By Jonathan Oates
The battle of Sherriffmuir is a battle known to me since 1982, when I read an article about it in a wargaming magazine when I was at school. There was only John Baynes’ book on the topic, which I read, but that was all. I have always been interested in the campaign which surrounds it, which has always received less attention than that of 1745 by both historians and the popular media. It is probably why my undergraduate thesis explored the Fifteen in Newcastle.
Over a decade ago I was considering writing a book on the Fifteen, and even started it, spending much time with the State Papers Scotland at the National Archives, as well as primary published sources from the British Library. And then came Professor Szechi’s unrivallable tome concerning the whole of the campaign and its aftermath, and then a volume by an American scholar about the fates of the prisoners. Over three decades after John Baynes, we had these two brilliant books.
To cut a long story short, I had a book published about that even more obscure battle, though the last one on English soil, Preston, and my thoughts turned to the other battle of the campaign. Despite a recent book by Stuart Reid, I found a publisher quickly enough for a book on Sheriffmuir. My book, unlike Reid’s, would focus squarely on the Scottish campaign and in the struggle between Argyle and Mar for different visions of Scotland.
Fortunately I had my notes from Kew to use, but more work was needed. Szechi’s footnotes and a booklet about the battle, unknown apparently to both Szechi and Reid, provided additional clues for further research. No historian can be island from his fellows. Having a brother resident in Scotland meant that this southern English scholar could again free board and lodgings whilst spending time at the National Library (finding the one known joke made by the Jacobite leader, the Earl of Mar) and National Records of Scotland as well as visiting Dunblane Museum and the battlefield. Taking a photograph of the major memorial there as soon as we arrived was lucky because after walking to the Gathering Stone and back, we found a car parked right in front of it.
In writing the book, I think I have shown Mar in a better light than he has traditionally been portrayed. This was given additional weight by my attention being brought to a hitherto unused document; however, this was after my visits to Scotland and so I was doubly lucky to be able to call on a Northumbrian Jacobite who was kind enough to pay a visit to the appropriate Edinburgh repository and look it up for me.
I have also been able to shed additional light on the rank and file of the British Army by a trawl through three decades of pension records at the National Archives. As with the document mentioned above, no one had previously used these. Amongst other conclusions, one is not that Scots made up about a quarter of the troops fighting against the Jacobites; a far greater proportion than their composition of Britain’s population. I also found that there was at least one woman warrior in both armies; the anonymous Jacobite heroine being killed.
Describing a battle is difficult for both participant and historian. Evidence naturally conflicts, raising the question of which to give greater weight to. Evidence from both letters, memoirs and newspapers have been used to provide the fullest account, which has not been the case with previous histories, providing as they have done on either a limited number of published sources or retailing a more concise version.
This is a great story worth retelling in a focused and detailed way on the core of the campaign; around Perth and Stirling in the autumn and winter of 1715-1716. It pits a small British army against a far larger force which fought in an unconventional way. This is the kind of struggle that the British army would face again and again during the next two centuries, but in 1715, the relatively primitive technology did not automatically give the smaller but better equipped force an overwhelming advantage.
Pre-order Crucible of the Jacobite ’15 here.