Jacobites, dirks, and hair-breadth escapes

This week’s post has been contributed by Graham Hannaford, one of the Masters students at UHI’s Centre for History.  He is studying the MLitt in the History of the Highlands and Islands fully online from his home in Australia.

There was a very thick fog on the sea near Dunrobin Castle on the night of 20 March 1746. We know this because William, the Sixteenth Earl of Sutherland escaped under its cover  rather than risk being taken by the Jacobite army. Realising that the castle was vulnerable to cannon fire, and that taking him was the rebels’ chief aim at Dunrobin, he escaped in an old fishing boat which he found about a mile from his home. He was lucky to find it, since he had earlier ordered all the local boats moved south to assist in moving Government troops.

It is interesting to speculate what might have been going through his mind as he fled to safety. Perhaps he was aware of the irony of the words in which he first addressed the men he had assembled to fight in his militia against the Jacobites:

‘You are indebted to me considerably on account of arrears for some years past. These I forgive you. The current rent of this year I do not expect till the affairs of the nation are settled, as you seem heartily inclined to follow me and risque your all in defence of his majestys person and government. I further assure you that if it happens to come to action, you will see that my person will be the first exposed to danger with yours.’

Perhaps he could justify his flight in the face of the encroaching army by noting the concern of his own commander, the Earl of Loudon. Loudon had found it necessary to acquaint Sutherland with certain intelligence that Lord Cromarty had formed a scheme to capture him by surprise, which, Loudon noted, would be ‘very troubelsom both to your lordship and us’. Fleeing could therefore be justified as carrying out a military order.

More likely, the Earl’s thoughts were with his young wife of almost twelve years, and although they are not mentioned in the accounts of that night, his children. It is hard to believe with today’s understanding that the Earl would have abandoned his family but we have to remember that standards of treatment of noble women in times of war by chivalrous, often noble, soldiers were viewed differently three centuries ago. Further, we know that although it was a grief to both the Earl and Countess, Lady Sutherland’s nephew, Lord Elcho, served in Prince Charles Edward’s army; this would have given some expectation that she would be gently treated.

Nevertheless, when the rebels found that the Earl had escaped, some professed to believe that he was still concealed about the castle; the countess courageously refused the slightest information. In what was surely intended to reassure the Earl, a week after the events, Hugh Monro wrote to him:

‘One of their officers had a durk to my Lady Sutherlands brest, to get account of where your lordship was, and arms, to which he gote noe satisfactory answer. Some other officer, seeing the durk drawen as above, with his hand pushed it by my ladys brest, the edge toutched her skin as if done by a small pin, not in the least the worst of it…’

While the rebels plundered much of the house, and took much of the plate and important documents, the one horse left behind by the rebels was Lady Sutherland’s Irish Galloway. After all, a noble lady could not be expected to walk, no matter what the circumstances!

Like so many details of what actually happened, we can only speculate on the transmission of intelligence on both sides. The Earl of Sutherland had sought, and been given, arms by his commander to defend Dunrobin Castle, although they would have not been sufficient to protect it from cannon fire from a ship. When the Jacobite troops arrived at the castle, as well as taking all the arms and ammunition there, they also went immediately to the place underground where the newly supplied arms had been hidden ‘as if themselves had put the arms there’. Either the Earl had not been as cunning in hiding the arms as he had hoped to be, or someone had talked, notwithstanding assurances that all the domestic staff had stayed loyal.

William, the Sixteenth Earl and his wife (nee Lady Elizabeth Wemyss, eldest daughter of the Third Earl of Wemyss), and their two children, William (later the Seventeenth Earl of Sutherland) and Lady Elizabeth Sutherland. Had she been wearing this or a similar dress on the night Dunrobin Castle was taken, it is easy to see how a dirk, held to her breast but then pushed aside, would easily have cut the Countess. She was indeed lucky to escape the incident with barely a scratch; we will never know what the real effect the events had on Lady Sutherland, but she died suddenly, still at Dunrobin, less than a year later.

Click through to the pdf for the image: Sutherland family1

Acknowledgement: For all the above facts, quotations and picture, I am indebted to Vols I and II of The Sutherland Book by Sir William Fraser K.C.B., LL.D.  (2005 edition by TannerRitchie Publishing with the University of St Andrews)

For more info on the MLitt: http://www.history.uhi.ac.uk/Postgr2134.asp