Escape from the Jacobites at Doune Castle

Doune Castle near Stirling

Doune Castle near Stirling has starred in Monthy Python & the Holy Grail and the pilot episode of Games of Thrones. In Starz TV’s adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s phenomenally successful Outlander novels, Doune plays Castle Leoch.  As itself, this mighty mediaeval Scottish castle played host to a daring escape of prisoners in January 1746. One of those men was a future signatory of the American Declaration of Independence.

The Reverend John Witherspoon was 23 years old and already a Church of Scotland minister in Beith in Ayrshire. Opposed to the Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie and his plans to regain the British throne for the Stuarts, Witherspoon raised a militia from his congregation. He rode off at its head, ready to fight on the side of the Government and the House of Hanover. He seems to have fallen into Jacobite hands before he could get the chance.

The Battle of Falkirk in January 1746 was a victory for the Jacobites. Although they failed to build on their success, they did take some prisoners before they headed back north to the Highlands. Doune Castle near Stirling must have seemed impregnable, especially for anyone trying to break out of this imposing fortress. Its solid stone walls still soar up to the sky.

Witherspoon was a prisoner there with several of the pro-Hanoverian students of Edinburgh’s College Company, including John Home. Home later published The History of the Rebellion in Scotland in 1745, in which he describes how a group of them made up their minds to escape. The plan was a bold and risky one.

They were kept high up in the castle, just below the battlements, with a drop of over 70 feet between them and the ground below. In classic style, the young men tied together their blankets to fashion a rope.  At about one o’clock in the morning they began to lower themselves down.

It was a moonlit night but there was no guard posted at that part of the castle walls. Four made it down safely. The fifth man was taller and heavier and the rope broke under his weight, leaving a shortfall of 20-30 feet. At the cost of a painful fall, a sixth man made it down. The seventh was not so lucky. He survived the fall but died later of his injuries. His name was Neil MacVicar, son of the manse on the island of Islay.

John Witherspoon, John Home and the others got away safely. Home too became a minister and also a playwright, known for his play Douglas. Witherspoon crossed the Atlantic, helped found the University of Princeton and became one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence.

Historic Scotland plans to re-enact the plotting by Witherspoon and his friends of the daring escape from Doune Castle in August 2015.




Lord Pitsligo of the 1745 Jacobite Rising

Lord Pitsligo 001

I have to confess that I’m a wee bit in love with Alexander Forbes, 4th Lord Pitsligo. He was a scholar, a gentleman and man of honour. He fought in the ’15 and went out again in 1745, despite being 67 years old and a chronic asthmatic. He was a great asset to Bonnie Prince Charlie and did everything he could to mitigate the suffering of those on the other side. When Charles and the Jacobites occupied a hostile Glasgow over Christmas 1745, it was Cameron of Lochiel who stayed the Prince’s hand when he threatened to sack the city. I suspect Pitsligo backed him up.

He was certainly a tactful guest in the house of the Glasgow University professor on whom he was billeted. A few weeks later, the professor asked Pitsligo to intervene to secure the release of two young ministers and two divinity students who had set out to fight against the Jacobites at the Battle of Falkirk in January 1746. This ended in victory for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites.

One of those young ministers was John Witherspoon. The Jacobites had imprisoned him in Doune Castle, near Stirling. Whether Pitsligo intervened is not recorded. In any case, the young reverend, just 23 years old at the time, managed to escape from Doune, which was quite a feat. He went on to become a founder of Princeton University and one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence.

Doune Castle near Stirling

After Culloden, Lord Pitsligo became a fugitive with a price on his head. For years he had to hide in and around his home of Pitsligo Castle, near Fraserburgh, in Scotland’s north-east corner. Pursued by the Redcoats, he had many close shaves but his family, friends and tenants protected him. He died a free man in bed at his son’s house at the age of 84.

If you’d like to read more about Lord Pitsligo and other unsung Jacobite heroes of the ’45, you’ll find them here:

Bare-Arsed Banditti: The Men of the ’45

Bare-Arsed Banditti: The Men of the ’45

See some great photos of Pitsligo Castle here.