Forestry Project Threatens The Battlefield of Sheriffmuir

For those interested in the preservation of Scotland’s historic battlefields you may want to know about a new forestry project that has been approved on the site of the Battle of Sheriffmuir, near Dunblane.

The black area of the map below shows where the new plantation will be located. The respective positions of the Jacobite and Government forces at the beginning of the battle are also shown.

The Battle of Sheriffmuir took place in 1715 between a Jacobite army led by John Erskine, the Earl of Mar and a British Government army led by John Campbell, the Duke of Argyll. The battle played out in a disorderly and unconventional way that resulted in no side being able to claim a clear victory.

As a result of the hurried movements of both armies to gain the high ground above Dunblane, the left wings of the Jacobite and Government armies were disorganised and unprepared to receive an attack. The left wing of each army was attacked by the enemy in front of them and sent on a fighting retreat with the Jacobites fleeing North and the Government fleeing South. The resulting confusion meant that the battle disintegrated into a series of smaller skirmishes over a wide area as half of each army retreated while half of each army attacked. Cavalry units on both sides were confused as to what they should do, while commanders desperately tried to make sense of what was happening.

The Earl of Mar led the Jacobite forces at Sheriffmuir. His poor leadership of the Jacobite army in 1715 led to the failure of the uprising.

The important area in terms of the new forestry development is east and south east of the former farm known as ‘The Linns’. In this part of the field, the Government army moved into position but did not see the Jacobites who were hiding near the Gathering Stone. Sensing an opportunity, the Jacobites attacked and almost immediately routed the left wing of the Government army, which began streaming from the field towards Dunblane and Stirling.

An old women who lived at The Linns farmstead later recounted how she saw eleven redcoats, who finding themselves surrounded, put up a desperate last stand near her property. They fought back-to-back but were all killed. Swords in hand, the Jacobites raided the old woman’s house, carrying anything of value and declaring that they fought neither for King Shordy (ie from Seoras, the Gaelic for George) nor King Hamish (ie from Seamus, the Gaelic for James), but for King Spulzie (the Scots word for plunder).

Another tradition from this part of the battlefield tells of a curly haired highlander who wrapped a plaid around his arm to ward off bayonets. He supposedly cut down nine redcoats before being over powered. Further south, around the Wharry Burn, a Government Dragoon retreated from a dozen pursuing highlanders. Turning to defend himself next to a stone dyke, he killed ten of the attackers before being brought down and slain.

This fanciful depiction of the Battle of Sheriffmuir shows well ordered armies facing off against each other. In reality the battle was a confused and chaotic affair.

As can be seen, the new plantation will cover areas that have significance to events that took place during the battle. Historic Environment Scotland concluded that the potential for surviving archaeological evidence is high in the areas that are currently free from forestation and other developments. Indeed artefacts such as musket-balls and horseshoes have already been found in the fields near The Linns. Any remaining artifacts and human remains will be damaged or destroyed by this new plantation if they are not identified in the archaeological work that is supposed to precede the development.

In 2014 Addyman Archaeology were contracted to undertake a survey in relation to the proposed new area of forestation. The assessment of the Kippendavie Estate, south of The Linns and West of Glentyne Cottage, found a number of areas of cultural heritage significance and it was determined that the vast majority of these sites would be impacted by the development.

The new plantation areas will also have a significant visual impact on the remaining portion of the battlefield that is not already covered with forestry. It is still possible to look south from the initial point of contact and get a good clear view of the land that was fought over in 1715. This is absolutely vital if the battlefield is to be used for educational purposes or for historians wishing to study and interpret the battlefield’s topography.

The view from the left of the Jacobite line, looking south.
The view from the centre of the battlefield, looking North. Visitors looking south will soon expect to see a similar view.

Even from a tourism perspective, the value of the site is massively diminished if visitors cannot see the battlefield as it looked in 1715. Thanks to Outlander there has been an upsurge in tourism activity related to all things Jacobite. With that in mind it seems almost unbelievable that instead of using a key cultural asset to attract further tourism, a stone’s throw away from one of Scotland’s major cities, we’d instead cover this unique national asset in trees.

Sadly the entire Jacobite position at the initial point of contact has itself already been destroyed by forestation, some of which dates back to the 19th century.

Those in favour of the proposal believe that the ‘core’ area of the battlefield will be preserved, which in their eyes is the section of land just south of the road that crosses the battlefield. In reality what we will be left with is a sliver of land, hemmed in by forestry on both sides. The concept of dividing the battlefield into a ‘core’ zone and a ‘non-core’ zone to my mind is simply a softer way of saying that it is acceptable to build on certain parts of the battlefield that are no less important than others.

The new plantation is being taken forward by the Kippendavie Estate, of which Richard Stirling-Aird is a trustee. Richard is a descendent of the Stirlings of Kippendavie and his family have been landowners in the area since 1594. In 2013 Stirling-Aird said that “There is a myth that Scotland is owned by too few people.” He later attacked the Scottish Government for ending tax breaks for large estates and said “Politicians don’t seem to understand the vast majority of the land area of Scotland is of relatively little worth.

The Forestry Commission has claimed that the final proposal is itself a compromise, having reduced the overall size of the development from 78 hectares to 63 hectares and adding a requirement for interpretative panels to be included. Paradoxically, the Forestry Commission claims that the development will increase access and enhance the site for visitors.

The Forestry Commission’s own consent decision states that,

“The introduction of woodland via planting will have an immediate impact on the setting and understanding of the Sheriffmuir Battlefield, a nationally important site included in the Inventory of Historic Battlefields in Scotland. The proposed woodlands has the potential to have a significant impact on buried archaeological deposits associated with the battle.”

Historic Environment Scotland, in their response to the consultation on the development, stated that the planting will have a permanent, adverse impact on the archaeology of the site. They raised further concerns with the ‘masking’ effect of trees on the key characteristics of the terrain.

This photo from the early 20th century shows the large amount of reforestation that took place on Culloden in the centuries following the battle. In recent decades these trees have been removed in an effort to restore the battlefield back to how it would have looked in 1746. (Photo Source)

In 2016, Historic Environment Scotland produced guidance on managing change on historic battlefields. The guidance states,

“Including a battlefield in the Inventory is not intended to be simply a barrier to development. The intention is to identify an area of added protection where particular consideration must be given to impacts on the site. This should focus on the special qualities and landscape characteristics of the battlefield. Planning authorities have to consider proposals carefully, and determine whether development will significantly detract from the importance of the battle site.”

The question must surely be asked, if the Inventory of Historic Battlefields doesn’t actually protect these nationally significant cultural sites, then what is the point of having it?

It seems to me that policy makers have very little appreciation of our historic battlefields. They are important cultural, economic and heritage sites that should have enhanced protection. People across the world would be rightly outraged if anyone proposed a major forestry project on Waterloo, Gettysburg or the Somme. Why are we accepting the destruction of our own battlefields here in Scotland?

Virginia Wills, who lives close to the battlefield at Glentye, believes that the new forestry plantation is a “desecration”, many will sympathise with her views.

The United States was already preserving its historic battlefields in the 1860s, with their golden age of preservation taking place in the 1890s. Fast forward to Scotland in 2017 and 63 hectares of forestry is to be planted on one of the nation’s most important and culturally significant historic battlefields. Shame on those that have allowed it to happen.



Historic Environment Scotland Sheriffmuir Battlefield Report

Historic Environment Scotland Map of the Sheriffmuir Battlefield

Forestry Commission documents relating to the Kippendavie Estate

Forestry Commission Press Release

Scotsman Article – ‘Revolt Sparked as Forest on Sheriffmuir Battlefield Approved’

Courier Article – ‘Historic Sheriffmuir Battlefield Loses Fight Protection’

A Collection of Scottish Folk Literature


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