The Ogilvy Clan

The Ogilvy clan lived in Glenisla parish (in Angus, or Forfarshire); in part of the adjacent joint-parish of Cortachy and Clova parish (also in Angus); and in an area of the neighbouring parish of Alyth (in Perthshire). The chief of the clan was the Earl of Airlie. When Prince Charles arrived in the Highlands in 1745, the Ogilvy clansfolk supported his claims to the throne; but the chief’s family, like many other prominent people, hedged their bets. The fourth Earl of Airlie, who was then the chief, stayed at home, assuming the appearance of loyalty to George II, while his eldest son and heir came out for Prince Charles. In this way, it was hoped that whichever side won the family would retain its position. So the twenty-year-old David Lord Ogilvy joined Prince Charles in 1745, bringing with him (according to Burke’s Peerage) “a regiment of 600 men, chiefly of his own name and family”. After the disastrous defeat at Culloden Ogilvy was on the run from Cumberland’s forces, accompanied only by one faithful servant, John Thomson from Lintrathen at the foot of Glen Isla.

To disguise themselves, Thomson pretended to be the master, and Ogilvy the servant. They got lodgings one night in the Braes of Angus, and Lord Ogilvy, in his role as attendant, was making the porridge for supper. He poured the oatmeal in so awkwardly that the porridge was going to be lumpy, so Thomson said “Twinkle your little finger, my lord, twinkle your little finger”. Suspicion was aroused by the supposed master calling his apparent servant “my lord”, and it was agreed that thereafter Thomson would call Ogilvy “Davie”. Leaving Ogilvy in hiding at Lintrathen, Thomson managed to arrange a passage by ship from Dundee, though the whole countryside was being scoured for Jacobite fugitives. So the two of them were able to escape, first to Norway and thereafter to France. Even on the Continent they were treated with suspicion. Once, in Bergen, Ogilvy was thrown into jail, but Thomson stayed close by, and when Ogilvy escaped they made off together. Later they realized they were being followed by three suspicious characters, thought to be robbers. Thomson told Ogilvy to keep going, while he lay in ambush to deal with the threat. When they parted, Thomson said, “Gin I dinna come, ye’ll look after Nance”. But soon he rejoined Ogilvy, who surveyed him and said, “There is blood on your clothes”; John briefly replied, “Och aye, Davie man, but it’s no mine”. When they reached safety in France, Lady Ogilvy was able to join them. Lord Ogilvy enlisted in the French army, and became a general; neither he nor John Thompson was able to return to Scotland until 1778, when Ogilvy was pardoned.

This heart-warming tale of loyalty and comradeship came from the days when the two fugitives were inspired by the standards and ethics of clanship. Now a different story, based on different values, began to unfold. Ogilvy’s father died in 1761, and the family’s land charters were returned to Ogilvy (along with his pardon) in 1778, although the Airlie earldom was only restored in 1826. Ogilvy appears to have begun immediately to turn out his clansfolk in favour of south-country sheep. He did not “look after” Nance, or any other member of the Ogilvy clan. Between 1750 and the 1790s the population of the parish of Glenisla (where Lord Ogilvy was the main proprietor) dropped from 1853 to 1018; no less than forty-five per cent of the people had disappeared in forty years. (Well-behaved historians still claim that the clearances came about because the Highland population was increasing dramatically.) In Alyth, where Ogilvy also had a “large and valuable estate”, the sheep-farms were fetching high rents. The “numbers in the country part of the parish” had “diminished more than 200 in the last fifteen years”, according to Alyth’s minister, writing in 1793, which would mean that the rural population began to decrease in 1778, which was of course the very year that Ogilvy returned. The end of the chief’s exile was the beginning of the clansfolk’s. The Lowland black-faced sheep had appeared in both Alyth and Glenisla. Further east, the joint-parish of Cortachy and Clova was entirely owned by Lord Ogilvy: and in the 1790s the minister said the population had been reduced since the 1750s from 1233 to 1020 – a loss of more than one-sixth. They had been replaced by 8000 sheep.

Airlie Castle had been in ruins for the past 150 years – Airlie and the Duke of Argyll had become involved in the civil wars of England and the Lowlands in the middle of the seventeenth century, and in the conflict Argyll had demolished Airlie Castle. It stayed demolished for many years, no doubt because of the tremendous expense of rebuilding it: it was an enormous edifice – the remaining eastern wall, which was ten feet thick and thirty feet high, was at least fifty yards long. But after David Ogilvy’s return to Angus in 1778, he was able to afford to re-construct the castle: clearances made landlords rich. He still lived mainly in Cortachy Castle, but spent the summer at his other castle at Airlie.

By Alwyn Edgar

Author of The Highland Clearances.