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Women in History of Scots Descent
Lady Nairne

She was born Carolina Oliphant, at Gask House, Perthshire on 16th August 1766. She had three sisters and two brothers, and fortunately, her father was a progressive thinker for his time as he believed in education for girls as well as boys. Her father, Laurence Oliphant, and her mother's family, the Robertsons of Struan, were fierce supporters of the Jacobite movement. Both her father and grandfather had to leave Scotland after Culloden. Their lands were bought by relatives in the ensuing sales of forfeited estates.

Her father suffered in poor health, brought on by his experiences whilst in exile, and to cheer him and her uncle, Duncan Robertson, Chief of Struan, she composed Jacobite songs and set them to old tunes. Charlie is my Darling, Will Ye no Come Back Again, and The Hundred Pipers are examples of this.

In her younger years, she was pretty, energetic, and had a keen fondness for dancing. Niel Gow, the famous fiddler, was a contemporary, and they no doubt crossed paths. It was at this time that she adapted popular melodies with new lyrics. The original lyrics would have been considered much too crude for society folk. These included The Laird o' Cockpen, The County Meeting, and The Pleughman.

On June 2nd, 1806, at age 41, she married her second cousin, Major William Murray Nairne, and they remained in Edinburgh until his death in 1830. It was upon coming to Edinburgh that she became involved in her lifelong project to preserve and foster the songs of Scotland. In those days, it was not considered proper for ladies of her place in society to dabble in what she herself called "this queer trade of song-writing". Her attempts at keeping her hobby a secret included not telling her husband, publishing her books anonymously, or under the nom-de-plume: Mrs. Bogan of Bogan. Much of her work was contributed in this form, to Robert Purdie's The Scottish Minstrel, 1821-24, in six volumes. When she went to visit him, she would wear an old, veiled cloak, in the hopes she would not be recognized.

In 1824, following George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822 and Walter Scott's endless petitioning, Parliament restored the forfeited Jacobite peerages and Major Nairne regained the family Barony, and she and her husband became Baron and Baroness Nairne.

Baron Nairne died in 1830, and from then on, she travelled quite extensively with her invalid son, who was born in 1808, and her great niece. First, she went to Bristol, then Ireland, and then travelled widely on the Continent. Her son died in Brussels in 1837, and she finally relented to her relatives' pleas to return to Scotland in 1845. Tired and sick, she came back to her home in Gask to die on October 26, 1845, at age 79. She was buried within the new chapel which had been completed only days earlier.

Two years after her death, a posthumous collection of verse, Lays of Strathearn, was prepared by her sister, but this time her name subscribed to the book. A granite cross was erected to her memory in the grounds of Gask House. Altogether, she wrote or adapted nearly 100 songs and poems in her lifelong endeavor. Lady Carolina Nairne deserves recognition today, because not only did she help to preserve many Scottish tunes, but also, at a time when women's talents were expected to be merely domestic, she managed to do her own thing.

Her creative ability, the secret part of her life, never interfered with her position as a society lady. Lady Carolina Nairne has been sadly neglected, but to her we owe immense gratitude, for, without her, much of the Scottish musical heritage would have been lost.

Lady Nairne was an astute collector of song and wrote some of Scotland's best-known songs, yet today there are few people that are familiar with her work. It doesn't help that some of her songs and prose have have been attributed to Robert Burns, James Hogg or Walter Scott.

Lady Nairn

from New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Oliphant, Carolina, Lady Nairne (1766–1845), songwriter, was born at the ‘Auld Hoose’ of Gask, Perthshire, on 16 August 1766, and baptized Carolina in honour of the exiled Prince Charles Edward Stuart. She was the fourth child of the three sons and four daughters of Laurence Oliphant (1724–1792), laird of Gask, and his wife, Margaret (1739–1774), the eldest daughter of Duncan Robertson of Struan, the chief of clan Donnachie. Her parents were cousins, grandchildren of the Lord Nairne who had narrowly escaped execution after the Jacobite rising of 1715, and were married at Versailles on 9 June 1755 during nineteen years of political exile following the failure of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The Oliphants, the Robertsons, and the Nairnes had all been attainted for high treason and lost their estates. A part of Gask was bought back from the government and her parents were able to return two years before Carolina's birth.

Laurence Oliphant was active in Jacobite politics throughout his life and the children were carefully reared to ‘keep them loyal’ (Rogers, 20). In their prayer books the names of the Stuarts were pasted over those of the house of Hanover. The girls had a governess who taught English, since it was felt that their ‘very broad Scots … will not be gracefull in a young lady’ (Graham, 290), a tutor who was also family chaplain, and a dancing-master whose teaching was supported by regular visits from a traditional fiddle-player. Carolina's younger brother Charles, writing in 1784, gives a glimpse of the resulting musical ethos: ‘Carolina is just now playing, “My wife's lying sick I wish she ne'er may rise again, I'll put on my tartan trews And court another wife again”. It is a very good tune …’ (Graham, 322). This song was one of the ‘Bonny Highland Laddie’ group which had distinctly licentious connotations. But the days of the old free song-culture, in which daughters of gentlefolk could bound about waving ‘gully knives’ and singing ‘geld him, lassies, geld him’ (Crawford, 127) were passing. An evangelical revival was steadily making its way among the Scottish gentry, which would banish the high-kilted muses to the byre and the kitchen and transform the blithe and musical Carolina Oliphant into the prim and pietistic Lady Nairne.

In eighteenth-century Scotland, popular art-song was the dominant literary form and it enjoyed a rich interrelationship with the surrounding oral culture. But performance of much of the traditional repertoire was becoming problematic in polite society because of its explicitly sexual content and the decline in the social segregation of men and women. Carolina Oliphant followed Robert Burns's work with intense interest, particularly his gift for fashioning new words to new tunes, and his editing of existing material beginning to be considered unsuitable for mixed assemblies. One of her earliest pieces was a bowdlerized version of ‘The Pleughman’ (Randall, 58–9; Rogers, 179–80), for her brother to sing to his tenants at their annual dinner. Many of her songs were set to classic traditional tunes in this way, including ‘The Land o' the Leal’ (Rogers, 163–4) which was written for her friend Mary Erskine (Mrs Campbell Colquhoun), on the death of her first child in 1797. Sometimes only the tune was used and new lyrics were written for it; sometimes the verbal text was a creative collage of existing versions. Contemporary song-making was often a collective process, making individual attribution difficult. Since anonymity also was the rule (strengthened in Carolina's case by the urge to be taken seriously, which she felt might be compromised if her songs were known to be by a woman), the exact extent of her work and its links with the rest of the tradition have never been clearly established. There is no reliable critical edition.

Jacobite songs probably make up the largest thematic group. The genre had emerged during the later seventeenth century, and by 1820 it was second in importance only to love song in the traditional canon, attracting the attention of major songwriters such as Robert Burns and James Hogg, and acting as a symbolic code for continuing Scottish opposition to the Union. Hence, perhaps, the sense of contemporary relevance that informs her song ‘Wha'll be King but Charlie?’:

     Come thro' the heather, around him gather,
     Ye're a' the welcomer early;
     Around him cling wi' a' your kin;
     For wha'll be king but Charlie?
     (Rogers, 199–200)

The social life of the Perthshire gentry is another prominent theme. The best of her songs in this vein, ‘The Laird o' Cockpen’, retains the outstanding old tune but takes no more than a hint from the words traditionally associated with it, which show the central male character forsake the daughter of a lord to go with a collier lassie (Burns and Johnson, no. 353). The morganatic motif survives, but is cleverly reversed in the curt negative response of a ‘penniless lass wi' a lang pedigree’ to a casual proposal of marriage from a pompous arriviste. But not all the tunes were old, and not all the verses adaptations of existing material. The circle of balls and entertainments in the country houses of Perthshire brought Carolina the acquaintance of the master traditional fiddler Niel Gow and his gifted son Nathaniel who furnished her with beautiful new airs which she matched with fresh and inventive verses:

     Wha'll buy my caller herrin'?
     They're bonnie fish and halesome farin';
     Wha'll buy my caller herrin',
     New drawn frae the Forth?
     (Rogers, 165)

Carolina's engagement to her now landless cousin, William Murray Nairne (1757–1830), was lengthy, but they were married at Gask on 2 June 1806, following his appointment as assistant inspector-general of barracks in Scotland. They settled in Edinburgh where their only child, William Murray Nairne (1808–1837), was born two years later.

Carolina's extensive knowledge of Scottish music and song led to contact with the publisher Robert Purdie who was planning ‘a collection of the national airs, with words suited for refined circles’ (Rogers, 43), which later appeared as The Scotish Minstrel (six vols., 1821–4) edited by Robert A. Smith (1780–1829), precentor of St George's, and the leading church musician in Scotland. Since such work was considered incompatible with her status as a gentlewoman, elaborate steps were taken to conceal her identity. Contributions were sent through intermediaries, either anonymously or as coming from the fictitious Mrs Bogan of Bogan. When obliged to visit her publisher she did so in disguise. Only in the posthumous volume, Lays from Strathearn (1846), were they eventually avowed.

In 1824, after George IV's visit to Scotland, William Nairne's title was restored. On his death in 1830 Carolina lived with her son in Ireland and on the continent. He died at Brussels in 1837. Thereafter her main interests were charitable and devotional. Lady Nairne became poet laureate of the aspiring and respectable in Victorian Scotland but her efforts to chasten the merry muses with the rod of moral rectitude (at one stage she even contemplated a bowdlerized edition of Burns) began with the passage of time to seem merely quaint. Of the more than eighty songs she made or re-made only a handful—‘The Hundred Pipers’, ‘Wha'll be King but Charlie?’, ‘The Rowan Tree’, ‘The Auld Hoose’, ‘The Laird o' Cockpen’ and ‘Caller Herrin' ’—were to continue as part of the common stock of Scottish expression during the following century.

Lady Nairne's life illuminates the cultural transformation which overtook the Scottish gentry in the century after the Jacobite rising of 1745. ‘I sometimes say to myself,’ she wrote in 1840, ‘“This is no me,” so greatly have my feelings and trains of thought changed since “auld lang syne” …’ (Wilson, 2.428). Lady Nairne died at Gask on 26 October 1845, and was buried in the family chapel.

William Donaldson


C. Rogers, Life and songs of the Baroness Nairne, first published 1869 (1905) [Rogers is by default the ‘standard’ edn, but his work is flawed in several respects: biographical details are described as inaccurate by both Kington Oliphant and Simpson, nor are the texts or attributions entirely reliable] T. L. Kington-Oliphant, The Jacobite lairds of Gask (1870) E. M. Graham, The Oliphants of Gask: records of a Jacobite family (1910) S. Tytler and J. L. Watson, The songstresses of Scotland, 2 vols. (1871) R. Burns and others, The Scots musical museum, ed. J. Johnson, 6 vols. (1787–1803) G. F. Graham, The songs of Scotland, 3 vols. (1861) M. S. Simpson, The Scottish songstress (1894) J. G. Wilson, ed., The poets and poetry of Scotland, 2 vols. in 4 (1876–7) R. Forbes, The lyon in mourning, or, A collection of speeches, letters, journals … relative to … Prince Charles Edward Stuart, ed. H. Paton, 3 vols., Scottish History Society, 20–22 (1895–6) T. Crawford, Society and the lyric (1979) E. L. Randall, The merry muses (1966) W. Donaldson, The Jacobite song (1988) G. Henderson, Lady Nairne and her songs (1901) journals, 1789–1845, NL Scot., MS 981


NL Scot., corresp. NL Scot., corresp., journals, and songs NRA Scotland, priv. coll., corresp. and verses


J. Watson-Gordon, oils, c.1815, Scot. NPG British school, four miniatures, priv. coll. British school, silhouette, priv. coll. J. Watson-Gordon, double portrait, oils (with her son, William Murray Nairne), Scot. NPG [see illus.] photographic reproduction (after portrait of Lady Nairne as a young woman), repro. in Simpson, Scottish songstress Oxford University Press 2004–6 All rights reserved: see legal notice Oxford University Press

William Donaldson, ‘Oliphant, Carolina, Lady Nairne (1766–1845)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 14 Sept 2006]

Carolina Oliphant (1766–1845): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/19723

Our thanks to Dr. Graeme Morton for sending this into us.

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