Why is there a Peak of the Spaniards in the West Highlands? Who fought in the Battle of Glen Shiel? Who knew there was a Jacobite rising in 1719, exactly 300 years ago? Historian and novelist Maggie Craig tells Historia about this ‘forgotten rising’.
This year sees the tercentenary of the Jacobite Rising of 1719, which culminated in defeat for the Jacobites on 10 June of that year at the Battle of Glen Shiel in the north-west Highlands. The ’19 tends to be overshadowed by the ’15 and the tragic glamour of the ’45, yet the ‘Little Rising’ was also a dramatic moment in Scotland’s history and several significant historical players were involved.
Help for the Stuart cause in 1719 came not from France but from Spain. After the death of Louis XIV in 1715, French foreign policy changed in favour of forging an alliance with Britain. Of necessity, this meant withdrawing support from the Stuarts. James Stuart, King James VIII & III to his friends and the Pretender to his foes, was forced to leave France for Italy.
Spain stepped into the breach, seeking to cause trouble for Britain in pursuit of its own territorial claims in Europe. The prime mover was Cardinal Giulio Alberoni. The son of an Italian gardener, he had risen to become a prince of the Church and principal adviser to Philip V of Spain.
Over a couple of months, a fleet was fitted out at Cadiz, its destination a closely-guarded secret. The leader of the enterprise was the Irish Jacobite James Butler, second Duke of Ormonde. Alberoni offered him substantial numbers of men, gunpowder, guns and supplies.
The plan was to land in the west of England, where it was believed there was substantial opposition to the House of Hanover. Ormonde suggested a landing in Scotland too, encouraging the Highland clans to rise and cause trouble on England’s northern flank. The man who led this part of the campaign was George Keith, the Earl Marischal. In 1719 he was in his late twenties.
The Scottish expedition was of two frigates carrying two thousand muskets, money, ammunition and 300 Spanish soldiers, officers and men. The ships sailed from the port of San Sebastian in March 1719, with letters from the Duke of Ormonde to various Highland clan chiefs. The larger fleet being readied at Cadiz had sailed the day before.
The French knew what was happening in Spain and passed the information on to their new allies in London. Alerted, the Royal Navy was ready and waiting, patrolling the western approaches to the British Isles. However, it was high winds and mountainous waves that defeated the Spanish fleet.
Hit by a horrific storm which lasted for two full days and nights as they rounded Cape Finisterre in Galicia, the ships were damaged and blown off course, men, horses, arms and supplies lost. This was just one example of what became known as the Protestant Wind. Starting with the scattering of the Spanish Armada in 1588, there were several occasions when even the weather seemed to be against the Catholic Stuarts. Although James Stuart had made his way secretly from Italy to Spain, there was no point now in him proceeding to England.
The two frigates heading for Scotland also encountered high winds and adverse weather, delaying their arrival on the Scottish mainland. They established their headquarters in and around Eilean Donan castle, which sits at the confluence of three lochs, halfway between Glen Shiel and Kyle of Lochalsh. There they were joined by some prominent Jacobite exiles who had sailed from Le Havre in France with James Keith, the Earl Marischal’s younger brother.
A few clan chiefs and other Jacobites arrived. They included the young Lord George Murray, who was to become general of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army almost 30 years later in 1745. He came with a small force from Perthshire.
Cameron of Lochiel brought 150 men, Mackenzie of Seaforth 500. The legendary – or notorious – Rob Roy Macgregor and one of his sons brought about 80 men from Stirlingshire. The Marquis of Tullibardine, titular Duke of Atholl and elder brother of Lord George Murray, became commander of the Jacobite force.
Unfortunately for them, the delay in reaching Scotland meant news of the failure of the larger fleet had filtered north. Other Highland chiefs did not want to take the risk of joining a much smaller Jacobite force. The delay also allowed time for the government garrison at Inverness to be reinforced.
When a flotilla of Royal Navy ships sailed into Loch Alsh, the Jacobites found themselves boxed in. Their seaborne adversaries stormed Eilean Donan, took the 45 Spaniards garrisoning the castle prisoner, seized large amounts of gunpowder and ammunition and then blew the castle up. On the shores of nearby Loch Duich, 30 Spaniards had set up a redoubt. As one Royal Navy ship approached, they themselves blew that sky high. It must all have been quite spectacular.
Jacobite scouts then brought the news that Redcoat Major-General Wightman was marching west, down Loch Ness and through Glenmoriston at the head of a force of over 1,000 men. He had artillery with him too, four Cohorn mortars. His force included not only British but also Dutch soldiers, Mackays dispatched by Lord Strathnaver and Monroes led by Monro of Culcairn.
The Jacobite force, now also somewhere over 1,000 men, decided to move east along Loch Duich and fight the Government force in Glen Shiel, at a spot where the glen narrows under the imposing mountain range known as the Five Sisters of Kintail. They enhanced their position by throwing a barrier across the road and building defences on the slopes on either side of the pass made from the stones and boulders littering the surrounding area.
The two armies came within sight of each other about 2 o’clock on the afternoon of 10 June. The fighting began around 5 o’clock and continued for three hours. Both sides fought with determination but Wightman’s force eventually prevailed. The Jacobites retreated. Possibly around 100 men on both sides were killed and that number again wounded.
At a council of war the next day, it was decided the Highlanders should disperse and the Spaniards should surrender. The Spanish commander, Don Nicolás Bolaño, went to General Wightman the next day and gave him his sword. As the Earl Marischal later put it, “everybody else took the road he liked best.”
Wightman toured the area, in his own words, “to terrify the Rebels by burning the houses of the Guilty and preserving those of the Honest.” The Spaniards were treated as prisoners of war and escorted to Edinburgh before being sent back to Spain. The Jacobite Rising of 1719 was over.
The Earl Marischal went into exile and died fifty years later in Potsdam near Berlin. His younger brother James also went to Prussia, later becoming a field marshal in the army of Frederick the Great. Eilean Donan castle remained what one Victorian historian described as “a picturesque ivy-covered ruin” until it was restored to its former glory in the early 1900s. It’s extremely popular with visitors today, especially fans of the Highlander movie, in which it features.
A stone memorial and sign showing crossed swords mark the site of the battle. The Spaniards who fought in Scotland are remembered in the Gaelic names of a couple of features in the nearby mountains: Bealach nan Spainteach, the Pass of the Spaniards, and Sgurr nan Spainteach, the Peak of the Spaniards.
Maggie Craig writes Scottish historical fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45, Bare-arsed Banditti: The Men of the ’45, When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside and several historical novels set in Edinburgh and her native Glasgow. Gathering Storm is the first in a suite of Jacobite novels.
The Battle of Glen Shiel by Peter Tillemans: the National Gallery via Wikimedia. The Spanish troops are wearing white coats
Road sign on the A87 for the Battle of Glen Shiel: photo by Jim Barton via Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Field Marshal James Keith from The Jacobite Attempt of 1719, Scottish History Society 1895, author’s copy
Map of Loch Duich, Glen Shiel and the area of the 1719 campaign from James Dorret’s A general map of Scotland and islands thereto belonging (1750), National Library of Scotland
Eilean Donan Castle (restored 1911-32): photo by David Iliff via Wikimedia
(CC BY-SA 3.0)
Glen Shiel Memorial: photo by GentryGraves via Wikipedia