On 16 August 1745, two companies from the 2nd Battalion of St Clair’s 1st Regiment of Foot (Royal Scots) marching to reinforce the garrison of Fort William were attacked by a party of Macdonalds at Highbridge north of Fort William in the first military engagement of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
The beginning of the Jacobite ’45 and the move to reinforce Fort William
The confirmation of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s arrival in Moidart in the western highlands in late July 1745 prompted Lieutenant-General Sir John Cope, commander-in-chief in Scotland, to take swift action to counter the Jacobite threat. Cope aimed to prevent Prince Charles from gathering a large army, and thus, he promptly mobilised his forces at Stirling and ordered detachments to march into the highlands to reinforce the government outposts.
Fort William was the most isolated in the chain of highland forts and its location in Jacobite Lochaber made it particularly vulnerable. On 5 August the deputy governor of Fort William Captain Alexander Campbell had written to Cope informing him of the weak state of the garrison. He also sent Cope an alarmist report on 11 August which stated that 2,000 French troops had landed in Moidart, but he added that ‘the truth of the account I cannot affirin, as the Person that told me saw neither the Ships nor People.’1
Aware of Fort William’s vulnerability and concerned that the Jacobites might attempt to surprise the under-strength garrison Cope dispatched three lots of reinforcements there. On 11 August orders were sent to Captain John Swettenham at Ruthven Barracks to march with a party of soldiers from Lieutenant-General John Guise’s 6th Regiment of Foot to Fort William and take command of the garrison.2 Captain Duncan Campbell of Inverawe at Inveraray received orders to reinforce Fort William with his detachment from Lord John Murray’s 43rd Highland Regiment (Black Watch).3
Also instructed to march to Fort William were Captain John Scott and Captain James Thomson with two understrength depot companies of the 2nd Battalion of Lieutenant-General James St Clair’s 1st Regiment of Foot (Royal Scots) based at Perth. The 2nd battalion was at this time stationed in Ireland and the depot companies were holding units for new recruits. Perth was an ideal location for the companies to receive recruits from the highlands where the battalion drew about two-thirds of its numbers from.4
After traversing the Corrieyairack Pass by way of General Wade’s military road Captain Sweetenham and his party of soldiers arrived at Fort Augustus on 14 August. From here they began the final leg of their journey south towards Fort William through hostile Macdonnell of Glengarry and Macdonald of Keppoch country.
Twelve miles north of Fort William, and just a few miles north of Highbridge where the later action with the Royal Scots would take place, Captain Swettenham and his men were taken by surprise and captured by a party of Keppoch Macdonalds. Captain Swettenham had stopped at the Letterfinlay Inn for a drink of whisky before he and his men were apprehended.5
The Royal Scots march to Fort William
On 13 August, captains Scott and Thomson, along with their two depot companies consisting of no more than 60 men, departed from Perth and headed north to Dunkeld where they joined Wade’s military road that ran 102 miles to Inverness. The Dunkeld to Inverness road was the second military road built by Wade, completed between 1728 and 1730, following the completion of the 61-mile Great Glen road from Fort William to Inverness in 1727.
They reached Pitlochry late on the 13th and spent the night there before resuming their journey the following morning. The second leg of the march took them through the Pass of Killiecrankie, past Blair Castle, and over the Drumochter Pass before they arrived at Dalwhinnie on the evening of the 14th. The next day they departed from the Inverness road and continued on Wade’s Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus road, constructed in 1731 to connect the Inverness and Great Glen roads.
Later that day the Royal Scots arrived at Fort Augustus and stayed overnight. They set off early on the 16th to complete the remaining 28 miles to Fort William. It seems that the governor of Fort Augustus, Major Hugh Wentworth, was unaware of the mishap that had befallen Captain Swettenham two days prior and allowed Captain Scott and Captain Thomson to proceed.
The action at Highbridge
Heading south from Fort Augustus on Wade’s road the route followed the present A82 to Aberchalder before continuing along the eastern shores of Loch Oich and Loch Lochy. After 20 miles of marching, the Royal Scots approached High Bridge, 8 miles north of their destination. Wade’s triple-arched bridge that spanned the steep gorge on the River Spean had been constructed in 1736 as part of the military road.
While travelling to Donald Cameron of Lochiel’s home of Achnacarry, John Murray of Broughton observed the Royal Scots as they marched and noted that they ‘march through what might have been properly stylled an Enemys country, and consequently ought to have been upon the watch by advancing a Serjeant and twelve men in case of accidents, but in place of this they march’d all in a Confused heap without regard to order or discipline.’6
Aware of the efforts to reinforce Fort William and warned of the approaching government soldiers, Jacobite clan chief Alexander Macdonald of Keppoch sent a party of clansmen under his cousin Donald Macdonald of Tirindrish to hold off the redcoats while he went and gathered more support. With just eleven men and a piper, Tirindrish took up a position near the Highbridge Inn on the south side of the bridge.
On approaching the bridge Captain Scott could hear the skirl of the pipes and observed figures moving among the trees and rocks on the far side. Using the surrounding woodland for concealment the small number of Macdonalds were able to give the appearance of a much larger force.
Captain Scott discussed with Captian Thomson and the other officers how they should go about effecting the crossing of the bridge or if they should try to out-manoeuvre the enemy. Scott was in favour of crossing the bridge and forcing his way through. The other officers were not 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 scouts should be sent over to try and determine the enemy’s 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 snatched them.
While the pipes played the highlanders ‘jumped around the rocks and bushes like wild cats’ and gave the impression 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 started 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 western side of Loch Lochy Captain Scott possibly intended 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 may well 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.’7
Scott had lost around five men killed and more than a dozen wounded. The Jacobites had not lost a single man in the engagement.
Donald Cameron of Lochiel arrived shorty after Captain Scott’s surrender and took charge of the captured redcoats who were first taken to the nearby Achnacarry Inn before being marched to Glenfinnan where they would meet Charles Edward Stuart and would witness the raising of the Jacobite standard on 19 August.
Captain Scott was taken to Lochiel’s home of Achnacarry House where he was treated like a friend rather than a foe and had his wound tended to by Lochiel’s wife. Lochiel later released Captain Scott on parole so that he could receive medical treatment at Fort William following the refusal of the deputy governor Captain Campbell to send out a surgeon.
Despite the Jacobites’ small victory over a detachment from the British Army’s most senior line regiment, Duncan Forbes of Culloden, the Lord President of the Court of Session played down the incident at Highbridge and in a letter to Sir Alexander Macdonald of Sleat stated:
Two companies of the Royal made prisoners, sounds pretty well, and will surely be passed for a notable achievement; but when it is considered that these companies were not half compleat; that they were lads picked up last season in the Low Country, without any thing of the Royal but the name, and that their officers were raw, the achieves ment is not by any means so important.8
On 21 August, just as he was about to set off on his march north to confront the rising 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 [sic] 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.9
Following the Jacobite victory over Cope 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 Macdonald 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 Macdonald 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.10
- Alexander Campbell to Lieutenant-General Sir John Cope, Fort William, 7 August 1745, 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), p 15.
- Sergeant Terrance Molloy to unknown, Ruthven Barracks, 25 August 1745, Culloden Papers (1815), p 386.
- Lieutenant-General Sir John Cope to Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Edinburgh, 13 August 1745, Culloden Papers, p 370.
- Lieutenant-General Henry Hawley to the Duke of Newcastle, Edinburgh, 31 December 1745, Cumberland Papers, Royal Archives.
- John Marchant, The History of the Present Rebellion (1746), p 16.
- John Murray, Robert Fitzroy Bell (ed) Memorials of John Murray of Broughton: Sometime Secretary to Prince Charles Edward, 1740-1747 (1898), p 167.
- Henrietta Tayler (ed), The History of the Rebellion in the years 1745 and 1746 (1944).
- Duncan Forbes of Culloden to Sir Alexander Macdonald of Sleat, Culloden, 19 August 1745, Culloden Papers, p 376.
- Lieutenant-General Sir John Cope to the Marquis of Tweeddale, Crieff, 21 August 1745, Report of the proceedings and opinion of the Board of General Officers, p 65.
- IWM memorial: https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/82380; Canmore: https://canmore.org.uk/site/241789/highbridge
Cite this article: Ritchie, N. (12 October 2023). Highbridge Skirmish: Opening shots of the Jacobite ’45. Scottish History. https://www.scottishhistory.org/articles/highbridge-skirmish/