Margaret Ogilvy: The Daring Escape of Jacobite Lady

Jacobite woman Lady Margaret (Johnstone)* Ogilvy joined with her husband, David Ogilvy, 6th Earl of Airlie, in supporting the Jacobite movement that culminated in the rising of 1745 (the forty-five). She was the daughter of Sir James Johnston of Westerhall and Barbara Murray. Ogilvy was taken prisoner at the Battle of Culloden, along with several other women who supported Prince Charles Edward Stuart, afterwards known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Depiction of the Battle of Culloden. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Having been captured, Ogilvy was “committed to the [Edinburgh] Castle on the 15th of June.”[1] She was tried and condemned to death as a traitor, and thereafter she sat imprisoned at the castle awaiting her execution daily. However, Ogilvy seems to have had more freedom than many other prisoners and frequently had guests. Among her frequent guests was Miss Katherine Hepburn of Keith, Ogilvy’s brother, and Ogilvy’s sister, Bonnie Barbara Johnston, later known as Lady Kinnaird.

Margaret Ogilvy

Margaret Ogilvy. Public Domain.

Hoping to free Margaret Ogilvy, they and her other friends and relatives did everything possible to get her sentence commuted. Unfortunately, all appeals fell upon deaf ears. The only other possibility was escape, but at first glance, escape appeared to be impossible. That was until Hepburn and Ogilvy’s brother and sister decided to assist her.

The idea for Ogilvy’s daring escape centered on a washerwoman who did Ogilvy’s laundry and came weekly. Ogilvy convinced the washerwoman to exchange clothing with her, and as the washerwoman had an ungainly walk with a hitch in it, Ogilvy practiced her walk for some days until she perfected it. When everything was ready, the plan went into effect. It happened on Friday, 21 November 1746.

“When the old woman made her appearance, as usual, at sundown on the Saturday before the day fixed for the execution, Lady Ogilvy persuaded her to change clothes … ‘Give me your dress and you take mine in its place.’ The old crone was not unwilling to play the part … and the exchange was promptly made.”[2]

About six o’clock, Hepburn and Ogilvy’s brother left the castle, and an hour later, the washerwoman with the ungainly walk strolled past the guards unheeded. Security was also lax at the castle, so, later, when a guard went to Ogilvy’s cell, Johnston did not allow him to enter her sister’s room. Moreover, she “told him he was to dress no supper, and at eight ordered him to his quarters.”[3] Ogilvy’s sister late allowed Ogilvy to be locked in her room, which was done, and no one entered to check and see if she was there.

Johnston stayed during the night and the following morning she ordered tea for Ogilvy but told the guard that Ogilvy was not feeling well. Moreover, the guard “did not see or hear her in the room that day, and when he was in the room the bed-curtains were closed.”[4] Around eleven, Johnston left the castle satisfied that her sister had a timely head start, and by the time the guards discovered Ogilvy was missing it was too late, Ogilvy had disappeared.

Margaret Ogilvy

“Ogilvie” plate illustrating “The Clans of the Scottish Highlands,” published in 1845, showing the dress tartan of the Ogilvies. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Margaret Ogilvy went to North Berwick and waited with some Jacobite gentlemen to board a Dutch ship. Unfortunately, the ship was unable to reach port because of gale force winds. She then returned to Edinburgh, and from there went disguised as a young gentleman to London accompanied by an Edinburgh merchant named Archibald Hart. However, another crisis happened.

Soldiers mistook Ogilvy for Bonnie Prince Charlie. Hart luckily was a smooth talker. He convinced Ogilvy’s accusers that she was a lady of rank who was in disguise because of gambling debts. Another woman examined her, determined she was a woman, and Ogilvy was released.

She then journeyed to France. There Ogilvy’s husband entered royal service and obtained the rank of general. It seemed as if Margaret Ogilvy was now safe, but when she discovered she was pregnant, she insisted on returning to Scotland. There she gave birth to a baby boy named David. Eventually, she and her husband were pardoned and allowed to return to Scotland without restrictions. Ogilvy died in 1757, her health having suffered from prison and the rigorous campaigns of war.

*Margaret Johnstone, in Clan MacFarlane


  • 1] Millar, Alexander Hastie, The Historical Castles and Mansion of Scotland, (London, Alexander Gardner, 1890) p. 324.
  • [2] Walford, Edward, Chapters from Family Chests, Volume 1, (London, Hurst and Blackett, 1887) p. 104-105.
  • [3] Millar, p. 325.
  • [4] Ibid.

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