Through the Smoking Heather: The Battle of Glen Shiel, 1719

Battle of Glen Shiel

The Battle of Glen Shiel, fought on the 10th June 1719, is as a key moment in the protracted struggle to restore the Stuart dynasty, yet it still remains largely unacknowledged.

Fought during the Jacobite Rising of 1719, the battle saw Stuart loyalists clash with British troops deep in the heart of Scotland’s West Highlands.

On this occasion, the Jacobite loyalists had experienced, battle-hardened support against British troops; Spanish marines, deployed to Scotland’s west coast in an attempt to destabilise Britain during the War of the Quadruple Alliance.

In 1713, the War of the Spanish Succession drew to a close, resulting in Spain losing its Italian holdings in Sicily and the island of Sardinia. Although Sardinia was later reoccupied in 1717, a disastrous defeat during the later invasion of Sicily sparked the beginning of the War of the Quadruple Alliance.


The Battle of Cape Passaro

By early 1719, Britain and Spain had been engaged in war for little over a year. Seeking to disrupt British war efforts and force it to redirect resources and manpower away from the Mediterranean, a plan was hatched to invade Britain, march on London and restore the exiled James Edward Francis Stuart.

The mastermind of this plan was Giullio Alberoni, chief minister to Philip V of Spain. As part of the invasion, six thousand men would land in south west England and surge its way eastward toward London.

Meanwhile, Spanish marines under the command on George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal, would be deployed to Scotland to rendezvous with Jacobite loyalists and facilitate another uprising.

From there, the Jacobite forces would march south to support the main invasion.

Disaster at sea

Far-fetched as it may have been, the plan was set in motion. However, the fleet transporting the invasion force to England was devastated in a storm, a disaster echoing the fate of the Spanish Armada.

For the Jacobite-Spanish force, things went from bad to worse. Having landed in Lochalsh in April 1719, little over 1,000 men were mustered.

The bulk of the force was made up of men from Clan Mackenzie with support from the Macdougalls, Camerons and the famous Rob Roy MacGregor, who led a contingent of MacGregors.

Despite a lack of widespread support, the intention nonetheless was to march on Inverness and take the town.

Travelling fast and light, much of their supplies were left at the temporary Jacobite headquarters at Eilean Donan Castle, under the watchful eye of Spanish marines.

However, three Royal Navy vessels crept their way into Loch Alsh and Loch Duich. Firing on the fortress with heavy cannon, the garrison quickly surrendered – after which the castle was bombarded to the point of near destruction to avoid its further use by Jacobite forces.


Eilean Donan Castle

Meeting the Jacobites

Near simultaneously, we see the Jacobite-Spanish force making its way to Inverness while a counter force under the command of General Joseph Wightman made its way to cut them off.

On the 10th June, in the early evening, they met in Glen Shiel. The Jacobites had established defensive positions in an attempt to stifle the government force’s advance, which was comprised of roughly the same number of men.

The Jacobites held a numerical advantage over their counterparts. However, what the government troops did possess was four mortar batteries.

Wightman’s forces advanced aggressively following a significant artillery bombardment on Jacobite positions, with infantry seeking to weaken the Jacobite flanks while limiting engagement with the Spanish marines.

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Despite an onslaught of fire, the Jacobites held their ground and resisted for several hours before being forced to withdraw from their positions.

Contemporary reports state that the battle lasted until mid-evening, around 9pm. With some accounts claiming that the arid, sun-dried heather was set alight by mortar fire. The smoke from the fires, combined with the dying light of the evening enabled many Jacobites to escape and elude capture.

Seeing their Jacobite allies were in retreat, the now-isolated Spanish marines withdrew under fire before surrendering the next morning. More than 270 of the Spanish marines were captured by Wightman’s force, while many Jacobites vanished into the surrounding country, taking advantage of the difficult terrain.

The government forces suffered minimally, with 21 killed in action and a further 120 wounded in the engagement.

Jacobite losses, while expected to be higher, are hard to judge. It is believed that more than 100 were killed in the Battle of Glen Shiel, but many wounded managed to escape or were whisked away during the retreat.

The captured Spanish marines were later returned to Spain in October 1719.

A failing cause

The Jacobite Risings in 1715 and 1745 played a role in, or were influenced by, the failed 1719 uprising.

Failure in 1715 just four years prior is believed to have had an impact on the number of men mustered, with many Stuart loyalists hesitant to commit to another failed endeavour.

Similarly, the 1719 uprising also had a negative long-term impact on Jacobite resistance in the Scottish Highlands. Two uprisings within the space of five years prompted the government to take action against Highland dissent.

In 1724, General George Wade embarked on an ambitious infrastructural programme aimed at modernising road networks that allowed for the rapid movement of government forces.

Barracks were built throughout the Highlands, with nearly 250 miles of roads laid. The Black Watch Regiment was also established as a Highland garrison, comprised largely from clans loyal to the government.

Despite this show of force, the Jacobite cause would rise again in the Highlands. And in 1745, the final uprising would come tantalisingly close to success.

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