On the 17th March 1746, a Jacobite force under the command of Lord George Murray began the siege of Blair Castle in Blair Atholl, Perthshire. Blair Castle was the home of Lord George’s pro-Hanoverian brother, James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl and the chief of Clan Murray. Holding the castle against the Jacobites were the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
The Jacobite ’45
After fighting for the Stuart cause in the failed Jacobite Rising of 1715, William Murray, Marquess of Tullibardine, was excluded from the succession to the Dukedom of Atholl, which, on the death of his father, passed to his younger brother, James Murray, who became the 2nd Duke of Atholl. William also took part in another failed Jacobite attempt in 1719. After exile in France, and in a bid to reclaim his land and titles, William returned to Scotland with Charles Edward Stuart and raised the Athollmen in the Jacobite Rising of 1745. These men formed the bulk of the Atholl Brigade, which would be commanded by William’s brother, Lord George Murray. Lord George had also fought for the Stuarts in the 1715 and 1719 risings. He was initially hesitant in joining
Despite lukewarm support for Charles in Scotland, the Jacobite military campaign began successfully with the outmanoeuvring of government forces led by Lieutenant-General Sir John Cope in the Highlands, the capture of Edinburgh and then victory over Cope’s army at the Battle of Prestonpans on 21st September 1745. Following this, the Jacobites then moved into England intending to capture London, remove the Hanoverian George II and return the House of Stuart to the throne of Great Britain. However, with a lack of support in England, promised French assistance not
Retreat to Inverness
Following the Battle of Falkirk and the unsuccessful siege of Stirling Castle, Charles and his Jacobite forces continued their retreat northwards, towards Inverness, pursued by Government forces led by George II’s son and Charles Edward Stuart’s cousin, Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. On the 2nd February, they held a council of war in the Drummond Arms Hotel in the town of Crieff. The majority of the Jacobite leadership (Lord George Murray among them) were in favour of continuing the retreat. The Jacobite army was then split for the march north, with Lord George taking the Lowlanders via Perth, Dundee, Montrose and Aberdeen, and Charles with the Highlanders and artillery taking the road via Dunkeld, Blair Castle, Ruthven and Moy. This was a much easier route for the artillery as most of the way was along General Wade’s military road, ironically built to help pacify the Highlands.
On the 6th February, Charles and his troops marched through the Pass of Killiecrankie and arrived at Blair Castle. This was Charles’ second visit to Blair Castle, the first being in September the previous year at the start of the rising when James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl, had fled, abandoning Blair to the Jacobites. Charles would stay at Blair Castle until the 10th when he and his men continued towards Inverness. On the 17th February, while Charles was staying at Moy Hall, just eight miles from Inverness, government Highlanders attempted and failed to capture him. The event became known as the ‘Rout of Moy’. By the end of February, most of the Jacobite forces had arrived in Inverness.
Upon his arrival at Perth on 6th February, the Duke of Cumberland sent out detachments with the aim of securing Atholl. Cumberland ordered the battle-hardened Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw with his 500 Royal Scots Fusiliers and 150 Argyll Militia to march through the Pass of Killiecrankie and secure the strategically important Blair Castle, near the north end of the pass. The castle was now lying empty following the Jacobite departure. In 1689, the race to secure Blair Castle had resulted in the first major battle of the first Jacobite Rising, the Battle of Killiecrankie. Before leaving for Aberdeen with the main government army, Cumberland also deployed a detachment of infantry under Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Leighton to Castle Menzies where they could secure and guard the vital ‘Wade’s Bridge’ crossing on the River Tay at Aberfeldy. A regiment of dragoons along with two regiments of hired Hessian infantry under the command of Major-General John Lindsay, Earl of Crawford, and Prince Friedrich of Hesse were left behind at Perth to guard against any Jacobite attempt to break out into the Lowlands and to reinforce government positions in Atholl if necessary. Around 5,000 Hessian soldiers had arrived at Leith on 8th February to support the military effort and were the best-drilled troops that the government had available in the campaign.
The Atholl Raid
In early March the main Jacobite army was now based at Inverness and the bulk of the government forces under Cumberland were on the east coast at Aberdeen. Although he had strongly supported the retreat, Lord George Murray was now thinking of opening the way back into the Lowlands. He saw an opportunity to quickly strike south into Atholl, targeting isolated government outposts and preparing the ground for a larger move south. Lord George also had the intention of capturing his ancestral home of Blair Castle, now occupied by Lieutenant-Colonel Agnew and his Royal Scots Fusiliers. Agnew had sent out detachments of his Fusiliers along with the Campbell Militia to guard strategic points in the surrounding area, most notably the northern end of the Pass of Killiecrankie, the Bridge of Bruar, the Bridge of Tilt and the House of Lude. Agnew’s strength at Blair Castle was roughly 300 men with another 300 manning the various posts in the vicinity. His officers had begun to frequent the Blair Inn near the castle, in the village now known as Old Blair. Molly, the attractive daughter of the innkeeper, was likely one of the reasons for their regular visits.
Lord George Murray with his Atholl Brigade and a couple of light cannons left Inverness around the 14th March and quickly captured Castle Grant before moving on to Ruthven on the 16th, where Lord George was reinforced with around 300
The Siege of Blair Castle
By midday on the 17th, Lord George Murray had set up his headquarters at the Blair Inn and deployed his two cannons, a 4-pounder and a 3-pounder, in the nearby churchyard of St Bride’s Kirk, overlooking the castle. St Bride’s is the final resting place of Jacobite leader John Graham of Claverhouse, who was killed at the Battle of Killiecrankie. Since no Jacobite was brave enough to approach the castle, Molly, the innkeeper’s daughter who knew some of the government officers, was sent to the castle with demands for the garrison to surrender, written on ‘a very shabby piece of paper.’ The demands for surrender were rejected by a furious Lieutenant-Colonel Agnew who threatened to shoot the next messenger that Lord George Murray sent. An officer said to Molly that it wouldn’t be long before the Jacobites were driven away and that they would be back drinking at her father’s inn. Agnew prepared the castle for a siege.
The first shot from the Jacobite guns was fired on the 18th March by Charlotte Robertson, Lady Lude, whose nearby house had been one of the government outposts and had been vandalised by the troops stationed there. Shortly after the bombardment began, Lieutenant-Colonel Agnew is said to have shouted out, “Is the loon daft, knocking doon his ain brothers hoose?” The cannon fire made very little impression on the thick walls of the castle. The Jacobites then began to fire red-hot cannonballs at the roof, which caused some damage, and on a few occasions began small fires, but they were easily extinguished by the garrison. It is said that the red-hot cannonballs were dropped into buckets of urine since water in the castle was in very short supply. The Jacobites also fired on the castle with long-range musket fire which inflicted no casualties. Agnew told his men not firing back unless the enemy came close to save what little ammunition they had. The main danger facing Agnew’s troops was their food supply running low. A Journey Through Part of England and Scotland Along with the Army Under the Command of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, published in 1747, mentions the Royal Scots Fusiliers being forced to eat horse flesh during the siege after their supply of food had run out. This is also reported in the Scots Magazine of March 1746, ‘Sir Andrew Agnew’s conduct is highly applauded. The garrison were so reduced, that they had nothing to live upon but horse-flesh for some days before the rebels left the country.’
Conditions inside the castle were grim. An account of the situation by an officer was published in A Journey Through Part of England and Scotland: “The first week of our stay here we had a hard frost, with much snow, then came on a great thaw and wind; immediately after that came a frost again; these sudden changes, and cold windy weather (and by reason of keeping our men so closely confined in Blair Castle), breathing in the most nasty scents, which arise from one and the other lying upon straw, almost brought a pestilence among them.” With a lack of firewood, the soldiers were forced to strip wood from parts of the castle to burn. There was panic among the garrison when noises were heard coming from the cellar, and it was initially thought to be the
At some point during the siege, Lieutenant-Colonel Agnew sent a messenger out to reach the Earl of Crawford at Perth and request assistance. On the 27th March, Crawford and the Prince of Hesse with the government dragoons and Hessian infantry reached Dunkeld and dispersed a small Jacobite force there, before moving on to Pitlochry where another Jacobite detachment was routed. The Jacobites fell back to the Pass of Killiecrankie, where they could have held off the government forces had they sufficient numbers. On the 31st the government reinforcements were within striking distance of Blair Castle. While in the Pass of Killiecrankie, Crawford ordered some of his men to fire their muskets, ‘which on account of the confined situation and steepness of the hills, made such a tremendous echo that the report made the rebels lift the siege’. Lord George Murray did indeed raise the siege that same day and withdrew back towards Inverness. Lord George had received orders from Charles Edward Stuart to return to Inverness at once so that he could help prepare the Jacobite army for the expected encounter with the Duke of Cumberland and the main government force. That fateful encounter would take place on 16th April, on Culloden Moor. When Crawford and his troops finally arrived at Blair Castle, Agnew drew up his soldiers to receive him, and addressed the Earl: “My lord, I am very glad to see you; but, by all that’s good, you have been very dilatory; we can give you nothing to eat.”
In the Memoirs of Sir Andrew Agnew of
The siege of Blair Castle was the last time a castle was placed under siege in Britain.
It could be argued that if Lord George Murray had received reinforcements from Inverness he may have succeeded in driving back the government forces coming from Perth to relieve the siege of Blair Castle. If the siege had continued for a few more days it may have forced the surrender as the garrison was dangerously short on food. However, it is difficult to see a man like the formidable Lieutenant-Colonel Agnew, a
At the final defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden, the Royal Scots Fusiliers were placed on Cumberland’s frontline, and Lord George Murray’s Atholl Brigade was positioned on the Jacobite right wing.
A letter published in the Scots Magazine in March 1746 details the events of the siege of Blair Castle and also criticises the lack of reporting on the siege:
“It gives me some pain to observe that your news-writers have taken so little notice of the gallant defence made by the garrison at Blair. The rebels, by marching all night, concealed their design so well, that they were within two miles of Blair before the garrison had any notice of their being nearer then Badenoch. How soon they got intelligence, they with great alertness carried their sick from one of the office-houses near the castle, and took in their horses, with what forage and fuel was at hand. Afterwards Sir Andrew Agnew drew up his men before the castle, and kept them under arms for some house, offering the rebels battle. But they were too wise to attack the Lieutenant-Colonel of the Scots Fusiliers, whose bravery they were no strangers too. When Sir Andrew perceived that they kept themselves behind park-dikes, he drew his men into the castle and made the proper dispositions for standing a siege. All Monday, the 17th March, being the first day of the siege, there was little firing. The rebels paraded around the castle at a great distance, endeavouring to make their numbers appear as great as possible. Early on Tuesday morning they began to play upon the castle with two pieces of cannon, a four pounder and a three pounder. But observing that no impression was made upon the wall, they pointed they cannon at the roof, and did a good deal of damage, especially after they began to throw red-hot bullets, of which they threw a great many: but much was the alertness of the garrison, that their carpenters were ready to cut out the bullets where-ever they struck, and to throw them out, or cool them in water. The rebels having thrown 207 cannon-bullets, of which 185 were red-hot, and did a good deal of damage to the roof and wainscotting, sent off their cannon to Dalnacardich, so as not to retard them in case of retreat; which they began to think of in good earnest when the Hessians approached.”
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)