A few weeks before the battle, a French sloop, aptly named The Prince Charles, formerly HMS Hazard, which the Jacobites had taken in Montrose harbour less than six months before, had attempted to land additional detachments from the Irish Picquets. These reinforcements would have been welcome. Even more welcome would have been the quantity of gold coin on board; that the prince’s war chest was empty may have been a spur to his accepting battle on Culloden Moor. Captain Talbot, who had attempted to run the blockade and make landfall at Portsoy on the Moray Firth, came up against a quartet of British men-of-war: the 40-gun Eltham, Sheerness (24 guns) and the fast sloops Hawk and Hound. The odds were unfortunate, and Talbot crowded sail to run northwards along the coast. Pursuit was relentless and, as a fitful wind dropped, the fine sailing qualities of Le Prince Charles were of little advantage. Only by taking to the oars and rowing for their lives did the ship’s company escape into the darkness. By dawn, she was off Caithness preparing to run the Pentland Firth, when her pursuer once again hove into view. This was a classic sea chase of the age of sail. The sloop had to try and outrun her tormentor. If the frigate closed, the ship was lost, for Le Prince Charles was heavily outgunned. Worse, Talbot’s Jacobite pilots were all Islesmen, unfamiliar with these waters. As she now fled westwards, the Frenchman was moving ever further away from the HQ of Charles’s cash-strapped army at Inverness.
Talbot encountered a small fishing smack and took the crew as unwitting and unwilling guides. Knowing he could probably not now outrun the frigate, he sought any haven where his shallow draft would confound the pursuit. As the tide ebbed, the French captain ran his small vessel into the shallows of the sands of Melness at the western opening of the Kyle of Tongue. O’Brien of Sheerness took the risk of fouling as he swept in behind. A standoff now ensued, both ships riding at anchor, guns run out. Talbot could not match his adversary’s broadside, six-pounders against nines, but he was game and full of fight, his crew perhaps less so. For three hours battle raged, the smaller ship maintaining a gallant but ultimately one-sided fight. Sheerness’s gunners dismounted her deck guns and riddled Le Prince Charles’s masts and rigging; the decks a mess of tumbled yards and cordage, garnished with blood and entrails. With Le Prince Charles crippled, O’Brien stood off to finish the job at longer range. Talbot’s surviving crew had by now had quite enough and bolted for temporary sanctuary in the hold. Undismayed, Talbot drew his sword to beat them back to their posts, using the Picquets as marines. Despite such near-fanatical gallantry, there was no remedy for the fact his ship was badly holed and sinking. Cutting the cables, he allowed her to drift inshore and come aground.
Lugging their sacks of coin, the Irish soldiers, led by Captain Brown of Lally’s regiment, climbed down from the shattered hulk, disembarking all of their arms and powder, while still under intense fire. Talbot, remarkably unscathed, spat defiance at Sheerness and literally nailed his colours to the stump of the mast. The Frenchman’s wounded had to be left on the shot-scoured deck, while the fit survivors followed the Irish on to the beach. O’Brien had sent a commanded party of marines to cut off the landward exits. To escape they had now to move inland, over rough terrain, of which they knew nothing. A providential encounter with one of the few Jacobites in the vicinity, William Mackay of Melness, was encouraging, but his news was not. These French and Irish were in a hostile land. Lord Reay was a Whig and had raised two companies of militia to fight for King George. Mackay provided horses to carry the gold and his son as a guide. He could do no more. O’Brien had by dawn inspected the damaged vessel to see if she could be salvaged.
Lord Reay’s people too were not inactive. A forlorn hope of seven locals, led by his factor Daniel Forbes, were stalking the French column while the militia was mustering. Talbot had his own survivors from Le Prince Charles, many of the wounded left on board had succumbed during the night, six officers and three score other ranks from Berwick’s with a motley of volunteers from Clare’s, Royal Ecossais, the French Guards and some from Spanish service. Forbes, undeterred by the odds, kept up a steady harassing fire in the course of which his marksmen dropped eleven Irish, three of them fatalities. The fight spilled along the Jacobites’ intended line of march towards a high pass skirting the flank of Ben Loyal. Here 50 militia arrived to bolster Forbes seven. More potent than their numbers were their drums, a great rolling, dolorous tumult reverberated around the cockpit of the pass. The Jacobites, now cornered in the narrow arena, decided enough was enough and prepared to lay down their arms, first dumping their coin into Loch Hacoin. Factor Forbes, or so the story goes, salvaged 1,000 guineas as compensation for his efforts; not a bad morning’s work. As for the Jacobites, a vital resource was denied them. The Royal Navy, despite a most spirited and gallant opponent, had once again performed its role.
Final cannonades and the death rattle of the execution squads were not the final echoes of the Forty-Five. On 30 April 1746, two French privateers, Mars and Bellone had anchored in Loch nan Uamh, where it had all begun the previous year. The Frenchmen were initially sniped at by Jacobites onshore who believed them to be Royal Navy. These Highlanders, including Perth, Lord John Drummond and Lord Elcho, quickly acquainted their newly arrived allies with tidings of the disaster. The visitors were able to provide much needed supplies and took time to come ashore and marvel at the desperate poverty and general wretchedness of their hosts.
Captain Noel RN, on board the sloop Greyhound, was stationed barely 30 miles from Loch nan Uamh and was aware of the privateers’ presence. The rest of the captain’s small flotilla was widely dispersed but, by dawn on 2 May, both Greyhound and another sloop, Baltimore, were under sail and were later joined by a third, Terror. At first light, a little after three in the morning, these three small British vessels crept into the still waters of the loch.
John Daniel, a Jacobite volunteer, was, that night, sleeping among the other fugitives on the shore, and the sight of the British men-o’-war provided a most unwelcome jolt. The French, however, alerted by the sighting of an earlier patrol boat, were ready to fight. Captain Rouillee of Mars remained, unwisely, at anchor while Lory of Bellone got underway. To receive Greyhound’s broadside while thus immured was very nearly fatal, and Mars took a substantial pounding. Nearly a score of the privateers were killed, her decks, according to an eyewitness, awash with blood. One of the Jacobite refugees, Major Hales, was among the dead: having been bidden to throw himself to the deck to avoid injury, he preferred the upright pose of quixotic contempt, which, in his case, proved lethal. Baltimore now bore down on Mars, while Greyhound attacked Bellone. The two smaller British vessels were heavily outgunned and began, in turn, to suffer some serious punishment. Both suffered damage to their rigging, and Lory was manoeuvring to board. He failed, but the respite enabled Rouillee to slice cables and get his battered ship underway. The tiny Terror weighed into the fray, but was seen off by a broadside from Bellone. The two Frenchmen were now under sail, heading up the narrow confines of the loch with Mars taking shelter in a small bay, the three English ships, like terriers, snapping at Bellone.
For a good three hours the Jacobites on the shore were treated to the spectacle of a fierce little battle raging on the normally placid waters. It seemed as though Mars was crippled and could be picked off at leisure while the sloops directed their attention towards Bellone. Noel was not blind to the scurrying Highlanders on the shore, busily removing inland cargoes of arms and cash, the latter amounting to some £35,000 in bullion. Such a sum would have very possibly enabled the prince to stave off the defeat at Culloden and guaranteed the continuance of rebellion. Flying round shot from Greyhound added urgency to the work. Having managed to jury-rig repairs to his damaged sails, Captain Howe of Baltimore once more brought his vessel to the attack. Both his sloop and the gallant little Terror suffered grievously, Baltimore’s rigging and sails cut up, Howe himself among the wounded. After some six hours of battle, the fight petered out. All of the English ships had suffered damage, if relatively few casualties. Bellone unleashed a final broadside to speed the retreating ships on their way. Mars was by now in a bad state, hit repeatedly below the waterline, and with 29 dead and 85 wounded littering the decks, slippery with their spilled blood.
The French, knowing that other British ships could soon be expected to enable Noel to renew the assault, worked feverishly to ensure their badly holed vessel was seaworthy. Jacobites onshore meanwhile enjoyed the plentiful liquor their guests had left them. MacDonald of Barisdale, whose regiment had missed the fight, had by now appeared and began by appropriating a portion of cash before departing. The remaining Macleans too, dispersed, while one of the inebriated rebels unwisely elected to smoke his pipe in close proximity to a barrel of powder and succeeded in blowing himself to bits, his befuddled comrades mistaking the noise for a fresh alarum! As the privateers nursed battered ships back towards their Breton lairs, they took off the fugitive Duke of Perth, his brother and Lord Elcho.
John Fergusson was skipper of Furnace and, in April, before Culloden, his marines had engaged in a drink-fuelled foray against hapless MacDonald womenfolk on the island of Canna. Having finished with Canna, Fergusson moved his attentions to Eigg, where the business of rounding up rebels was leavened with additional pillage and rape. Captain Felix O’Neill, of Lally’s regiment, in the French service, was one of his victims, captured and about to be tortured until an officer of the Royals intervened and faced the brutal captain down. In their hunt for the prince, the soldiers and sailors of the crown even descended in force upon St Kilda, the most remote and westerly of the isles, whose terrified inhabitants must have seen these swarming redcoats as a vision of Hell. Needless to say, the prince was not to be found.
It would have been far better for Prince Charles Edward Stuart had he died on the field at Culloden, so history might remember a handsome, if flawed, young man, whose army came within an ace of unseating the House of Hanover. Better by far than the long years of an embittered, wasted life, his cause in ruins, increasingly an unwelcome anachronism, whose only succour came from a bottle; he died, also forgotten, in Rome in 1788.