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Charles Forbes of Brux: Attempt to Surprise Edinburgh Castle

Attempt to Surprise Edinburgh Castle
Attempt to Surprise Edinburgh Castle, detail of etching by Terrason

If the competence of Charles Forbes of Brux had been as great as his enthusiasm for the Jacobite cause, George I may well have lost the British throne to James Francis Edward Stuart, son of the deposed James VII and II.

Under James’s daughter Queen Anne, John Erskine, 6th Earl of Mar, (1675–1732) was a Commissioner for the Union, Scottish Secretary of State, Keeper of the Signet, and a Privy Counsellor. After the passage of the Act of Union with England in 1707, he was appointed as the British Secretary of State. Upon the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the new King George I removed him from office. Frustrated by this deprivation of his government offices, Mar raised the banner for “King James 3rd and 8th” at Braemar on September 6, 1715, thus inciting the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715.

Mar Raising Jacobite Standard at Braemar 1715
Earl of Mar raising the Jacobite standard at Braemar, “Cassell’s History of England”, 1906

Catholic James Drummond, 2nd Duke of Perth, (c. 1674 –1720) had accompanied the deposed King James VII and II into exile in 1689. Working with Mar, he devised a plan to seize Edinburgh Castle. At that time, the castle contained government arms for up to 10,000 men and £100,000 paid to Scotland as part of the terms of the Union with England. He recruited the King’s Botanist, Dr. William Arthur, and his brother Ensign Thomas Arthur who was a former officer of the Scots Fusilier Guards that guarded Edinburgh Castle. He, in turn, bribed soldiers of the garrison Sergeant William Ainslie and two privates, James Thomson and John Holland. (St. Clair, John. 1858. Memoirs of the Insurrection in Scotland in 1715. Edinburgh: Abbotsford Club.)

The plan was set for eleven o'clock on the night of September 8th when Sergeant Ainslie and his co-conspirators would be on sentry duty. He would throw down a rope to a company of 80 to 90 Jacobites at the north-west corner of the wall near an old sallyport. The raiding party would then tie the rope to a grappling hook fastened at the end of a scaling ladder made of ropes and with pulleys, wide enough to bear four men abreast. Ainslie would haul up ladder, secure the grappling hook to the wall, and the men would climb into the castle. The two brothers were to mount the ladder first “because they knew the Castle best” and Alexander MacGregor Drummond, 4th of Balhaldie (1660 – 1749) would lead the attack. (Ibid.)

After the castle was taken, they would light a beacon fire on the ramparts that would signal similar beacons from hill to hill through Fife and Angus to communicate success to the Earl of Mar. “Then on the Lomonds a beacon fire would blaze and flash the tidings to the Forfarshire hills, from which it would be yet further signalled to the gathered clans at Invercauld, when, in impetuous might, Mar and his Highlanders would descend on the Lowlands and carry all Scotland before them.” (Scott, Walter. 1869. Tales of a Grandfather, Third Series A.D. 1707 to 1746. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black.)

West Kirk St. Cuthberts
West Kirk (St. Cuhbert's Church) at base of Castle Rock on North Loch (now West Princes Street Gardens)

On the night of the attack, the assault group would gather at the West Kirk at ten o’clock and breach the castle walls at eleven o’clock. The attackers would include forty men from Lord Drummond's Clan MacGregor and “fiftie younge apprentices, advocates' servants, writers, and some servants to those in the Government.” (Ibid.) Among the raiding party was Charles Forbes, youngest son of Arthur, the 9th Laird of Brux. Lord Drummond “made choice of a little brokne merchant, Charles Forbes, a man according to his own heart, who was to be principall engineer and conductor of that affair.” (St. Clair, John. 1858. Memoirs of the Insurrection in Scotland in 1715. Edinburgh: Abbotsford Club.)

This was a well-laid plan that went awry due to two events.

Not being a trained soldier, Dr. William Arthur was greatly agitated about his role in the plan and confided in his wife, Barbara Clerk. She was the daughter of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, 1st Baronet,  and sister of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, known as Baron Clerk. Both were both prominent supporters of King George I. She sent an anonymous letter to Sir Adam Cockburn of Ormiston, Lord-Justice-Clerk, notifying him of the plot. Cockburn did not receive the letter until ten o’clock on the night of September 8th – the very time that the conspirators were to leave the West Kirk for the castle. He immediately sent a letter to the deputy-governor of the castle who received the notice shortly before eleven o’clock – the time of the planned attack. He ordered the castle officers to double their guards. (Keltie, John Scott. 1875. A History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans, and Highland Regiments. London & Edinburgh: A. Fullarton & Co.)

However, the attack never came because of another event.

The young men recruited for the assault “had not discretion in proportion to their courage” and “eighteen of them, on the night appointed, were engaged drinking in a tippling-house.” (Scott, Walter. 1869. Tales of a Grandfather, Third Series A.D. 1707 to 1746. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black.) Among them was Charles Forbes of Brux, who had the responsibility of bringing a section of the ladders to the church at ten o’clock. However, “not only were the Jacobites late in assembling in the West Kirk yard, but Forbes of Brux was conspicuous by his absence." (Reid, Stuart. 2014. Sheriffmuir, 1715 : the Jacobite War in Scotland. London : Frontline Books)

Apparently, Forbes “stay'd till after ten in the citie, drinkeing to good news from the Castle, while the others were waiteing impatientlie at the West Kirk.” (St. Clair, John. 1858. Memoirs of the Insurrection in Scotland in 1715. Edinburgh: Abbotsford Club.) Long after the appointed hour of ten o’clock, the raiding party “receaveing no neus of Forbes or their ladders, not knowing what to doe, and afraid the sentrie would loose patience, or be relieved, scrambled up the rock, and posted themselves at the foot of the wall, with a resolution, in all events, to stay there as longe as they could.” (Ibid.)

With the hour of the changing of the guards soon upon them, the sentry hauled up the grappling hook with the ladders they had. However, “as they suspected, they found them above a fathome too short” due the absent Charles Forbes. (St. Clair, John. 1858. Memoirs of the Insurrection in Scotland in 1715. Edinburgh: Abbotsford Club.) The sentry called down “God damn you all ! you have ruined both yourselves and me ! Here comes the round I have been telling you of this hour, I can serve you no longer." (Ibid.) He then threw down the the ladders, fired off his pistol, and raised the alarm. By that time, “Mr Forbes, the ingeneer, had onlie advanced to the back of Bareford's Parks, on the north side of the North Loch, with the rest of the ladders, and could not been up in time before that sentrie was to be reliev'd.” (Ibid.)

Most of the conspirators escaped, except for “Captain Maclean, an officer who had fought under Dundee at Killiecrankie, whom they found lying on the ground much injured by a fall from the ladder or from a precipice; Alexander Ramsay and George Boswell, writers in Edinburgh; and one Lesly, who had been in the service of the same Duchess of Gordon who had distinguished herself in the affair of the medal.” (Keltie, John Scott. 1875. A History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans, and Highland Regiments. Londonn & Edinburgh: A. Fullarton & Co.)

Without securing Edinburgh Castle with arms for up to 10,000 men and the funds of £100,000, the 1715 Jacobite Uprising was doomed to failure. Mar was indeed defeated at the battle of Preston and surrendered on November 14, 1715 – a mere two months after he “raised the banner” at Braemar.

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