How to do the Highland Charge 1689-1715

I was doing some research on the 1715 rising and I thought I’d throw together some of the most interesting first hand accounts that describe the famed Highland Charge.

Culloden by Morier.
Culloden by Morier.

Come on we’ve all done it, ran up to the top of a hill and raced down as fast as possible. In my case when I did this and picked myself up after tripping and rolling down the hill, I was being a Jacobite Highlander rushing the redcoats. But how does one go about creating the perfect highland charge? Read on to find out.

To demonstrate a classic Highland Charge I shall invent a typical encounter between regular infantry and a clan line. Please note that the first hand accounts in this post do not quite highlight the vital facet necessary for a victorious charge, that being the enemy line breaking and running in one or more places before impact.
The Scottish and Irish had been employing massed charges in battle since the Wars of the three kingdoms. By 1689 a clear pattern had emerged, though indeed Alasdair MacColla used precisely the same tactic at Inverlochy in 1645 and before, though I’ve not yet discovered the specific incidents.
Typically a Highland commander would choose a stretch of flat or inclining ground to engage the enemy, preferably it would be dry underfoot and clear of heavy scrub or trees, however the general terrain should be broken to discomfort the enemy who will fight conventionally and highland or difficult terrain will always allow a certain amount of surprise to fight on your side. An unwise British commander would thoughtlessly draw up his line of infantry without a proper reserve before the Highlanders, trusting in the discipline and firepower of his infantry, but perhaps also ignoring or being ignorant of vital topographical features a highland general might make use of.
The battle might begin with an action by Dragoons or a few cannon shots from the Brtish side. The Jacobites having driven off the cavalry, or been drawn on by them, ignore the cannonballs and then begin to advance, usually from the right flank but usually all together. The clans would unless pressed, conserve their energy and move forwards in an orderly manner no less than 4 ranks deep. In the front ranks marched the clan gentry, well equipped with typical highland weapons, swords, targes, dirks and pistols, depending on the decade there will be a large proportion of musket armed men too. Behind them came the lowliest men, sometimes called humblies, armed with cheap weapons, like Lochaber axes and munition quality swords and allot of dirks clothed in simple style. Just as they began the attack, especially in between 1600 and 1715 they would strip off their plaids and other encumbrances and drop them on the ground.
When in sight of the enemy the clans would begin to run, and at extreme musket range they would halt and let off a ragged volley from every gun. This would hopefully prompt the enemy to return fire, and if they were raw the clans would benefit from the habit of scared troops firing high. At which point the Highlanders often dropped flat and then before the smoke cleared, rise up, leaving their guns on the ground and draw swords. Yelling furiously, they sprinted the last 50 odd yards towards the enemy. Their long line would have constricted by now into a thick, impenetrable mass of screaming men, that few of the best drilled troops would have the courage to stand against. More often than not good troops would stand, however many armies in this time would include newly raised regular regiments and militia units, which were bound to break ranks and run before the clans made contact. A brief and gory hand to hand struggle would flare up with those who stood but invariably when one battalion was routed the others nearby would usually follow and the resulting confusion would trigger a withdrawal of those units still under discipline. If the government horse were still formed they would usually hurry to guard the retreat.

The Master of Sinclair described the Highland Charge at Sheriffmuir.

“They Drew themselves up in a deep mass, with the front two ranks composed of the “Fine”. They then: run towards the enemie in a disorderlie manner, always firing some dropeing shots, which drew upon them a generall salvo from the enemie, which begun at their left, opposite to us, and run to their right. No sooner that begun, the highlandmen threw themselves flat on their bellies and when it slackened, they started to their feet. Most threw away their fuzies and, drawing their sourds, pierced them everie where with an incredible vigour and rapidite, in four minutes time from their receiving the order to attack”.

For some clarity this part of the battle of Sheriffmuir lasted an estimated 8 minutes. General Hawley was with Lt Col of Evans’ Dragoons at Sheriffmuir and did not quite witness this charge but a lesser one on his side of the battle, however he saw it in full at Falkirk and at Culloden in 1746.

“They commonly form their front rank of what they call their best men, or true Highlanders, the number of which being always but few , when they form in battalions they commonly form four deep and these Highlander’s form the front of the four, the rest being lowlanders and arrant scum. When these battalions come within a large musket shot or three score yards (50m) this front rank gives their fire and immediately throw down their firelocks and come down in a cluster with their swords and targets, making a noise and endeavouring to pierce the body or battalion before them – becoming 12 or 14 deep by the time they come up to the people they attack.
The sure way to demolish them is at three deep to fire by ranks diagonally to the centre were they come, the rear rank first; and even that rank not to fire till they are within 10 or 12 paces, but if the fire is given at a distance you probably will be broke for you never get time to load a second cartridge, and if you give way you may give up your foot for dead, they being without a firelock or any load, no man with his arms, accoutrements etc, can escape them, and they give no quarters but if you will observe the above directions, they are the most despicable enemy.”

Hawley’s advice about rank fire is important because previously the British Foot had employed a system of firing called platooning, by which sections of a battalion took turns to fire, creating a running discharge along the line. Inherently complicated and slow in the face of a determined charge, though superior in regular warfare. At Killecranckie in 1689 a simple soldier and later a famous swordsman named Donald McBane witnessed the first battle of the Jacobite Wars from the unenviable position of being downhill to arguably the most successful Highland Charge until Prestonpans in 1745.

“The sun going down caused the Highlanders to advance on us like madmen, without shoe or stocking, covering themselves from our fire with their targes. At last they cast away their muskets, drew their broad swords and advanced furiously upon us, and were in the middle of us before we could fire three shots apiece, broke us and obliged us to retreat”

McBane was no less the man who avowed that he had leapt a gorge at “Soldiers Leap” to escape the pursuing Highlanders. For just as in Medieval warfare it was in the pursuit that the real casualties occurred. For all the high talk of cold steel, the highland charge was a bluff.

General Wade’s thoughts on the matter were as a man who had never faced the attack but had researched it fairly accurately.

“The arms they make use of in war, are, a musket, a broad sword and target, a pistol and a dirk or dagger, hanging by their side, with a powder horn and a pouch for their ammunition. They form themselves into bodies of unequal numbers according to the strength of their clan or tribe, which is commanded by their respective superior or chieftain. When in sight of the enemy they endeavour to possess themselves of the highest ground, believing they descend on them with greater force. They generally give their fire at a distance, they lay down their arms on the ground and make a vigorous attack with their broad swords, but if repulsed, seldom or never rally again. They dread engaging with the cavalry and seldom venture to descend from the mountains when apprehensive of being charged by them”

As it happens Wade was dead wrong about the highlander’s fear of cavalry and would defeat them twice during the ’45, promting the Duke of Cumberland to make sure he kept his Dragoons in reserve at Culloden. Colonel Sullivan Jacobite Adjutant General at Culloden was one of those officers who only slightly grasped how a Highlander liked to fight, but nevertheless had a point when he wrote patronisingly to Lord George Murray rejecting an alternate defensive position away from Culloden.

“Any man yt ever served with the Highlanders yt they fire but one shot and abandon their firelocks after. If there be any obstruction that hinders them of going on the enemy all is lost; they don’t like to be exposed to the enemy’s fire, nor can they resist it, not being trained to charge as fast as regular troops, especially the English wch are the troops in the world yt fires best”

However Lord George in remembering the battle of Culloden observed not only that the field was poorly suited to Highlanders (it being an open and flat field of fire with no chance of achieving surprise) but that:

“Their custom has always been… to run upon the enemy with the utmost speed so as to receive one fire or at most two before they mixt. In the present case, they were quite in disorder and received several fires before they could come up with the enemy”

Most officers that had never commanded clansmen or had done so and dismissed them as useful irregulars tended to have odd ideas. Although a Highlander General Mackay held them in disdain, he who was so badly beaten at Killecranckie described their habit of stripping for battle.

“To be sure of their escape, in case of repulse they attack bare footed without any clothing but their shirts, and a little highland doublet, whereby they are certain to outrun any foot, and will not engage were a horse can follow the chase any distance”

Of course this was absurd for as the clans of the Jacobite left found out at Sheriffmuir, to be driven from the field (admittedly by cavalry) after one had discarded plaid and musket, let alone shoes and hose, was a cold and miserable experience.

In Mackay’s memoirs of the war with Dundee he remembered a Brigadier Balfour making a speech to his troops at he end of which he gave them a dire incentive to stand and keep close.

“Assuring them that if they kept firm and close they would quickly see their enemies take the hills for their refuge: for which reason more than the hopes of pursuing the chase they stript themselves almost naked; but on the other hand, if they happened to give way (as he should not expect) before that rabble of Highlanders, they might freely conclude few or none of them should escape those naked pursuers far speedier of foot than they”

Despite his peculiar views on why the clans discarded cumbersome clothing, his brief view of the charge again shows the characteristic method.

“about half an hour before sunset, they began to move down the hill. The General had already commanded the officers, commanding battalions, to begin their firing at the distance of 100 paces by platoons, to discourage the approaching highlanders meeting with continual fire: That part of their forces which stood opposite to Mailing’s [Regiment], who had the right of all, before the Generals[‘], Levin’s and Kenmore’s regiments, came down briskly together with their horse, and notwithstanding the brisk fire, particularly from the General’s [Mackay’s] own battalion, whereby many of the chief gentlemen of the name MacDonald, who attacked it, were killed, pushed their point, after they had fired their light pieces at some distance, which made little or no execution, with sword in hand, tho’ in great confusion, which is their usual way…”

The General in a rambling way picked out the vital elements of a highland charge. The measured advance, the gentlemen to the front rank, the halt to fire and the desultory effects, then the charge to contact which in this case swept all before it so fast that Mackay already trying to respond seconds after they struck was left virtually alone on the field, his army and the enemy all but gone.

The impetuous pursuit of a highland charge was its second failing, few officers could rein in the charging clans once they had broken the enemy, and Mackay felt that had he but 50 men under arms he could have retrieved the situation. This is the type of attack that became famous in the ’45 rebellion at the battles of Prestonpans, Falkirk and Culloden. At Prestonpans the highland charge routed the enemy in a matter of minutes, there and at Falkirk they even defeated mounted Dragoons and chased most of the enemy army away. Unfortunately at Culloden the enemy failed to break and run, instead the charge bludgeoned through a first line of infantry, and was halted and driven back by the reserves.

Well hopefully that is most of what you’d ever wanted to know about the Highland charge. If you were searching for answers about the Highland Charge, specifically some first hand accounts then I hope this helped.

See you again for another Adventure in Historyland

3 Replies to “How to do the Highland Charge 1689-1715”

  1. Hi Josh,
    A fascinating article – I learned so much. I just re-read your “What Wellington Said” article last night, so it was doubly interesting to see the “arrant scum” quote referencing the
    “humblies” in this post. Thanks again !

  2. Interesting to think of a battle in terms of time, such as the short Battle of Sheriffmuir lasting only 8 minutes!
    Also a compelling dynamic from one of the descriptions to picture less seasoned soldiers running away while more seasoned soldiers stood fast, as long as reasonable possible, before having to pull back with the others. If they all stood fast could they maybe have held the line?? 🙂 Questions for history…
    Another great read, thanks.

  3. The end to this tale which is so often overlooked is that it was so successful a tactic, it was adopted by the British Army itself following its first use by the Black Watch in British service at Fontenoy in 1745. Wellesley used it to great effect across the world with various Highland regiments under his command and it became the “Volley and Bayonet Charge”. In this form, it remained successful until the Boers introduced sniping from cover with superior rifles. In counter to the Boers, it is again to the Highlands the British looked and formed the first sniper regiment from gamekeepers, deerstalkers and Ghillies primarily from Wester Ross, Caithness and Sutherland.

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