On 16 August 1745, two companies from the 2nd Battalion of St Clair’s 1st Regiment of Foot (Royal Scots) were ambushed by a small party of Jacobites at Highbridge, north of Fort William. The newly-levied soldiers who were led by Captain John Scott and Captain James Thomson were marching to reinforce Fort William at the onset of the Jacobite rebellion. It was the first military engagement of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
The Royal Scots march to Fort William
After the landing of Charles Edward Stuart in Moidart in the Western Highlands was confirmed, the military authorities in Scotland began to move to crush the Jacobite rising before it could gather sufficient strength.
On 10 August, Captain Scott received orders from Lieutenant-General Sir John Cope, commander-in-chief in Scotland, to march two depot companies of the Royal Scots – numbering no more than 60 men – from Perth to Fort William in the heart of Clan Cameron and Macdonnell country and reinforce the isolated garrison there.1
The rest of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots were stationed in Ireland at this time and the depot companies under Captain Scott and Captain Thomson were holding units for new recruits. Based at Perth they were ideally situated to receive recruits from the highlands who made up around half of the battalion’s strength.2
The action at Highbridge
On the 16th, after passing through Fort Augustus and with just 8 miles to their destination, the way was blocked at Highbridge on the River Spean, by a small force of Jacobites under Donald Macdonnell of Tirindrish, the cousin of Jacobite clan chief Alexander Macdonnell of Keppoch.
Upon hearing of the approach of the Royal Scots, Keppoch had sent Tirindrish with just eleven men and a piper to hold off the redcoats at the choke point of High Bridge and prevent them from reaching Fort William while he went and gathered more men.
Constructed in 1736, High Bridge was part of General Wade’s Fort William to Inverness military road, built as part of a network to facilitate the movement of government troops in the highlands.
Using the Highbridge Inn and the surrounding woodland for concealment, the small party of Jacobites were able to give the appearance of a much larger force. Captain Scott could hear the skirl of the pipes and could see figures moving among the trees and rocks on the far side.
Captain Scott discussed with his officers how they should go about effecting the crossing of the bridge or out-manoeuvring the enemy. Scott was in favour of crossing the bridge and forcing his way through. The other officers were not so keen to take on a determined foe of whose strength they did not know.
It was then decided that before they beat a retreat back to Fort Augustus that scouts should be sent over to try and determine the Jacobite strength. Scott sent a sergeant and a servant forward to investigate the Jacobite position on the opposite side. The two men had only gone a short distance when two highlanders sprang out from the woodland and seized them.
While the pipes played the highlanders ‘jumped around the rocks and bushes like wild cats’ and made the appearance that they were ready to make a desperate rush upon the redcoats.
Unnerved by this, the raw, untrained Royal Scots began to fall back towards Fort Augustus, taking fire from the Jacobite positions. Jacobite reinforcements under Alexander Macdonnell of Keppoch began to arrive and assisted in the pursuit.
Scott’s men began to return fire and formed a hollow square which made the Jacobites unwilling to engage at close quarters. Withdrawing up the side of Loch Lochy, Captain Scott was possibly intending to make for Invergarry Castle, however, with the arrival of more Jacobites on his line of retreat near Laggan, he soon found himself surrounded.
The Jacobites poured fire into the Royal Scots, killing a sergeant and four men, and wounding a dozen more including Captain Scott who took a musket ball to his shoulder.
Not wishing to see further bloodshed, Keppoch ran in front of his men and called out for the Royal Scots to surrender, threatening that if they did not do so they would all be cut to pieces. With his troops running low on ammunition and with further resistance impossible Captain Scott surrendered.
Had Scott and his men realised how small the Jacobite force was they could have attempted to push their way through to reach Fort William which was just a short distance away, ‘but they unadvisedly retreated towards Fort Augustus… a part of the way lined with rocks, and all through the enemies country.’3
Scott had lost around five men killed and more than a dozen wounded. The Jacobites had not lost a single man in the engagement. Scott was taken to Achnacarry House, the home of Jacobite clan chief Donald Cameron of Lochiel where his wound was tended to by Lochiel’s wife.
The captured Royal Scots were taken to the nearby Achnacarry Inn before being marched to Glenfinnan where they met Charles Edward Stuart and would witness the raising of the Jacobite standard on 19 August.
Lochiel later released Captain Scott on parole so that he could receive medical treatment at Fort William. Scott’s men were also later released.
On 21 August, Cope reported the engagement to the Marquis of Tweeddale, Secretary of State for Scotland:
I have heard Reports for some time, of Men being taken going to Fort William, which are now confirmed. The two additional Companies of St. Clair’s were on the 15th Instant attacked at Highbridge, and, as I am told, as they were endeavouring to retreat, the Enemy on the Side of the Hills fired on them, and obliged them to surrender; one Officer was wounded, some Men killed and wounded.4
Following the Jacobite victory at the battle of Prestonpans on 21 September 1745, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots was shipped over from Ireland to assist in fighting the rebellion and saw action at the battles of Falkirk and Culloden.
The battle-hardened 1st Battalion was recalled from the war on the continent and was positioned on the south coast of England to defend against any French invasion attempt in support of the Jacobites.
Donald Macdonnell of Tirindrish was captured at the battle of Falkirk on 17 January 1746 and sent to Carlisle where he was executed in October 1746. Alexander Macdonnell of Keppoch was killed leading the charge of his clansmen at Culloden on 16 April 1746.
A cairn commemorating the event was erected at Highbridge in 1994 by the 1745 Association and is situated near the south side of the now ruined bridge, of which only the pillars remain.5
- Report of the proceedings and opinion of the Board of General Officers, on their examination into the conduct, behaviour, and proceedings of Lieutenant-General Sir John Cope (1749)
- Stuart Reid, 1745: A Military History of the Last Jacobite Rising (Staplehurst: Spellmount, 1996).
- Henrietta Tayler (editor), The History of the Rebellion in the years 1745 and 1746 (1944)
- Sir John Cope to the Marquis of Tweeddale, Report of the proceedings and opinion of the Board of General Officers
- IWM memorial: https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/82380; Canmore: https://canmore.org.uk/site/241789/highbridge
Christopher Duffy, Fight for a Throne: The Jacobite ’45 Reconsidered, (Helion and Company, 2015)
Victoria Henshaw, Scotland and the British Army, 1700-1750, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015)
Stuart Reid, 1745: A Military History of the Last Jacobite Rising, (The History Press Ltd, 2000)
Last Updated on 16 August 2022 by Neil Ritchie