Sheriffmuir was the only battle fought in Scotland during the 3rd Jacobite Rising. Often deemed a draw on the basis that at the end of the engagement both sides withdrew from the field in good order, it was, in fact, a complete strategic defeat for the Jacobite Campaign and effectively ended Jacobite hopes for the Rising there and then.
The 1715 Rising was a more complex adventure than any of the other Jacobite campaigns (Claverhouse’s in 1689, the 1708, the 1719 and the 1745) involving, as it did, simultaneous, co-ordinated military efforts north and south of the border and an ambitious splitting of the Scottish arm to reinforce the southern effort.
Viewed from the historical perspective this was to be the closest that the Jacobites were ever to come to securing military victory and thus the political ambition of restoring the Stuart monarchy to the unified throne.
Unfortunately, the not unfamiliar crisis of leadership emerged at the key battles of Sheriffmuir and Preston, fought at the same time, and the opportunity slipped away, with even the subsequent and much vaunted effort of the ’45 failing to match the promise of this earlier drama.
There are those who have argued that by 1715 the restoration of the Stuart monarchy had become entirely anachronistic over the course of the past 27 years which had seen the House of Hannover become firmly entrenched in Whitehall and the final establishment of political union between Scotland and England. It’s hard to disagree with that view.
However, in 1715 there were many among the Clan Chiefs of the Highlands who took the view that the political situation that existed at the time was detrimental to the interests of Scotland and, more importantly, threatened their very way of life. This awareness, coupled with the repressive measures implemented by the London Government in the wake of the failed 1708 Rising, led many of the chiefs to believe that they had a simple choice of two alternatives: take up arms to bring about the restoration of the Stuart monarchy and thereby preserve their existence or be swept passively away within the foreseeable future.
The Earl of Mar who was to raise King James Standard to initiate the Rising, was a not untypical product of the political climate of 17th century Scotland. His efforts to maintain one foot in each political camp giving rise to his nickname of ‘Bobbing John’. As one of the Commissioners of the Union he was heavily involved in the establishment of the 1707 Treaty and held the position of Secretary of State for Scotland, thoroughly in bed with the unionist and Hanoverian establishment. However, with the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the subsequent succession of George I, he fell out of political favour as Whigs superceded Tories as the party of power. He was removed from his position and headed back home in a huff.
In his next act was then to assemble an army for King James, raising the Royal Standard on 6 September at Braemar, although he didn’t receive his formal commission till later in October.
Mar had no military experience and was poorly equipped on a personal basis both to lead men and to take decisive action when required. His every move in his political life hitherto had been made on the basis of risk minimization. And his conduct of the Rising reflected these personal shortcomings. He was able to quickly put together an army of considerable size; estimates vary, as is usual in Scottish history, between 6 and 12, 000 men with the smaller number being the likelier. This, and the fact that most towns on the east coast declared for King James, is a fair reflection of the depth of popular antipathy towards both the rule of the House of Hannover and to political union with England.
Despite these factors and the strong position they put him in, Mar habitually hesitated: reluctant to commit himself fully in either direction lest he end up on the losing side to the wreck of his personal ambition.
The other key figure commander in the Jacobite ranks, north of the border was William Borlum of Mackintosh. And on 11th October after an extended period of inactivity on the part of the Jacobite Army, Borlum was despatched south with some 2000 clansmen. His mission was to link up with such of those English and border Jacobites who had mobilized in support, under the leadership of the Earl of Derwentwater and Viscount Kenmure. History is vague as to who determined this move. But given his overwhelming lack of vision and reluctance to take decisive action, it seems unlikely to have been Mar. With Borlum, in consultation with the other chiefs, being the likeliest candidate.
Borlum, now unleashed as it were, was able to demonstrate exactly the kind of decisive action and ability to manoeuvre a large body of men at speed which was required and which had been so clearly displayed in the past by other men of substance such as Claverhouse and Montrose.
With the Firth of Forth heavily patrolled by the English navy he was able to muster sufficient small boats to ferry his entire command across to the other side, during the hours of darkness, incurring no loss and with his enemy entirely unaware of what was happening. A remarkable action comparable with Montrose’s strike at Inverary at Christmas 1644, his surprise flank march prior to the Battle of Inverlochy in February 1645 and the merry dance that Claverhouse and his small army led the unfortunate General MacKay during the Killiecrankie campaign in the summer of 1689.
After this excellent start, though, things fell away and once Borlum joined his command with Kenmure’s and Derwentwater the southern campaign was similarly blighted by hesitancy and indecision and ended in ignominy with the surrender of the entire force at the Battle of Preston. Events which don’t concern us here.
Mar, meantime, finally cajoled into action by his men made a move south from Perth on 11th November. He knew no further recruits would join his army until some degree of success had been seen to be achieved and ominously, news had reached him that regular Dutch troops had landed in England to strength the government forces.
As he moved the army south the government army in Scotland under the command of the Duke of Argyll moved to intercept them at Dunblane. Mar’s force was now, most agree, a mximum of 7000 troops with possibly 1000 of them mounted. Argyll’s command was barely half that number.
By the evening of November 12th both sides were aware of the other’s presence and in the morning they commenced to make their dispositions for battle. The ground at Sheriffmuir, on the lower slopes of the Ochils is rough and broken and it would seem that for much of this preparatory period neither side had a clear view of what the other was doing.
In contrast to Mar’s lack of military experience, John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and the first leader of the House of Campbell in 4 generations not to be christened Archibald, was a different creature.
He had seen service in both the Wars of the Grand Alliance and the Spanish Succession and was familiar with what needed to be done to meet the demands of this particular situation.
As the battle opened the right wing of each side achieved significant early success, much in the manner of the initial stages of the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. As each commander then rallied his victorious wing back to the field it was clear that the earlier inequality in nunbers had become more acute and Mar’s force was now some three times greater in magnitude than Argyll’s who, consequently, chose to now position his men in a strong defensive situation based on some ditches and turf walls and awaited the inevitable onslaught from Mar’s force.
And this was it, the decisive point of the Battle of Sheriffmuir. The decisive point indeed of the entire 1715 Jacobite Rising. The decisive point, arguably, for the whole Jacobite dream, stretching back from when Claverhouse first raised the Standard on Dundee Law in April 1689 to the final destruction of the massed clansmen on Drumossie Moor in April 1746.
All that was required was a commander of simple courage and expediency with firm personal loyalty to the cause he espoused, who would send his men forward to complete the destruction of the enemy and leave the way open to take the army south to where the decisive military decisions would ultimately be determined.
But sadly what we had was the 22nd Earl of Mar. A man haunted by his unfulfilled, if ill-defined, personal ambition. Whose loyalty to any cause stretched no further than the furtherance of personal goals. “Oh, for an hour of Dundee”, legend has it, was the cry that went up from his waiting men. But they waited in vain.
Although Argyll, taking advantage of the fading light, led his men across the Allan Water for the night, Mar made no move and in the morning withdrew his force back to Perth.
It could, of course, be argued that even if Mar had won the day at Sheriffmuir, that it would have been to no avail as the southern Jacobite Army was, that very day, experiencing defeat at the Battle of Preston and the northern town of Inverness fell back into Hanoverian hands. Thus in the same way that Claverhouse’s victory at Killiecrankie did not lead to the ultimate triumph of the House of Stewart and that even after his Year of Victories when he vanquished 6 parliamentary armies in 6 battles and became military master of Scotland, ultimate victory eluded even the Great Montrose.
It would seem that the fortunes of the righteous in Scotland would ever be thus.