Fields of blood: Ross and Sutherland during the 1715 Jacobite Uprising

Lorna Steele is Community Engagement Officer at the Highland Archive Centre,  Inverness.  Her remit involves working with school and community groups, hosting tours and events and using the archival collections to inspire learning, creativity and experiences.  More about Lorna, and the work of the Highland Archive Centre, can be found at

1715 – Highlanders rally to the cause on both sides of the Jacobite divide! Government-supporting clans march south through Sutherland while Jacobite supporters amass at Alness, the two sides confronting each other in the heart of Easter Ross…

The 1715 Jacobite uprising was one of a chain of events caused by religious conflict across Europe. The fear of a controlling Catholic monarch had led to the “Glorious Revolution” in 1688, establishing a Protestant monarchy and leaving the supporters of the deposed King James, the Jacobites, in despair.

James II receiving the news of the landing of the Prince of Orange, 1688. GB0232D6437

James II receiving the news of the landing of the Prince of Orange, 1688.  GB0232/D643/7 – In the public domain

After an initial rising in 1689 the fever of Jacobitism calmed, although unrest still ruled. The Act of Succession, passed in 1701, meant Catholics were  barred from taking the throne and 1707 saw the Union of the Parliaments under Queen Anne’s reign. A bankrupt Scotland, who had seen the union as a potential way out of debt, quickly became unhappy with their perceived inequality and unrest began to spread.

The death of Queen Anne without an heir in 1714, brought matters to a head. The throne passed to her third cousin, George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, overlooking all Catholic claimants in between (the exiled King James VII and II had died by this time and the claim was made by his son James, later known as the Old Pretender). Jacobites across the British Isles saw this as an opportunity and plans were immediately made to return the Stuarts to the throne. The new King George I made the mistake of overlooking John Erskine, Earl of Mar, for a role in office. This gentleman, pride severely dented, took up the cause of the Stuarts, establishing himself as the leader of the Jacobites in Scotland.

Pamphlets relating to the Jacobite rebellions GB0232D120013,18,20.jpg

James II receiving the news of the landing of the Prince of Orange, 1688.  GB0232/D643/7 – In the public domain

Many in the Scottish Highlands were quick to join Mar. Some areas were Catholic or Episcopalian, however there were also those who feared the return of the Catholic kings. James’s standard was raised at Braemar on 6th September 1715 and frenzied activity on both sides immediately ensued. Powerful families such as the Munros of Foulis and the Forbes of Culloden supported the Hanoverian king. Equally prominent MacKenzies of Seaforth, Mackintoshes and others declared their loyalty to the exiled Stuarts. Jacobite support was more widespread than at any other time. Its downfall, and the failure of the rising, was largely due to the ineffectual and militarily incompetent Earl of Mar.

Claims for losses sustained during the rebellion.  GB0232PAIBM111.jpg

Claims for losses sustained during the rebellion.  GB0232/PA/IB/M/11/1 – Image: Highland Archive Centre

The ’15 was largely fought in the Lowlands and England, however events in Easter Ross were perhaps decisive. There was a notable standoff between the Earl of Sutherland and the Earl of Seaforth. Sutherland had returned to Dunrobin Castle on 28th September 1715, to take up his role of supreme commander of loyalist forces in the north. He immediately mustered Hanoverian supporters to march south. By 5th October they had reached Alness, where they were joined by Rosses, Munros and Mackays. This combined force would attempt to prevent Seaforth’s Jacobites from marching to support the garrison which had seized Inverness. However Seaforth’s MacKenzies were soon reinforced by a force of 3000-4000 MacDonalds, MacLeods and McKinnons. They marched on the Earl of Sutherland’s men.  Around 9th October they passed the Heights of Fodderty and Brae before marching through Swordale and Glenglass and forcing Sutherland’s men to retreat.

This skirmish (and detours to raid the houses of Hanoverian supporters such as Munro of Foulis) delayed the Earl of Seaforth to such an extent that he was two months late joining Mar’s army –delay that likely contributed to the failure of the rising.

The 1715 Rising drew to a final conclusion across the country around the 13th November. The Battle of Sheriffmuir showcased Mar’s lack of military skill. The advantage of higher numbers was wasted and although the battle itself was inconclusive it successfully halted the Jacobite advance. In England, the Battle of Preston ended disastrously for the Jacobites and the Jacobite garrison in Inverness surrendered their hold on the town. Apart from a few smaller conflicts, the rising had effectively collapsed.

The 1715 Rising is now often overshadowed by the ’45, but these events had direct implications for the Jacobite cause. It is interesting to note the prophetic words recorded in the Dornoch Presbytery minute book in January 1716.

Image of ruins of Dornoch Cathedral, From Remarkable Ruins and Romantic Prospects by Charles Cordiner (published 1788). Image courtesy of Am Baile

Image of ruins of Dornoch Cathedral, From Remarkable Ruins and Romantic Prospects by Charles Cordiner (published 1788).  Used by permission of Am Baile

“The Presbytery of Dornoch taking to their serious consideration the tokens of God’s displeasure against this land which are evident by the unnatural rebellion raised in it by a popish and Jacobite malignant faction in favour of a popish pretender in occasioning an intestine war in this our native land which has raged now for a considerable time and yet continues the evil that it hath produced and still threatens to our holy religion and civil liberties; the probability of its leaving our land desolate and a field of blood if not supressed; look on it as a judicial stroke from God upon the land for the abounding sins thereof…”

Their chilling prediction that the issue tearing the country apart would yet lead to Scotland being left “desolate and a field of blood” would be fulfilled on Culloden’s field thirty years later.

2 thoughts on “Fields of blood: Ross and Sutherland during the 1715 Jacobite Uprising

  1. Nice summary. One point Scotland wasn’t broke because of Darien,the Lords and land owners were.
    And they sold our country to pay their debts.

  2. the position that the Jacobite Risings were all about the restoration of a Catholic monarch has long since been debunked by most notable historians of the period. This is an old saw of propaganda which primary sources have thoroughly proved untrue. Opposition to the Union and the massive increase in taxes on Scotland that came with it, Scotland’s loss of her independence in governing her own affairs as well as her hereditary kings were far more potent reasons for the Risings – especially since there were more Protestants than Catholics in the Jacobite Army of 1745. If Lorna Steele is teaching this to school children, she is seriously misinforming them.

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