Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Capture of Prince Charlie’s gold - On this day in Scottish military history - 1746

A little known but important episode during the Jacobite Rebellion took place 265 years ago today.

Even though the Jacobites had retreated from the Lowlands, in March 1746 they were still a force to be reckoned with in the North. The main government force was still in Aberdeen and Loudon’s force had been routed from Dornoch. Jacobites were roaming the Highlands attacking government barracks and Independent Companies.

In mid march the French decided to send £13,000 in gold, arms and other supplies to Inverness to help their allies, and sent the sloop “Le Prince Charles Stuart" to the Moray Firth. (the ship was an ex-Royal Navy sloop HMS ‘Hazard’ which had been captured by Jacobites in Montrose harbour in late 1745 and sailed to Dunkirk)

With Irish volunteers from the French Regiment Berwick and Scots from the Garde Eccosois to guard the cargo, and exiled Scots officers in French and Spanish service returning home to join the Jacobite army; Capitaine de frigate George Talbot took his ship northwards.

By the 24th of March they were approaching their destination of Portsoy in Banffshire (coincidentally about 10 miles from where German spies landed in 1940). Unfortunately for the French they came across a squadron of Royal Navy ships off Troup Head barring their way to Portsoy. Capitaine Talbot had to quickly turn northwards to try and escape the British ships.

The frigate HMS “Sheerness” was detached from the squadron and gave chase. She was about twice as big as “Le Prince Charles Stuart” and it was a moonlit night so Talbot had to keep pushing his ship further north and further away from the Jacobite base to keep ahead of the “Sheerness”.

By daylight of the 25th “Le Prince Charles Stuart” was off the Pentland Firth and still being chased by the “Sheerness”. Talbot knew if he tried to sail to the Minch he would be overhauled by the bigger ship. Hailing some local fisherman he found out that he had a chance if he made for the Kyle of Tongue where his smaller ship should be able to sail in but the “Sheerness” would not be able to follow.

The French ship would be trapped but the supplies could be put ashore with their guards and the ship could be scuttled to stop it being recaptured.

Unfortunately the Kyle was narrow and no-one on the ship knew the waters so it soon ran aground on a sandbank at Melness on the west bank of the Kyle. The “Sheerness” managed to sail far enough up the Kyle for its guns to be in range of the trapped “Le Prince Charles Stuart” and it started a punishing bombardment.

The British frigate outgunned the French sloop and it was taking a battering. When darkness fell Talbot ordered the gold and stores ashore. This prompted a landing of sailors and marines form the “Sheerness”. Knowing his situation was now hopeless, Talbot ordered all his unwounded crew ashore where they would march with the Jacobite soldiers overland to Prince Charles’s base at Inverness. Talbot couldn’t set fire to his ship to scuttle her because of the wounded on board who could not be taken with them.

For once luck was with Talbot. If he had beached on the eastern bank of the Kyle he would have been on the land of the government supporting Lord Reay. He had landed on the west bank and came across the Laird of Melness, William Mackay, who had Jacobite sympathies.

With two of Mackay’s horses to carry the gold and his sons as guides the French sailors, and Scots and Irish Jacobite soldiers, headed into the night to escape the Royal Navy sailors behind them.

That was the end of Talbot’s luck. The captain of the “Sheerness” sent more men ashore on the east bank of the Kyle to find loyal highlanders and they found Lord Reay. Reay had men of his own Independent Company of soldiers to hand and in the area there were remnants of Loudon’s force which had been chased from Dornoch two weeks earlier by Jacobites under the Duke of Perth.

Taking a hundred men with him, and ordering reinforcements to follow when they were ready; Reay marched down the east side of the Kyle to cut off the Jacobites.

By dawn of the 26th Talbot’s force had marched to the head of the Kyle of Tongue. At first they could see off any of Reay’s men who were trying to stop them but eventually Talbot’s men were surrounded by men of Lord Reay’s Independent Company, loyal Clan Mackay men and about 100 men of Loudon’s own 64th Highlanders. In all about 320 men by Talbot’s estimate. He may have been exaggerating the numbers but he was clearly outnumbered and his only option was surrender.

The Jacobites threw the gold into a nearby locahan (possibly Lochan Hakel) and then lay down their weapons.

The Highlanders quickly retrieved most of the gold from the shallow water but were in no great position of strength. A large Jacobite force from Dornoch under Coll Ban MacDonald of Barrisdale was marauding through Mackay lands looking for Reay and the remnants of Loudon’s force which had retreated to the North-West corner of Scotland. Reay feared he would now be a target for MacDonald and the rest of Cromartie’s force as soon as the news of the gold’s arrival in Scotland reached the Jacobites.

Taking the prisoners, the gold and his troops, Lord Reay left his home and boarded the “Sheerness”. The hastily repaired “Le Prince Charles Stuart” was refloated and sailed with them too.

After a brief stop in the Orkney the ships headed to Aberdeen; with them went the Jacobite pay chest. The meal in store at Inverness was now Prince Charles’s only method of paying his troops. Without payment of food his Highland troops would melt away into the glens so Inverness needed to be defended at all costs to preserve his army.

The loss of the French gold on 26th March 1746 helped seal the fate of the Jacobites. There would be no more retreat; they would have to face Cumberland’s army in the near future on a battlefield outside Inverness.

1 comment:

  1. Years ago - before we moved to New Zealand - we went to Coldbackie which is where some rellies have a cottage, and which is where we went every year, and which is right on the north coast of Scotland, and from the cottage window of which you could see across the Kyle of Tongue to the rocky outcrop which comprised Ard Skinid. The captured HMS Hazard, which had sneaked inshore of the Rabbit Islands to evade the larger Sheerness, got itself stuck at Ard Skinid which is where Talbot went ashore. One local family later became inexplicably rich while even later still, below a cup-and-ring marked stone which we visited every year, and in front of a Viking stone building on a tiny island in a small loch just under Ben Loyal where a Handley Page Hampden came crashing ashore one fiery night in the second world war, a cow stepped out of the loch limping and a gold coin was found between its toes, or whatever cows have instead of toes.

    Imagine my delight therefore yesterday on spotting for auction the following, for which I shall bid, and which my wife can take with her as hand luggage when she goes to visit her mother later this year:

    (1318: Militaria: Old Ship’s cannon.)[]
    The cannon is cast iron, 4’9” long and mounted on a replica English Garrison carriage which is similar to a ships carriage. The cannon is marked “BP & Co 6 3 19”. Research provides these markings to mean ‘Bailey, Pegg & Co, London, England” as the maker and ‘6cwt, 3 quarters, 19lbs” as the weight of the cannon barrel. The bore size is 3 1/2” dia approx. Considerable early research has been made by two previous owners of the cannon and this information is available to whoever purchases this item. A previous owner claims he purchased the cannon from a person who owned land which previously had an Army redoubt site on it and the cannon came from this site in Wanganui. It is also stated the cannon came from H.M.S Hazard, Royal Navy, to bolster defence of an expected attack by rebel Maoris. This previous owner called the cannon - ‘The Wanganui Redoubt Cannon’. This research has not been checked out but if correct some interesting and important New Zealand historical provenance will be made. The Cannon has some old chips and dents but still looks good and would probably be able to be fired. Pic