This is a long post in honour of the anniversary of the Battle of Sheriffmuir and the 300th anniversary of the 1715 Jacobite Rising. It focuses on the defining battle of the campaign, and I hope you all enjoy it.
Red John and Bobbing John.
It was a lonely sight. A small group of horsemen standing atop a bleak upland moor north of Stirling. The rising ground was known locally as Stone Hill, and from its moderate height they looked down at the columns of men marching across the front of their position. The wind was constant and fitful, it blew with the coldness of death that morning of 13 November 1715. It blew the wiry mane on the horses heads, and toyed with their tails. It picked at the bright banners floating above the two armies, as they flapped and wriggled on their poles. The breath of the riders misted and dissolved into an icy blue sky across which drifted the pale forms of white clouds. The frost of previous days lay over the stunted grass, stray upstanding stalks of which quivered amongst the bristling heather and moss mounds. The ground had frozen, turning the usually treacherous moor into a platform well suited for marching, all but the deepest bogs that lay on the sheltered side of the hills were crusted with a murky film of ice. It was 8 AM and all that was to be heard was the faint chink of bridles, the snorting of the horses and the breath of the wind mingling with the marrow chilling howl of bagpipes.
The riders watched silently, coattails flapping and stray hair flying across their faces. A few clasped hats to their heads and looked towards their superiors. Their eyes were tight and glistening, their expressions were pinched and their cheeks, fingers and noses were numb and glowing from the cold. Heads turned at the approach of a rider from towards Dunblane, visible to their left flank, the fields before which had been their bivouac the previous night. Behind the newcomer the columns of marching redcoats were trudging to the north, on a parallel but opposite course to the columns on the other side of the hill. However the problem was that they were soon going to pass by each other’s flank. The man was young, 35 years old but he wore the star of the garter on his coat and rode his horse as one accustomed to action. John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll, the King’s Commander in chief in Scotland reached to top of Stone Hill trailed by his staff. He had soft, pale public school looks under a restless grey wig that made him seem older than he was. Relative youth notwithstanding he had a wealth of experience under his belt, having served as a brigadier under Marlborough and had commanded the evacuation of Spain. The Highlander’s below him knew this, to them he was “Red John of the Battles”. He nodded to the officers of troop of gentlemen volunteers who tipped their hats to him, and with his big, round, iron grey eyes he took in the scene below him. Four large straggling columns were moving along from the moor of Kinbuck, having just descended from the last brae that separated it from Sheriffmuir. The ground was undulating and by times hid them from sight, but the wild sound of the pipes drifting up to them on the breeze gave a fair indication of where they enemy was to be found.
King George I spoke no English, therefore he may not have understood what a near fatal mistake he had made by turning his back on the Earl of Mar. Piqued at the snub the Earl suddenly became King James’ highest ranking and most influential supporter, and de facto commander of the Jacobite army. He was a good choice, as in lieu of the Duke of Berwick, then en route with the king to take command, there was no one else with the tact required to try and unify the faction ridden Jacobite army. The issue was that John Erskine, Earl of Mar was a politician not a soldier. At 40 years of age he had more experience bobbing between opposing parties than storming fortresses or leading troops in battle. His rather self satisfied countenance was of the same well bred stock of his adversary up on the hill, a good looking man used to being charming and saying the right thing at the right time. Now however “Bobbing John” as he was archly known, partly due to the odd way which he walked and partly due to his habit of switching sides, would have to get used to making the right decision at the right time. He was necessary also because whereas the Highlander’s would serve under lowlanders of good pedigree, lowlanders thought themselves above their fierce Gaelic neighbours whose language they could not speak and customs they despised, they would not even mix with them let alone take orders from a Highland commander in chief. The clans themselves were not much better for they were riven amongst themselves. The MacDonalds would have nothing to do with the Mackintoshes and Macphersons, nor would the Cameron’s have anything to do with the Frasers except to stick a dirk in their ribs and the MacLeans and MacNeils couldn’t stand the sight of one another. More problematic was the habit of Highlander’s hearing an order and then looking to their own personal clan officers for a nod of confirmation. Despite his comparative lack of experience, Mar was far from feeling insecure as he contemplated the cavalry that had suddenly revealed themselves on the high ground to his left. Indeed his campaign so far had returned some encouraging results, although then again he hadn’t really had to do very much and any complications derived from his prosecution of the war was mostly his own doing. After raising the Royal Standard at Braemar in September, a firm push south had seen Perth fall to his army and now Stirling was but a battle and a days march in hand.
Stirling was the choke point of Scotland, a place were the most decisive battles of Scottish history had been fought. Here the impenetrable “Flanders Moss” ended and the Great Firth of Forth narrowed sufficiently to be bridged. The Flanders Moss was one of the great dividers of Scotland as it separated Highland from Lowland. A fittingly legendary bog, which lead to the high mountains and deep glens inhabited by the wild kilted men of the hills. The knowledge of the paths a man or beast might use to get across its treacherous bogs were guarded by only a handful of men, mostly of the clan MacGregor, one of whom knew it better than most. It had been in October 1715, in plain view of the Crief town guard, that the outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor had drank the Pretender’s health by the market cross. The legendary miscreant was one of those who had driven the rebellion forwards. A respected man, a man of action who commanded respect, an individualist who believed in a joint cause and a man with many contacts and strings to pull. Roy was an enthusiastic Jacobite, though probably through no particularly strong love of king James, yet he willingly committed the lives of his nearest and dearest to the cause along with his own. This being said if one had asked to speak with the famous MacGregor, it would have been discovered that he was not at that point with the main army.
The armies close.
Looking ahead of him up the slope, Mar could see the horsemen quietly observing him. This in truth was a surprise. He had laughed at old General Gordon of Auchintool when he had reported the enemy was at Dunblain. Mar had arrived at Kinbuck the previous night having expected his advance guard to be well in advance and expected little resistance. Though for the moment he could see nothing of the well disciplined columns marching towards his rear on the other side of the hill, the presence of the scouts above him meant that infantry must be close by. Moving along behind him were some 9,000 men, (though it is more than possible they may have been as low as 6,000) principally composed of clan regiments drawn from those that had proclaimed themselves loyal to King Kames, backed up by lowland townsmen in conventional militia battalions supported by some cavalry and a small train of artillery. They had marched down the main road from Perth to Auchterarder which they reached in the 11th of November. Here Mar had reviewed the army, and drawn up an order of battle, unfortunately it was a sad and disorderly affair, there had been squabbling as to the deployment of the cavalry, and the inference is that the battalion officers were not at all practiced in large scale manoeuvres as a consequence, nor knew what their place in line was to be. More disturbingly the largest mass desertion yet, of some 600 men, had occurred which two full battalions of clansmen just upping sticks and walking off, which likely prompted the decision to move on Stirling with all haste. The army had been drawn up at daybreak on the 12th and began to march. They hugged the right bank of the River Allan intending to follow it down to Stirling, but upon Gordon’s report that their route was blocked at Dunblane by Argyll’s troops they had spent a cold night huddled in their long plaids and blankets on the adjoining moor. That morning another of the seasoned soldiers Mar was supposedly commanding, General Hamilton, had again formed up the army, to the left of the road to Dunblane in two lines. Mar had then addressed his officers with a stirring speech. The senior commanders and clan Chiefs all agreed to advance on Dunblane, though the Marquis of Huntley voiced a half hearted objection he had soon changed his mind in the face of unanimous enthusiasm. Mar was cheered by the bonnet waving Highlander’s as he rode by with the Royal Standard fluttering above his escort.
The Duke of Argyll paradoxically would not have been blamed for feeling the disquiet lacking in the Earl of Mar. For unlike his adversary he had an intimate knowledge of the Jacobite’s intentions and numbers. Argyll’s spies had informed him that the rebels had mustered at Auchterarder and intended to take the road to Dunblane doubtless prior to a push on Stirling. With this information he had scraped together as many extra troops as he could manage and on the 12th of November he had marched out of the city and up to the north were the river plain of the Forth rises abruptly into the blunt heads of the Ochil Hills. The ground here gives way to stretches of wind blasted upland moors and sloping braes that travel down to the River Allan, meaning that generally the ground was boggy due to the water drainage coming down from the higher ground. To the west the Allan squeezes the town of Dunblane against the edge of the hills forming a natural choke point that a small army might use to defend the road to Stirling, and equally provide an attacker with a secure base from which to pounce. The ground had been chosen long in advance, Argyll had an excellent mounted arm which had given as good as they got against the incursions of the highlanders. During the month and more after the fall of Perth, Argyll and Mar had engaged in a war of raid and plunder. This petit Guerre as Guerrilla warfare was called before the peculiarities of Spanish hit and run tactics had become known, had been necessary for both sides. Mar needed to recruit and train his army, while awaiting King James’ arrival from France with the Duke of Berwick, while Argyll lacked the manpower to advance upon Perth and defend Stirling without reinforcements, which he was expecting in the form of foreign Mercenaries from Sweden and Switzerland. The rebellion had divided Scotland politically as well as ideologically. While the Highlands some of Dumfriesshire and Galloway and North western England were for King James, the lowlands, the Campbell Highlands and the rest of England stood for George. It was not so much an uprising of ideology, as is seen from the petty way in which Mar had changed sides, it was a political one. The Whigs had no more love for the Catholic Jame’s than the Tories, but all Whigs knew that with George came a Tory government and the Tories would not stand for anyone the Whigs endorsed.
Argyll had reached the Dunblane first, but not by much, for as his men were filing through the town General Gordon’s advance guard of Jacobite Highlanders were approaching Kinbuck, 2 miles up the Allenwater road to the north. Argyll’s troops had moved out from Dunblane and halted in the open around the hamlet of Kippendavie. The Duke issued orders that no officer or soldier was to pitch a tent nor quit the post he then occupied but to rest on their arms all the night. The disgruntled troops lay down on the bare ground in battle order, with their left flank on Dunblane and the right on Kippendavie, for an uncomfortable night. The Duke took scarce repose in a sheep cote at the foot of a hill on the right flank, resting his head on a bundle of straw.
It had been as the redcoats were leaving Dunblane that the lady of Kippendavie, whose husband was out with the Jacobites, sent a boy running to warn Mar. The lad had ran right into General Gordon’s quartermasters, who as Marlburian tactical doctrine prescribed, were riding out ahead of the army in search of billets and forage. The boy had brazenly announced that the redcoats were at Dunblane, and swore that he was satisfied for them to hang him if he had lied. Brought to Gordon, the experienced old soldier halted the advance guard at Kinbuck and sent out patrols who confirmed the presence of the enemy at Kippendavie.
Argyll had had the intelligence that Mar was following the curve of the River Allan towards Dunblane. That morning therefore he had got his men moving towards the usually boggy Sheriffmuir where the local militia often had field days. Now mounted atop Stone Hill he saw that the rebels were moving across his flank and that if he could move fast enough he could catch them off guard. The heavy frost had provided a generally firm footing for the Jacobites to march over, and indeed in this state the ground would also support them launching an attack over Stone Hill, which if taken would allow them to take him in the flank. Eager to move before Mar realised his danger or his fortune, Argyll reined around and galloped down the slope.
The columns of highlandmen in blue bonnets and multi pattern plaid were marching alongside restrained uniforms of the lowlanders regiments, while the squadrons of horse trotted in front and rear. Behind them trailed the usual tail of baggage wagons full of equipment and not a few women in them. The wheel’s of Mar’s precious few guns squeaked on their axles in protest. Mar had a typically civilian way of commanding the army. Without a proper military background and no experience the Earl was constantly convening councils of war with his commanders. Although it flew in the face of good military order to ask lower ranked officers to vote on what to do, Mar’s committee style Generalship had admittedly got them this far. His closest advisors were Hamilton, a veteran of the Dutch service, Gordon who had served the Tsar of Russia and Colonel Clephane, a young and active officer who had served in Queen Anne’s army, like Argyll. Indeed it is likely that the advance from Perth was not his idea but of one of the more experienced soldiers under his command, which could’ve been anyone. In terms of pecking order Hamilton held more sway than old Gordon, and both men disliked being told what to do by civilians like Mar, or his quartermaster General, Peter Smith, while the more inferior ranked but creditable Clephane was recognised as a good officer but due to his station he had no voice at army level. Hamilton had done much to organise the troops along conventional lines, but sadly had a poor understanding of how to manage the Highlander’s and was prone to think all lost when they showed signs of confusion. Gordon, while understanding these things more was hesitant in large scale tactics and was much more touchy than the others.
On the other side of Stone Hill Argyll had already reached the front of his army and had ordered all his 3,300 men to double to their front, presumably to appear behind the Jacobites and hit their rear. The orders carried through the ranks in shouts and barks, drums picked up the order. Stomping companies of infantry in dirty long red coats and battered black hats began jogging forwards, muskets at the shoulder and standards to the fore, while the cavalry trotted on ahead. Just previous to this move, Mar had ordered the Earl of Marischal to take his squadron of cavalry and Sir Donald MacDonald of Sleat’s battalion, and drive off the enemy cavalry and secure the ridge, he was then send back intelligence of what he saw. These troops had made off at best speed, Mar observed that as soon as they saw Marischal begun his march the enemy had disappeared entirely from the ridge. So Mar led the army on at an easy pace, until after a quarter of a mile a messenger came from Lord Marischal. The enemy were on the other side of the hill in force, not two musket shots from him, he having only 4 squadrons and 700 foot could not withdraw in safety, he begged that Mar would lead up the main body to support him. Fearing lest Argyll reach the top first Mar ordered his nearest men, to turn to their left and make all haste to the top. Hamilton had arranged the army in its present route of march so that it could easily form line of battle, however the discipline and time required to do this under stress was not accounted for. The Earl of Mar suddenly appeared to the front of the clan Donald, gallopers instantly splintered from him. Colonel William Clephane to the right and Major David Erskine to the left. They returned minutes later having successfully given the order to attack, then Mar pulled off his hat, waved it in the air and gave a loud “Huzzah”. The pipes rose once more over the brusque buffeting wind, led by the Clan Donald on the right and with Mar at their head the clans advanced. They took up their position to the right of Marischal’s Horse who now oddly found his squadrons wedged in between the MacDonalds of Sleat and the rest of General Gordon’s column. Trotting up to Gordon’s right was the Master of Sinclair’s 3 squadrons of horse which he had detached from his allotted position in the rear, perhaps eager to take the post of honour at the right of the line.
Argyll and his dragoons now arrived at the top of the hill. The Government troops were slowly inclining up the ridge behind him, however by now his vanguard or what would become his right flank when they formed line had outstripped the main body. However when Argyll looked down the hill he was not bothered by his lagging column overmuch. At a glance the Duke saw confusion below him. While the right flank and cavalry of the Jacobites had easily joined their comrades on the top of the hill, the left flank and centre comprising the three other army columns had become terribly confused. How it happened is a hard question to answer, but it is likely to do with the speed at which the right flank under Gordon and Mar left the main body. In accordance with Hamilton’s plan the columns of the army were to turn to their left and move into battle order. However doing this on the march must have caused great problems and the slowly moving lowlanders of the right rear trying to follow conventional rules of the drill ground got in the way of the more impatient Highlanders, who tried to force their way to the front. Matters were made worse by a half frozen bog that prevented the line being extended fully and the rearguard or left rear was completely prevented from taking it’s place in the line. Very possibly the jockeying for position first observed at Auchterarder that caused so much disorder when deploying was at play, with neither Mar nor Hamilton clear of what was happening individual officers seem to have done as they thought best. Indeed one account confirmed that Jacobite left “arrived in such confusion that it was impossible to form them according to the line of battle projected [and ] every one posted himself as he found ground”.
Grey Dragoons and the Highland Charge.
The view Argyll must have seen therefore was the appearance of a giant column of milling men, slowly moving up the hill on a restricted front. He could not see Mar’s right flank and decided that he was looking at the entire Jacobite army falling into disorder. With this in mind he determined to seize his opportunity before his own army was fully formed. Turning in his saddle he ordered his squadrons of cavalry to charge. What now occur’s on both flanks is almost a mirror image of the other, with both Mar and Argyll thinking they were confronting the entirety of the other’s forces. Over 400 government horse and 570 of foot under Argyll now engaged some 3,065 Jacobite infantry. Meanwhile over 3,100 Jacobite clansmen and 807 horse ostensibly under Mar bore down on 370 Dragoons 1,730 foot under General Whitman.
Splashing hopelessly in the icy bog Mar’s left flank and second line suddenly saw the brow of the hill blossom with red coated horsemen trotting towards them. At once the lowland infantry attempted to offer some kind of resistance. Despite their confusion, when faced with an enemy the lowland foot gave a front in perfect order, drawing admiring remarks from General Whitman, and some of the other officers. Lord Forfar’s and Whitman’s Regiments then advanced on them and for 15 minutes the two sides exchanged volleys. Much to the surprise of the British the Lowland foot, firing by alternate ranks, as opposed to the regulars’ platooning, held their own and Evans’ Dragoons were ordered to advance. Marlburian doctrine prescribed that cavalry attack at the trot to maintain dressing and order, and to only use pistols in the pursuit, this caused a highly disciplined but relatively slow and restrained “Charge”. Lead by Argyll and Colonel Hawley, the British cavalry saw the the Jacobite infantry present their muskets and braced. The enemy gave fire by ranks, and a galling series of discharges crashed out from the solid line of lowland foot. Evans’ Dragoons were checked, mounts, saddles suddenly emptied, swords lamely twirled in air, shouts of exultation changed to screams of pain and bellowing orders as horses whinnied and shied, fell and died. Hawley may even have been wounded. “Shame! Shame!” Booed the volunteer horse as Evans’ dragoons retreated past them and through the advancing infantry. The Highlanders must have pushed through the lowlanders and given chase for they are described as coming up against Argyll’s 2 infantry battalions, and making no less than 12 rushes at them. The ground being boggy, Forfar’s, and Whitman’s regiments were able to hold them back with their platoon volleys. Then the coup de gras came as Colonel Lord Charles Cathcart of Portman’s Dragoons expertly wheeled his squadrons around the bog to come into line on the open Jacobite flank. With empty muskets and attentions fixed on Evans’ retiring black horses, Mar’s left flank was unprepared for the new onslaught of the “Grey Dragoons”. Cathcart charged rallied and repeated the sequence again and again until the enemy gave way before him. However brave the charge, he had had help. One of the small army of unknown agents placed by Argyll in Mar’s ranks had chosen the decisive moment and gave an order to retire. Cathcart did the rest, utterly breaking the dissolving enemy infantry and driving it like sheep across the rear of Mar’s line of advance, north towards the River Allen.
A long tight block of stern faced bearded warriors, the finest and most feared fighting men in the north, stared down at the enemy. They were standing under their ancient flags and behind their hereditary Chiefs upon the right of Stone Hill. In the front ranks were the best armed men, French muskets and pistols hugged in the folds of their long plaids, dark Spanish basket hilted swords sheathed for the moment, clasped behind shield hands, oiled and sharpened the night before. Behind them were the lesser men of the clan, most just with the plaid belted over their long shirts or breeches and hose, they clutched less expensive swords, a varied selection of guns and plenty of dirks and polearms. All were waiting, conversing softly, or maybe singing a chant in low Gaelic monosyllables, taking a pull at a flask, checking the draw of their weapons, each with their own separate pre battle ritual to prepare them. General Gordon of Auchintool had hesitated. After forming his men above the marching British columns, he commanded a sizeable force composed of the cavalry under the Marquis of Drummond’s lieutenants and the infantry if the clan Donald (Sleat, Glencoe, Glengarry and Clanranald. In addition to Duart’s Breadalbane Campbell’s and Glenbuchat’s battalions), but Mar was nowhere to be seen and Hamilton also was not in sight, it sat ill with him to attack without orders. Captain Livingstone of Dumbarton’s regiment an old soldier of King James’ was impatient at the delay and rode to Gordon’s side. He urged the old soldier to order the charge, with a last look for Mar, Gordon relented and ordered the attack.
At almost the same time as Argyll had launched his cavalry, the centre and left of the British army was still on the march when the first of the Clans descended on them. The ground was only mildly sloping and mostly flat. Clan war-cries filled the air, plaids were downed and shirts tied between legs. Mar’s Highlander’s covered the empty space to extreme musket range in 4 minutes at an easy jogging run, the discordant strains of pipes still wailing over the screams of the clansmen. At once the disciplined redcoats of the centre halted and faced left, as one the front rank kneeled and the rear ranks locked up, muskets held high. The clans paused and shot off a scattered volley, then began to run forwards and throw themselves flat. Captain Alan MacDonald of Clanranald’s Regiment was riding at the head of his clan when the first volley crashed out from the British line. With most of the men on their bellies returning fire, he was knocked him from his horse in full view of his regiment.
A shocked cluster of MacDonalds rallied protectively around their fallen son and held him close as he died. Awash with grief, battle fury and rage, old Glengarry tore the bonnet from his head and stepped before the stalled Highlander’s. “Revenge! Revenge!” He bellowed in Gaelic “Let us mourn tomorrow and take revenge today!” and began to belt like a deer over the remaining distance toward the enemy.
In the 4 minutes that followed the remaining 3 battalions of the government centre was washed away by a torrent of infuriated Highlanders that not only battered against their front but also swept around their flank as well. Bayonets were useless against the medieval onslaught. Outnumbered and literally butchered in close combat the main line probably broke a few minutes after impact if they stood at all.
As the infantry in the centre devolved into a mob of fugitives, the British left flank under General Whetham began to retire. Though turning the tide was out of the question, Whetham did lead Carpenter’s Dragoons in a cut and run dash into the open flank of the highlanders, slowing them enough for the infantry to gain some distance. Meanwhile the Earl of Marischalls cavalry now tried their luck against the remaining infantry of the left. Fortunately these stood firm, the Jacobite cavalry were met by determined volleys and veered off to pursue the fleeing centre. The Dragoons of Lord Robert Kerr had their work cut out for them as they attempted to cover the retreat. Lord Torphichen, who’s squadron formed part of the reserve, was stunned to see that the plain was full of fleeing British infantry and pursuing Highlander’s. He watched in horror as little knots of infantry were washed away in a welter of milling swords, pepper dashes of shots spat from the fleeing tide of men as they reached the Wherry Burn that ran across the rear of the Government position, here individuals attempted to offer resistance only to be immediately overtaken by the sword swinging clansmen and hewed down. The atrocious nature in which men men their deaths at this stage was a complete departure from how most British officers had come to view war. Writing three days later a witness wrote that the pursuing Jacobites displayed a “merciless and most savage nature” to them. Worse he observed the Master of Sinclair’s horse still formed and seemingly ready to charge. Torphichen immediately withdrew and rode to a piece of narrow ground were he drew up his Dragoons and had them boo the fleeing cavalry of Carpenter’s regiment, and that of the Earl of Stair, he then gave notice that if they did not stop running he would treat them as enemies and in so doing rallied many of the fugitives around his colours.
Young John Lyon Earl of Strathmore probably knew he was going to die. Watching the grey Dragoons ride amongst the fugitives of the Jacobite Left flank and Rear, sabring or pistoling all and giving quarter to none he had not attempted to run like many others but determined to rally his regiment around their colours and together, back off the field as one. Lord Cathcart seemed to have known how to conduct the pursuit of many with few. Never let up, never let them breath, don’t let them stand, always keep them running. Handling his Dragoons with an expert and merciless hand he directed them at any group of men that tried to give resistance. Such knots were like snowballs, they attracted lesser flakes as they moved until all of a sudden they became formed units once more. No sooner had 14 or so rallied around Lord Strathmore than men were dropping to concentrated musketry and pistol fire. Strathmore was shot in the belly as he clasped the regimental standard and implored the men to keep together. Slumping against the pole he allowed himself to be taken from the field as the Dragoons closed in. With their pistols and sabres they cut their way amongst the lowlanders and overtook the wounded Earl. The desperately wounded young man, his boyish aquiline features contorted in pain, his dark wig fallen from his head, would have been able to watch the Dragoons gallop away with his colours before one of his captors put a pistol ball in his heart.
At the banks of the Allen the slaughter went on. Finally the Duke of Argyll rode up in the wake of the pursuit, as Portman’s Dragoons charged again and again into any force that tried to stand he saw that little quarter was being given. Shocked at the wilful murder being enacted by his Scottish Dragoons, most of whom dearly hated the Highlanders, he cried out “Save the poor blue bonnets!” But by that time many were beyond his help. Further to his consternation he was now approached by General Whighteman who informed him of the worrying news that his centre and rear appeared to no longer be on the field.
Indeed this was true. By mid afternoon both armies had been in sorry confusion and had until recently both been certain that they had won, only to be told that for victory to be complete there was a deal more fighting to be done. When Mar returned from the chase, his voice hoarse from trying to rally the Highlanders, bringing with him some 3,000 men, the only formed Jacobites on the field had been Sinclair’s squadrons who had been held in place by, Sinclair riding along the front rank, pistol in hand threatening to kill the first man that broke ranks. No senior Jacobite officer seemed to be present but the Earl. Mar himself had gotten carried away in the chase, Hamilton was long gone with the broken left and centre, and Gordon was nowhere to be found.
“Oh for an hour of Dundee!”
Powder stained and ragged, Cameron of Locheil did not look at his best as he led the remnants of the Jacobite left and centre towards Kinbuck. The light was fading and the shadows were growing long over the cold ground that was covered with dead and wounded. The sound of musketry was still to be heard, ragged and individual in the distance. A defeated group of highlandmen moving towards the river highlighted the grave disadvantage the clans faced if they encountered defeat. Being of the custom to throw down both plaid and musket before the final rush, most were now only armed with their swords and polearms. The highland fugitives were feeling the cold, they marched with the heavy, dogged tread of the defeated, eyes cast down and only to be raised at the sound of hoof beats or the crackle of musketry. What colours were left were limp and shot torn, they hung lifeless from their poles, to be picked at now and again by the slack evening breeze. As they approached the place were they had spent the night Locheil caught sight of a large and as yet formed body of men through the shifting smoke.
Rob Roy had been detailed off from Auchterader on the 10th with a small force of between 250-500 MacGregors and MacPhersons to trace a path through the Moss and disrupt Argyll’s rear. The path being more hazardous than most, took time to cover, especially when travelled with allot of men who didn’t know the way. They therefore didn’t arrive in time to make any difference. He had arrived at Kinbuck from Doune to witness what seemed to be a disaster unfolding, with dragoons chasing down Jacobites like foxes after hares. One of his men impetuously declared that they should attack at once.
“No” replied Roy with decision “If they cannot do it without me, they cannot do it with me” and looked on as small parties of Dragoons harried the fleeing Jacobites to the riverbank.
Alexander “Sandie” Macpherson commanding his clan detachment was having none of it and unsheathing his sword had cried “Let us endure this no longer. If he will not lead you I will”
Roy confronted him with a cold eye and replied with quiet challenge, perhaps fingering the hilt of his own sword “Were the question one of driving Highland stots or kyloes Sandie, I would yield to your superior skill; but as is respects the leading of men, I must be allowed to be the better judge”. Macpherson had backed down. Locheil now allowed MacGregor to cover his retreat from the field, guarding the bridge at Kinbuck Roy would bring everlasting controversy on his name for callously refusing to enter the fray. However it is clear that even by the time he took the rearguard the British had given up the pursuit. Doubtless Roy’s highlanders did what they could to help, using plaids as stretchers and perhaps even sharing them with allies, though clan rivalries would not permit some from even speaking to another without violence, let alone share a blanket.
The master of Sinclair’s squadrons became the nucleus around which the victorious side of the Jacobites rallied. Left alone on the field he had faced down Argyll’s regrouped cavalry until Mar returned to Stone Hill with some 3,000 men by which time Argyll had mustered his remaining forces, which could not have been much more than 1,000 men. The shocking news of the fate of his left flank had changed what he had thought was a glorious victory into something approaching close to a disaster. As he disposed his men amongst some turf walls used for the herding of sheep, he new his formidable but tired cavalry were his best chance of survival, but he feared the end was come. Yet for half an hour as the last of the light faded and the hills were bathed in a cold blue shadow, the two sides watched one another. At 5pm with darkness fully upon them Argyll decided try and make his way back to safety. “Oh for an hour of Dundee!” Bemoaned Gordon of Glenbuchat as the Jacobites squabbled about what to do next, and watched their great opportunity fade with the daylight. As has been noted he’d have been better asking for an hour of Maccolla, but it is certain that both would have finished Argyll then and there. Mar however could not persuade his clans to attack, nor would the cavalry advance without the infantry, thus allowing Argyll to retire to Dunblane and when he was gone Mar went marched towards Ardoch. Though the pursuing Highlanders had run afoul of Lord Torphichen’s rallied fugitives near Dunblane, General Whetham had lead all that was left back towards Dunblane and then on to Stirling, warning all of a terrible defeat.
In the cold light of day, Argyll found that he had lost about 500-600 killed and 500 wounded, it is strange that the numbers should suggest almost equal numbers of killed and wounded. Usually there are twice as many wounded than killed in 18th century battles, and the numbers may reflect the devastating nature of wounds inflicted by the highland swords. These were crippling losses for Argyll’s small army, especially as many of the wounded would never again heft a musket. He feared that Mar would continue to advance on Stirling for he doubted he could withstand another general action. Having fought and arguably checked a force 2 and a half times his own number. He did not trust his men to stand the highland charge a second time and if Mar came back he had decided to retreat. No firm evidence is available for Jacobites losses, despite the harsh pursuit, one rebel officer commented on the distinct lack of bodies to be found on the field, and Mar claimed he had only lost 60 killed, another source suggests only 232 all told, Argyll’s estimates were about 700 and the modern historian, Szechi theorises 1,500 men killed wounded and missing, plus much of their equipment and artillery. It seems entirely likely in my opinion that losses were between 200 killed and 700 wounded. However wether it be 1 or 1,000 the Jacobites suffered crippling desertions in the next few days as the Highlanders per custom went home, disgruntled at the lack of plunder, their duty done. Rob Roy gave some last defiance by plundering the enemy baggage train as it withdrew from Dunblane and then apparently looted the abandoned Jacobite train for good measure, but this may well be propaganda for he had many enemies. In the town the Jacobites found many of their own wounded, left by Argyll after being captured, one being the Earl of Panmure, who was found by his brother but died of his wounds. The desertions, which had been growing since the beginning of the month were to be expected. Especially from the highlanders. Many had been forced men, coerced by their lords to go and fight or lose their homes, many had lost all their equipment and had no choice to leave the army, many lowlanders also and took advantage of the confusion to go home. Most significantly many were also dissatisfied at the inconclusive nature of the battle and men already mistrustful of Mar lost all faith in him. It was observed that there was no more will to fight in the army after the semi victorious debacle at Sheriffmuir. In the aftermath the army fell in numbers to little more than 4,500 men. When King James eventually arrived, there was no longer a rebellion to lead, nor an army to carry it through.
For the government it was disappointing that the rebellion had not been stamped out with one fell blow, but the lack of impetus that then followed the disappointment of what should have been a glorious victory crippled the Jacobites. The very next day the Jacobite army in England surrendered to a smaller army at Preston after a 3 day fight and the next year Argyll would retake Perth effectively ending the 1715 rising. For all it did not achieve the ’15 did at least leave an indelible mark on the Jacobites. In their minds it proved that a large scale rebellion could be mounted, especially from Scotland and what had happened once, could happen again. Despite the odds being perhaps more in favour of a Jacobite victory, everything had fallen apart for that bout. Some authors persuasively suggest that if there is a victory to be found at Sheriffmuir it truly belongs to Argyll, who drove off a superior force and lived to fight another day, even if this was more to do with his adversary’s lack of leadership skill than his own brilliance, yet indeed viewing the subsequent Jacobite campaign there is merit to the thought that the British Government walked away from Sheriffmuir with more of a victory than the Jacobites.
See you again for another adventure in Historyland.
Mar to the Governor of Perth 13th November 1715. British Library online archive.
Governor of Burntisland November 16 1715. British Library online archive.
Earl Mar’s Sect of State of the Actions at Dunblane 13 Nov: 1715. British Library online archive.
An account of the Engagement near Dunblain 14 November 1715 British Library online archive.
Duke of Argyll’s Account of the battle: 14 November 1715. British Library online archive.
An account of Battle of Sheriffmuir from James Sandilands, Lord Torphichen November 1715: British Library online archive.
Letter to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh: 13 November 1715. British Library online archive.
Historynet article: Battle of Sheriffmuir 9/5/2006.
Rob Roy MacGregor: Nigel Tranter.
1715 the Great Jacobite Rebellion: Daniel Szech
The Jacobite Rising of 1715: John Baynes.
Highland Clansman: Stuart Reid
British Battles English Heritage: Ken and Denise Guest.
The Jacobite Rebellions: Michael Barthorp.
Flintlock Musket 1700-1865. Stuart Reid