Mission Statement

To Submit Content

Gentle Lochiel
by Euan Macpherson
from The Scots Magazine
August 1995

Many historians have underestimated the role played in the last Jacobite Rising by Donald Cameron of Lochiel.  More than anyone else, Lochiel was the man responsible for the launching of the Forty-five, 250 years ago this month.


Bonnie Prince Charlie got a rude awakening when he landed clandestinely on the West Coast in August 1745.  He expected his arrival to spark off a spontaneous uprising of the people.  Sadly for the prince, it failed to materialise.

Charles, on board the French galleon the Du Teillay, anchored at Loch nan Uamh (between Arisaig and Moidart) and immediately issued an appeal for support.  The response was unenthusiastic.  Many clans had come out for the exiled Stewart kings in 1689, 1715 and again in 1719.  By 1745, they had no taste for yet another Stewart insurrection.

The chiefs who did pledge their support to Charles, such as MacDonald of Keppoch or MacDonald of Glen Coe, did not command sufficient authority to launch a rising.  For that, Charles needed the biggest man in Lochaber - Donald Cameron of Lochiel - but Lochiel had not yet come to see the prince.

Lochiel's lack of enthusiasm spoke volumes about the state of the Highlands in 1745.  He had been secretly working for the Jacobite cause for the previous six years and his loyalty to the Stewarts was without question.  If Lochiel could not be convinced to take up arms then the campaign would be stillborn.

Lochiel was 50 and no wild man of the hills - this Chief of Clan Cameron was an intelligent and enterprising businessman who spent much time improving his estates.  He was making money from forestry and was very careful to make sure that the logging was controlled so that his woodlands would naturally regenerate.  He also had financial interests in North America and the West Indies.

His nickname, "Gentle Lochiel", is slightly misleading, however.  There is no doubt that he was a man of honour, but he was gentle only by the harsh standards of his time.  He maintained law and order on his estates through the rule of fear, and always came down hard on criminals.

The story goes that Lochiel was planting an avenue of beech trees when he received the stunning news that the prince had landed.  He immediately stopped his work, temporarily putting the young trees into a trench meaning to plant them later.  He never returned and the trees grew where he left them.  They are still there to this day, beside the Water Of Arkaig by Loch Arkaig in Lochaber.

However, Lochiel did not rush off to pledge his support to the prince.  Instead, he despatched his brother Dr Archibald Cameron to urge the prince to return to France. Archibald, perhaps fearful of the prince's silver tongue, took John Cameron of Fassifern with him for moral support.

The mission was a failure.  Archibald Cameron did deliver Lochiel's message, but the prince soon turned the tables on him by informing the doctor that honour and duty required Lochiel to offer his counsel to his face.

In this way, Charles cleverly forced a meeting with Lochiel at which he no doubt hoped to bring round the Cameron chief to his way of thinking.  John Cameron of Fassifern was so much in awe of the prince's spellbinding charm that he actually urged Lochiel not to meet Charles.  Lochiel, however, felt that failure to meet the prince now would not be honourable.

When Fassifern warned Lochiel not to meet the prince, Lochiel responded, "I might at least wait upon him and give my reasons for declining to join him."

Fassifern replied, "If this prince once sets his eyes upon you, he will make you do whatever he wishes."

Events proved Fassifern correct.  The prince knew how to manipulate Highlanders who lived by a code of honour and whose reputations were based upon their fearlessness and exploits in battle.  When he was confronted by Lochiel's hard-headed refusal to join him, Charles stung the Cameron chief into action with the withering remark, "Lochiel, who, my father has often told me, was our firmest friend, may stay at home and learn from the newspapers the fate of his prince."  Faced with this emotional blackmail, Lochiel agreed to support Charles; the peaceful life of tree-planting could not compete with the excitement of the battlefield.  However, this decision would have immense consequences not just for Lochiel, but also for his clansmen and the rest of Scotland.

If Lochiel was motivated by vanity and the prospect of winning honour on the battlefield, then he paid a high price for it.  Had he chosen a life of obscurity, planting trees at home, then there could have been no Jacobite Rising in 1745.  The whole of Scottish history would have been immensely different.

As it was, Lochiel agreed to meet Charles again, at Glenfinnan, on 19th August.  To understand Lochiel's enormous impact on the Forty-five, we have only to consider the small numbers of men who agreed to support Charles in the early days of the campaign.

When Charles arrived at Glenfinnan in mid-morning, he found no one there except two shepherds who greeted him in Gaelic.  Some time later, 150 MacDonalds arrived.  By 1 p.m., there was still no sign of Lochiel and the Rising was in danger of turning into farce.

After a further two hours, the sound of the pipes was heard in the distance and large numbers of Camerons began the descent into Glenfinnan from the surrounding mountains.  They were soon followed by Keppoch and 300 men, giving the prince a small army of about 1200 men.

Between 700 and 800 Camerons were at Glenfinnan, making up nearly two-thirds of the Jacobite army.  There can be no doubt that it was Lochiel who gave the prince a respectable force.  More significant, though, was the fact that Lochiel held such prestige in the Highlands that other chiefs would be certain to follow his lead.

Lochiel also went to great lengths to mobilise as many of his own clansmen as he could.  Many were not keen to fight, but preferred to face the Hanoverian guns rather than invoke Lochiel's wrath by refusing.  It seems to have become a matter of honour for Lochiel to bring out as many clansmen as he could, once he had taken the irrevocable step of giving his word to the prince.

Nor did Lochiel's service to Charles end there.  He was first cousin to Cluny Macpherson and instrumental in bringing the Macpherson chief over to the Jacobite side.  As historian Bruce Lenman would later write: "Two better regimental commanders would be difficult to imagine than Cluny and Lochiel in the '45." (Lenman: The Jacobite Cause, published in 1986).

Thanks almost entirely to Lochiel, the prince not only had an army, but also some talented officers such as Macpherson of Cluny.  The scene was now set for war.

Lochiel, meanwhile, displayed an enthusiasm for battle that belied his 50 years.  Taking 400 of his own clansmen he marched ahead of the Jacobite army and in Dunkeld formally proclaimed James VIII to be king.  Then, without waiting for Charles to catch up, he moved on to Perth and took possession of the Fair City. 

Lochiel was to the fore in the early part of the campaign and it was his Camerons who captured Edinburgh in the name of the prince.  The Town Council found itself in a terrible dilemma when it realised it had a Jacobite army at its gates and that General Cope's troopships were entering the Firth of Forth. 

Faced with a demand from Charles to let his men enter the city, the councillors did not know how to respond and attempted to stall for time.  Charles felt he was being trifled with and ordered Lochiel to take the city.

Under cover of darkness, the Highlanders stealthily made their way to the Canongate.  They had to be careful to keep out of range of the Castle's huge guns.  Just at that moment, they had a stroke of luck: the gates of the Netherbow Port opened to let out a coach.

Led by Lochiel himself, the Highlanders rushed in.  They overpowered the guard and Lochiel was able to deliver the capital into the hands of the prince while most of the citizens slept.

Sadly, the honeymoon that existed between Charles and Lochiel was now coming to an end.  The first sign of trouble came as the Jacobite army manoeuvred for position before the Battle of Prestonpans.

William O'Sullivan (one of the prince's hangers-on in the court-in-exile and a man with no military experience) posted a contingent of Camerons in Tranent churchyard to the north-west of Prestonpans.  They were soon spotted by the Redcoats and came under heavy fire.

Lochiel was incensed that his men had been needlessly exposed, and rushed to Lord George Murray and begged him to authorise a withdrawal, which he did.  This incident later provoked a quarrel between Murray and O'Sullivan.

It is interesting to note that in an emergency, Lochiel did not go to the prince for help, but to Murray.  This suggests that Lochiel was already becoming disillusioned with the prince's poor military judgment.

After Prestonpans, Edinburgh Castle still held out.  However unlikely, the threat existed of its soldiers sallying forth at any time to attack the city or the Highland army.  Again, it was to Lochiel that Charles turned.  The Camerons were put on guard and stationed in the Cornmarket to discourage any soldiers from venturing out of the Castle.

After Prestonpans, Lochiel supported Murray's arguments that it was folly to invade England with 4000 men to face 30,000 regular soldiers as well as unknown numbers of militia.  The prince did not listen and this, too, may have helped to erode the good relationship he originally enjoyed with Lochiel.

Lochiel was the only man of stature who held the confidence of both the prince and Lord George Murray.  Given Murray's complete inability to get along with the prince, Lochiel could have become the glue that kept the Highland army together.  Unfortunately, Lochiel's consistent deference to Murray's military judgment, against the wishes of the prince, must have made things difficult.  The prince preferred the counsel of people who told him what he wanted to hear.  Slowly, but surely, Lochiel lost the ear of the prince.

Things came to a head when Lochiel sided with the other clan chiefs and Lord George Murray, after the capture and occupation of Derby.  They all wanted to retreat and they forcibly told the prince so.  The prince took this as a personal affront and never forgave Lochiel or Murray for what he saw as an act of betrayal.

The prince missed the point that the Highlanders had never wanted to invade England in the first place.  The clan chiefs' wishes to remain in Scotland were simply over-ridden by the prince who then expected them to follow him all the way to London.

The Highlanders had invaded England with heavy hearts.  The crossing of the Border on 8th November was an emotional moment for them.  They all drew their swords as they stepped into the waters of the Esk in Liddesdale and crossed into Cumberland.  As each man reached the far bank, he wheeled about to face Scotland with sword in hand.  It was a moving salute to their homeland by men who dearly hoped to return, but knew they might not.

While he was unsheathing his broadsword, Lochiel cut himself in the hand.  Those who witnessed this incident read it as a bad omen.  If morale was already low at the prospect of invading England, it now dropped even lower.

In this sense, the decision to retreat at Derby was simply inevitable.  The Highlanders had neither the motivation nor the numbers to march all the way to London and presumably conquer the entire English nation.

As Lochiel's relations with Charles slowly deteriorated, the part he played in the campaign began to diminish.  From the decision to retreat at Derby, Lochiel does not again come to our attention until the Jacobite army reached Glasgow.  It was here that Lochiel underlined his reputation as "the Gentle Lochiel".  The city had given the prince no volunteers, but had raised 500 men for King George.  The story goes that many Highlanders wanted to exact their revenge by sacking the city, and it was only the intervention of Lochiel himself that saved Glasgow.  As a mark of gratitude, the bells of Glasgow have traditionally rung out to welcome the Chief of Clan Cameron.

The Jacobite army continued to retreat with no clear sense of direction.  Lochiel and the other chiefs argued for withdrawal into the Highlands where Cumberland would find it difficult to follow.

The prince seemed unable to make up his mind what they should do.  It should perhaps have been no surprise when Cumberland's vanguard caught up with the Highlanders at Falkirk.  Brilliant tactical awareness by Lord George Murray got his men on to the high ground from where they overran the government army in about 20 minutes.

However, even this could not lift the prince out of his depression.  Instead of reclaiming the initiative and pursuing the fleeing Redcoats back to Edinburgh, Charles gave orders for his army's stockpiles of ammunition to be destroyed, to stop them falling into Cumberland's hands.

One of the curious facts about warfare is that you are often put in more danger by your own side than by the enemy.  The closest Lochiel came to death during the campaign was at the hands of his own men.

The clansmen had to move kegs of gunpowder from the stockpile in St Ninian's churchyard at Stirling to the waste ground where it would be detonated.  In the course of this, some spilled on the ground and a spark set it alight.

The ensuing explosion was heard miles away.  A woman was blown out of her carriage and knocked unconscious, while Lochiel himself was nearly killed.

The Cameron chief was furious with the prince for putting his life in danger.  It is interesting to note that Clan Cameron now parted company with the Jacobite army, heading west to Fort William while the prince went north to Inverness.

The war was now entering a new and dark phase, at least as far as the clans were concerned.  If they retreated north, their homes could be exposed to terrorist attacks from Cumberland's dragoons.

If Clan Campbell was expected to follow the Highland code of honour, it was certain that Cumberland would not.  Lochiel was afraid that if he followed the Jacobites to Inverness, his lands in Lochaber would be ravaged by Redcoats.

To make matters worse, there was a Redcoat garrison in Fort William ready to mount raiding-parties into nearby Cameron territory.  Lochiel wanted to nip this threat in the bud with an assault on Fort William.  He took his men there with this in mind, but Charles showed little interest in the plan and did not give Lochiel the heavy guns he needed to demolish the fort.

We can only guess at Lochiel's thoughts when Charles ordered him north to Inverness.  Not only did his men face a long march up the Great Glen from Fort William to Inverness just to fight Cumberland, but their departure would expose their womenfolk and their homes to the risk of attack.

Of all the clans, Lochiel's Camerons were probably the worst prepared to fight at Culloden.  They arrived, exhausted, at Inverness late on 14th April only to discover that the prince had not thought to provide food for them.

Next day, with only a biscuit to eat, they were made to stand in line awaiting Cumberland.  Cumberland did not come, though, and a day that could have been spent foraging for food or resting was utterly wasted.

Lochiel, like Murray, was aghast when he learned that Charles intended to fight at Culloden.  Charles, probably suffering from depression, just seemed to want to put an end to an adventure that had gone badly wrong.

The die was cast by the overhearing of a remark from Brigadier Stapleton who commanded the prince's Irish picquets.  "The Scots," he said, "are always good troops till things come to a crisis."  From that moment, the seal was set on Charles's idiotic plan to offer battle at Culloden.

"I do not believe," Lochiel later said, "that there was a Highlander in the army who would not have run up the mouth of a cannon in order to refute the odious and undeserved aspersion."

Lochiel charged with his clan at Culloden and was badly wounded on the battlefield.  The traditional belief is that both his ankles were shattered by grapeshot which was fired from Cumberland's cannons, but Frank McLynn - author of several excellent books about the Jacobites - argues that Lochiel was actually wounded in the legs by musket-fire from Clan Campbell (see McLynn's Charles Edward Stewart published 1988).  McLynn's analysis provides a possible explanation for Lochiel's subsequent recovery from his wounds.

Nevertheless, the Cameron chief still had to be carried from the field before the government dragoons could bayonet him.  He was put on a horse and led to his home at Achnacarry where his clansmen buried his collection of valuables before the enemy troops arrived.

Wounded, homeless and now on the run, Lochiel refused to give up.  He sent a letter to Cluny Macpherson declaring that he was preparing for a summer campaign and urging the Macpherson chief to assemble as large an army as he could.

All the clan chiefs wanted to carry on the war.  They all knew that they had gone too far to stop now.  If they surrendered, they could expect only the harshest treatment from Cumberland.  Their only option was to continue fighting, either to turn things around or to force Cumberland to give them decent terms for surrender.  It was Charles who ended the military campaign when he went on the run.

Incredibly, even at this late stage, Lochiel still refused to throw in the towel.  This great warrior chief now took what men he had left and went north looking for a fight.

His advance party went so far as to get into a skirmish with the Redcoats at Loch Lochy, only to realise to their horror that they were outnumbered on a ridiculous scale.

Forced back on their heels, they retreated 12 miles to Loch Arkaig and then decided to disperse.  Lochiel sent another letter to Cluny, now urging him to seek safety in the hills.  In this way, Lochiel - the man who began the Forty-five - brought it sadly to a close.

Like many chiefs, Lochiel fled to France.  He did not live long in exile, however.  Within two years, he had fallen ill and died from meningitis.  Of all the chiefs, Lochiel had been the most enthusiastic.  First to take up arms and last to lay them down, none can question the commitment he gave to Charles.  He survived three battles, the invasion of England, and the brutal aftermath of Culloden.  What killed Lochiel was his exile in France and the sure knowledge that he had brought tremendous suffering upon the heads of his own clansfolk.  A humane, if tragic, reaction from the man called Gentle Lochiel.

Editor's Note:  Illustrations by John Mackay