The Battle of Glenshiel, 1719 – 300th Anniversary

On the 10th June 1719, the Battle of Glenshiel took place in the Mackenzie heartland of Kintail between early evening and sunset. It is also the birthday of James Stuart, born in 1688 and known to Hanoverians as the Old Pretender and to Jacobites as the rightful heir to the throne of his deposed father. The battle has often been overlooked within Jacobite-period historiography, but I would argue that against the press commentary recently that this is a battle that has never been ‘forgotten’, certainly not within the circles of people I have known and continue to develop my own historical awareness alongside.

There is currently a valid debate that the battle may have been a remnant of the Jacobite movement of 1715; attempting to capitalise on a scenario that would have seen the heightened support for Jacobitism across the UK due to recent events join a three-pronged invasion supported by Spain and Sweden. There are others who feel the 1719; with a change in leadership, style and external support, was a separate rising. I tend to be of the latter opinion with recognition of the former opinion.

The reason for this is that, if 1719 and 1715 are to be seen as the same rising, there is nothing that should dissuade us from seeing the Glencoe massacre of 1692 as part of the 1689 rising and the invasion attempt of 1708 being part of the 1715 rising, or the 1744 plans being part of the 1745 rising. To be frank, I feel that it confuses the explanation that I prefer; which is that the Jacobite period had four active risings in 1689, 1715, 1719 and 1745, each with links and with a timeline of important events between them. The overarching link of the period is in the development of a changing Jacobitism, and the maintaining element that the movement was in favour of the return of a Catholic Stuart monarch to the throne.

Therefore, looking upon 1719 as a separate rising; but as an integral part of the Jacobite movement which had been present in Scotland since 1689 and the recent formidable effort of the 1715 rising, we can see that it fits importantly into a time period where the Highlands was not the only area of interest for the Jacobite cause. This is particularly true of 1719. Had the rising worked as planned, the Battle of Glenshiel or the alternative options for the force of Spaniards that had landed in the West Highlands and receiving localised support, would have been a mere tactical confusion in order to support the main force invading Cornwall from Spain. This, alongside the secondary force invading from Sweden from the North Sea in Scotland and into England would have created a dramatic battlefield pincer movement on two flanks with a strong diversionary reserve, except instead of a small battle-scale tactic, this would have been across the UK with London as the eventual target.

Given the support in the north of England in 1715 for the Jacobite cause and the untapped support in Cornwall, there is a genuine chance that this tactical approach to an invasion of the UK would have had a high chance of success. Perhaps 1719 was the Jacobite rising that had the biggest opportunity to succeed at the outset, rather than being necessary to be developed as it progressed as the other risings had to be. The downfall of this, however, was exactly what befell the 1719 campaign – if it’s so tightly planned from the outset, it all has to succeed from the outset.

The alternative view of the campaign is that it would have seen the Swedish invasion meet the Spanish-supported diversionary force coming from the West Highlands whilst the Spanish invasion of England happened simultaneously. A simultaneous invasion of both England and Scotland by differing forces of the same movement would have been an incredibly powerful sign for native Jacobite supporters to rise up in both countries. But as we now know, all of this is subjective opinion as it did not happen as planned.

The Swedish invasion from the north east was the first part of the plan to fail, before it was even attempted. The reason for this was that the Swedish King, Charles XII, having invaded Norway in 1716, was killed at Fredricksten near Fredrickshald on 30th November 1718. His sister, Ulrika Eleonora inherited the thronw but was forced to sign the 1719 Instrument of Government which effectively removed the Swedish from disputes with the Hanoverian household temporarily. Secondly, the invasion force from Spain hoping to be the main prong of the invasion in Cornwall was unable to attempt the invasion due to the weather. The weather, as we know from recent commemorations of D Day and from events like the failed French Jacobite invasion of 1708, was the key factor in any cross-channel operations.

But by the time the failure to begin the invasion of Cornwall was apparent; the expeditionary force bound for the North West Highlands had already left. In command of it were to be several Highland chiefs, including Tullibardine, his brother Lord George Murray, George Keith the Earl Marischal, William Mackenzie the Earl of Seaforth (forfeit), Cameron of Lochiel, Rob Roy MacGregor and Spaniards under the command of de Castro Bolaño. After landing in Lewis and constructing their plans at Stornoway, the force moved into Mackenzie territory and particularly the Gairloch estate in an effort to raise men for the Mackenzie chief, the Earl of Seaforth.

Historiography of the period often misunderstands the importance of the Mackenzie territories and the rather unique make-up of the biggest singular, but very much separated, clan territory of the period. At this time, Mackenzie territory had become the only continuous clan territory to stretch from the west coast from Kintail in the south to Coigach in the north; and then all the way across to the north east coast at the Black isle and the coast of the Beauly firth. It was in the latter area that the chief, Seaforth’s estate was situated in the best agricultural land within the wider clan territory. Seaforth also controlled Kintail, the heartland of the clan and the original territory. The secondary family, the Cromartie Mackenzies, was just north of here at what is now Strathpeffer, but also with land at Coigach. Within the whole of Mackenzie territory, by the 1690s there were up to 21 landed estates, with individual titles handed out by the Stuart monarchs just before the beginning of the Jacobite period. Each of these estates could have supplied regiments of over 300 fighting men.

But, as we well know, clan society is complex and had already begun to change dramatically. Whilst the Mackenzie chief had been a Jacobite supporter throughout the Jacobite period until 1719, he had also technically lost his title and his estates were forfeit from 1716 after his involvement in the 1715 Jacobite rising. His clan had not been a completely Jacobite force and had not supplied holistic active military numbers, but largely they were Jacobite supporting in the early Jacobite period. It is largely for this reason that the majority of the clans north of the coast to coast Mackenzie territory (such as the Munros, MacLeods and Mackays) took such active rolls, including one commander in chief of the army in Scotland, against the Jacobites.

But in 1719, the title-less and landless Mackenzie chief did not manage to receive the support he desired for a Jacobite invasion within his own territory. We may never know at what point Tullibardine and his Jacobite force became aware of the failure of the southern invasion, but this may have played some part in the reason for such a poor return on the effort to raise men. Seaforth, however, did manage to get the support of one kinsman who supplied between 200 and 350 men to the effort. However, there is also a possibility that Mackenzie of Torridon and Mackenzie of Inchcoulter may have also given information to the Hanoverians about the Jacobite force’s movements.

The decision to position the Jacobite force at Kintail must have been partially the decision of William Mackenzie (Seaforth). Part of the reason for this may well be the intrinsic importance of Kintail to Mackenzies, even to this day. This is something that is evident in military situations since the Jacobite period, with the funeral march and last post of the Seaforth Highlanders being “We Will Return Home to Kintail” for many years. We, as modern historians, must not be ignorant of the power of emblematic notions like being surrounded by your traditional, cultural, ancestral and protective “home” in situations of pressure. For what was potentially over half of the Jacobite force at the Battle of Glenshiel, this was the case, as they were Mackenzies or men of other clans who were long-term allies of the Mackenzie chief – including the Macraes, Mathesons, Maclennans and Murchisons.

The news of the Jacobite plot did not take long to get to General Joseph Wightman, commander in chief of eight regiments across Scotland and based at Edinburgh Castle. He moved north to Inverness and took charge of the Hanoverian advance on Glenshiel, which commenced from Cille Chuimein (not yet known as Fort Augustus) on the 5th June. Before this, however, Eilean Donan Castle, the original seat of the Clan Mackenzie, had been destroyed by the British Navy on the 11th May, the day after it had been taken from the Spanish contingent holding it since the 11th April as a base and store for gunpowder. The Spaniards were imprisoned before being released back to Spain. Wightman’s northern force of c.1,100 men were mostly Highlanders from territories north of Mackenzie territory.

Munro of Culcairn (who was killed whilst ‘policing’ the Highlands in 1746 in an unsolved assassination with plenty of willing suspects he had mistreated – if it was indeed Munro they were aiming to kill) had political reasons to be involved against the Mackenzies and brought many of Wightman’s soldiers with him to the battle. Others were under the command of Colonel Clayton who commanded the old Fort George, now the site of the modern Inverness Castle, and may have included men from some of the Mackenzie estates and other Highlanders from the area around Inverness.

The Jacobite army lined up, effectively in a horseshoe battle plan, at the thinnest point in Glenshiel between Cluanie and Achnagart where the Jacobite camp was. There is now a bridge just west of the position built by Major William Caulfield after 1747. On the Jacobite left flank was Seaforth in the command of men from Mackenzie estates at c.500m above seal level and Rob Roy MacGregor to his right. In the Jacobite centre was the Spanish regiment, highly trained musketeers at c.250m. to their right was the glen floor and the River Shiel at c.100m above sea level. On the Jacobite right flank, across the river, was Lord George Murray with Mackenzies on a knoll around 250m above sea level. The beginning of June 1719 was so hot that one of the Spaniards actually died of heat exhaustion on the march to the battle site.

Some of Claytons men were based at Cille Chuimein and these men were gathered en-route after the Hanoverian force had marched down the eastern side of Loch Ness. In the final advance into Kintail, Wightman had a commanding sight of the enemy as the Jacobites had dug in and created emplacements high on the hill sides. He advanced in battle order, with his detachments lined right across the Glen leading up the sides of it across the River Shiel.

In the early evening the musket fire started. Oddly for the Jacobite period, this battle in its entirety was a musket and artillery fight. Wightman initially attacked the Mackenzie men on the Jacobite right flank under Lord George Murray and Seaforth’s Mackenzies on the Jacobite left flank and musket fire was exchanged for some time. Wightman then used four coehorn mortars to fire grenades of explosive shrapnel at Murray’s men initially. Due to the heat of the day, the grass caught fire and Murray was pushed back to the west.

Coehorn mortars had never been used in a pitched battle before and this was their first use in the British isles. The confusion they caused in the Jacobite ranks was huge and the perfect battle plan, created so that a charge wouldn’t be necessary if musketry was accurate and heavy artillery would have been relatively useless, was what the Jacobites had hoped would win the day. When the Coehorn mortars were then used on Seaforth’s men, Seaforth himself was wounded badly and Rob Roy MacGregor came to his aid. An eyewitness account has caused much confusion, but it was certainly Seaforth being referred to, not MacGregor, as the injured party. Seaforth had never fully recovered from his injuries when he died on Lewis in 1740.

As the Mackenzie men began to disperse, the Spanish took formation and fired their muskets at Wightman’s men as the Highland Jacobites began to flee. This was a calculated decision as, due to their position as professional soldiers in the service of a foreign monarch, they would be treated as prisoners of war when captured. Highland Jacobites would be seen as rebels and executed.

The brave fighting retreat of the Spaniards saw them climb one of the longest and steepest continuous slopes in the Scottish mountains at sunset (around 9pm) at which point the battle effectively ended. The climb took them from c.250m to 990m at the summit of Sgurr nan Spainteach, named since the battle by local people out of respect for the Spaniards actions at Glenshiel. After spending the night on the 5 sisters of Kintail and into Glen Lichd, the Spaniards returned to Achnagart to surrender the following day. They were sent to Edinburgh Castle and eventually released back to Spain.

This, interestingly, is more than likely the reason why the Spaniards did not return home by sea when they knew the invasion of Cornwall had failed. We know the Jacobites knew this by the battle, but we do not know when they found out; but with the possibility of being killed at sea, either by storms, lack of supplies or attack by the British Navy who had shown their strength already at Eilean Donan, the honourable act of fighting against the enemy and being able to become prisoners of war was potentially a safer and more honourable option – both of which would have been heavily in favour of staying rather than fleeing.

With that, the 1719 Jacobite rising, the power of Clan Mackenzie in Kintail and the hope of Jacobites across the UK after 1715, was over. Of the Hanoverian force of c.1,100, only 21 were killed. Of the Jacobite force of c.1,200, a similar number were killed, but numbers vary dramatically. It is thought that well over 4,000 bullets were fired.

The 7th-9th June 2019 saw the 300th Anniversary Commemoration event organised by the Association of Highland Clan Societies, the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the UK and the 1745 Association with support from Visit Scotland (Event Scotland) and the National Trust for Scotland (landowners at the battle site). This included many historical talks and presentations as well as vibrant discussion amongst historians of multiple generations. This is testament to the fact that we are in a great place for the longevity and developing historical awareness of our Highland past – as long as that is supported and individuals are able to make ends-meet in doing so. Please support historians and their work wherever possible; even if you don’t always agree with their conclusions (therein lies the beauty of historical debate, of course!).

Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot


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