Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:13 pm
It is Monday, 19th August, 1745. A lone rowing boat makes its way up Scotland’s Loch Shiel, heading for Glenfinnan. Sitting in the stern is a young man, not yet 25 years old, tall, good-looking. He is Charles Edward Louis Philip Casimir Stuart, son of James Francis Edward Stuart and grandson of the deposed King James II (VII of Scotland). History will know the young man as Bonnie Prince Charlie and he has come to Britain to claim his father’s kingdom.
Charlie already had sympathisers – Jacobites, named from the Latin form of James, Jacobus – but what he needed was active collaborators, people prepared to risk everything rebelling against the British Government. So messages sent to likely supporters throughout the Highlands had invited them to rendezvous at Glenfinnan that day, at an hour after noon. But, as the boat approached the shore, it could be seen that the response was pitifully, embarrassingly, small; just 50 or so MacDonalds to welcome their prince champion. What was going through the young man’s mind as he crunched ashore across the granite shingle and made his way to the shelter of a nearby barn to await developments? Charles Edward Stuart was, apparently, prone to fits of despair; but this was surely too soon for that; and he was determined, and obstinate, too. Then, Allan MacDonald of Morar arrived with 150 more clansmen. It was something, though still little more than an escort. Time dragged until, sometime in the mid-afternoon, the sound of pipes drifted down from the mountains to the north. A line of men could be seen zig-zagging their way down the tracks to the glen. Clan Cameron had answered the call. Shivers must have run up the spines of those watching, as the men got closer and closer. Initially opposed to the Prince’s plans, Donald Cameron of Locheil, known as Gentle Locheil, added 700 of his clan to the rebels’ numbers, along with 300 MacDonalds of Keppoch. 1200 men, or thereabouts; it was enough to begin with. The ranks were drawn up, the Stuart banner was raised and, as it flapped and cracked in the breeze, Prince Charles proclaimed his father as James VIII – the rightful king of England, Scotland and Ireland. The rebellion, The Forty-Five as it came to be known, was underway.
Later, 300 Macdonnells of Glengarry turned up. In the volatile atmosphere of the times, they had ambushed a company of Government troops along the way, near Spean Bridge. To the delight of all at Glenfinnan, they brought prisoners with them, including a Captain Swettenham who, when released on parole, helped spread the legend that the Prince and the Jacobites needed. As he reported to George II in London, Swettenham is said to have told the King that the Prince was as fine a figure and as clever a prince as there could be.
Yet most of those listening to Bonnie Prince Charlie that August day would not have understood him without translation; because he did not speak their language, Gaelic. He most likely spoke in French, or perhaps even in English – probably with a British accent. The average 18th century Highland clansman inhabited a very different world indeed to that occupied by the descendents of the ancient Stuart line.
Nor had it seemed likely, when Prince Charles’s little French frigate La Doutelle (or du Teillay) dropped anchor off Eriskay on 23rd July 1745, that the rebellion would ever get off the ground. Frustrated at waiting on the whims of the French King, Louis XV, who was keen to topple the Protestant monarchy in London in favour of the Catholic Stuarts, but who had been forced to call off an invasion the previous year when his fleet had been wrecked in appalling weather, Charles took matters into his own hands. He borrowed money to finance, crew and supply two ships, La Doutelle and Elisabeth. With the bulk of the British Army engaged fighting the French in Flanders, he would land in the Highlands and raise an army on the spot. It was an audacious idea but, five days after setting sail, an encounter with a Royal Navy warship, HMS Lion, obliged Elisabeth (and Lion) to return to their respective home ports. The Prince’s arrival in Scotland with so few resources, and no obvious French support, did nothing to inspire confidence in his venture. Two prominent local clan chiefs from the nearby Isle of Skye, MacDonald of Sleat and MacLeod of Dunvegan, refused to even meet him. He had arrived with just seven loyal companions. Known down the years as The Seven Men of Moidart (for that was the district where they eventually landed), they consisted of four Irishmen, two Scots and one Englishman. Three were elderly men and only one of the Irishmen, Colonel John William O’ Sullivan, who had served in the French army, would go on to play a significant role in the coming uprising. When they all came ashore at Loch nan Uamh, near Arisaig, on the 25th July, Alexander Macdonald of Boisdale told Charles to go home. “I am come home, sir,” replied the Prince. “And I will entertain no notion at all of returning to that place from whence I am come, for that I am persuaded my faithful Highlanders will stand by me.”
Many did, of course. But why? And why was Charles there anyway? The background to The Forty Five is not simple and can be traced back to the religious divisions of the previous century, the autocratic nature of the Stuart monarchs and the development of a parliamentary democracy in England. It was not, as is so often claimed, a matter of Scotland against England – though, to be sure, there were many who were unhappy at the Act of Union of 1707. People were Jacobite sympathisers for all sorts of reasons. But Charles Edward Louis Philip Casimir Stuart always let his followers think what they liked. His own motivation was clear. He knew exactly why he was at Glenfinnan – it was because his Catholic grandfather, James II & VII, had been replaced in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 by James’s Protestant son in law and daughter, William of Orange and his wife Mary; Charles’s simple objective was to restore the Stuart line to the throne. Some Jacobites had hoped that James Stuart would become king after Queen Anne, Mary’s sister and successor, died. But the English parliament had passed the Act of Settlement in 1701, which stipulated that the monarch, and Head of the Church of England, had to be a Protestant. Thus a distant relative, the German Elector of Hanover, became King George I in 1714 and his son now sat on the throne. Charles was sure that people were just waiting to get rid of the Hanoverian monarchy and that Catholics throughout the kingdom would flock to the Jacobite cause. As it turned out, they weren’t and they didn’t.
The first Jacobite Rebellion actually took place in 1689, followed by others in 1715 and 1719. And now the latest, and ultimately most serious, would take its course. Everyone who joined the rebellion knew it would end in a battle; they did not know when, or where. They could not know that it would end in bloody defeat within a year, at Culloden, that their Jacobite cause would be lost forever and that this would accelerate the end of the clan system . Nor could they know that the battle would be the last pitched battle ever fought on British soil. On 19th August 1745, all of that was in the future.
In 1814, the rebellion’s failure was judged a distant enough memory for Alexander Macdonald of Glenaladale to build a commemorative column, evocatively sited at the head of Loch Shiel. It was later surmounted by the bronze figure of a lone Highlander – some say possibly intended to represent Bonnie Prince Charlie. The inscriptions, in Gaelic, Latin and English, dedicated to the event and the monument’s builder, read “To commemorate the generous zeal, the undaunted bravery and the inviolable fidelity of his forefathers and the rest of those who fought and bled in that arduous and unfortunate enterprise.” Sadly, Alexander Macdonald died before his monument was finished.
The main A830 Road to the Isles now runs close by. The National Trust for Scotland has a car park, café and visitor centre there, where an exhibition tells the story of The Forty-Five. Glenfinnan is on most tourist itineraries; the coaches pull in, disgorge their passengers (few of which seem to make it beyond the exhibition) and set off again for the next photo opportunity. Climb a small hill behind the visitor centre for outstanding views of Loch Shiel and the monument, then meander down to the shore to smell the water and see the monument up close and personal. The brave can take a tour up to the top, but notices warn that this experience is not for the fainthearted or vaguely acrophobic. It doesn’t matter; it is a beautiful place and, in the right light and without too many people, an atmospheric one. I’m not sure exactly where Charlie raised his banner. Logic suggests it was not near the monument, but on high ground where the Highlanders could see it; I have seen suggestions that this was the very same small hill behind the visitor centre, or further away, behind the church in Glenfinnan village. If anyone can enlighten me, I should be glad to know.
That hill behind the NTS visitor centre also provides a great view of the graceful, curving, Glenfinnan railway viaduct. One hundred feet above the valley, one thousand feet long, with twenty-one spans, it is famed for its appearances in the Harry Potter movies, where on one occasion a flying Ford Anglia with Ron and Harry inside soars nervously overhead. It has also featured in other film and TV productions, including Charlotte Grey (2001), Taggart and Highlander (1986). Loch Shiel itself has been featured in Harry Potter movies too, as Hogwarts Lake. Construction of the Glenfinnan viaduct began in 1897 and it was opened in 1901. The builder was Robert McAlpine, “Concrete Bob” and it was made of – concrete. Apparently, contrary to urban myth, there isn’t a horse and cart entombed in one of the arches – that’s up the road at Loch nan Uamh Viaduct.
Unfortunately, the viewing point just behind the visitor centre at Glenfinnan does not provide the best sight of the curving viaduct. To get that wonderful shot, you need to walk into the mountains a little and, if you want a train on it, time your outing to catch the Jacobite steam train running between Fort William and Mallaig in the summer – one of Britain’s great railway journeys. So, on this occasion, I cheated and the photo below has come via Wikipedia.
So, that’s a bit about Glenfinnan; you could visit for the fact, or the fiction.