Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris

The Hunting of Braemar

In the great forest of Braemar, in the Highlands of Scotland, was gathered a large party of hunters, chiefs, and clansmen, all dressed in the Highland costume, and surrounded by extensive preparations for the comfort and enjoyment of all concerned. Seldom, indeed, had so many great lords been gathered for such an occasion. On the invitation of the Earl of Mar, within whose domain the hunt was to take place, there had come together the Marquises of Huntly and Tulliebardine, the Earls of Nithsdale, Marischal, Traquair, Errol, and several others, and numerous viscounts, lords, and chiefs of clans, many of the most important of the nobility and clan leaders of the Highlands being present.

With these great lords were hosts of clansmen, all attired in the picturesque dress of the Highlands, and so numerous that the convocation had the appearance of a small army, the sport of hunting in those days being often practised on a scale of magnificence resembling war. The red deer of the Highlands were the principal game, and the method of hunting usually employed could not be conducted without the aid of a large body of men. Around the broad extent of wild forest land and mountain wilderness, which formed the abiding-place of these animals, a circuit of hunters many miles in extent was formed. This circuit was called the tinchel. Upon a given signal, the hunters composing the circle began to move inwards, rousing the deer from their lairs, and driving them before them, with such other animals as the forest might contain.

Onward moved the hunters, the circle steadily growing less, and the terrified beasts becoming more crowded together, until at length they were driven down some narrow defile, along whose course the lords and gentlemen had been posted, lying in wait for the coming of the deer, and ready to show their marksmanship by shooting such of the bucks as were in season.

The hunt with which we are at present concerned, however, had other purposes than the killing of deer. The latter ostensible object concealed more secret designs, and to these we may confine our attention. It was now near the end of August, 1715. At the beginning of that month, the Earl of Mar, in company with General Hamilton and Colonel Hay, had embarked at Gravesend, on the Thames, all in disguise and under assumed names. To keep their secret the better, they had taken passage on a coal sloop, agreeing to work their way like common seamen; and in this humble guise they continued until Newcastle was reached, where a vessel in which they could proceed with more comfort was engaged. From this craft they landed at the small port of Elie, on the coast of Fife, a country then well filled with Jacobites, or adherents to the cause of the Stuart princes. Such were the mysterious preliminary steps towards the hunting-party in the forest of Braemar.

In truth, the hunt was little more than a pretence. While the clansmen were out forming the tinchel, the lords were assembled in secret convocation, in which the Earl of Mar eloquently counselled resistance to the rule of King George, and the taking of arms in the cause of James Francis Edward, son of the exiled James II., and, as he argued, the only true heir to the English throne. He told them that he had been promised abundant aid in men and money from France, and assured them that a rising in Scotland would be followed by a general insurrection in England against the Hanoverian dynasty. He is said to have shown letters from the Stuart prince, the Chevalier de St. George, as he was called, making the earl his lieutenant-general and commander-in-chief of the armies of Scotland.

How many red deer were killed on this occasion no one can say. The noble guests of Mar had other things to think of than singling out fat bucks. None of them opposed the earl in his arguments, and in the end it was agreed that all should return home, raise what forces they could by the 3rd of September, and meet again on that day at Aboyne, in Aberdeenshire, where it would be settled how they were to take the field.

Thus ended that celebrated hunt of Braemar, which was destined to bring tears and blood to many a household in Scotland, through loyal devotion to a prince who was not worth the sacrifice, and at the bidding of an earl who was considered by many as too versatile in disposition to be fully trusted. An anecdote is given in evidence of this opinion. The castle of Braemar was, as a result of the hunt, so overflowing with guests, that many of the gentlemen of secondary importance could not be accommodated with beds, but were forced to spend the night around the kitchen fire,—a necessity then considered no serious matter by the hardy Scotch. But such was not the opinion of all present. An English footman, a domestic of the earl, came pushing among the gentlemen, complaining bitterly at having to sit up all night, and saying that rather than put up with much of this he would go back to his own country and turn Whig. As to his Toryism, however, he comforted himself with the idea that he served a lord who was especially skilful in escaping danger.

"Let my lord alone," he said; "if he finds it necessary, he can turn cat-in-pan with any man in England."

While these doings were in progress in the Highlands, the Jacobites were no less active in the Lowlands, and an event took place in the metropolis of Scotland which showed that the spirit of disaffection had penetrated within its walls. This was an attempt to take the castle of Edinburgh by surprise,—an exploit parallel in its risky and daring character with those told of the Douglas and other bold lords at an earlier period.

Edinburgh Castle


The design of scaling this almost inaccessible stronghold was made by a Mr. Arthur, who had been an ensign in the Scots' Guards and quartered in the castle, and was, therefore, familiar with its interior arrangement. He found means to gain over, by cash and promises, a sergeant and two privates, who agreed that, when on duty as sentinels on the walls over the precipice to the north, they would draw up rope-ladders, and fasten them by grappling-irons at their top to the battlements of the castle. This done, it would be easy for an armed party to scale the walls and make themselves masters of the stronghold. Arthur's plan did not end with the mere capture of the fortress. He had arranged a set of signals with the Earl of Mar, consisting of a beacon displayed at a fixed point on the castle walls, three rounds of artillery, and a succession of fires flashing the news from hill top to hill-top. The earl, thus apprised of the success of the adventurers, was to hasten south with all the force he could bring, and take possession of Edinburgh.

The scheme was well devised, and might have succeeded but for one of those unlucky chances which have defeated so many well laid plans. Agents in the enterprise could be had in abundance. Fifty Highlanders were selected, picked men from Lord Drummond's estates in Perthshire. To these were added fifty others chosen from the Jacobites of Edinburgh. Drummond, otherwise known as MacGregor, of Bahaldie, was given the command. The scheme was one of great moment. Its success would give the Earl of liar a large supply of money, arms, and ammunition, deposited in the fortress, and control of the greater part of Scotland, while affording a ready means of communication with the English malcontents.

Unluckily for the conspirators, they had more courage than prudence. Eighteen of the younger men were, on the night fixed, amusing themselves with drinking in a public-house, and talked with such freedom that the hostess discovered their secret. She told a friend that the party consisted of some young gentlemen who were having their hair powdered in order to go to an attack on the castle. Arthur, the originator of the enterprise, also made what proved to be a dangerous revelation. He engaged his brother, a doctor, in the scheme. The brother grew so nervous and low-spirited that his wife, seeing that something was amiss with him, gave him no rest until he had revealed the secret. She, perhaps to save her husband, perhaps from Whig proclivities, instantly sent an anonymous letter to Sir Adam Cockburn, lord justice-clerk of Edinburgh, apprising him of the plot. He at once sent the intelligence to the castle. His messenger reached there at a late hour, and had much difficulty in gaining admittance. When he did so, the deputy-governor saw fit to doubt the improbable tidings sent him. The only precaution he took was to direct that the rounds and patrols should be made with great care. With this provision for the safety of the castle, he went to bed, doubtless with the comfortable feeling that he had done all that could be expected of a reasonable man in so improbable a case.

While this was going on, the storming party had collected at the church-yard of the West Kirk, and from there proceeded to the chosen place at the foot of the castle walls. There had been a serious failure, however, in their preparations. They had with them a part of the rope-ladders on which their success depended, but he who was to have been there with the remainder—Charles Forbes, an Edinburgh merchant, who had attended to their making—was not present, and they awaited him in vain.

Without him nothing could be done; but, impatient at the delay, the party made their way with difficulty up the steep cliff, and at length reached the foot of the castle wall. Here they found on duty one of the sentinels whom they had bribed; but he warned them to make haste, saying that he was to be relieved at twelve o'clock, and after that hour he could give them no aid.

The affair was growing critical. The midnight hour was fast approaching, and Forbes was still absent. Drummond, the leader, had the sentinel to draw up the ladder they had with them and fasten it to the battlements, to see if it were long enough for their purpose. He did so; but it proved to be more than a fathom short.

And now happened an event fatal to their enterprise. The information sent the deputy-governor, and his direction that the patrols should be alert, had the effect of having them make the rounds earlier than usual. They came at half-past eleven instead of at twelve. The sentinel, hearing their approaching steps, had but one thing to do for his own safety. He cried out to the party below, with an oath,—

"Here come the rounds I have been telling you of this half hour; you have ruined both yourselves and me; I can serve you no longer."

With these words, he loosened the grappling-irons and flung down the ladders, and, with the natural impulse to cover his guilty knowledge of the affair, fired his musket, with a loud cry of "Enemies!"

This alarm cry forced the storming-party to fly with all speed. The patrol saw them from the wall and fired on them as they scrambled hastily down the rocks. One of them, an old man, Captain McLean, rolled down the cliff and was much hurt. He was taken prisoner by a party of the burgher guard, whom the justice-clerk had sent to patrol the outside of the walls. They took also three young men, who protested that they were there by accident, and had nothing to do with the attempt. The rest of the party escaped. In their retreat they met Charles Forbes, coming tardily up with the ladders which, a quarter of an hour earlier, might have made them masters of the castle, but which were now simply an aggravation.

It does not seem that any one was punished for this attempt, beyond the treacherous sergeant, who was tried, found guilty, and hanged, and the deputy-governor, who was deprived of his office and imprisoned for some time. No proof could be obtained against any one else.

As for the conspirators, indeed, it is probable that the most of them found their way to the army of the Earl of Mar, who was soon afterwards in the field at the head of some twelve thousand armed men, pronouncing himself the general of His Majesty James III.,—known to history as the "Old Pretender."

What followed this outbreak it is not our purpose to describe. It will suffice to say that Mar was more skilful as a conspirator than as a general, that his army was defeated by Argyle at Sheriffmuir, and that, when Prince James landed in December, it was to find his adherents fugitives and his cause in a desperate state. Perceiving that success was past hope, he made his way back to France in the following month, the Earl of Mar going with him, and thus, as his English footman had predicted, escaping the fate which was dealt out freely to those whom he had been instrumental in drawing into the outbreak. Many of these paid with their lives for their participation in the rebellion, but Mar lived to continue his plotting for a number of years afterwards, though it cannot be said that his later plots were more notable for success than the one we have described.