29 September 2014
History Scotland talks to author and military historian Stuart Reid about his research on the Battle of Sheriffmuir, which marks its 300th anniversary next year. ...
History Scotland talks to author and military historian Stuart Reid about his research on the Battle of Sheriffmuir, which marks its 300th anniversary next year.
How did your interest in the battle begin?
Back in the mists of time, when I was still at school in Aberdeen I was fascinated by the Jacobite risings and obviously enough by the Battle of Culloden. Over the years I looked at it in a lot of depth, especially in reconciling both contemporary accounts and the ground itself, and 1994 saw my book "Like Hungry Wolves" which I can truthfully say completely altered our understanding of the battle.
Although I've written widely since then, it was probably inevitable then that one day I would turn my attention to that other rising in 1715, where Sheriffmuir was crying out for a new treatment.
Are there any misconceptions about the battle that your book addresses?
Oh the usual ones I think, largely because too many books rely on what other historians have written rather than going right back to the beginning and starting with a blank piece of paper and the original sources. Perhaps the most important misconception though is the same one which I addressed at Culloden; namely that the actual battle area was much bigger than people generally realise.
At a very basic level you need to allow a metre for each man standing in the front rank. This means that a British infantry battalion 300 strong, standing three ranks deep will occupy a frontage of 100 metres all by itself.
Add in the other battalions, with gaps between them and cavalry on each end and all of a sudden you are looking not only at a much bigger battlefield, but one which will look quite different from what you see as a single individual standing in one place.
What in your opinion, was the key turning point in the battle?
Ah, an easy one, it all turned on the opening minutes. It wasn't a battle like Culloden where both sides lined up facing each other and then began a murderous game of chess. Neither army could see the other at first because the crest of the moor was in the way and they were still moving into position when they started fighting.
Although it all started shortly after noon and the fighting went on until dark it was the decisions and mistakes made at the beginning which decided the outcome.
Do you think the outcome of the battle would have been different if the two sides had been evenly matched in terms of numbers?
No, I don't think so. As I said everything hinged on those first few minutes. The Duke of Argyle (pictured) was certainly outnumbered and would have been very grateful for more men, but I don't think that would have altered how he intended to fight the battle and how it actually turned out.
Hundreds of extra men aren't going to do much good if they are all running away.
What are the main questions about the battle that still remain unanswered?
I'd like to say that I've answered them [laughs] but there will always be questions about any battle and in this case there is a tolerable degree of uncertainty as to where some people were on the day, and why some who might have fought at Sheriffmuir didn't.
What it is about Sheriffmuir that inspired the likes of Robert Burns and James Hogg to create or collect material relating to the battle?
I think largely because it was a battle about Scotland, fought by Scots. At the time it was only eight years since the Union, which had proved very unpopular. Most of the Jacobites were fighting to dissolve that Union and saw putting the Chevalier on the throne as a means to that end rather than an end in itself.
Consequently they had a lot of support all over Scotland and were able to seize towns and set up their own administration without actually fighting anybody. All it needed was victory over Argyle and their position was secure.
In 1745 by contrast time had moved on. The Jacobites were seen as more of a faction and tools of the French, so that although there was a dashing young Prince to lead them and the excitement of Prestonpans and the march to Derby before that very dramatic defeat at Culloden, the '45 was much more ambiguous and had far less popular support than the '15.
How has the battle site changed in the centuries since the battle? And do you feel it’s still possible for today’s visitors to get a sense of what happened on that day in 1715?
I'm happy to say that it hasn't. Too many battlefields have been lost to modern development simple because they were fought for towns or important road junctions which have naturally grown in size over the years.
Sheriffmuir was different though because both sides deliberately turned off the roads to try and establish themselves on a piece of bleak and open high ground, which has seen some managed woodland appear on it but is otherwise pretty much unchanged and so it’s very easy to get a sense of what happened there.
Stuart Reid is the author of Sheriffmuir 1715, published by Pen & Sword Books. The book takes a completely fresh look is taken at the campaign, while the battle is reassessed in the light of a thorough knowledge of the ground and the armies which fought there.