The town and burgh of Stirling surrendered to the Jacobite army on the 8th of January, 1746.
In a military sense and in a sense that also made sense to the Jacobites, who were incensed at what they saw as nonsense that the throne they sensed was rightfully Stuart had been usurped, in a sense, by the Hanoverian successors to Orange Wullie, but whose attack upon it, nevertheless, made no sense, Stirling was a pivotal Scottish location. It had been an important, strategic site for centuries, particularly throughout the first and second Scottish ‘Wars of Independence’ of the 13th and 14th Centuries and, indeed, during the entire mediaeval period. The history of Stirling, the name of which is said to derive from ‘striveling’ meaning ‘place of strife’, seems to have proceeded in concert with that of Scotland and the 1745-6 Jacobite Rising (or Rebellion?) also made its mark.
Stirling is located in the heart of central Scotland, in the plain between the River Forth and the River Clyde. Back in the day, it was the only point on the Forth where that river could be safely forded, with bogs to the west making any north-south passage practically impossible throughout the Middle Ages. Crucially, the domination of that territory meant control of large swathes of central Scotland and of access to either the north or the south, depending on where armies, invaders or infiltrators ‘up to no good’ were heading. Thus, potentially, it meant control of all Scotland as in the realities of those times, anyone seeking to rule Scotland simply had to hold Stirling. Well, it wasn’t so much Stirling as Stirling Castle, which looms high above the Forth upon its imposing, rocky crag.
The problem that presented itself to the Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie after it returned from its futile excursion to Derby – a short story of there and back again, which achieved precisely nothing – was that Government forces held both Stirling and its Castle. By then, Government forces had also occupied Edinburgh and, to make matters worse, the Navy were blockading the ports, notionally preventing the resupply or reinforcement of Charlie’s army by his French allies. Notionally that is, primarily because the idea of tangible support from the French was a bit of a myth. Notwithstanding that, whilst the Jacobites were awa’ in Derby, Lord John Drummond had landed back in Scotland with a French Brigade. And fatefully, in relation to the siege of Stirling, the French sent o’er the water an individual whom letters of Bonnie Prince Charlie described as ‘le Comte de Mirabel de Gordon’, but whom his Highlanders came to know as ‘Mr. Admirable’.
The cockaded Jacobite army had marched out of Glasgow “in a handsome manner” on the 3rd of January. Six Highland battalions, under Lord George Murray, marched off in the direction of Falkirk, to make it appear as if they were heading towards General Hawley’s Hanoverian army in Edinburgh. Instead, short of Falkirk, Murray’s column turned north for Bannockburn, whilst Lord Elcho was stationed at Linlithgow, with a detachment of cavalry and orders to patrol the Edinburgh road. Meanwhile, the ‘Pretender’ had also arrived at Bannockburn, where he had set up his headquarters. In reality, the Jacobites were destined for a rendezvous at Perth, but they decided to tarry at Stirling, not because it was still a strategic fortress that had to be reduced, but because Charlie couldn’t bear to see it remain in enemy control. With that in mind, the Duke of Perth and Lord John Drummond, accompanied by Monsieur Mirabelle, left Perth with four thousand men and arrived at Stirling on the 6th of January.
The day before, the 5th of January, Charlie had cheekily demanded the surrender of the town by sending a lone drummer to tap out his demand. The Garrison, at that point still intent on holding out, coolly responded by taking pot shots at the drummer, who had to run for his life. However, the odds were stacked against Stirling and three days later, on the 8th of January, its town council agreed to surrender. As the London Magazine announced at the time, Stirling fell due to the “pusillanimity, disaffection and cowardice of a few of the inhabitants”, but the defenders of its Castle, militiamen and regulars under General Blakeney, were of a different calibre. Charlie huffed and puffed at Blakeney’s refusal to surrender and, against the wishes of his officers, ordered his Lieutenant-General, the Duke of Perth, to besiege the Castle.
The siege was unnecessary as Chevalier Johnstone stated in his memoir, “The possession of this petty fort was of no essential importance to us.” Despite its historic role, it was more of an advantage for Stirling Castle to remain in the hands of the enemy, in order to “prevent them [the Highlanders] from returning [home].” That was a constant hazard from Johnstone’s point of view as they’d scarper off to the glens in order to secure any booty they’d got. Notwithstanding all that, Grant the engineer presented a plan to bombard the Castle, but prevailed upon by the Burghers, who were mortally afraid that would reduce the town to rubble, Charlie instead turned to M. Mirabelle for an alternative. The Count was a Franco-Scottish engineer, a Chevalier of the Order of St. Louis and ostensibly, an ‘artillery expert’. Mirabelle’s grandiose orders from Charlie appointed him “Commander General of our Artillery” who was “diligently to discharge the office aforesaid”.
Unfortunately, as Chevalier Johnstone recorded, the protracted siege of the fortress was to prove a disaster, due for the most part to M. Mirabelle. Johnstone described him thus; “a French engineer, of a certain age, and decorated with an order, must necessarily be a person of experience, talents, and capacity; but it was unfortunately discovered, when too late, that his knowledge as an engineer was extremely limited, and that he was totally destitute of judgement, discernment and common sense. His figure being as whimsical as his mind, the Highlanders, instead of M. Mirabelle, called him always Mr. Admirable.” Johnstone was even more scathing when he wrote, “it is always the distinctive mark of ignorance to find nothing difficult, not even the things that are impossible.”
After the Battle of Falkirk, instead of pressing its advantage over Hawley’s army, which had advanced from Edinburgh to break the siege and been routed for its trouble, the Jacobite army decided to persevere with its futile attack on Stirling Castle. Mr. Admirable spent three weeks on Gowan Hill, uninterrupted by the battle on the 17th, digging trenches for his guns. At one point, according to Johnstone, he had “promised to reduce it [the Castle] in the course of forty-eight hours.” By the 30th, he had only three embrasures completed, but his “childish impatience” led to him firing at the Castle, with a predictable result. General Blakeney could have prevented the construction of Mirabelle’s battery “whenever he pleased.” His own battery of guns was more elevated than that of Mirabelle, so much so that the Hanoverians “could see even the buckles of the shoes of our artillerymen” and the Jacobite guns “being pointed upwards, could do no execution whatever.” In less than half an hour Mirabelle’s men had to abandon their battery, “as no one could approach it without meeting with certain destruction” under fire from the Castle. In Johnstone’s ironic words, “a work of three weeks …was demolished in an instant, like a castle of cards.”
Forced to see sense at last, Charlie abandoned the siege and sensibly headed for the Highlands. He announced his withdrawal with the formal objective of driving Lord Loudon from Inverness and taking the forts in the north and so the Jacobite army turned in that direction, towards its inevitable destruction.