The History of Leith

May 15, 2004

Leith and the “50,000 Cannibals”!

During the 1715 Jacobite uprising all the ports in the South of Scotland had been blockaded by the Royal Navy and so to circumvent this the Earl of Mar sent a detachment of Highlanders south to link up with a General Forster in the Lothians. The detachment was under the command of Brigadier Macintosh of Borlum who was a brave soldier in his time but he was getting on a bit.

Brigadier Macintosh’s first action was to take possession of all the boats on the Fife coast of the Forth but as this would have drawn attention to what he was doing. He arranged to make it appear that he was going to cross the Forth from Burntisland and left a few unwanted boats there. Soon the Royal Navy appeared and the boats were bombarded by the Royal Navy cannon. While this was going on the Brigadiers army crossed the Forth in two columns from Elie, Pittenween and Crail in the 12th and 13th October without the loss of a man or boat.

This is when things went slightly wrong Brigadier Macintosh’s detachment were all picked men from the regiments of the Earl of Mar, Lord Nairn, Lord Charles Murray along with his own Macintosh’s. Instead of linking up with General Forster as was agreed he decided to try to capture Edinburgh and storming Edinburgh Castle instead. In the meantime news of this reached Edinburgh and the citizens were raised by the Provost to defend the city and a message was sent to the Government Army at Stirling under the command of the Duke of Argyle. He came with 300 dragoons mounted on farm horses and 200 infantry. While this was going on the exhausted highland army stopped at Jocks Lodge not far from Leith when they heard of the Dukes arrival.

Not knowing the numbers of Argyles force’s the Brigadier marched his army to Leith and his approach caused complete panic as Campbell says in his history “the approach of 50,000 cannibals could not have decomposed the burgesses more”. Macintosh entered Leith at night and released forty Jacobite prisoners from the Tolbooth and took possession of all the fortifications. Macintosh sometimes known by his nickname of “Old Borlum” took cannon from ships in the harbour and provisioned himself from the Custom house.

In the meantime Argyle approached Leith with a thousand men, losing many volunteers on the way who quietly slipped away home. Argyle demanded surrender and if they didn’t surrender then no quarter would be given. The reply was not what was expected as the highlanders laughed in his face from the walls of Leith. As the Laird of Kynachin replied from the walls “as to surrendering they laughed at it, as to assaulting them they were ready for him, they would not give or take quarter, and if he thought he was able to force them he might try his hand”

Argyle carefully looked the defences of Leith over and agreed that they were strong but that he would attack the following day. However Macintosh decided to quietly slip away along the coast. The advance of the Earl of Mar prevented Argyle from pursuing Macintosh.

Later Macintosh joined up with Forster and shared in his defeat and would have been hanged and quartered at Tyburn had he not broken out of Newgate and escaped to France.

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