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10 Jun 2020

Evidence from Glenshiel battlefield casts doubt on confidence of government victory

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows a scissors-like implement with a scale below it; the image on the right shows people metal detecting on a hillside.
The Glenshiel ‘snippets’ and the metal detecting that found them
Tiny fragments of lead found on the site of the Battle of Glenshiel have given archaeologists an insight into the mood of soldiers over 300 years ago during the only pitched battle fought during the 1719 Jacobite rising.

A ‘eureka moment’ came during lockdown when Derek Alexander, the Trust’s Head of Archaeological Services, was analysing the data and discoveries from recent digs at the site carried out by volunteers on National Trust for Scotland Thistle Camps. These were combined with tests on an iron clamp mould for making lead shot found at the site in the 1950s.

In a new study published this week, Derek and his team report that snipped-off moulding fragments found on the battlefield show government troops – despite having been victorious – were hurriedly casting musket balls on the night after the battle, to fend off a possible Jacobite attack.

Stones uncovered by an archaeological dig in a remote valley, which is shrouded in drizzle.
Archaeological excavation at the site of the battle in Glenshiel

The Battle of Glenshiel was fought between the Jacobites under the Earl of Tullibardine against a force of British government troops under the command of General Wightman. The Jacobites are recorded to have had around 1,200 troops, along with 240 Spanish regulars. The government forces consisted of 850 infantry, 130 Highlanders, 120 dragoons, along with a battery of coehorn mortars.

Although casualties appear to have been relatively low on both sides, the Jacobites were defeated and were forced to withdraw, leaving the Spanish troops to surrender the following day.

Derek explains how work in lockdown brought several historical elements together to understand what was happening as the battle played out.

‘In the late 1950s, conifers were planted on the northern slope of Glenshiel and a local farmer found an iron clamp mould for making lead shot. This scissor-like implement formed two halves of a spherical mould, and molten lead would have been poured in at the top to form a musket ball.

‘To give us an idea of how it would be used, we made a musket ball with modelling clay in the scissor mould. This gave us a ball 16mm in diameter which had a line around it where the two parts of the mould would have met and a ‘sprue’ at the top where the lead would have been poured in.

‘To fire the ball, the makers would have had to snip off this extra bit of lead. This would have left a small offcut that would probably have been returned to the melting pot so no lead was wasted.’

“This led to a eureka moment, when I realised a small fragment of lead we’d found at the site in 2018 was in fact a snipped-off sprue from a musket ball.”
Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeological Services
A smiling man stands on some rocks by the sea. He wears a green fleece with binoculars around his neck. Some more people are sitting on the rocks behind him, and a small boat bobs on the water.

Derek continued: ‘It had been found by metal-detecting down by the river where the government campsite would have been. It was easy to picture the troops after a heavy day of fighting frantically casting new musket balls to try and supplement their dwindling resources. Perhaps having snipped the sprue off, it had been too hot to handle and was dropped in the long grass rather than retained for re-melting.

‘The battle started at 5pm and was concluded by about 8pm, and although the Jacobites had been pushed back it was only with quite high government losses. From Wightman’s small army of around 1,230 men, 25 were killed and 139 wounded; a casualty rate of around 13%. In contrast, the Jacobite losses are thought to have been low – both the Earl of Seaforth and Lord George Murray were wounded but no fatalities were recorded.

‘Both during and after the battle, as the light faded, the dead and the wounded would have been carried or helped down from the hillsides to the camp in the glen below. Wightman was nervous that he might be attacked or forced to fight on the following day, especially as most of his troops had used all but two of their 18 rounds.

‘Very few musket balls have been found on the battlefield. It’s possible that many of the government shots, firing in platoon volleys and uphill, went high, over the heads of the Jacobites. Or if they were low on ammunition, it could be that some of the spent lead shot was gathered up in the twilight and melted down in the camp below.

‘We wouldn’t have this evidence if it wasn’t for the work carried out at Glenshiel by our Thistle Camp volunteers. It’s ironic that COVID-19 has cancelled this year’s camps but lockdown has given me the time to stand back and look at what has been unearthed.

‘It’s amazing how such a small archaeological find can paint such a graphic picture in your mind and lead you to ponder just what the intentions were of people at the time.’


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