Saturday 7 July 2018


The regular reader of this blog will be vaguely away, as I am, that I have a passing interest in the Jacobite rebellions of the early eighteenth century. In a sense, I suppose, this is a natural progression from an interest in the seventeenth century. The Jacobites, after all, were something of a bit of leftover business from the later seventeenth century and the ‘Glorious Revolution’, of 1688. How glorious it was depends, of course, on whose side you were on.

Much of the interest of the Jacobite rebellions is focused on 1745, of course. It was, after all, bigger, better organized and had more of a chance of success than the earlier efforts. Furthermore, it was also romantic: Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that. I suppose we could also note that it was decisive: there were no more Jacobite wars after it.

Anyway, I have been reading this:

Reid, S., Sheriffmuir 1715: The Jacobite War in Scotland (London: Frontline, 2014).

This is, of course, by Stuart Reid, who is a well-known writer on Scottish military affairs. The book covers quite a lot more than the title suggests, including the Battle of Preston which, last time I looked, was in England.

Reid gives a thorough and, so far as I can tell, well-balanced account of the activities of the various sides and factions in the rising. One of his main points is that the Jacobites were not really attempting to start a war. They seem to have reckoned that they could carry out a change of government in Scotland without one. That change was, of course, to put James (the ‘Old Pretender, of James VII & III, or the Chevalier – you picks your title and takes your choice) on the throne rather than George I of Hanover (and England, Ireland and Scotland).

Presumably, the model for this revolution was the 1688 one in England. That was, within that kingdom at least, a fairly bloodless change of government. Residents of parts of Scotland and, in particular, Ireland might choose to disagree, of course. Whether the goal was even slightly achievable was somewhat moot, right from the start.

The revolution would have to be backed by force, and so recruiting was started. The Jacobites are often thought of, in popular imagination, as being highlanders, and many of them were, but the leadership, as Scottish military leaders throughout the early modern period did, preferred, if possible to arm them with conventional weapons. This was simply because, despite a load of myth and mystique, conventional fighting was a lot more effective, in most circumstances, than the highland charge.

We can reach back to at least Montrose and the Scottish Civil Wars of 1644-6 to see this. When Montrose was just starting out, the troops fired a single volley and charged with cold steel. This was very effective, admittedly, against unsteady reserve line troops, as those who faced Montrose were. However, as soon as was possible, the troops were rearmed with musket and pike and became a lot more conventional, although they did retain strategic mobility and Montrose was the master of deception, if not of scouting.

Similarly, the rebellious troops of the ’15 were armed conventionally, so far as the commanders could manage. They had a fair bit of trouble with the Royal Navy intercepting supplies, and so some troops remained under-armed by the standards of the day, but they managed. The Royal Navy also got in the way of operations. The project to land an army on the south side of the Firth of Forth was partially blocked by the arrival of warships.

The Jacobites thus landed up with two armies. One based around Fife, the other south of the Forth attempting to link up with rebels on the Border and in northern England. After a lot of wandering around, fairly optimistically, trying to recruit, the latter army landed up in Preston, where it was attacked and defeated, and surrendered to a bit of a ragtag army, which did have some regular units.

North of the border, things were fairly farcical. In fact, it seems to me that if the events had not led to tragic loss of life, it could be called a comedy. Argument, recrimination, lack of direction, failure of both political and military leadership all contributed to the government and rebel forces clashing at Sheriffmuir on 13th November 1715.

As I am fairly sure few wargamers will need reminding, Sheriffmuir is really only memorable for one fact: both armies ran away. That is, of course, a bit of an over-simplification. In fact, one wing of each army ran away, and it took a while for the other wing to work out what had happened and even longer to decide what to do about it. As it was neither side fancied their chances of a second go, the rebels, in part, because the highland charge which had been effective meant that some of their victorious men had no muskets and no cloaks, as they were discarded before the charge, of course. It was a chilly night.  

The upshot was that even, as is probable, the battle could be called a draw, the Jacobites lost because they needed a win. A draw was a perfectly good result for the government; the army was in being, Edinburgh was held and any waverers were discouraged from supporting the Jacobite cause.

The arrival of James VIII & III after the battle did not help much. The cause was shattered. Reid notes that the best thing he did was leave again quickly, allowing his supporters to make what peace they could with the government. It was notable, incidentally, that in some parts of Scotland, no matter what orders arrived from the different sides and the choices of neighbouring lairds, they had no intention of fighting each other. Some even asked permission of opposing landlords to march over their land on their way to join forces with their own army. We have to admit that it was civilized, if, as noted above, rather farcical.

Wargaming potential? Well, I am still thinking about it. Wild charges aside, finding a set of rules which permit half of each army to scarper and the rest still to be in the field might be a little tricky. It would probably make a very nice, multi-player campaign to while away a few winter afternoons, though.


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  2. Back in Wargames lllustrated 3, Andy Callan wrote quite a nice set specfically for the Jacobite Rebellions called "This Savage Way of Fighting" which does allow those kind of results. It works quite well solo as well.

    1. Ah, I shall have to check that out, when I get around to the Jacobite wars....