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Lady Martha Bruce: Family’s tribute to wartime defender and reforming prison governor from Fife

Lady Martha Bruce has died aged 101.
Lady Martha Bruce has died aged 101.

Lady Martha Bruce of Fife, whose contribution to public life in Britain spanned eight decades, has died aged 101.

She had been a reforming prison governor who sought to uncover the potential of inmates, defended London and other cities from German bombers during the war, and was a tireless community volunteer in Limekilns in later life.

Throughout her life, Martha had displayed an adventurous streak. She walked in the hills of Scotland and in the Alps into her 90s and was known for early-morning swims in the sea.

Martha was born into a world that has largely disappeared. She had a coming out dance in London in 1939, shared a nanny with the late Queen and mixed comfortably with the royal family.

Her father was Edward Bruce, the 10th Earl of Elgin of Broomhall by Dunfermline, and her mother was the Hon. Katharine Cochrane, daughter of Lord Cochrane of Cults from Crawford Priory outside Cupar.

The family nanny was Marion Crawford who later looked after the late Queen and her sister, Princess Margaret.


Martha’s nephew, Adam Bruce, said: “My granny (Katharine Cochrane) was formidable – with a huge amount of Cochrane fighting spirit – and that was inherited by Martha.

“Both Martha’s parents were heavily involved in local government, as members of Fife County Council, and then her father served as Lord Lieutenant of Fife, and her mother ran the Fife Red Cross.”

Martha’s early years were spent at Broomhall and she was educated at Downham School in Essex.

As war loomed, she learned to drive under the auspices of the YWCA and delivered and relayed messages from Rosyth Royal Dockyard.

When the Second World War broke out, Martha joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Her brother, Andrew, served as an officer in the Scots Guards and her sister Jean joined the WRAF.

She was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery defending London before being transferred to the WRAC Battalion supporting the 51st Highland Division in Perth.

Lady Martha Bruce was a Lieutenant Colonel in the WRAC during the war
Lady Martha Bruce was a Lieutenant Colonel in the WRAC during the war, defending cities from aerial attack.

Her wartime experiences were recalled in Tessa Dunlop’s book, Army Girls: The secrets and stories of military service from the final few women who fought in World War II.

Martha retired from regular service as a Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded the OBE and the Territorial Defence decoration (TD).

After the war she spent a week as maid-of-honour to the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester during their stay at Holyrood House while the duke served as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Martha was then appointed lady-in-waiting to Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood, before she died unexpectedly in 1965.

Towards the end of the decade, Martha, who had always been motivated by helping people reach their potential, successfully applied for a post in the Scottish Prison Service.

Cornton Vale

She rose to become governor in charge at Greenock and took charge of Cornton Vale when it opened in 1975.

In a television interview with George Reid, later presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, in advance of the opening of Cornton Vale, Martha spoke of her approach to the rehabilitation of the women in her care.

She said efforts were made to equip them with home management skills to prepare them for better lives outside, and routes were open to let them gain academic qualifications.

“It’s amazing how much talent one can find and how much common sense when you just start them off on the right way,” she told the interviewer.

Martha retired from the prison service in 1983, although she continued to take an interest in the service for the rest of her life.

Champion of rehabilitation

Adam said: “Her interest in prisons, welfare and prison reform was lifelong. Recently she was invited by the Scottish Prison Service to visit its new Bella centre in Dundee, which focuses on the rehabilitation of female prisoners – a cause she championed.

“After she retired and then granny died, she settled back into village life in Limekilns, in Gardener’s Cottage, which had been part of the walled garden of Broomhall (when she was a child) but was now part of a small group of houses nestled behind the village church.

“She became an elder of Limekilns Parish Church, and a volunteer in the College Club, the village club for OAPs, where she mucked in right through into her 90s looking after people considerably younger than herself.”

Charity commitment

Martha, who was a JP and Deputy Lieutenant of Fife, was life vice-president of the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association and was heavily involved with Perth and Kinross branch of SSAFA, The Armed Forces Charity.

She celebrated her 100th birthday at Broomhall in 2021 and was there again for Christmas in 2022.

By then her health had begun to fail, and she died peacefully in her sleep at home, aged 101.

She is survived by three of her five siblings; Jean, who lives near Forgandenny, Andrew, the 11th earl of Elgin, and David who lives in Upper Largo, as well as a host of nephews, nieces, great and great-great nephews and nieces.

You can read the family’s announcement here.