A call to arms – planning the Battle of Glenshiel at Seaforth Lodge in 1719.
Despite its remote location, Stornoway does have a habit of cropping up in the crowded pages of national and international history. People are often surprised to learn that Oliver Cromwell had been interested enough in Stornoway, to have a fort built in the town to protect this ‘back-door’ of Britain from Dutch invasion. His legacy remains in the shape of the town’s main thoroughfare, Cromwell Street.
After the dismal failure of the 1715 Jacobite Rising at the Battle of Sheriffmuir near Dunblane, many of the main supporters, including Lord Seaforth, fled to France. Though their hopes were dashed, they held a gritty determination to keep their cause alive. A boost to their flagging fortunes came with the news that Spain’s Cardinal Alberoni had promised some 5000 Spaniards for an invasion on England and that King Charles XII of Sweden would send ten thousand more to assist. When the Swedish king died in 1718 and the invasion was put off yet again, it was decided to call together a Council of War. But where?
Lewis was identified as a safe place and thus it was that a party of Jacobites sailed from San Sebastian in Spain and another from Le Havre in France and made their way to Stornoway. Among the latter party, was Lord Seaforth and his two brothers, James and George Keith. In April 1719, the Jacobite supporters met in Seaforth Lodge, Lord Seaforth chief among them. The conspirators included the Marquis of Tullibardine, Campbell of Glendaruel, Brigadier Campbell of Ormidale and Lord Duffus. Though united in cause, opinion was divided among the group. The minority thought it would be best to wait until news was received that England had been invaded by Spanish forces led by the Duke of Ormonde but the majority opted for immediate, armed action. This friction and disharmony was to prove instrumental in the plot’s eventual failure. Lord Seaforth was of a mind to wait, but after some persuasion, the party left Stornoway on 13 April 1719, bound for Lochalsh in Ross-shire. There is no evidence that Seaforth made any attempt to recruit Lewismen for the venture and most of the armed forces were later raised in the district of Lochcarron.
The expected invasion of England by the Duke of Ormonde failed because of bad weather. Ormonde’s fleet now dispersed in all directions, and it was left to the Highland portion of the proposed Rising to make its way to Glenshiel. What was called the Battle of Glenshiel, on 10 June 1719, was in reality, nothing more than a skirmish, though it lasted for three hours. Although the Jacobites outnumbered their enemy by almost two to one, the Government forces under General Wightman were far superior in experience, equipment, and discipline and easily won the day.
With this new setback, the Jacobites held council and decided that discretion was better than valour. As James Keith said: “Everybody took the road he liked best”. Seaforth’s estates were forfeited to the Government and he went back into exile in France, later to be pardoned on the promise of good behaviour.
So it was that Stornoway entered into the pages of Jacobite history, however fleetingly, and was to enter them again some twenty-seven years after the midnight oil had burnt in Seaforth Lodge when Prince Charlie stayed for a night at Arnish. On this occasion, the people of Stornoway chose not to assist him in securing a ship, but nor did they betray him to the Redcoats, despite the £30,000 bounty on his head.