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Issue 92 - The Glen Shiel Rising

Scotland Magazine Issue 92
April 2017

 

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The Glen Shiel Rising

James Irvine Robertson recounts a tale of rebellion

In 1715, Philip V of Spain appointed an Italian, Cardinal Alberoni, as his prime minister. The country had just lost a war with Britain and was forced to cede Gibraltar. Attempts to rectify the situation led to further setbacks: the loss of Palermo and Messina in Sicily. Luckily for Philip, Alberoni was a worldly man and liked a good plot. In 1718 he decided a useful way forward would be to support a Stuart Rebellion against the Hanoverian kings.

The failure of the 1715 Rising was still raw amongst the exiled Jacobites. The Old Pretender's court had lost its funding and been expelled from France to Italy. Many of the exiles that escaped after Sheriffmuir were almost destitute. Alberoni offered to play Fairy Godmother. He would provide 'five thousand men, of which four thousand are to be foot, a thousand troopers, of which three hundred with their horses, the rest with their arms and accoutrements, and two months pay for them, ten field pieces, and a thousand barrels of powder and fifteen thousand arms for foot, with everything necessary to convey them.' All that, and lots of money.

The poet chief Alexander Robertson, who was deeply in debt and based in Montpellier, France during his second exile for rebellion wrote: 'Gold is the main engaging prize that captivates all hearts and eyes.'

The main invasion was to take place in South West England. Led by the Earl Marischal, George Keith, a small diversionary force was sent to Scotland in a couple of frigates to raise the clans. Aboard with him were the Marquess of Tullibardine, his brother Lord George Murray, and the Earl of Seaforth, chief of the Mackenzies. But the bad luck that dogged the Stuarts and Spanish armadas led to the fleet of 29 ships being scattered by a 12-day storm and the cancellation of the project.

But the two frigates with arms and 307 Spanish troops turned up at Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, on 4 April 1719 and were told by the Earl Marischal's brother, James Keith, that the main invasion was off. The leaders held a council of war and squabbled over command.

Lord George was 24 and the best soldier the Jacobites produced. James Keith went on to become Frederick the Great's most successful field marshall. One would have expected such military talent to do something spectacular. They agreed to land on the mainland, raise the clans and take Inverness. Before returning to Spain, their ships crossed the storm-tossed Minch and, on the 13 April, landed them at Lochalsh.

The clansmen there to join them were disappointingly few. They decanted their troops and stores on the Mackenzie island stronghold of Eilean Donan Castle and, leaving a garrison of 45 Spaniards, they set up their headquarters on shore. They organised another base and a second ammunition store a few miles away at the head of Loch Duich. Afterwards, most of their men went off recruiting.

The Government knew very well what was afoot and a squadron of five vessels was already cruising the Isles. On 10 May, three ships entered Loch Duich. The castle may have been proof against broadswords, bows and muskets, but not against a barrage from 60 cannon. Under its cover, marines landed and the garrison surrendered. The arms and stores were captured, the castle blown up, and the nearby villages and farmsteads burned. One ship continued up the loch and the Highlanders detonated their remaining powder store on its approach.

Eventually, about 1000 more clansmen turned up. Lochiel with 150 men, 500 of Seaforth's Mackenzies, Rob Roy MacGregor with 80 men, and some from Perthshire that were loyal to Tullibardine and Lord George Murray; but the news of the cancellation of the main invasion was known and, for most chiefs, to raise the clan seemed suicidal.

On 9 June, nearly two months after the landing, the Jacobites were still sitting on the shore of Loch Duich. An outpost three or four miles up Glen Shiel discovered that about 1000 Redcoats, equipped with new-fangled coehorn field mortars, dragoons, grenadiers, and loyal clansmen were camped at Loch Cluanie and would pass through Glen Shiel to Loch Duich the following day.

Only nine miles long, Glen Shiel is narrow and precipitous, dominated as it is by the mountains known as the Five Sisters of Kintail to the northeast and equally formidable slopes to the southwest. Using the landscape to their advantage, the Jacobites had thrown a barrier across the drove road passing through, dug entrenchments, and raised defensive barricades in front of their positions on the rugged hillside.

The first contact was with Murray's command south of the river in late afternoon. The mortars lobbed their alarming shells. One assault was repulsed; the second forced the rebels from their positions. The mortars were heaved round and the shells crashed down upon the Mackenzies, followed by a stiff assault. Seaforth asked for reinforcements but received a bullet in his arm. By the time the MacGregors hurried over, the defences were already disintegrating.

The Government commander General Wightman turned his attention to the Jacobite centre on the hillside. The Spaniards, some 200 of them, were waiting patiently and had even offered to attack when they observed the reverses taking place below. But, just three hours after it started, Tullibardine declared the battle lost and the whole rebel force retreated up into the hills.

During the night, the Scots agreed to melt back into their mountains as best they could and that the Spaniards should surrender. The following morning, the Spanish colonel submitted to General Wightman, on condition that his men could keep their baggage, and they were repatriated.

The Jacobite leadership all escaped back to the continent. Alberoni lost his job and retired, with a fortune, to Italy. Eilean Donan would remain a ruin, until it was restored in the 1930s as the perfect picture postcard castle we know and love today.