This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine


Perched high on a hill in the Spey valley, surrounded by mountains, Ruthven was once one of four infantry barracks built across the Highlands in an attempt by George I to put down further Scottish rebellions in the wake of the great Jacobite uprising of 1715.

The strategic position of the fortification, lying as it does at an important junction of military roads from Perth, Fort Augustus and Inverness, meant that Ruthven was a key stronghold for the British Army – and a target for rebelling Scots. But, despite being completed in 1721, Ruthven didn’t see its first military action until 1745, when a 300-strong Jacobite force attempted to besiege the barracks. (Remarkably, it took just 14 Redcoats to repel the attack, with the loss of just one man.)

Although now ruined – little of the interior structure, and no visible flooring or roofing remains – the layout of Ruthven is still virtually as it was when it was first built. Once they have climbed the steep path to the barracks, visitors can see where the government soldiers stationed there would have slept – 10 men to a barrack-room and two to a bed – walk the small parade ground once used for drilling, and view the spot where the horses were stabled.

Craving power

The Jacobite rebellions against the crown were ultimately triggered by the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Dutch prince William of Orange seized the English and Scottish thrones from the Stuart king James II and VII to become William III and II.

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“The Stuarts had reigned in Scotland for centuries, and the Jacobites craved the reinstatement of the Stuart male line,” says Christopher Whatley, professor of Scottish history at the University of Dundee. “They championed the claim of the exiled James Francis Edward Stuart, son of the deposed James II and VII, the man after whom the movement was named [Jacobus being derived from the Latin form of James].

“What’s more, many Scots had been antagonised by King William’s imposition of Presbyterianism – a more austere form of Protestantism – as the Church of Scotland. Making James Francis Edward Stuart (the ‘Old Pretender’) king would herald changes to the practice of religion in Scotland.”

The Jacobite rebellions were also, says Whatley, a reaction to the union of Scotland and England in 1707. “The later Stuarts were not especially well loved, but the union was even less so,” he says. “Anti-unionism – and Scottish independence – was a strong component of support for Jacobitism in Scotland in the early 18th century.”

Yet Jacobitism was not a purely Scottish phenomenon. There were thousands of Jacobites in Ireland, too, many of whom were fired by a desire to return their country to Catholicism, and to free it from what they regarded as the shackles of Westminster political control.

English Jacobites were less militant than their Scottish counterparts, although there were substantial numbers of Jacobite sympathisers south of the border.

The rumbles of discontent and scattered episodes of unrest that had marked William’s reign in Scotland came to a head in September 1715 when John Erskine, Earl of Mar raised the standard for the Old Pretender at Braemar, recognising him as James VIII of Scotland and James III of England.

Thousands of Jacobites flocked to the uprising, and there was great alarm in the corridors of power in London. Yet Mar was unable to capitalise on this momentum. With his army failing to inflict defeat on an outnumbered government force at the battle of Sheriffmuir in Perthshire on 13 November, his supporters began to lose faith in their chances of victory, and retreated north.

Victory turns sour

But all was not lost for the Jacobites. While Mar’s army was fighting at Sheriffmuir, an expeditionary force from the Highlands had joined with Jacobites from northern England. The resulting battle of Preston, fought on 12 November, ended in a Jacobite victory. However, triumph soon turned sour when, after finding themselves trapped in Preston with no artillery or supplies, the Jacobite troops were forced to surrender. Many fled, while as many as 1,500 were taken prisoner. Around 40 were later executed, with the remainder transported to the American colonies.

“What the Jacobites needed was external support, from a friendly power like Sweden or Spain, which could provide funds, ammunition and soldiers,” say Whatley. “But in 1715, French king Louis XIV – who had been an enthusiastic supporter of James II and VII – died, so French backing was no longer guaranteed for that year’s uprising. Add to that Mar’s inadequate leadership and the strength and organisation of government forces, and you can see what the Jacobites were up against.”

Further uprisings were planned between 1715 and 1745, with English Jacobites – attempting to capitalise on the fact that Britain and France were on opposing sides in the War of Austrian Succession – seeking to join forces with the French. Spanish troops landed in north-west Scotland in 1719, but were quickly defeated. Louis XIV’s successor, Louis XV, authorised an invasion of England, but in yet another stroke of bad luck, a terrible storm wrecked the French fleet.

Unwilling to admit defeat, plans for another attempted restoration were soon laid, headed by the charismatic Charles Edward Stuart, (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ or the ‘Young Pretender’), son of James Francis Edward Stuart.

“Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arrival on Scotland’s north-west coast in 1745 – albeit with just one ship and a small force of men – revived the flagging Jacobite cause in Scotland,” says Whatley. “He was an attractive figurehead who knew what cards to play to the greatest effect – championing the breaking of the union, and offering assurances about religion. He eventually persuaded Jacobite leaders in Scotland to support another rising, promising that they would be joined by English forces.”

Inspired by Charles’s confidence, the reinvigorated Jacobite army went head to head with British forces at Prestonpans in East Lothian, where, on 21 September 1745, they achieved their greatest victory. With most of the British Army in France fighting the War of Austrian Succession, Jacobite forces allegedly took fewer than 15 minutes to win the battle. Hundreds of government soldiers were killed or injured. The rest fled or were taken prisoner. It seemed as if the Jacobites’ luck was turning.

Buoyed by their success, the victorious Jacobite army marched south into Manchester and on to Derby. But the promised English boost to the campaign failed to materialise. The would-be king had deceived his followers. With just 200 additional men joining them in England, a decision was made to abandon plans to march on London and the Jacobite army retreated to Falkirk where it fought, and won, another battle against British forces. Yet, instead of proving a bright new dawn, this victory was to be a prelude to disaster.

Says Whatley: “The British government felt it had to crush the Jacobite insurgents once and for all, and the last of the major confrontations took place on 16 April 1746. On boggy Culloden Moor, the exhausted, disheartened – and ill-led – Jacobite army was defeated by troops under the Duke of Cumberland in under an hour.”

Some 1,500 Jacobites died during the battle, with the survivors scattering into the Highlands. A large body gathered at Ruthven (which had fallen to the rebel forces in February 1746) the day afterwards, willing to fight on, and awaiting further instruction. But instead of urging his troops onwards, Charles sent instructions for “every man [to] seek his own safety in the best way he can”. With their cause apparently lost, the men set fire to Ruthven and fled. Thus began Charles’s lengthy flight through the heather to avoid being captured.

“The aftermath of Culloden was brutal and bloody,” says Whatley. “The British government was determined to make an example not only of the rebels, but also Highland communities they suspected of harbouring Jacobites or providing Jacobite soldiers. The punitive force directed against these communities, and against the Jacobites themselves, has been described by at least one historian as genocide, a charge that is not without foundation.”

But, as Whatley explains, anti-Jacobitism wasn’t purely an English sentiment. “Many Lowland Scots saw the actions of the Highland army as a threat to civil society. They feared the Jacobites would challenge the restored Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The revolution of 1688–89 had established constitutional monarchy in Britain, and made clear the Williamite state’s opposition to Catholic absolutism. At least some of those who put their lives on the line in opposition to the Jacobites, or who resisted them in towns and villages or from kirk pulpits, did so in the belief that they were defending certain important liberties. These included the right to own property, to be free from arbitrary government intervention, and the right to determine what religion they should adhere to.

“There was a perception that Jacobitism was about the re-establishment of hereditary monarchy, with kings believing they derived their authority from God. Seen in the light of such threats – real and imagined – it is perhaps easier to understand the determination to defeat the Jacobites.

“There is still much debate about why the Jacobites failed,” concludes Whatley. “There is no single reason: often it was just sheer bad luck. Jacobite commanders often disagreed over their aims, while other times they were hamstrung by the loss of strong military leaders such as John Graham, 1st Viscount Dundee (Bonnie Dundee), at the battle of Killiecrankie in July 1689. Over-optimism – even delusion – about their chances of success played its part too.”

Jacobites: Five more places to explore


Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh

Where the Jacobites laid siege

In 1715, Jacobite forces tried unsuccessfully to lay siege to the castle, attempting to break in at night by scaling the north-facing cliffs. A second – also failed – attempt was made during the 1745–46 rising, under Bonnie Prince Charlie. During this attack, the Jacobites captured Holyrood Palace at the far end of the Royal Mile, but failed to take the castle.


Culloden battlefield, Inverness

Where the final battle was lost

The battle of Culloden was a bitter defeat for Jacobite forces. The battlefield, which can still be visited today, features a 20-foot memorial cairn (mound of stones), while headstones on both sides of the road through the battlefield bear the names of dead clan members. You’ll find information on the battle at the visitor centre.


Aughrim battlefield, Galway

Where more than 7,000 died in battle

The battle of Aughrim, in July 1691, was one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on Irish soil and one that effectively put an end to the Jacobites in Ireland. It was fought between the forces of William III and II and James II and VII. Although William emerged victorious, some 7,000 lives were lost in the fight. The Battle of Aughrim Interpretative Centre overlooks the battlefield.


Brixham Port, Torbay

Where William of Orange first invaded

Dutch prince William of Orange and 14,000 troops landed at Brixham, Torbay on 5 November 1688 where he was welcomed by many in south-west England. After marching to London, William and his wife, Mary, were crowned at Westminster Abbey on 11 April 1689. A statue of William stands at the spot where he allegedly first set foot on English soil.


Prestonpans battlefield, East Lothian

Where Bonnie Prince Charlie won

Much of the battlefield at Prestonpans –where Bonnie Prince Charlie led Jacobite forces to victory in 1745 – still survives and can be seen from the top of a viewing mound at Meadowmill.

Historical advisor: Professor Christopher Whatley, author of Scottish Society, 1707–1830: Beyond Jacobitism, Towards Industrialisation (MUP, 2000) Words: Charlotte Hodgman


Visit: Ruthven, Kingussie, PH21 1NR