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Issue 46 - Will ye no come back again?

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 46
August 2009


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Will ye no come back again?

Annie Harrower-Gray explores the legends of some Jacobean hauntings in the Highlands of Scotland.

The ballad Will Ye No Come Back Again, written by Lady Nairn in the early 19th century, expresses the sentiments of many a Jacobite after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat at Culloden on 16th April 1746. Some guests at Culloden House Hotel near Inverness would argue that he did in fact come back again because for centuries there have been sightings of the Young Pretender’s ghost wandering around the Georgian mansion.

Culloden House, built between 1772 and 1788, stands on the foundations of a fortified castle owned by the Forbes family and destroyed by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland in reprisal for the 1745 Jacobite Uprising. It is well known that the Prince requisitioned this first house, and he stayed here in the days leading up to the battle. What is unclear though is why he would want to return to the scene of his defeat. Perhaps his spirit now regrets that while he was well rested and refreshed from Forbes’ hospitality he urged into battle five thousand men who having just marched from England were exhausted and half-starved. These are the men whose apparitions are now said to drink from Culloden’s Well of the Dead.

If Charles Edward Stuart has returned to Culloden then there are supporters of the Jacobite cause who have never left the battlefield. Anyone who has ever stepped onto this windswept field of woe can tell you of how quickly they become engulfed in the atmosphere of despair and futility that still hangs heavily in the air around the battle scene. No visitor would be surprised to learn that there has been a whole legion of supernatural sightings from this, the last major battle to take place on British soil. In just under an hour, the Duke of Cumberland cut down a fifth of the Highland army leaving over a thousand souls to wander this bleak and unforgiving moor.

In a grim prophecy, the servants at Dean Castle near Kilmarnock foretold the death of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s privy councillor, William Boyd, 4th Earl of Kilmarnock.

Dean Castle is a towerhouse and palace built during the turbulent 14th century. It was built by the Boyds on lands given to the family by Robert the Bruce as a reward for their loyalty. Alexander Boyd and his brother Robert were advisers and guardians to the young James III. A band of Scottish noblemen rebelled against their influence and Alexander was beheaded in 1469.

Before the castle burned to the ground in 1735, servants claim to have seen the grisly apparition of Alexander’s severed head rolling around the floor of one of the rooms. It was, they insisted, an omen of doom for the 4th Earl. Indeed it was, he was captured at Culloden and later beheaded, the deed fulfilling the prophecy.

Not all of the Jacobite army’s battles ended in bitter defeat though, and it would appear that the ghosts of the victorious like to re-enact their moment of glory. Witnesses have reported a red glow over the pass of Killiecrankie in Perthshire on each anniversary of the battle which took place there on 27th July 1689. On this day, ghostly soldiers are said to replay the battle in all its gory detail, and afterwards young Highland women appear to pick over the corpses for any valuables.

The Battle of Killiecrankie saw the rebel Highland army led by John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee (“Bonnie Dundee” to Jacobite sympathisers and “Bluidy Clavers” to Presbyterians) defeat 3,000 Government troops (under King William’s commander, General Hugh Mackay). Bonnie Dundee was killed at the height of the battle, his death having been predicted by an ominous warning. The night before the battle he awoke to be faced by a wounded man dripping blood from his head. The spectre pointed at Dundee only saying ‘remember Brown of Priesthill’ before fading away.

In his attempts to suppress the Presbyterians holding forbidden outdoor meetings or conventicles, Dundee had three years earlier executed a covenanter John Brown, an Ayrshire farmer. A supporter of the National Covenant which opposed the imposition of the anglicised Book of Common Prayer, Brown had refused to acknowledge the supremacy of James VII.

A few hours after Dundee fell on the battlefield, Colin Lindsay 3rd Earl of Balcarres, under house arrest for corresponding with the exiled James VII, saw Dundee’s apparition appear at his bedside, although he did not hear of the Viscount’s death until the following day. It seems this was not the first time that Lord Balacarres had found himself the harbinger of doom. On his marriage to the first of his four wives, Maritiade Nassau, he slipped a mourning ring instead of a wedding band onto her finger by mistake. The bride was so distraught at his placing such an evil omen upon her that she expired within the year.

Every Jacobite uprising seems to have attracted its fair share of ominous warnings and predictions of doom. Had Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed at Eilean Donan Castle on Loch Duich, he might have picked up some useful advice from the castle’s resident ghost – a Spaniard killed by English troops.

In May 1719 the garrison at Eilean Donan Castle consisted of 46 Spanish mercenaries employed to retain this stronghold for the Jacobites. Three Royal Navy frigates – HMS Flamborough, HMS Worcester and HMS Enterprise – to no avail bombarded the castle and eventually troops from the Enterprise stormed Eilean Donan and discovered a stockpile of 343 barrels of gunpowder. They ignited 27 barrels and the blast demolished the castle.

The 1719 Uprising was ended with one single military action in which English forces defeated the Jacobites and their Spanish allies at the Battle of Glen Shiel on 10th June 1719. It was the last engagement on mainland Britain involving foreign troops.

Maybe if the Bonnie Prince had been forewarned that his cause too would end with the single military action that was the Battle of Culloden, history would tell a different story.

Flora MacDonald would not have had to row him over the sea to Skye for unlike his grandfather James VII, he may not have had any need to flee to France.

Will ye no come back again? The chorus could well be the official homecoming anthem. With so many Jacobites exiled oversees after the Uprisings of 1689, 1715 and 1745, maybe, just maybe though, we should be careful that it is only the living we invite to come back again.

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