than the rest, in the midst of the room; there was a lamp burning, though the sun was shining. They were both reading aloud with harn clouts [lit. brain-cloths, a cloth around the head; obviously prayer shawls, tallesim, are meant] on their heads, and some of the congregation had harn-clouts likeways. Some were sitting with books in their hands, some standing, reading, or looking on a book, some walking about, snuffing [taking snuff] and cracking [conversing, gossiping]as loud as they had been in the street; in short, you never saw such a congregation; some were going in, some were going out, and those who went out had their harn clouts in their pockets.
In Amsterdam, they have a quarter of the town to themselves, and they say it is the oddest, nasty, raggamuffin-like place ever was seen, and people go to see the Jews' quarter for a curiosity."
Margaret's remark that "you never saw such a congregation" was incorrect. In 1663, on Simchat Torah, almost a century before she described what she'd seen in Amsterdam, the diarist Samuel Pepys, his wife, and a male friend. paid a visit to the London Synagogue in Creechurch Lane, where they saw
"the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew.
And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.
But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall... "
Being accustomed to the sedate behaviour prevailing at church services, they were typically shocked at witnessing the contrasting conduct of Jewish worshippers.
It was no accident that the Reform movement, in its response to modernity and quest for Jewish emancipation, made decorous services one of its hallmarks.
But the issue, as this book cover illustrates, rages still ...