Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Lady of the White Cockade

Prince Charles Edward Stewart descending the Canongate Sept 17th, 1745
The people of Edinburgh awoke on the morning of September 17th, 1745 to find the city had fallen into the hands of the wild Highlanders of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite army. Only the mighty bastion of Edinburgh Castle remained in government control.
The city itself had fallen without a shot being fired as several hundred men composed of Camerons of Clan Donald and Appin Stewarts led by Cameron of Lochiel had stormed through the Netherbow Port and seized control. The success of the operation carried out during the long dark hours of the autumn night owed much to a young man more used to organising letters and appointments than military affairs. His name was John Murray of Broughton. He was a young man, short of stature with a handsome face and affable nature who would serve as private secretary to the rebel prince throughout the uprising. It was his knowledge of the geography of Mid-Lothian that had been called upon to guide the force of warriors as they travelled over hill and dale to enter the city unseen by the garrison in the castle who were on alert for any approach by the enemy. 

Despite the fear that the wild Highlanders would ravage the town and its people the denizens of Edinburgh were relieved to discover that the ragged men from the mountains were kept on a shorter leash than their counterparts in Redcoats. Gradually as it became clear their lives and property were in no danger the townsfolk emerged from behind locked doors to view their conquerors with curiosity. Their appearance both revolted and fascinated the people as they viewed these “hill-skippers” and “scurlewheelers” who had been reckoned to be no more than bandits and cattle thieves. If the common clansmen who made up the bulk of the rebel forces did not inspire much admiration for their looks the rumoured appearance of the young Chevalier himself provoked much consideration among the women of town. When it became known that he, and the remainder of his army, were encamped around Duddingston Loch on the southern side of Arthur's Seat to protect them from the heavy cannon in the castle curiosity turned to fascination. When it was announced that the prince was to ride to his old family home of Holyrood House the people, in their tens of thousands swept down the Royal Mile to welcome him home. 
With the sky above torn by the cheers of the populace Prince Charles Edward Stewart entered Edinburgh and let it be known that there would be a Royal Proclamation read at the Market Cross later that day.

Come one o'clock the High Street was crowded from the Lawnmarket to the Netherbow Port as everyone jostled to see the prince and to the wild music of the bagpipes he rode up the Canongate and entered the Old Town escorted by the great and good of Tory/Jacobite society to endless cheers and exclamations of adoration. It was only as the party reined in by the Market Cross surrounded by a protective cordon of Highlanders that people began to nudge each other and point towards one figure in particular who sat on a white horse by the prince.
What made this particular figure was not only the fur trimmed blue uniform of a French Hussar or the naked blade of a broadsword which rested on their shoulder nor even the broad brimmed hat festooned with ostrich feathers, it was the fact that in the midst of this masculine display or martial splendour here was a single solitary woman.

The Beautiful Recruiting Sergeant
She was Margaret Murray, nee Ferguson, the beautiful young wife of Mr Secretary Murray as he insisted on being addressed by all and sundry. Margaret had been born in Nithsdale in the Border region between Scotland and England and was a dyed in the wool Jacobite who delighted in being so close to the centre of affairs and rubbing shoulders with the prince himself. 
Her role at the Cross that day however was straight forward. With her she carried a velvet bag filled with scraps of white muslin stitched together into cockades, the emblem of the Jacobites, and once the prince had been proclaimed Regent she beckoned the men and boys of Edinburgh forward. She was the beautiful recruiting sergeant and the men and boys who kissed her fair hand and took the white cockade were quickly drummed into the ranks of the rebel army.

Margaret followed her husband loyally as the Jacobite forces marched south into England until they reached Derby only 130 miles from London before the order was given to begin the long retreat back to Scotland. She, and the exhausted clansmen, took the long road north until their travels ended on the marshy, sleet-swept moor of Culloden where so many hopes and lives were brutally snuffed out.
Margaret avoided the carnage as her husband had declared himself too ill to travel with the army the final stretch towards their doom. He had confined himself to bed twenty miles from the battlefield in Elgin and it was there that he learned the prince had fled and declared it was every man for himself.
While she was devastated by this craven act Mr Secretary Murray, who now chose to become plain old Mr Murray again, was casting an eye towards his future. 
Handing out White Cockades

She was sent off into the hills to look after herself as best she could while he travelled through the Highlands trying to reunite the scattered clans with promises of French gold, ships and troops on the way to assist them. By now the clansmen had had their fill of these hollow promises. Their homes were being systematically burned by the rampaging troops of the British Army who met any resistance with extreme violence which saw whole families being lined up against the wall of their croft before a firing squad!
Margaret survived her adventures in the wild moorland and mountains of the Highlands living rough and eking out an existence from what little food the scattered and destitute population could spare her.

The beautiful woman who had looked so splendid as she handed out white cockades only a few months earlier was now ill, heartbroken and alone. Eventually her husband thought to look for her and claimed he had arranged transport to carry her to Ireland where she was to remain until things had stabilized. Slowly and painfully she managed to travel to the west coast only to find that no boat awaited her. By now seriously ill and only able to move with the greatest difficulty the young woman somehow managed to find her way to Edinburgh, the scene of her finest moment, where she finally found shelter in her mother's home on Cant's Close, which she reached on June 25th, 1746, three months after Culloden. Those three months of sleeping in the heather and struggling to find sufficient food had taken a grim toll on her health. She was also pregnant with her first child.
The wilderness Margaret endured for several months
However the vengeful government in London wanted blood and her name was high on their list of supposed traitors who could expect no mercy. With soldiers searching for her Margaret was moved to a supposed safe house in the Abbey Hill area of Edinburgh not far from Holyrood House where the previous September she had danced and laughed at the balls held to celebrate the Bonnie Prince's return. Now there was no dancing and nothing to laugh about as rumours reached her ears that the safe house was anything but! Once more she was forced to move on. On July 6, 1746, she was secretly taken to a house in Bruntsfield Links. Here she was concealed in a small closet in the attic. Mr Hamilton, the householder, knew nothing of her presence. It was his wife, secretly a Jacobite sympathiser, who had agreed to take her in and care for her. Mr Hamilton, was well known Whig whose loyalty to the government meant he was above suspicion, and this fact protected Margaret from any danger of discovery from searching troops.

When news that her husband had been captured reached her her spirits sank lower than ever and it was felt that it was time to move on. Still gravely ill she was taken to a property in the Lawnmarket where on September 25th, 1746 she gave birth to a son named Charles. Tragically the ill health which had blighted Margaret for months had taken their toll on her child who lived only a few days.
Sinking deeper into illness and melancholy the unfortunate woman was secretly carried once more back to her mother's home in Cant's Close where slowly through the months of autumn and winter she slowly regained her health. In the spring she finally felt well enough to depart Scotland and travel to Europe with the hope of joining the Court-in-exile of King James VIII. Arrangements were made for a ship to carry her to Holland but these fell through leaving her frustrated as time after time her plans were thwarted. She by now suspected that her husband's relatives were behind these setbacks. More than once they had refused to allow her access to her husband's money with no good reason ever given.

The White Cockade worn in the bonnet
of Bonnie Prince Charlie
Determined to make a new life for herself Margaret packed her meagre belongings and travelled to London hoping to be reunited with her husband who was then held as a prisoner in the Tower of London. Arriving safely she took lodgings with a Mrs Pitcairn in Lambeth in May 1747 under an assumed name.
It was now that she learned just how low John Murray was prepared to go to save his own neck. Time after time he stood in court to betray fellow high ranking Jacobite lords and officers. Not for nothing was he mockingly known as Mr Evidence.
With her loyalty to the Jacobite cause undimmed despite all that she had suffered, she turned her back on her husband for the last time. Using her assumed name she had no difficulty booking passage to Holland.

John Murray was eventually released from the Tower after betraying Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat who was beheaded in 1747. John married a young woman, despite still being legally married to Margaret, and he thereafter introduced his new wife as Lady Murray!

Of Margaret herself little is known of her subsequent adventures on the Continent. She returned to London at some point and the beautiful woman who had once distributed white cockades to the young men of Edinburgh died in London in 1779 and was buried at Marylebone Cemetery on the 10th of September.

To be entered in a lucky dip to win a copy of my ebook A Capital Crime which features
Margaret Murray at the height of her glory please leave a comment below.

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Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.

 His blog can be followed at 


  1. Fantastic post, Stuart. Poor Margaret.

  2. An unknown slice of women's and Scottish history! We all know about Flora McDonald and the boat to Skye, but I'd never heard of this courageous woman. I'd love to read this.

  3. I LOVED this article and yes please to that lucky dip. I am a Scott fan and am reading Diana Galbeon's Cross-Stitch right now. I cannot get enough of the period.

  4. Fabulous post, Poor Margaret, so courageous, which cannot be said about her husband. I'd love to be considered for the book please Thank you


  5. Love this post and Margaret. It's thee time in history I really love . Please consider me for a book

  6. Poor Margaret, indeed! To be betrayed by her own husband and in-laws after all her trials! Thank you for this post and the giveaway.

  7. Great post. I am hoping she had a fab time on the continent, in between leaving her lowlife husband for ever behind and coming back to die. Please consider me in the giveaway.