The weather in the North Highlands in late March 1746 was shocking; cold, sleet showers and a cutting wind. It was not good weather for soldiering.
Ordered north by Prince Charles (Bonnie Prince Charlie) to secure the northern flank of the main Jacobite army and to acquire supplies and money, Cromartie’s Regiment of Jacobites occupied Dunrobin Castle on 20 March. They were perhaps 300-500 hundred strong and accompanied by other groups of men including some led by Macdonell of Barrisdale and Macgregor of Glencarnock.
Dunrobin Castle and Gardens, Scotland’s most northerly great house
All were weary and morale was not high. The 3rd Earl of Cromartie was not a natural leader and his officers had limited military experience. Understandably, many just wanted to return home. They had been accompanied north by the Duke of Perth’s Regiment but that company had departed south on 22 March, leaving Prince Charles’ northern flank secured by the Earl of Cromartie’s forces alone.
For the government, and facing Cromartie’s Regiment, were 6 companies of government forces: 2 independent companies and 4 militia companies all of whom had taken to the hills. The former had some experience and training while the militia, raised and loyal to the 17th Earl of Sutherland, had almost none.
They had no higher leadership above them; that had been “surprised” at Dornoch in a brilliant sea assault by the Jacobites - and had fled. There was much uncertainty between the companies though they were all clear that their mission was to keep Cromartie’s Regiment in the north.
Dornoch beach looking north towards Golspie and Littleferry
The build up:
Between the end of March and mid-April Cromartie’s Regiment sought out the government companies and there was the occasional skirmish. Between 24-26 March the Battle of Tongue took place and a Jacobite ship was captured in the Kyle of Tongue by HMS Sheerness and the 2 reservist companies.
Hand to hand fighting – D.M. MacDonald 21
Tempers on both sides became increasingly frayed. The Jacobites became increasingly frustrated as attempted negotiations with the disparate companies broke down. Some houses were burned, cattle were taken and patrols exchanged shots. Relations with their “occupied” hosts became fraught. Jacobite efforts to recruit in Caithness failed.
The dispersed government militia companies were supplied by careful subterfuge. There was some regrouping. 3 militia companies were loosely located around Rogart, Lairg and Strath Brora. One militia company went north and would miss the Battle of Littleferry. The 2 reservist companies stayed in the far north too though a number of officers and men came south adding much needed leadership and military skills.
Critically, the 3 militia companies who would fight at Littleferry developed a superb network of spies. Being raised locally, they knew their ground and were in friendly territory. There was little that the Jacobites could do that was not known by the militia - and quickly.
Fields along Ferry Road, looking south
The Battle of Littleferry:
On or about 14 April Prince Charles ordered his Regiments to return to Inverness; it was clear that battle was soon to be joined. Men led by Macdonell of Barrisdale and Macgregor of Glencarnock depart rapidly but it is decided that Cromartie’s Regiment will delay and leave at dawn on 15 April.
This information reaches the militia in the hills rapidly and a “council” takes place on the evening of 14 April at the head of Loch Brora. A simple plan is made: the “Golspie” company would attack Cromartie’s marching column from the rear near Dunrobin Castle, the “Clyne” company and the “Dornoch, Creich and Lairg” company would attack the column in the flank from the hills south of Golspie.
Battle of Littleferry map
Early on 15 April the companies marched.
As in most battles, plans are forced to change. Cromartie sends out his companies early and, for reasons that will perhaps never become wholly clear, he keeps most of his officers back in Dunrobin Castle.
An advance party from the “Golspie” company learns this just in time to set an ambush near St Andrew’s Church in Golspie and the first shots of the Battle of Littleferry are fired. Cromartie and his officers retreat to Dunrobin Castle and are surrounded - critically, they are now separated from their men.
But the shots are heard by some in the rear of Cromartie’s column and fighting develops between them and elements of the “Golspie” company - who are increasingly being reinforced by locals - some armed with scythes. A running firefight develops. A few Jacobites attempt unsuccessfully to flee in boats taken from the shore in Golspie.
Golspie village and shoreline
Quite quickly, Cromartie’s now fragmented and largely leaderless column, begins to move down the Ferry Road towards Littleferry - now perhaps as much as to escape as to join Prince Charles.
On the hills above Culmailly, and overlooking the moor and Ferry Road, the “Clyne” company and the “Dornoch, Creich and Lairg” company are poised. It is perhaps now or never but they are woefully outnumbered, tired and scared. But a plan is made: spacing between ranks is doubled and the two companies divide into three “divisions” to make their force look larger than it really is.
The order is given and a rapid advance begins. On the Ferry Road there is increasing confusion and it is likely that the new attacking force achieves an element of surprise. It is the “decisive act” of Littleferry.
Littleferry Pier and Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve
Within minutes Cromartie’s Regiment breaks and flees towards Littleferry. There is fighting all along the Ferry Road and at Littleferry there is chaos. A brief last stand is made and volleys are fired. Some seek to escape across the channel but most of these are cut down by fire or drown before, outflanked and surrounded, the Jacobites surrender.
Around 50-100 have been killed, perhaps 50-80 escaped and about 180-200 are made prisoners. The militia had perhaps 10 killed and 20 wounded.
That evening, by a clever ruse, the Earl of Cromartie is made to surrender in Dunrobin Castle. Expresses are sent to Cromartie for Royal Navy ships to extract the prisoners. And, at about the same time as the opening cannon shots of Culloden are being fired on the afternoon of 16 April, 1746 HMS Hawk arrives off Dunrobin Castle and the first Jacobite prisoners are embarked.
The following day HMS Hound arrives, taking the remaining prisoners away to their desperate and tragic fate. The Battle of Littleferry was over.
On 15 April this year a memorial was dedicated to both of the sides who fought at Littleferry. The memorial forms part of a new battlefield trail which starts and ends at Dunrobin Castle. The trail can be followed by car, bike or on foot. It is about 4-5 miles long. A new history and battlefield trail guide has been published and is on sale at outlets on the NC 500 and at other locations, including Culloden Visitor Centre.
Want to buy "The Battle of Littleferry: A History and Trail Guide" online? Contact [email protected]
VisitScotland has teamed up with UNESCO to create a world-first digital UNESCO trail that allows you to take a breather while enjoying some of Scotland's treasures, including right here in Sutherland.