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Night March Towards Nairn - Chapter 3


Lord George Murray

Lord George Murray

ANOTHER bold scheme was meanwhile resolved on - a night-attack on the English camp at bairn. It was hoped, too, that the Soldiers might be the more likely to be found napping, as they might be expected to over-indulge in the festivities of their leaders birth-day. Lord George devised or cordially adopted the proposal, it would seem, for one reason, as preferable to awaiting the Royal army on the ill-selected field of battle. It was about three o'clock in the afternoon of 15th April that the project was resolved on; the intention being to set out at night-fall, about eight o'clock, with the purpose of reaching the point of attack about two o'clock in the morning. By some fatality, through a negligence which was attended with the most disastrous consequences, a single biscuit or a small loaf or oatmeal bannock, was all of nourishment that was available for each man. Difficult as may have been the duties of the commissariat, they ought, at this eventful crisis, to have been prosecuted with all possible energy; and that they might have been so successfully, was demonstrated by the fact, that on a serious but too late effort being made, a store of food was collected, though not in time to reach the famished troops. In the Lockhart Papers (vol. ii. p. 529), Mr. John Hay is said to have been blamed by the army for the distress they were in for want of provisions, he having the superintendence at the time, owing to the illness of Secretary Murray, who is there stated to have been extremely active in providing for the army.

"The scarcity of provisions" (says Mr. Chambers) "had none become so great, that the men were on this important day reduced to the miserable allowance of only one small loaf, and that of the worst kind. Strange as the averment may appear, I have beheld and tasted a piece of the bread served out in this occasion, being the remains of a loaf or bannock, which had been carefully preserved for eighty-one years by the successive members of a Jacobite family. It is impossible to imagine a composition of greater coarseness, or less likely to please or satisfy the appetite: and perhaps no recital, however eloquent, of the miseries to which Charles's army was reduced, could have impressed the reader with so strong an idea of the real extent of that misery as the sight of this singular relic. Its ingredients appeared to be merely the husks of oats and a coarse unclean species of dust, similar to what is found upon the floors of a mill."

The quality of the bannock in question may possibly have been exceptional; but whether so or not, the quantity on that day was at starvation-point for soldiers in the field. Lord George, in his letter, 5th August 1749, to Hamilton of Bangour, says, with reference to the want of provisions, as an alleged reason for not shifting their ground, "I was convinced there was enough at Inverness which might even then have been brought out, part to where we were, and part to Loch Moy, where our army must have retired if the Duke of Cumberland did not cross the Water of Nairn and give us an opportunity of fighting him to advantage."

The first evil consequence of a want of a supply of provisions, was that the men had gone to Inverness and about the country in search of indispensable food. On the night-march being resolved on, the officers went in search of the stragglers; "but, under the influence of hunger, they told their commanders to shoot them if they pleased, rather than compel them to starve any longer." Of the whole army concentrated at and about Inverness, which comprised about 6000 men, less than two-thirds assembled in the evening. In these circumstances it is no wonder that Lord George Murray says - "Then, indeed, I do not know of one officer who had been made acquainted with the resolution of surprising the enemy, but declared, in the strongest terms, for laying it aside; much was spoken by them all for not attempting it then; but his Royal Highness continued bent on the thing, and gave me orders to march (he embraced me at the same time), which I immediately did."


Lord John Drummond  

Lord John Drummond


It was in this untoward state of affairs that the unfortunate night-march to Nairn was commenced. The expedition marched in two consecutive columns; the first, commanded by Lord George Murray, was composed of the Clans: Lord John Drummond was with the rear of this division. The second column, commanded by the Duke of Perth, consisted chiefly of the Lowland regiments, and the Prince and he were in the central interval, of about a quarter of a mile, between the two columns. Twenty to thirty of the men of the MacIntosh regiment, who were familiar with the line of march, and two officers, were distributed along the columns as guides. The first column comprised about a third of the whole force; and the intention was that they should cross to the south side of the Nairn when within about 3 miles of the town, and then recross and attack the English army in flank and rear, simultaneously with the onset on the west by the second column.

The route lay near Dalcross Castle, an interesting structure, built in 1620 by Simon, sixth Lord Lovat, but then and still the property of MacIntosh of MacIntosh,  which is  conspicuous on the  summit  of  the ridge,  about 3 miles

north-west from the scene of battle, and at a little distance north of Kilravock Castle, which, with other buildings overhanging the river, about three miles beyond Dalcross, has a fine old tower of the 15th century, and belongs to a family - Rose of Kilravock, at one time powerful in the North - remarkable for an unbroken male descent, retaining their baronial estate for six centuries without the support of any clan of their name, in the midst of jealous and ferocious neighbours.

The night was very dark, the way devious, as houses were avoided; the ground was rough, and, there being many obstacles, the men straggled a good deal. The rear column did not keep pace with that in front, possibly in part owing to its members not being all so nimble of foot, nor so accustomed to moor ground and rough footing as the clansmen, though even of these several fell behind, some from exhaustion. Repeated interruptions were accordingly experienced to the advance of the leading column, by messages to halt or slacken pace. By the time the front rank had reached Knockanbuie, "the yellow knoll," intermediate between the present road from Clephantown - a small hamlet on the line of the old military road, now leading from Fort-George past Cawdor - to Nairn, and the river, rather more than a couple of miles beyond Kilravock and nearly double that distance from Nairn, it was found to be then so late as two o'clock of the morning, the hour of meditated attack. The leaders, in a brief consultation, came to the conclusion that it would be vain to persevere, with any hope of not being discovered long before they could come upon the enemy. The roll of a distant drum, indicating the English to be on the alert, quickened their deliberations. Lord George, therefore, on his own responsibility, according to some accounts - but according to himself and others, not without communication with the Prince - ordered the column to retrace their steps. Lord George himself says - "Mr. O'Sullivan also came up to the front, and said his Royal Highness would be very glad to have the attack made: but as Lord George Murray was in the van, he could best judge whether it could be done in time or not. Perhaps Mr. O'Sullivan may choose to forget this, but others are still alive who heard him."

The Prince's indignation was great on ascertaining this retrograde movement, and he is said to have exclaimed that Lord George Murray had betrayed him. But there is much to say for the view that it was in the exercise of a wise discretion that the attempted surprise was abandoned, and the Prince afterwards acknowledged as much. Had it been persisted in, the enemy would not have been taken quite at unawares, as the Duke of Cumberland had been advised of his adversary's approach by scouts who mingled in the ranks; though all that he seems to have apprehended, as the purpose of a night attack had been confined to a very few, was, that the Highland army were about to take up a position near him in order to offer battle on the following day; for his men were ordered to seek repose, but with their arms at hand. Besides, this vigilant commander had a party of dragoons patrolling all night on the side next the Insurgents, between the river Nairn and the sea.

On the other hand, the fortunes of the Insurgents were in a most critical condition. They were without money and without provisions. Mr. Hepburn of Keith advised to proceed; that it was easier to attack than to retreat, as they would be compelled to fight when in a worse condition. The late Sir Henry Steuart of Allanton, Bart., in his able review of Home's History of the Rebellion (Anti-Jacobin Review, vols. xii. and xiii.), condemns the resolution adopted as the worst of two evils:-

"It has always been a favourite maxim (he argues) with the greatest generals, from Julius Caesar to Marshal Suwarrow, rather to attack an enemy than to wait to be attacked, for the double purpose of giving confidence  to their  own troops,  and striking with  terror those of an


Dalcross Castle


Dalcross Castle

opponent. Had the Highlanders been led on with promptness and rapidity, even after daybreak, they would, in the first place, have possessed this unusual advantage, and it would have been increased by their own characteristic impetuosity."

He then points out that the character of the ground on the south of the encampment, of which he presumes Lord George could not be ignorant, was capable of screening the attacking party on that side from observation and from the range of artillery; while he considers that the crossing and recrossing of the river would have deceived the vigilance of the enemy's spies and patrols. The situation was perhaps one of those desperate ones where the flower Safety is only to be plucked from the nettle Danger. It is easy, however, to allege an error in judgment after the event; and as nothing could have been more fatal than the predicament in which they were placed on Culloden Moor, doubtless the attack on the camp at Nairn might have been attended with a better issue.

The luckless Highlanders, returning by the Church of Croy, arrived about six in the morning, fatigued, famished, and disheartened, at that part of the Parks of Culloden indicated, as already described, by a hollow south of the plantation outside of the birch wood west of the farm-house of Drumbuie, and about three-fourths of a mile above Cuiloden House. In the map, which is reduced from one published in 1845 by the late Mr. John Gowie, land-surveyor, Inverness, the lines of march and of retreat are both laid down to the north of Dalcross Castle. Mr. Gowie was very painstaking, and pretty fresh information was to be then had: so that in all probability he has succeeded in indicating the routes with accuracy.*

[* The line of pursuit by the Royal army has, however, been brought nearer to Dalcross Castle. There is a common tradition that the Royal army rested in an arable field below and about a quarter of a mile from the Castle, in which it was apprehended there would consequently be no crop that year, whereas there was an unusually abundant one. Some other slight corrections have also been found necessary.]

Many of the men lay down to snatch a few hours of much-needed sleep in the open air. The whole army had bivouacked the previous night in like fashion, without any tents or covering to protect them from the inclemency of the weather, which was very severe and cold. Hundreds, too, wandered away in search of wherewithal to stay the cravings of hunger. The Prince himself could command no better refreshment than some bread and whisky.

Sir Henry Steuart, whose authority is the more trustworthy that he had been long employed in collecting materials for a history of the different attempts subsequent to 1688 for the restoration of the House of Stuart, in the before-mentioned Review thus portrays the character of Lord George Murray, on whose memory rests the praise or blame of the retreat:-

"In the Highland army he was the person by far the best fitted for the foremost station, and accordingly be acted as Lieutenant-General of the forces under the orders of the Prince, who only nominally exercised the supreme command. Lord George, as a man, had talents that were far above mediocrity; and whatever may have been whispered by the voice of slander he was sincerely attached to the Stuarts' cause. As a soldier he was brave, active, and vigilant, fertile in his resources, and ardent in his enterprises, yet what he conceived with boldness and planned with address he was not always able to carry steadily into effect; and he was without that firm perseverance which presses forward to its object in spite of the caprices of accident and the unexpectedness of opposition. It is worthy of remark that, as Lord George had the command of the Rebel army, this want of perseverance, which he so eminently discovered, gave a visible complexion to the chief events of the war. In the counter-march from Derby " [of which the reviewer elsewhere says, "That Lord George Murray, who began to waver in his resolution, was the author of this retreat, there is no sort of doubt"] "it was fatally conspicuous. The retreat from Stirling furnished another example; and the failure of the night-attack at Nairn, which closed the catalogue certainly paved the way for extinguishing the Rebellion."

Lord George Murray  

Lord George Murray

Sir Henry, however, unreservedly exonerates this gallant soldier from the imputations made on his integrity and good faith, thus - "In regard to the question concerning Lord George Murray, it appears to us, both from internal and external evidence, that there is not the slightest ground for suspecting the sincerity of that spirited and able partisan. Secretary Murray, we know, purchased his life with the price of his honour, and was in consequence despised and reprobated by all parties. But Lord George was incapable of an unworthy sentiment, and his whole conduct during the war, and long after its termination, affords the amplest evidence of an unblemished character. He who examines his able letter to Mr. Hamilton, where his sentiments and principles are clearly stated, and compares it with the seeming infatuation of the Rebels before the battle of Culloden, and the influence which Sir Thomas Sheridan and the Irish had acquired over the Prince's mind, will at once perceive not only that the evil originated with those weak advisers, but that no exertion of Lord George's was left untried to preserve the army from the catastrophe that ensued. That he imprudently, as well as impatiently, abandoned the night attack, it is impossible to deny; but that as well as his other errors candour will

attribute to the defects of his judgment, not to the corruption of his heart. Even late as it was, after the countermarch from Kilravock, had his original advice of occupying the strong ground been accepted, there is no ascertaining to what period it might have protracted the war."

It must be observed that Lord George on all the occasions in question carried with him the concurrence of the Highland chiefs. No wonder that their resolution misgave them when they found themselves in the heart of England with a handful of men, and when French and English alike gave no sign. Lord George persevered to the utmost limit admitting of an alternative. He out-manoeuvred the Duke in the last onward as well as in the retrogradw movement; and at Clifton he, with Cluny's and the Glengarry men, John Roy Stewart's regiment, and the Stuarts of Appin, gave the dragoons a lesson which effectually prevented all further annoyance in pursuit. But the whole was a desperate neck-or-nothing game, in which, having once embarked, it became at every juncture about as hazardous to recede as to go forward. Having once turned back in their onward progress to the Capital, all hope of ultimate success at least was at an end, and no reasonable expectation could have been entertained, beyond that of compelling something like fair terms, by protracting hostilities, for which the Highlands afforded every facility.


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