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The Jacobite burning of Strathearn

The Earl of Mar's scorched-earth policy during the Jacobite Rising of 1715

From 25-29 January 1716, in the midst of a bitter winter, the Jacobites burn the Strathearn villages of Auchterarder, Blackford, Dalreoch, Crieff, Dunning, and Muthill in order to hinder the advance of the Duke of Argyll’s government army towards Perth.

After the inconclusive clash of arms with the government forces of George I under John Campbell, Duke of Argyll on the field of Sheriffmuir on 13 November 1715, the Jacobite army of James Francis Edward Stuart under the command of John Erskine, Earl of Mar withdrew back to their base of operations at Perth. Argyll marched his battered army back to Stirling to refit and await reinforcements. Both sides sent out patrols into the hinterland between the two armies. Mar, who had failed to defeat Argyll despite his larger force, was now beset with desertions and knew that it was only a matter of time before Argyll moved on Perth in force. Writing to James Stuart, Mar outlined his problems:

…the Armie reduced to a small Number, more by the Highlanders going home, than by any loss wee sustain’d, which was but very small ; so That and Want of Provisions oblig’d me yet to retire first to Auchterarder, and then here to Perth. I have been doing all I can ever Since to get the Armie together again, and I hope considerable numbers may come in a little time, but now that out friends in England are defeated [battle of Preston] there will be troops sent down from thence, to reinforce the Duke of Argyle, which will make him so strong, that wee shall not be able to face him, and I am afraid wee shall have much difficultie in makeing a stand any where, Save in the Highlands, where wee will not be able to Subsist.

James Stuart had landed at Peterhead from France on 22 December and arrived in Perth on 9 January. He set up court at nearby Scone Palace and was proclaimed King James VIII and III on 23 January. All focus was however on Stirling and the large government force now under Argyll. He had received substantial reinforcements including Dutch and Swiss infantry battalions and an extensive artillery train ready to batter the walls of Perth. The Jacobite leaders had no intention of fighting to hold Perth but kept this fact quiet in case of mass desertions. Although food supply was in abundance, the coal supply in Perth was running low and the townspeople began to ‘burne their household furniture’.

On 21 January, Argyll sent out a party of two hundred dragoons to carry out a reconnaissance-in-force on the road to Perth. Three days later Argyll himself led another force of dragoons to Dunblane and then on to Auchterarder to examine the state of the roads. Argyll reported on the conditions: “a vast depth of snow, in so much that we were obliged to march the whole way one horse after another, and for the most part up to the horse’s bellies”. Heavy snowfall made passage difficult and on the night of the 24th “it thawed suddenly, and the Thaw was followed with a great Fall of Snow, which was every where two or three Foot deep, and suddenly froze again”. Soldiers and locals worked furiously to clear the way for the movement of the main government army along with their artillery and baggage.

The movement of Argyll’s forces from Stirling towards Perth caused the Jacobites great alarm. It was decided that in order to slow the advance of Argyll towards Perth the Jacobites would create a belt of ‘scorched earth’ between Dunblane and Perth to deny the government forces supplies and shelter. Six villages would be burnt and their inhabitants cast out in the most fiendish weather – the winter of 1715-16 was one of the coldest on record. With the realisation that the rising was more or less over following Sheriffmuir and since they had no intention of holding Perth the plan made no operational sense and inflicted unnecessary suffering on the local population, and it is clear that the clans used the opportunity for some score-settling.

On ordering the burnings and after observing Argyll’s movements, Mar stated on the 24th:

After all when they have no cover left them I see not how it is possible for them to march. We are like to be froze in the house and how they can endure the cold for one night in the fields I cannot conceive. And then the roads are so that but one can go abreast, as their party did yesterday, and ther is no going off the road for horse and scarce for foot without being lost in the snow.

On the night of the 24-25 January six hundred clansmen, predominately MacDonalds and Camerons, led by Macdonald of Clanranald marched out of Perth and arrived at Auchterarder in the early hours of the 25th. Here they drove the inhabitants out into the open and began to set the buildings alight. An account in The Annals of Auchterarder and Memorials of Strathearn:

Clanranald, coming to Ochterarder upon Wednesday, the 25th of January, about 4 in the morning, found everybody fast asleep. Sentries were placed, and all precautions taken by him that no intelligence might be carry’d to the King’s Forces, of whom they falsely supposed a party to be within two miles.

Then partyes were ordered to every house in the town, to let none stirr out of doors, which they broke open without allowing any body time to put on their cloaths; then, crowding in, they lighted candles, and searched every corner of the house for enemyes, as they call’d them, but finding none, broke open chests, and took what they found most convenient for them. The thing that most offended them was that they found plenty of meat, drink, and other liquors, which they said wee had provided for the King’s Army, as wee really had, our miserable circumstances having made us look for them with impatience long before they came.

Great was the terrour wee were under when wee were so rudely treated under cloud of night, and detain’d prisoners within our houses by armed men, who could not or would not speak one word of our language. Many were persuaded that Clanranald, who is a violent Papist (as all the Clans are who came along with him), was come with a design to massacre us, because none of this place had joyn.’d them upon the Pretender’s Proclamation.

This morning there had been one of the most terrible blowings and falls of snow that ever man saw, and the snow was so exceeding deep that many aged people, women, and children, who were designing when they saw theire houses burnt to go shelter themselves in the church, were so encumbered with the snow that they cou’d not walk through, but lay sweltering amongst it, where they were stript of their cloaths, and robb’d cf theire money and everything they had about them, and left by the cruel Rebells, who minded nothing but burning and plundering, to perish in the cold.

Clanranald, now seeing every house on fire, and many of the best fallin down, rode along the streets, convecn’d his men, and march’d. All the way he pray’d the people whom he saw weeping to forgive him, but was answered with silence, and so departed to do the like in other places. His men, before they went, seized all the horses they could find to carry off tlieire plunder.

Clanranald’s party then moved on to Blackford later that day burning it to the ground before heading to Crieff where they were assisted in the burning of the town by Ludovic Drummond, factor to Lord Drummond, who owned the town. It was claimed that he took great delight in the town’s destruction as punishment for the townsfolk not supporting the Jacobite cause.

On 28 January Lord George Murray, younger son of John Murray, Duke of Atholl, burnt Dunning. Murray was accused of “hurling sheaves into the fire after being begged not to do so”. John Baynes in his book The Jacobite Rising of 1715 states that Murray’s “great reputation later might have been lessened were this part of his life-story better known”. The village of Muthil was burnt on the night of the 28th and Dalreoch was torched on the 29th. Auchterarder received a second visit:

It would be endless to give account of all the hardships and acts of barbarous cruelty done. It may be easily imagined, considering the season of the year, the vast load of snow that lay then on the ground, the poor people, man wife and child, without the shelter of a house, without cloalhs, meat, drink, or anything to support them, and little or no hopes of relief, for within a day or two after, when they saw with their own eyes, from the high grounds to which they were retired for shelter, a second burning at Auchterarder, they were reduced to the utmost degree of distraction and despair.

The burning of the villages on Argyll’s route by the Jacobites did little to impede his army’s advance. Any delays incurred were due to the snow and the need to clear the way. His troops did however spend a couple of uncomfortable nights in the hinterland under canvas before arriving at Perth on 1 February shorty after the Jacobites had left. After leaving Perth the Jacobite forces headed for Dundee and then on to Montrose where on 4 February James Stuart embarked on a ship for France, leaving behind a lot of angry supporters who resented his departure. A political embarrassment for the French he would be forced to leave France and settle in Rome. By mid-February, the Jacobite army had dispersed bringing to an end the Jacobite Rising of 1715.

Last Updated on 6 February 2022 by Neil Ritchie

Neil Ritchie
Neil Ritchie
Neil Ritchie is the founder and editor of ScottishHistory.org. Neil is also the editor of other online publications covering military history, defence and security. He can be found on Twitter: @NeilRitchie86.
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