A white blanket of frost covered the moor that stretched away to the east. John Campbell, second Duke of Argyll, stood atop Stone Hill, watching the bright banners of the Jacobites fluttering in the distance.
Down in the Muir of Kinbuck, John Erskine, the sixth Earl of Mar, had made the speech of his life. The Highlanders cheered and threw their bonnets aloft as he called for them to fall into columns and fight for the Jacobite cause. The date was November 13, 1715, and Protestant Scots were about to do battle with their Catholic countrymen at Sheriffmuir.
The battle’s cause could be traced back to 1688, when Dutch Prince Willem of Orange and his English wife, Mary, landed in England, largely by invitation from prominent English Protestants, and Roman Catholic King James II fled to exile. Those who would not accept the newly crowned King William III and strived to return the exiled Stuart monarch to the throne came to be called Jacobites, since the Latin word for James is Jacobus. Their first attempt, in 1689, failed in spite of some assistance by French King Louis XIV and thousands of Irish supporters.
Scots supported the Jacobites for a number of reasons. They may have been compelled to fight by their chief of landowner; some were opposed to puritanical Protestantism; other may have believed that they could gain power and money by being part of a successful rebellion. In 1707, they got a new reason when the parliaments of Scotland and England were formally combined by the Act of Union. Most Scots were opposed to the act; riots broke out and the Jacobite cause got an infusion of fresh blood.
In 1714, Queen Anne died without a direct successor and the throne passed to George I, a German from Hanover who could not speak English. Talk of rebellion was heard throughout Scotland, this time of placing James II’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart, on the throne. The Jacobites’ principal reason for supporting him was their opposition to the Act of Union, but the Old Pretender, as they called him, had no less intention of ruling a united kingdom than his Protestant opponent.
Although regarded as an able politician and a great orator, the Earl of Mar was nicknamed ‘Bobbing John’ because of his habit of changing sides. In 1715, however, he proclaimed his commitment to the Jacobite cause when he raised the Restoration standard at Braemar. Thomas Forster led an advance force of 3,000 Jacobites to England, in an attempt to gain support. Later, when all the clans that would come had rallied around him, Mar led the main Jacobite army south.
In spite of their resentments toward the English and their new German-born king, most Highlanders did not ‘come out’ for either the ‘Fifteen’ or the later Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Many Scots even sided with ‘German Jordie.’ While they disliked him, they feared the restoration of a Catholic Stuart to the throne more. The Duke of Argyll, a supporter of the Protestant monarchy, had great power in Scotland. Many men owed him debts of loyalty.
Moving to block Mar, Argyll occupied Stirling. Called Ian Ruadh nan cath (Red John of the Battles) by the Highlander, Argyll had earned a reputation as an able tactician while fighting in Europe under John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. Like Marlborough, Argyll was aware of his man’s needs. He also operated an efficient spy network, both to keep himself informed and to subvert his opponents’ morale. On this occasion, however, instead of trying to oppose the Jacobites as they crossed the River Forth, Argyll led his men toward the moor where the local militia underwent training — Sheriffmuir. There, on November 13, the two armies met at Stone Hill near Dunblane.
Argyll led one squadron of volunteer cavalry, 10 squadrons of dragoons and eight battalions of foot (1,000 cavalrymen and 3,500 infantrymen). The elite of the government army was Portmore’s Dragoons, later to be renowned as the Scots Greys.
Mar led seven squadrons of cavalry (1,000 troopers) and 18 battalions of foot (7,000 infantrymen). Most of Mar’s men were Highlanders, who wore rough woolen bonnets and long, wrap-around plaids of tartan. They liked pistols, but did most of their fighting with basket-hilted broadswords, dirks (daggers) and targs (shields). Both armies had cannons, but neither side used them. Mar may well have lacked the gunpowder and ammunition to do so.
Argyll’s troops were outnumbered and some were inexperienced. As the sound of bagpipes lifted up the hill toward him, he began to panic. His spies had told him that the Jacobites would attack across level ground and try to capture the town of Dunblane. As the enemy advance force turned toward, him, however, Argyll sent word for his army to join him on Stone Hill. His officers argued that it was too late to ascend the hill, but they were overruled.
George Keith, the tenth earl of Marischal, led the Jacobite advance force. He was trying to secure the Jacobite left as a prelude to an attack on Dunblane, where he thought Argyll to be. The River Allan was to protect the Jacobites’ right flank. When Marischal saw the government forces struggling up the boggy ground of Stone Hill, however, he sent a message to his commander that the enemy was near. Mar sent the entire Jacobite army to Marischal’s support. Four columns, with no reserve, attacked up the north face of the hill, with most of the Highlanders breaking into a run. It now became a race for the top.
The troops of Argyll’s right wing tried to take up position as the Jacobites climbed over the edge of the hill and raced toward them. Evens’ Dragoons fell back before the Jacobites’ fierce fire. The volunteer cavalrymen cried out ‘Shame!’ as the dragoons retreated through one of their own battalions of foot.
Much of the fighting on the government right wing took place around a bog. The highlanders could not extend their line because of it, and the government horses were up to their knees in it. Colonel Charles, eighth Lord Cathcart of Portmore’s Dragoons led his men around the bog and mounted a flanking attack against the Highlanders. At the same time, a government agent passed on false orders to the Jacobite left — instead of being ordered to intensity the attack, those men were told to retreat. Mar’s left fell back for more than two miles, until the River Allan stopped his troops’ flight. As the dragoons charged again and again into any force that tried to rally, little quarter was given. The Duke of Argyll was hard to cry out, ‘Spare the poor blue bonnets!’
John Lyon, the young Earl of Strathmore, tried to rally a battalion of Lowland Jacobites around their colors. Only 14 men stayed. Shot in the belly, Strathmore was led away. He was later shot in the heart by a dragoon.
Elsewhere, the government center and left were still marching when two lines of Highlanders took them in flank. The captain of Clanranald, Alan MacDonbald, was the only Highland chief to attack on horseback. An obvious target, he fell as the first shots were fired. The MacDonalds thronged around him as he grimaced in his death throes. Alexander MacDonald, the elderly Chief of Glengarry, ran out in front of the startled Highlanders, waving his bonnet and crying out: ‘Revenge! Revenge!’
Dropping their firearms, a wild mass of angry clansmen rushed the government line, then dropped to their knees and, while fending off the redcoats’ bayonets with their round targs, stabbed and slashed with their broadswords. The center of Argyll’s army broke and ran as broadswords severed limbs and hacked off parts of men’s faces. Many of those who tried to surrender were butchered where they stood. Some were cut down as they sought refuge in the few farmhouses around the battlefield. A gravestone still marks one spot where a small force of redcoats was wiped out.
Meanwhile the Earl of Marschal’s squadron fought a squadron of charging dragoons. Some of his men were killed and wounded, but most fled. The earl was wounded and on foot when the dragoons captured his standard.
The government left wing was able to retreat back to Dunblane and then retired further to Stirling. There, the soldiers reported that Argyll had been defeated, but they did not know the whole story. While Mar’s right wing had succeeded in routing the government troops who stood in its way, so had Argyll’s right wing driven its Jacobite opponents from the field. Even as the troops of Argyll’s broken left and center withdrew, his dragoons managed to slow down the pursuing Jacobite cavalry. In the steep-sided Glen of Pendreich, horse and foot soldiers of both sides fought each other to a standstill. By then, about 600 men, the greater number of whom were government troops, lay dead.
Eventually, Argyll was brought news that the Jacobites had rallied their forces on the plain atop Stone Hill. Argyll had five squadrons of dragoons and a squadron of volunteer horse with him, but the only disciplined units of government foot left were the three battalions under General Joseph Wightman. Argyll had a large enemy force in front of him and a victorious rebel force in his extreme rear. He sent for Wightman and his troops.
Argyll then led his men in front of the north face of Stone Hill. Behind some mud walls, he lined up his foot with cavalry on the flanks. Two cannons were placed to his front. Then he waited. Both Argyll and Wightman believed that Mar would attack — and both were pessimistic about the outcome.
Looking down upon them from his commanding position, Mar began to have doubts of his own. A body of the defeated government center was passing around the south slopes of Stone Hill. Mar wasn’t sure whether the troops near the River Allan might be more government troops. He had also received conflicting reports about the size of the enemy force to the north — and he mistakenly believed that Argyll was ready to return to the battlesite.
Mar had a good defensive position so — like Argyll — he waited. His cavalrymen grumbled about the Highlanders, who were hungry and tired. The Highlanders grumbled about the cavalry, some of whom had fled.
As it started to get dark, Argyll led his men off toward Dunblane. Mar waited longer and then led his army toward Ardoch, where he hoped to find rest and food. The next morning, Argyll reoccupied Sheriffmuir, claiming victory virtually by default.
Disconsolate at how his situation had deteriorated, Mar fell back on Perth. Although he had won the field, he was unable to profit from his Pyrrhic victory. On that same day, November 14, the other Jacobite force, poorly led by Thomas Forster, was forced to surrender at Preston.
At the end of December, the Old Pretender arrived in Scotland, only to learn that the rebellion had withered away after the Battle of Sheriffmuir. He soon left for France, taking the Earl of Mar with him.
Ever since Sheriffmuir, the Earl of Mar has been written off as an incompetent general. In all fairness, however, it must be noted that Mar and his officers managed to outmaneuver Argyll and his better equipped, full-time soldiers. Ultimately, though, it was the sheer horror of seeing their fellow soldiers hacked to death that broke the ranks of the government army.
The fire of the Jacobites flared up from time to time thereafter. At Glenshiel in 1719, the Jacobites and their Spanish supporters were defeated by the mortars of General Wightman. But the flame was not finally extinguished until April 16, 1746, when the Old Pretender’s son, Charles Edward Stuart — known as the Young Pretender and even more popularly as Bonnie Prince Charlie — was defeated by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, on Culloden Moor. In the aftermath, Cumberland destroyed what remained of the clan system, in the process earning the Scottish sobriquet of ‘Butcher.’
A number of contemporary songs and poems were written about Sheriffmuir — some in English and some in Gaelic. One of the poems, ‘The Day of Sheriffmuir,’ can be found translated from the Gaelic in Colm O Baoill’s book Bardachd Shilas na Ceapaich. Here is an excerpt:
Early on Sunday as we got into battle-order,
Many a slain banner was fixed to its mast.
We got the order to leave our plaids,
And it was not to the sermon that the Clan moved.
All the swiftest of them with blood in their cheeks
Stepping firmly up the hill:
The first people we met were
The men in cuirasses and scarlet coats.
Clan Donald and the Macleans of great bravado
Then got into order,
The Breadalbane troops with their speckled yellow banner.
That was a renowned band that Mar had.
When they unsheathed their dark blades,
Blood gushed all over the field:
Many a Spanish sword at that time
Was being thrust into a scarlet coat.
Sheriffmuir has not changed much since 1715, when the future of Great Britain was decided on that stretch of boggy moor, a few miles north of Stirling. It is a beautiful place, with wonderful views of the surrounding hills. If you visit the site by car, the road will take you to within 100 yards of Argyll’s position. A drover’s road cuts across the battlefield from east to west. As you move to the west along it, you pass through Argyll’s position, then through the ground where the center of the government army was brushed aside by a slashing deluge of broadswords. Farther left, the path leads to the steep ascent of Stone Hill. Below lies the pretty town of Dunblane.
Sheriffmuir is one of the best preserved battlegrounds in Britain. It is within an hour’s drive of four other significant battlesites: Sauchieburn, Bannockburn, Falkirk and Stirling Bridge.
This article was written by Ashby McGowan and originally published in the August 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!