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Issue 32 - Lord George and the last siege in Britain

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Scotland Magazine Issue 32
April 2007

 

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Lord George and the last siege in Britain

James Irvine Robertson looks at one of Scotland's greatest military leaders

In September 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart made Lord George Murray a Lieutenant General. The second Jacobite Rising was a couple of months old, and the little rebel army had entered Perth.

Lord George was in his 50s with little military training or experience and had been living peacefully on the family estates in Highland Perthshire for 20 years. But he was brother to the Duke of Atholl, and thus commanded loyalty amongst the men of Atholl and that meant the potential of 3,000 of Scotland’s best warriors.

He turned out to be one of that handful of great leaders of Highland Infantry in the mould of the legendary Marquis of Montrose and John Graham of Claverhouse, otherwise known as “Bonnie Dundee.” But he did not suffer fools gladly, which did not help his relationship with many of the Prince’s advisers. Or with the Prince himself.

In Perth, Lord George gained the confidence of his men. He was effectively in command of the Jacobite Army at the Battle of Prestonpans, during the march down to Derby, and during the retreat north that began on 5th December. The Battle of Falkirk on 17th January 1746 was a rude shock to the British Government. General Hawley had been given the task of mopping up what the authorities thought was the dying embers of the rebellion. He was beaten by the discipline of Lord George’s Athollmen and was rapidly replaced as Commander-in-Chief by the King’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland.

The Jacobite army’s retreat north continued. Prince Charles led the Highland Infantry towards Inverness through Crieff and Aberfeldy into Atholl. The Athollmen had a couple of snatched days, the 8th and 9th of February, to see their families before the withdrawal continued. Their country was then occupied by 400 men of the Argyle Militia – Campbells, their hereditary enemies – who billeted themselves in the houses of the absent lairds and the townships. Three hundred men of the 20th Regiment under the famously irascible Sir Andrew Agnew took over Blair Castle.

There were no fat folk in the Highlands.

Starvation would remain a threat for more than a century to come. The country had already been stripped to supply the rebels and now the Government garrison was taking what food it required. Mrs Robertson of Blairfettie, the wife of one of Lord George’s colonels, smuggled a letter north to her husband telling of the suffering being undergone by the women and children in Atholl. So Lord George decided to do something about it.

He left Inverness with some 400 of his men and marched south on the route of today’s trunk road, the A9. He sent a battalion to take Castle Grant in Strathspey to cover his rear.

At 2am on Monday 17th March, the Highlanders arrived at the Pass of Dalnacardoch, the border of Atholl, where, for the first time, Lord George briefed his officers on the mission.

The regiment split into some 30 small contingents, each ordered to attack one of the outposts occupied by the Campbells and each party commanded by the laird of whichever house was to be assaulted. With scarcely a shot being fired and not a casualty on their own side, all were taken. Hundreds of captured Campbells and a few redcoats were herded north to imprisonment at Ruthven. Then Lord George laid siege to his brother’s castle of Blair.

The 1745 Rising is a well-covered subject, and its grievous consequences reverberate down the centuries. But the siege of Blair Castle, the last time a homeland castle was attacked in British history, was more farce than tragedy. The redcoat pickets detected the approaching Highlanders. Many of the officers were sleeping at McGlashan’s Inn a few hundred yards north of the castle. They hurried back into the fortress and its garrison prepared to face the enemy’s assault.

Word of the alarming happenings in Atholl soon travelled south and a thousand Hessian mercenary troops and a couple of regiments of dragoons were sent to investigate. They found Highlanders commanding the strategic pass of Killiecrankie guarding the approach to Blair, which lay half a dozen miles north, and advanced no further. A Swedish dragoon officer was captured. He spoke tolerable Latin. He was surprised not to be killed immediately since his men would not have offered quarter. He was sent back to his commanding officer, the Prince of Hesse, with a polite note from Lord George.

The rebels set up their four-pound cannon in St Bride’s churchyard adjacent to the Inn, within a few yards of the grave of John Graham of Claverhouse,”Bonnie Dundee,” killed at Killiecrankie in his moment of victory in the first Jacobite Rising in 1689. The best the little guns could do was break a few slates. The artillerymen installed furnaces and heated their shot until red-hot. Some balls caught in the timbers of the roof, but did no more than char it until they dropped through to be scooped up by the beleaguered soldiers in ladles from the duke’s kitchen and quenched in tubs of urine.

‘Is the loon clean daft?’ shouted Sir Andrew Agnew. ‘Trying to knock down his own brother’s house?’ The soldiers inside became bored. One set up a dummy of his commander, equipped with a spyglass, in an upstairs window. The enthusiastic fire of the Highlanders caused Sir Andrew to investigate and he ordered the officer who erected the dummy to brave the enemy fire and take it down.

After 200 cannon balls had rattled the ancient walls of the castle, food and water were becoming short. Lord George wrote a note, offering those inside a chance to surrender. Sir Andrew’s cantankerous reputation was well known; there were no volunteers to deliver it. Now the hero of the siege emerged.

Molly, a maid servant from the Inn at Blair, being rather handsome and very obliging, conceived herself to be on so good a footing with some of the young officers that ‘she need not be afraid of being shot’ were the words written by one of those trapped redcoats – and he would have known his Molly.

She sashayed up to a window of the castle waving the note above her head, delivered it and waited for a reply. On hearing Sir Andrew’s roars of outrage, she picked up her skirts and fled. Lord George and his fellow officers were seen ‘to receive her, and could be observed, by their motions and gestures, to be much diverted by her report.’ The Jacobites spent a fortnight at their siege. Then orders came to return north.

Cumberland’s army was approaching from Aberdeen. At 10pm on the 1st April, the Highlanders folded their tents, kissed Molly goodbye and disappeared into the night.

Molly informed the occupants of the castle in the morning. Sir Andrew did not believe her and kept the gate locked until the next day when Lord Crawford arrived with the dragoons. For the benefit of the officers of the garrison, he brought with him ‘a plentiful dinner and very good wines,’ which he set up in the summerhouse in the garden.

Two weeks later came the Battle of Culloden.

Friction between Prince Charles and Lord George was a constant sub-text to the 1745 Rising. It was not helped by Lord George being always right and the Prince wrong.

Lord George was fully supported by the chiefs and the rest of the Scots officers, which further annoyed their Royal commander.

The Prince later encouraged the malicious and unfounded accusation that Lord George had been a traitor to the cause, which received some credence amongst the more ignorant Highlanders. Lord George escaped to the continent in December 1746, and was well received in Rome by the Prince’s father, King James VIII, who granted him a pension. He died in Medemblik, Holland on the 11th October 1760 at the age of 66.

The last word can be left to the Chevalier de Johnstone who wrote ‘Had Prince Charles slept during the whole of the expedition, and allowed Lord George Murray to act for him according to his own judgement, he would have found the crown of Great Britain on his head when he awoke.’