Spotlight: Jacobites - A Game of Dress Up

09 December 2021
In our new edition of Spotlight: Jacobites, Dr Darren S. Layne introduces us to Alexander Robertson of Straloch, a guileful and dedicated government agent who orchestrated an outlandish sting to capture suspected Jacobites in Angus.

In early December 1746, well after the active threat of the last Jacobite rising had waned, the British government was still collecting intelligence about known rebels who had not yet been apprehended. A report from Alexander Robertson of Straloch in that month, presumably sent to the Duke of Newcastle, is especially notable for two specific reasons. First, it explicitly calls out the forceful tactics of impressment used against allegedly unwilling tenants on the Earl of Arlie's estate in Angus. Second, within the report Straloch proposes an elaborate plan to trick lurking Jacobites into revealing themselves – a plan that is both calculated and impressively devious. [1]

Known informally as Baron Reid, Robertson of Straloch was a gentleman from the Strathardle area of Perthshire whose family had long been aligned with the house of Argyll and the Hanoverian government of George II. He was a vassal of James Murray, the loyalist Duke of Atholl, and he spent much of the 1745 rising assisting the government by providing intelligence reports and offering counsel regarding methods to suppress the rebels. [2] Straloch was quite well-connected during the Forty-five, corresponding directly with Secretary of State Newcastle and Duncan Forbes of Culloden, the Lord President of the Court of Session. To these officials he sent a series of bulletins between 1745 and 1747 with information about Jacobite movements leveraged from the government’s network of Presbyterian ministers in Perthshire and the north-eastern counties. [3] Straloch was effective enough as an informant to warrant a mandate for capture from Atholl's brother, William Murray, the Marquess of Tullibardine and titular Jacobite Duke of Atholl. [4]

The report from early December transmits the results of an investigation into the reluctance of Airlie’s tenants in Angus to join the Jacobite army – a rather surprising conclusion given the size and effectiveness of Lord Ogilvy's regiment throughout the campaign. Therein Straloch describes a clandestine meeting that took place at Cortachy at the behest of the sitting Earl of Airlie, who was also the father of Jacobite colonel David, Lord Ogilvy. After a quotidian supper and over a dram, the elder Airlie firmly told a group of his estate managers that they had no choice but to take the field with his son 'or be destroyed'. [5]

Straloch informed Newcastle that a few of the men who were present that evening, including Thomas Ogilvy of East Miln and Airlie’s chief factor, Duncan Shaw, were instrumental in 'forsing his Vassalls and tennents to Rebell', and that all of the attendees were living 'pretty openly' on the estate and should therefore be captured before they were able to escape:

All the Earles Ground Officers were Imployed and had orders from him to distress and forse all his tennents to take arms or pay money to Levie men for the pretender great care must be taken to apprehend them...’. [6]

These men would make especially good witnesses for charges of treason against captured Jacobites, as they were the prime recruiters on the Airlie estate and would undoubtedly have firsthand knowledge of many others who were also involved with the rebel army.

To aid with the sting, Robertson recommended the services of an informant named Alexander Crook, who served briefly in the Jacobite army as a surgeon but was thereafter allowed to continue his medical practice in Coupar Angus caring for the sick and injured soldiers of the British army. Crook was described as 'a very fitt person' who evidently had much to prove in order to return to the government's good graces. [7] As he had been acquainted with the Jacobite recruiters, the plan dictated that Crook would infiltrate the Airlie estate and point them out to the local authorities. Straloch cautioned stealth during this operation so as not to scare their quarry into the hills of Braemar, where the Airlie men might be able to make an escape: 'the Rebells must be first aprehended before they be Spake to least the Secrett be Blown'. [8] To insure against this possibility, Straloch suggested a devious ploy involving the distribution of GaÌ€idhlig-speaking agents amongst their targets:

by planting Some trusty Highland Souldiers there who must put on Tartan Cloaths and not their Regimentals and pretend they are Rebells Lurking thre till they find their Oportunity. [9]

The details of this scheme were also forwarded to the Reverend Charles Bog, a Presbyterian minister in Braemar who had likewise witnessed 'the open forse that was put on the Earles tennents'. [10] Like many Church of Scotland ministers, Bog was considered to be a reliable informant who was actively willing to help apprehend known Jacobites. In addition to the Braemar cleric, Straloch drew upon information from a number of others in the area who also knew of the Airlie recruitment efforts, including the ministers at Kingoldrum, Alyth, Kirriemuir, Lintrathen, Kirkmichael, and Cortachy. [11]

This network of clergy was only part of Straloch's full lattice of intelligence, however, and he dutifully named a number of other agents in the country whom he believed would assist with the plan. Some of those men were captured Jacobites, like Major James Stewart, who was a factor to the Duke of Perth, and Henry Ker of Graden, who served as an aide-de-camp to Lord George Murray. Others had professional relationships with the earls of Airlie, and though they were never in open rebellion, they nonetheless served as advisors and likely held sufficiently incriminating evidence against their employer. These included John Smith of Balhelvie, who functioned as Airlie's Bailie of Regality, and James Smith, WS, the earl's attorney in Edinburgh. [12]

With this broad net of operatives and witnesses, Straloch enthusiastically lobbied to put his plan into action as soon as possible. He had the pieces in place to make it happen and he was just the man to see it through:

if youle appoint an honest Englishman of Sence who will meet with me frequentlly I think I may be usefull in this and many other affairs of some consequence but if the Secrett be not well keept it will lose the Influence I have among the Highland Clans which may be of more use to his Sacred Majestie. [13]

Straloch reminded Newcastle that he had risked his life to obtain this information, but it is not clear if the operation was ever put into effect. Duncan Shaw of Cortachy, Airlie's factor and Straloch's primary target, escaped after Culloden with at least five of his uncles and stayed out of sight until well after the violence had subsided. Shaw and his immediate family can be traced to 1768 with no apparent harassment or capture on their records. [14] Thomas Ogilvie of East Miln was captured on 27 April 1749 and died at Edinburgh Castle in 1751 when he tried to escape, falling upon the rocks of Castlehill. [15] What became of the other Airlie men in Straloch's report is not currently known, but we may presume that none of them were ever apprehended.

Alexander Robertson of Straloch continued to advise the British government through the spring of 1747, during which time he penned a series of extravagant memorials that advocated for the establishment of fortification lines and parties of occupation to quell thievery and further Jacobite activity in the Scottish Highlands. [16] He also contributed to securing the stay of execution and eventual release of Jacobite officer Francis Farquharson of Monaltrie, for whom he penned an inspired memorial addressed directly to the Duke of Cumberland. [17] By the outbreak of the American Revolution, Straloch was in dire financial straits and was forced to sell his estate in Strathardle, explicitly blaming his ruin upon his long-held loyalty to the house of Argyll. His principal creditor in Edinburgh, Duncan McDonald, was so thoroughly fed up with the Baron's penury that he wrote to him, 'I never met with anything that gave me more vexation than my acquaintance with you and I hope never shall. Your conduct I can never forgive'. [18]

Darren Scott Layne received his PhD from the University of St Andrews and is creator and curator of the Jacobite Database of 1745, a wide-ranging prosopographical study of people who were involved in the last rising. His historical interests are focused on the protean nature of popular Jacobitism and how the movement was expressed through its plebeian adherents. He is a passionate advocate of the digital humanities, data cogency, and accessible, open research for all.

Links to more information

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Archival leads

  • British National Archives, Secretary of State Papers, Domestic 36/89, 92, 96
  • British National Archives, Secretary of State Papers, Scotland 54/34
  • British National Archives, Treasury Solicitor Papers TS 11/760/2361
  • National Records of Scotland, Robertson of Straloch Papers GD 1/90

Further reading

  • Alexander Mackintosh, The Muster Roll of the Forfarshire or Lord Ogilvy's Regiment (Inverness, 1914)
  • William Marshall, Historic Scenes in Forfarshire (Edinburgh, 1875)
  • James Robertson, The Barons Reid-Robertson of Straloch (Blairgowrie, 1887)
  • Jeffrey Stephen, ‘Hymns to Hanover: Presbyterians, the Pretender and the Failure of the ’45’ in RSCHS, 40 (2010), pp. 70-114
  • Duncan Warrand, ed., Culloden Papers (London, 1815)


1 Robertson's report (9 December 1746), TNA SP 54/34/35.

2 More on Straloch is available in James Robertson, The Barons Reid-Robertson of Straloch (Blairgowrie, 1887). Relevant notes on the centuries-long Argyll-Airlie feud are in William Marshall, Historic Scenes in Forfarshire (Edinburgh, 1875), pp. 156-8.

3 See, for example, Robertson to Forbes (23 September 1745), reprinted in Duncan Warrand, ed., Culloden Papers (London, 1815), pp. 412-3 (No. CCCCLII); Robertson to Newcastle (27 November 1746), TNA SPD 36/89/3/82; Robertson to Cumberland, TNA SPD 36/92/2/114.

4 Tullibardine to Spalding of Whitefield (7 November 1745), reprinted in John James Hugh Henry Stewart-Murray, ed., Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine Families (4 vols., Edinburgh, 1908), iii, p. 86.

5 TNA SP 54/34/35.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid. See also the entries for Alexander Crook junior and senior in Scottish History Society, eds., A List of Persons Concerned in the Rebellion (Edinburgh, 1890), pp. 204-5; TNA TS 11/760/2361 ff. 44-6.

8 Robertson to Stone (15 January 1746), TNA SP 36/93/2 ff. 53-4.

9 TNA SP 54/34/35. Straloch specifically notes that the men should 'Speak Irsh’.

10 Ibid. Straloch’s instructions at the end of the message state: 'be sure to burn or Conceal this letter and keep the Secrett from all Mortall as you regard yourself'. For our purposes, it is fortunate that the minister did not.

11 The extensive network of parish ministers serving the Church of Scotland was one of the British government's most effective tools in obtaining intelligence about rebel activity. See D. S. Layne, ‘Spines of the Thistle: The Popular Constituency of the Jacobite Rising in 1745-6’ (PhD thesis, University of St Andrews, 2016), pp. 183-191; Jeffrey Stephen, ‘Hymns to Hanover: Presbyterians, the Pretender, and the Failure of the ’45' in Records of the Scottish Church History Society, (40, 2010), pp. 70-114.

12 TNA SP 54/34/35.

13 Ibid.

14 Alexander Mackintosh, The Muster Roll of the Forfarshire or Lord Ogilvy's Regiment Raised on Behalf of the Royal House of Stuart in 1745-6 (Inverness, 1914), pp. 155-6; William George Shaw, Memorials of the Clan Shaw (Forfar, 1871), pp. 41-7.

15 The Scots Magazine, Vol. 11 (Edinburgh, 1749), p. 251; Bruce Gordon Seton & Jean Gordon Arnot, eds., The Prisoners of the ’45 (3 Vols., Edinburgh, 1928-9), iii, pp. 240-1; Mackintosh, Muster Roll of the Forfarshire Regiment, p. 143.

16 Robertson to Stone (24 April 1747), TNA SP 36/96/1 ff. 132-6.

17 Robertson to Cumberland, TNA SP 36/92/2 f. 114.

18 Robertson of Straloch Papers (21 April 1774 to 1779), NRS GD1/90 ff. 6-14.

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