Spotlight: Jacobites - Restoring the Reputation of ‘The Notorious Lady Lude’

22 September 2022
In the new edition of Spotlight: Jacobites, Mark Robertson examines the character of Charlotte Robertson of Lude, the widowed Atholl heritor who drew widespread ire from local Whig officials on account of her behaviour in the Jacobite Rising of 1745-46.

At the end of August 1745 a letter arrived at the house of Lude in Highland Perthshire. The author was William Murray, Marquis of Tullibardine, one of the ‘Seven Men of Moidart’ who had accompanied Charles Edward Stuart to Scotland in his quest to reclaim his father’s throne. The recipient was his cousin, Charlotte Robertson, Lady Lude, and the letter asked her to prepare the castle of Blair Atholl for the arrival of Charles and his small army. [1] Tullibardine’s younger brother, James, Duke of Atholl, had fled from the castle on hearing news of the Jacobite advance and Charlotte was only too willing to grant the request. To Jacobites like Lady Lude, Tullibardine, who was attainted and disinherited following his involvement in the Jacobite Rising of 1715, was the true Duke of Atholl.

Lady Lude

Lady Lude was born Charlotte Nairne to a staunchly Jacobite family in 1707, the year that the Act of Union came into effect. Her mother was Margaret, Lady Nairne, ‘the mainspring of the Jacobite movement in Perthshire’, and her father was William Murray, 2nd Lord Nairne, who was condemned to death after the Rising in 1715. He would later be reprieved, but not before the eight-year-old Charlotte had travelled from Scotland to visit him in the Tower of London. [2] Two of Charlotte’s brothers were to take a prominent role in the ‘45 and five of her sisters married Jacobite husbands. In 1736, while in her late twenties, she married John Robertson of Lude. Lude was an important landholding in the part of Highland Perthshire commonly referred to as being ‘above the pass of Killiecrankie’ in documents of the time. Like her sisters, Charlotte had married into a Jacobite and Episcopalian family with members who had supported the Stuarts in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the earlier Jacobite risings. [3] But the marriage was short lived, and in 1742 her husband died, leaving Charlotte to take his place as heritor while bringing up their three infant children. [4]

Like other Highland heritor families, the Robertsons were struggling financially because the income from their estate did not match their expenditure. After John’s death the family’s possessions were put up for auction, an event presided over by Thomas Bisset, the Commissary of Dunkeld who also served as the Duke of Atholl’s factor. Neighbouring heritors and some of the Lude tenants were able to acquire goods such as a looking glass at £1 5s, four chamber pots at 3s 8d, and a house clock at £7 10s, while Charlotte successfully bid for some of her own and her children’s beds and bedding, pieces of the family silver and cooking equipment, and most of their livestock. It appears that Charlotte had to focus largely on the necessaries of life, while sacrificing many of the family’s luxuries. [5]

The arrival of Charles Edward Stuart in Atholl not only gave Charlotte the opportunity to meet the man she regarded as the legitimate heir to the throne, it also offered the prospect of a reversal of her family’s fortunes. She greeted Charles Edward Stuart and Tullibardine upon their arrival at Blair on 31 August and Bisset, who had remained there to protect his master’s interests, was not impressed with her enthusiasm, commenting that ‘Lady Lude is here & behaves like a light Giglet, & hath taken upon her to be sole mistres of the house’. [6] Bisset’s contempt is clear, and he took the opportunity to humiliate Charlotte while she was searching the castle for weapons that might be of use to the Jacobite army:

She discovered some old brass field pieces concealed in ane upper vault in the castle of Blair and implayd severalls of the bare[houghd] highland men to goe up upon a ladder which she held to them in order to take them down I was so irritat at her Insolence that I calld out in the erse language to the highland men that all the best provyded of them should only mount the ladder held by the Lady that she might see nothing but what was worth seing which occasioned a generall laughter and there and not till then the Lady blushed a little and let goe the ladder. [7]

On 1 September Charlotte’s brothers, John Nairne and Robert Mercer of Aldie joined the Jacobites at Blair. The following evening Charlotte entertained Charles Edward at her house 'with Dinner and with Musick and Dancing after dinner'. According to one observer, when she was with him she ‘was so elevate...that she looked like a person whose head had gone wrong.’ [8]

She immediately raised a company of men from her estate and they joined the Atholl Brigade under her tenant Robert Stewart from Mains of Lude. [9] The following morning the Jacobite army left Blair to march to Edinburgh. Like another Jacobite widow, Lady Mary Hay, Countess of Erroll, Charlotte took on the traditional male heritor’s role of raising men for the exiled king. [10] Despite the myth of Highland loyalty to the Stuarts, many plebeians were unwilling to rise for the Jacobites despite the exhortations of their ‘superiors’. [11] The Lude tenants, like those on many other Highland estates, were not enthusiastic about joining up. Many soon deserted and after the rising Bisset collected extensive evidence to show that Charlotte had used forceful recruiting measures to compel them into service. This evidence was later passed to William Anne van Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle, who commanded the occupying army in Scotland. Amongst many of these testimonies against Lady Lude, one tenant alleged that she threatened to ‘Cause that party of Men Destroy his house & Effects’, and another that she threatened to hang him as a deserter. However, there is no evidence that she actually carried out any of her threats, let alone that she burned any houses. [12]

Charlotte accompanied the Jacobite army as far as Dunkeld, where she ordered the town bells to be rung in celebration, but we know little about her activities for the next six months. [13] In February 1746 after the inconclusive battle of Falkirk, the Jacobites retreated northwards and Atholl was occupied by the British army under William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland. The estate of Lude was plundered, with soldiers ‘breaking in pieces all the doors and windows, and the finishing of the rooms, and some of the floors’. [14] Charlotte was arrested and brought before Sir Andrew Agnew, commander of the newly installed garrison at Blair Castle, but according to one of his officers she ‘contrived so well to justify herself with the commandant as to be apologised to, entertained at dinner and sent back to her house’. [15] Lord George Murray, commanding elements of the Atholl Brigade and Cluny Macpherson’s regiment, led an operation in the early hours of 17 March 1746 to capture the government’s militia outposts in Atholl and then laid siege to Blair Castle. Charlotte was delighted by the offensive and an eyewitness saw her ‘treat these Rebels with Brandy, applauding them for what they had done, clapping them on the shoulders, Danced with them, spiriting them up, saying that they would be all very happy’. [16] Lord George gave her the honour of firing the first cannon shot of the siege, but was unable to capture the castle and at the end of the month he withdrew his troops to join the main Jacobite army around Inverness. At the subsequent battle of Culloden the Atholl Brigade suffered heavy casualties. It is unclear how many men from Lude were present, a number having deserted beforehand.

Charlotte was briefly imprisoned but quickly released. Concerned that she would be named in a new Bill of Attainder, her mother wrote to Atholl asking for his help, describing her daughter as a ‘weak insignificant woman’. The Privy Council decided that both mother and daughter should be arrested but this was not carried out. [17] Nonetheless, Charlotte and her family had suffered greatly for their Jacobite affiliation. Her father’s estate had been forfeited for his involvement in the ‘15 and now she had to cope with the death of her brother, Robert Mercer, at Culloden and separation from other close family members who went into exile. [18]

Jacobite connections

None of this appears to have shaken Charlotte’s commitment and, like her mother, she seems to have been determined to bring her children up as Jacobites. In 1747 she took her daughter and eldest son to a meeting of Jacobite sympathisers at the apartment of Dame Magdalene Scott, Lady Bruce of Kinross, in the Citadel of Leith. There they heard accounts of Culloden and of Charles Edward’s escape, which were later reproduced in Robert Forbes’s The Lyon in Mourning. [19]. Unlike other Jacobite estates, Lude was not forfeited and James, Charlotte’s eldest son, inherited it when he reached his majority in 1758.

Charlotte lived on for many years, dependent on handouts from her son and still moving in Jacobite circles. In 1782, in a letter addressed to ‘my dear loyal Ladie’, the infamous Jacobite Laurence Oliphant of Gask wrote to ask whether she would come and live with him to act as a guardian to his children, her nephews and nieces, ‘and keep them loyal’. He suggested they could ‘drink to the King and his happy Restoration every day till it be over’. Just before her death another nephew, Henry Nairne, who was with the Jacobite Court in Rome, sent her a picture of Charles Edward likely to bolster her spirits. [20]

Charlotte died in 1787, the year before Charles’s own death extinguished the last hopes of a Stuart restoration. Henry Nairne was with the Prince when he died and wrote to ‘Mrs Robertson of Lude’ (presumably Margaret, the wife of James, Charlotte’s son and heir) that ‘The misfortunate Personage did not survive long his very good friend and acquaintance my dear Aunt’. [21] Charlotte’s death, and the death of her relative Laurence Oliphant of Gask five years later, signified the passing of the generation that had refused to be reconciled to the Hanoverian succession. [22] By the time she died, Charlotte would have been aware of how, despite her efforts, many of the next generation were taking a different path by finding employment with the burgeoning British fiscal-military state. [23]

Posthumous reputation

While antiquarian historians have included Charlotte amongst a handful of women who were ‘military assets of great value to the Prince’, some more recent accounts have characterised her as malevolent and foolish, infatuated by the charismatic Charles Edward, and as an unpleasant bully who resorted to oppressive measures to force her reluctant tenants to join his army. It has even been suggested that the ransacking and plundering of her family home by government soldiers was ‘not totally undeserved’. [24] This negative view of her character is based largely upon Bisset’s accounts, and therefore contains a sharp anti-Jacobite bias. [25] It was common for Whig commentators to denigrate Jacobite women as being infatuated with ‘the Bonnie Prince’ and it is hardly surprising that she was excited by the opportunity to act as hostess to the man she considered heir to the throne. It is unlikely that a ‘Light Giglet’ would have been able to charm the crusty Sir Andrew Agnew as Charlotte did, and while it is true that her mother described her as weak and insignificant, this was in the context of a plea for leniency. As Darren Layne has demonstrated, ‘forcing’ and the employment of paid substitutes was common across the Highlands, and in this respect Charlotte’s recruitment tactics cannot be seen as any different to those of other local lairds. [26] Many committed Jacobite women have been pilloried by Whig polemicists, however some modern historians – including Nicola Small (née Cowmeadow), Georgia Vullinghs, Anita Gillespie (née Fairney), Carine Martin, and Maggie Craig – are providing a more balanced and comprehensive picture.

As well as being interesting in their own right, stories such as Charlotte’s illustrate something about the nature of Jacobite motivations. [27] Like other local heritors, Charlotte’s upbringing, family traditions, and kinship networks influenced and sustained her Jacobite ‘loyalty’. [28] More pragmatic considerations, such as the potential that a restoration might have offered an opportunity for the reversal of the family’s fortunes, might also have had an influence, but her continuing support for ‘the cause’ long after any reasonable prospect of success had vanished suggests these goals were less important. Taking into consideration a more forensic look at Lady Lude’s character, a restoration of her reputation could very well be in order. She was a woman who rose above some of the perceived constraints of her gender and honoured her family traditions in attempting to ensure the triumph of a cause in which she passionately believed, even as she suffered the consequences of its failure.


1 Duke William to Lady Lude (30 August 1745) reprinted in John Stewart-Murray, ed., Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine Families (5 vols., Edinburgh, 1908), v, appendix, p. xxii.

2 It is possible that, following her visit, Charlotte was incarcerated in the Tower along with her mother who was residing there to be close to her husband. The authorities were jumpy about outside visitors following the earlier escape of Lord Nithsdale through substitution, E. Maxtone-Graham, ‘A Bundle of Jacobite Letters’ in The Scottish Historical Review, (4:13, October 1906), pp. 15-6; E. Maxtone-Graham, The Oliphants of Gask: Records of a Jacobite Family (London, 1910), pp. 111-5, 124.

3 Non-juring Episcopalianism was commonly associated with Jacobitism and the Robertsons maintained an Episcopalian church on their estate at Kilmaveonaig, John Kerr, Church and Social History of Atholl (Perth & Kinross, 1998), pp. 31-4.

4 1742 is the date normally given for John’s death, although a memorial in Kilmaveonaig church gives it as 1741. This also appears to give an incorrect date for Charlotte’s death, Kerr, Church and Social, p. 32.

5 Although she was able to keep hold of her tea kettle and a brass coffee pot and stand, Inventory of John Robertson of Lude (1742). This document lists twenty-seven tenants in arrears with their rents, something that must have further undermined the estate’s financial position. See also Horning and Poinding vs. John Robertson of Lude (31 May-7 June, 1735), NRS GD132/260.

6 Bisset to Atholl (31 August 1745) reprinted in Stewart-Murray, ed., Chronicles, iii, pp. 12-3. 

7 Information by Thomas Bisset of Glenalbert, NLS MS17514 ff. 173-5.

8 C. S. Terry, ed., The Albemarle Papers (2 vols., Aberdeen, 1902), i, pp. 257-8.

9 Stewart-Murray, ed., Chronicles, iii, p. 302.

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10 Anita R. Fairney, ‘”Petticoat Patronage”: Elite Scotswomen’s Roles, Identity, and Agency in Jacobite Political Affairs, 1688-1766’ (PhD Thesis, University of Western Australia, 2015), p. 154. Several other Jacobite heritor women including Lady Anne Mackintosh, Anne Stewart of Burray, and Margaret Johnstone, Countess of Airlie, raised men, sometimes in opposition to their husbands, while others provided martial support in a variety of ways. See also Maggie Craig, Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45 (Edinburgh, 1997), passim.

11 D. S. Layne, ‘Spines of the Thistle: The Popular Constituency of the Jacobite Rising in 1745-6’ (PhD Thesis, St Andrews, 2016), pp. 137-154. Layne provides a convincing analysis of the prevalence of ‘forcing’ and the use of paid substitutes during the ‘45.

12 The testimonies are reprinted in Terry, ed., Albemarle Papers, i, pp. 244-50, 256-8. Most of those who gave evidence were able to avoid enlistment by paying for a substitute for £3-5.

13 Terry, ed., Albemarle Papers, i, p. 250.

14 R. Forbes, The Lyon in Mourning or a Collection of Speeches Letters Journals Etc. Relative to the Affairs of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, 1746-1755, ed. by Henry Paton (3 vols., Edinburgh, 1895), i, p. 357.

15 Stewart-Murray, ed., Chronicles, iii, pp. 239-40.

16 Terry, ed., Albemarle Papers, p. 258.

17 According to B. G. Seton and J. G. Arnot, The Prisoners of the ’45, (3 vols., Edinburgh, 1928-9) the Privy Council decision was made on 21 January 1747, i, p. 215; ii, pp. 352-3; Stewart-Murray, ed., Chronicles, iii, pp. 338-9; Craig, Damn’ Rebel Bitches, p. 32.

18 John Nairne, a senior officer in the Atholl Brigade, was exiled after Culloden. Her sister, Margaret, was also briefly imprisoned before joining her husband, Laurence Oliphant of Gask, in exile along with another sister, Marjory, the wife of the exiled Duncan Robertson of Drumachuine. She and Charlotte appear to have been particularly close; Marjory insisted on calling her daughter Charlotte despite her husband's objection, Maxtone-Graham, Oliphants of Gask, p. 160.

19 Forbes, Lyon, pp. 74-5.

20 Charlotte Robertson to James Robertson (12 April 1772), NRS GD38/2/13 f. 47; Maxtone-Graham, Oliphants of Gask, pp. 315, 325. Charlotte’s reply to Gask’s proposal remains elusive.

21 Maxtone-Graham, Oliphants of Gask, pp. 325-6.

22 Several other Atholl heritors, including the Robertsons of Drumachuine, Woodsheal, and Blairfettie, all in exile after Culloden, remained active in Jacobite plots into the 1750s and continued to seek largesse from the Stuarts.

23 Including her younger son, John, who in 1768 held a commission with the 42nd Highlanders, Stewart-Murray ed., Chronicles, iii, p. 448.

24 Seton and Arnot, Prisoners, i, p. 212; Craig, Damn Rebel Bitches, pp. 21-2, 31-2, 51; C. Duffy, Fight for a Throne: The Jacobite ’45 Reconsidered (Solihull, 2015), pp. 102, 323. Craig is particularly harsh about Charlotte’s reputation, which is surprising since in her pioneering work she astutely points out the effects of Hanoverian propaganda on the reputations of Jacobite women.

25 Seton and Arnot suggest that Bisset was 'not altogether a reliable witness owing to his strong anti-Jacobite bias', Prisoners, i, p. 306.

26 Layne, ‘Spines of the Thistle’, pp. 137-154.

27 For an excellent overview of this aspect see F. J. McLynn, ‘Issues and Motives in the Jacobite Rising of 1745’ in The Eighteenth Century (23:2,1982), pp. 97-133.

28 This also underpinned the allegiance of the other widow who raised men for the Jacobites and wrote of ‘that ancient friendship [that] has been betwixt our ancestors, which I shall always for my part endeavour to maintain’, Mary, Countess of Erroll to M. General Buchan (15 May 1721), NRAS2232 Appendix iv.19, quoted in Fairney, ‘Petticoat Patronage’, p. 154.

About the author

Mark Robertson received a degree in History from Warwick University in 1979 focused on the roots of American Communism, but a more recent fascination with Jacobitism has rekindled his interest in academic research. He is most interested in social and economic history and is currently compiling a database of Atholl heritor families 1640-1780. He may be contacted via email or on Twitter at @AthollHistory.

Archival leads

  • National Records of Scotland, Dalguise Muniments GD38/1
  • National Records of Scotland, Robertson of Lude Bailie Court Records GD50/159
  • National Records of Scotland, Papers of the Robertson Family of Lude GD132

Further reading

• Maggie Craig, Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ‘45 (2nd ed, London, 2022)

• Leah Leneman, Living in Atholl: A Social History of the Estates, 1685-1785 (Edinburgh, 1986)

• John Stewart-Murray, ed., Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine Families (5 vols., Edinburgh, 1908)