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The Royal Navy’s capture of Eilean Donan Castle

The capture and destruction of Eilean Donan Castle during the Jacobite Rising of 1719

During the Jacobite Rising of 1719, Royal Navy warships attacked and captured the Spanish-held Eilean Donan Castle in Kintail. The castle was the main Jacobite base and was cannonaded into submission before being seized by a naval landing party and blown up to prevent its further use by the Jacobites.

The Jacobite Expedition of 1719

On the evening of 12 April 1719, two Spanish frigates carrying a Jacobite expeditionary force sailed into Loch Alsh and dropped anchor off the old Mackenzie stronghold of Eilean Donan Castle, where Loch Alsh meets Loch Duich and Loch Long in Kintail. The following morning the force came ashore to take possession of the empty castle, marking the beginning of the Spanish-backed Jacobite Rising of 1719.1

Spain was at war with Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Austria in the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718–1720) and organized an expedition under James Butler, Duke of Ormonde to invade England with 7,000 troops and replace the Hanoverian George I with the Jacobite pretender James Francis Edward Stuart. To support Ormonde’s main invasion, a second and smaller force was to land in the western highlands, raise the Jacobite clans and then move to seize Inverness before marching south.

The highland expedition was led by Jacobite exile George Keith, Earl Marischal who had sailed from the Spanish port of Pasaia with a battalion of 300 Spanish soldiers from Colonel Don Pedro de Castro’s Regiment of Foot commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Don Nicolás Bolaño. At Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Marischal had been joined by other prominent Jacobites, exiled after the Jacobite Rising of 1715 and who had sailed from France. These included his brother James Keith, William Murray, Marquess of Tullibardine and his brother Lord George Murray, William Mackenzie, Earl of Seaforth and John Cameron of Lochiel.

Once ashore in Kintail, Tullibardine took command and established the main base at the derelict and largely roofless Eilean Donan Castle.2 Sir George Munro of Culcairn who commanded an Independent Highland Company in government service reported the landing starting that “800 foreigners in blue and white livery” had landed in Kintail opposite the Isle of Skye.3 On 28 April 2000 muskets and broadswords which were to arm the highlanders were brought ashore along with gunpowder, ammunition and provisions. Most of the arms and provisions were stored in Eilean Donan while a smaller magazine was sited 3 miles away at Inverinate on the shores of Loch Duich.

‘Plann of the Castle of Island Dounan’ by Lewis Petit, 1714 | National Library of Scotland

A company from Lieutenant-Colonel Bolaño’s battalion under the command of Irishman Captain Peter Stapleton were placed in Eilean Donan Castle as a garrison while the rest of the battalion encamped a mile and a half to the north on the shores of Loch Long.

Once the beachhead had been established the Jacobite leaders awaited the Jacobite clans who had been informed of the expedition’s arrival. There was great reluctance among the chiefs to rise and once the news that Ormonde’s invasion armada had been scattered in a storm arrived, most of them decided to stay at home. In the end, only around 1,000 poorly armed and unenthusiastic clansmen would join, far less than the 10,000 well-armed highlanders that Marischal had assured Lieutenant-Colonel Bolaño would assemble.4

Fearing that Tullibardine might get cold feet following the news of Ormonde’s failure and concerned that the Royal Navy would soon make an appearance, Marishal ordered the two Spanish frigates to sail back to Spain. Realising that the expedition was unlikely to succeed Lieutenant-Colonel Bolaño was resolved to re-embark his soldiers and sail back with the ships but he was persuaded to stay.5

The government had received confirmation of the Jacobite landing in Kintail on 17 April and Major-General Joseph Wightman, acting commander-in-chief in Scotland, was ordered to reinforce key positions across Scotland including Dumbarton Castle, Fort William and Inverness and to establish a camp at Perth where government troops were to muster before marching north. Dutch and Swiss auxiliaries were summoned from the continent and the pro-government highlanders were instructed to assemble.6

The arrival of the Royal Navy and the attack on Eilean Donan Castle

On 22 April the Admiralty issued orders to Admiral Sir John Norris to detach five warships from his fleet that was covering the Western Approaches and send them to the western highlands. The detached squadron consisted of His Majesties Ships Worcester (50 guns), Assistance (50 guns), Dartmouth (50 guns), Enterprise (44 guns) and Flamborough (20 guns) and was under the overall command of Captain Charles Boyle of Worcester.

Admiral Norris’s fleet was preparing for its annual summer deployment to the Baltic Sea where it would protect merchant shipping and operate alongside the Swedish navy to keep the Russians in check.7 This meant that Captain Boyle’s squadron would only have a limited amount of time to operate against the Jacobites in the western highlands before they needed to make sail and join with the fleet at Copenhagen.

On 6 May while off the coast of the Isle of Barra, Captain Boyle held a council of war with the other captains onboard Assistance.8 Boyle’s plan was to conduct a pincer movement to trap the Spanish frigates that he believed were still at anchor in Loch Alsh. He instructed Captain Edward Holland of Assistance and Captain Nicolas Eaton of Dartmouth to sail north around the Isle of Skye to Loch Kishorn while he would take Worcester, along with Enterprise under Captain Mungo Herdman and Flamborough under Captain John Hidesley south around Skye through the Sound of Sleat.

The following day Captain Boyle received intelligence that Eilean Donan Castle was garrisoned by a company of Spanish soldiers and that the main Jacobite camp was situated a short distance from the castle. On 9 May Worcester, Enterprise and Flamborough sailed up the Sound of Sleat before navigating the fast-flowing Kyle Rhea narrows. That evening the three warships sailed into Loch Alsh and dropped anchor at Sgeir na Caillich.

At 0700 on 10 May, Worcester, Enterprise and Flamborough weighed anchor and made their way through strong winds and rain showers up Loch Alsh before dropping anchor off Eilean Donan Castle at 0800.9 Captain Boyle dispatched Lieutenant George Weston and a party of sailors in the Worcester’s boat to row over to the castle under a flag of truce and demand its surrender. On approaching the castle the boat was fired upon by the garrison and the sailors hastily turned about and rowed back to Worcester.

Upon the return of Worcester’s boat, all three warships began to bombard the castle and the firing continued for around two hours. At 1000 Captain Boyle took Worcester closer in but strong winds were causing difficulties and soon Flamborough was forced to haul out of line. Shortly afterwards both Worcester and Enterprise disengaged and anchored further out in the loch.

The following day was squally with rain showers and at 1300 Worcester, Enterprise and Flamborough sailed up to Eilean Donan and dropped anchor before opening another cannonade of the castle. The navy’s roundshot was making little impression on the walls of the stronghold but inside the Spanish garrison was at the point of mutiny. One Spanish soldier deserted his post, slipped out of the castle and signalled to the warships from the shore. He was picked up and on being questioned he revealed to Captain Boyle that the garrison was close to surrender.

The Spaniard also informed Captain Boyle about the Jacobite magazine on the shores of Loch Duich and Flamborough was sent to investigate. Upon the approach of Flamborough, the party of Spanish soldiers that were guarding the magazine at Inverinate set fire to the place which resulted in a huge explosion that destroyed a great quantity of gunpowder and ammunition and flattened the entire village.10

Aware of the discontent among the garrison, Captain Stapleton sent a message to the Jacobite camp informing them about the situation. Lieutenant-Colonel Bolaño was dispatched with reinforcements and instructed that if it was likely that the castle would fall then it was to be blown up. Arriving a short time later Bolaño found that he was unable to reach the castle because of high tide and he returned to the camp.11

Meanwhile, Worcester and Enterprise continued to fire on Eilean Donan until around 1930. Captain Boyle then decided to send landing parties ashore to seize the castle and at 2000 under the cover of a “great discharge” Lieutenant Weston and Lieutenant Robert Wheatly of Enterprise went ashore in the ships’ boats with 40 armed sailors. After landing below the castle they stormed the place and encountering very little resistance were able to capture it with no losses. Captain Stapleton, his lieutenant, a sergeant, one highlander and 39 Spanish soldiers were taken prisoner. 343 barrels of gunpowder and 52 barrels of musket shot were also seized.12 The prisoners and captured supplies were taken back to the warships while a party of sailors burned nearby buildings housing provisions for the Jacobites.

50-gun ship of the line similar to Worcester | Image: © National Maritime Museum

To prevent the castle’s further use by the Jacobites, and as he was unable to occupy it, Captain Boyle determined that the best course of action was to blow it up. At 1500 on 12 May, 16 barrels of gunpowder were taken over to Eilean Donan and at 2100 these were detonated destroying the westernmost part of the castle. The following day, as blustery showers of hail and rain swept up Loch Alsh, another 11 barrels of gunpowder were taken over and detonated, destroying the rest of the castle walls fronting the lochside.13 The castle would remain a ruin for the next 200 years.

That same day the Spanish prisoners were put onboard Flamborough and Captain Hidesley was instructed by Captain Boyle to take them to Edinburgh. On 26 May Flamborough arrived off Leith and on the 26th the prisoners were taken off the ship and marched to Edinburgh Castle under a guard of Dutch soldiers.14

Aftermath

Following the fall of Eilean Donan Castle, Tullibardine moved his forces from their camp on the shores of Loch Long 4 miles northeast to Glen Elchaig before moving south into Strath Croe at the head of Loch Duich. On 5 June the Jacobites then moved into Glenshiel which was deemed a good defensive position to hold off any government force advancing against them.

On 19 May, Major-General Wightman left Edinburgh and arrived at Inverness on the 23rd. On 5 June he set out to confront the Jacobites in Kintail with a force of 1,000 consisting of regular infantry, dragoons, Dutch and Swiss auxiliaries and pro-government highlanders. On 10 June Wightman engaged the Jacobites in battle at Glenshiel. His forces attacked and dislodged the Jacobites numbering 1,400 that were occupying the heights in the glen and forced them to withdraw.

There had been little fighting spirit among the highlanders from the beginning and the defeat at Glenshiel completely removed whatever was left. The clansmen made their way home while their leaders sought to make their escape back to the continent. Lieutenant-Colonel Bolaño surrendered to General Wightman the following day marking the end of the Jacobite Rising of 1719.

Notes:

  1. RA SP/MAIN/43 f.87-88: Colin Campbell of Glendaruel to John Erskine, Duke of Mar, 30 April 1719, Eilean Donan Castle. ↩︎
  2. Eilean Donan Castle had been damaged by government forces in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1715. ↩︎
  3. SP 55/9/71: George Munro of Culcairn’s intelligence report, 13 April 1719. ↩︎
  4. The London Gazette, 30 May 1719, no. 5751. ↩︎
  5. Ibid. ↩︎
  6. The London Gazette, 28 April 1719, no. 5724. ↩︎
  7. John Oldmixon, The History of England, (London 1735), p 685. ↩︎
  8. Captain Charles Boyle’s dispatch published in the Post Man, 30 May 1719. ↩︎
  9. Captain Charles Boyle’s log, Worcester, Sunday, 10 May 1719. ↩︎
  10. Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine families, vol 2, p 286. ↩︎
  11. K.T.L. Oliphant (ed), The Jacobite Lairds of Gask, (London 1870) p 458. ↩︎
  12. Captain Boyle’s dispatch; Atholl Chronicles, p 286. ↩︎
  13. Captain Charles Boyle’s log, Worcester, Wednesday, 13 May 1719. ↩︎
  14. Lieutenant Randolf Narker’s log, Flamborough, Thursday, 28 May 1719. ↩︎

Cite this article: Ritchie, N. (17 May 2024). The Royal Navy’s capture of Eilean Donan Castle. https://www.scottishhistory.org/articles/capture-eilean-donan-castle/

Neil Ritchie
Neil Ritchie
Neil Ritchie is the founder and editor of ScottishHistory.org and is also the editor of other online publications covering military history, defence and security. Neil has a keen interest in the military history of Scotland and in particular the military history of the Jacobite risings.

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