Standing as one of the last great hopes for an independent Scotland, the Loch Arkaig treasure was the immense sum of Spanish gold sent to finance the Jacobite rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. Worth £10 million in modern currency, the gold was a war chest that could have broken up the United Kingdom in its very infancy, changing the path of history. In a tale of Highland romanticism, rebellion and betrayal, the gold was hunted by Jacobites and Redcoats alike, seemingly lost forever to the mists of the Scottish glens.
The tale begins with the Act of Union in 1707, whereby the kingdoms of Scotland and England would be united as one. It was hugely unpopular throughout Scotland, seen as an establishment betrayal with wealthy landowners being given privileges at the expense of the ordinary Scottish people. Discontent rose following famine and harsh taxation. The conditions, particularly amongst Catholics, led to support for a restoration of the Catholic monarchy deposed during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which saw Catholic king James II replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange.
Backed by the Catholic powers such as France, Spain and the Papal States, the rebels fighting for the Stuart restoration became known as the Jacobites. Their contender for the crown, James VIII, attempted to incite a rebellion in 1708 when he landed in Scotland with French allies. The attempt failed, as did a rising in 1715 that was led by John Erskine, Earl of Mar. In response, the British government garrisoned troops in the Highlands as an occupational force.
In 1743, James named his son Charles as Prince Regent, allowing him to act in his name. James sent Charles, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, to France, the Prince looking to command a French army that he would lead in an invasion of Britain. By sheer luck for the British, the attack never happened as the fleet was scattered by a storm. With the feet badly damaged, Charlie became disappointed at France’s unwillingness to confront England and invade. He decided to take matters into his own hands.
In 1745, the Young Pretender arrived in Scotland to claim the throne alongside those of England and Ireland. He did so in the name of his father and of the House of Stuart. Charles believed France would support him and that an army would soon be at his disposal. The Prince had a stunning initial success, the Highlanders seizing Edinburgh and breaking out of Scotland, invading England from the north. The army reached as far south as Derby as they awaited French support. The truth was, however, that France had little appetite to back the young Prince militarily and he would be left with only their financial support, alongside that of the other Catholic powers such as Spain and the Papal States.
Financing the Jacobean cause was an issue, with money open to interception by the English and their allies within Scotland.
In March of 1746, one such ship, the French sloop Le Prince Charles, landed on the West coast with 400,000 Spanish lives (£13,000 or £10 million in modern equivalent) while under the pursuit of HMS Sheerness, beaching herself as she tried to evade capture. Alongside the cash, the ship carried weapons and other supplies headed for Inverness. The landing was soon intercepted at Tongue in the Highlands and captured by the loyalist Clan Mackay after a brief skirmish. The capture of the shipment would have significant ramifications for the Battle of Culloden to come.
Culloden on April 16, 1746, was a rout by the British forces with up to 2000 Jacobeans killed for just 300 men lost.
Meanwhile, a grander shipment of money for the rebellion was already arriving, coinciding with the battle. The ships Mars and Bellona carried 1,200,000 livres as a combined payment from both France and Spain. Already threatened by the Royal Navy’s Terror and Furnace, two men o’war, the ships took panic on learning of the catastrophe for the Jacobite cause at Culloden and fled with the French part of the shipment. All seven caskets of Spanish money had already been unloaded at Loch nan Uamh, Arisaig and were now to be used to pay for the escape of the Jacobean leadership and establishment, the cause seen as lost.
All seven caskets of Spanish money had already been unloaded at Loch nan Uamh, Arisaig and, after Coll MacDonnell of Barrisdale stole one, six chests made it to Loch Arkaig north of Fort William. The money was quickly hidden and the secret given over to Sir John Murray of Broughton, an advisor and confidant to Bonnie Prince Charlie. It would be a mistake.
Murray had been a staunch Jacobite, travelling with the Pretender to Rome to make plans for the rising, even being one of those to greet Charles when he arrived in Scotland. Murray served as his secretary and organised all matters of administration for the rebel army. It was Murray who was entrusted with spreading the money to the loyal clans. It was during this task that the British Redcoats captured him. They were hunting down the Jacobite leaders throughout the highlands, and Murray was imprisoned in the Tower of London before turning traitor. He would cooperate with the English in exchange for being allowed to keep his estates in Peeblesshire and a government pension.
The treasure was quickly entrusted to Donald Cameron of Lochiel, the hereditary chief of Clan Cameron. The Camerons were staunch Jacobite loyalists and known to be amongst the fiercest warriors in the Highlands. Without their support, it is doubtful that the 1745 rising would have ever happened. The majority of their lands sat over 1,000ft in altitude, and included Ben Nevis. Ewan Cameron of Lochiel was the only clan chief to have not bent the knee to Oliver Cromwell a generation previous and legend says he killed the last wolf in Scotland.
“Chlanna nan con thigibh a’ so’s gheibh sibh feòil! — Sons of the Hounds Come Here and Get Flesh!”
Warcry of Clan Cameron
Following Cameron, the treasure was passed to Ewen MacPherson of Cluny, Chief of Clan Chattan.
“Cluny Macpherson” as he was known had around 600 men at his command, yet had missed the pivotal Battle at Culloden after being sent to guard the passes at Badenoch. Following the battle, the Redcoats burned his house and seized his lands, forcing the chief to scatter his men and go to ground. Seeking refuge in the company of a small band of loyal followers, Macpherson headed towards Loch Ericht, and on the sides of Creag Dubh, he took shelter in a small cave. Macpherson bedded down at the cave, which became known as “The Cage”. It was tiny, only having room for two men and consisting of little more than a hole in the ground with a fallen tree that formed the roof. Macpherson would remain there for an astonishing nine years. Locals knew of his location but such was their loyalty, none betrayed him to the British.
It was soon after his arrival that Cluny Macpherson was joined by Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender staying at The Cage for five months. During this time Cluny had control of the Spanish gold still hidden at Arkaig. Charles would soon escape Scotland for France in September of 1746, sailing aboard the frigate L’Heureux. However, he didn’t take the gold with him, the treasure remaining in Scotland with Macpherson.
During the eight years that followed Charles’ escape, Cluny continued to agitate for the Jacobean cause, utilising the Spanish treasure to attempt to finance a new rising against the English. These plots came to little and Macpherson remained at The Cage. His time in hiding would be featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped where he is portrayed as retaining his pride and dignity as he entertains guests. Despite his ordeal living at the cave, cash strapped Bonnie Prince Charlie would later accuse him of embezzlement.
It was in 1748, two years after arriving back in France following the crushing of the rebellion, that Charles is said to have enlisted the aid of Charles Selby, an English Catholic sympathetic to the Jacobite cause. Selby took charge of an operation to recover the treasure in the Highlands before spiriting it away to London in two separate shipments. Placed in the hands of Jacobite loyalist bankers, the gold then travelled to France and into the hands of the Prince. £6000 of the original £13,000 was recovered. The rest had already been spent, distributed to loyalists to continue the struggle and perhaps, as Charles believed, embezzled.
Charles seemingly spent the money he managed to get back on maintaining his status and funding increasingly desperate plots to restore the House of Stuart. By 1750, Charles was said to be impoverished by a Prince’s standards, geopolitically isolated and increasingly bitter at his situation. The Pretender was increasingly desperate, and alongside Dr Archibald Cameron, brother to Clan Chief Donald Cameron, he hatched a scheme to assassinate King George II and the Hanoverian Royal Family. To pull off this unlikely plot, they would need the rest of the treasure. However, the exiled Charles seemingly saw little of the other money ever again, with Archibald Cameron drawing up an account that that stated Cluny could not account for all of it.
Cameron would be sent to Scotland three years later to find and locate the treasure but was soon betrayed by Alastair MacDonnell of Glengarry, the notorious spy known as “pickle”. Cameron was arrested, tried and executed at Tyburn for his part in the original rising. He never located the treasure which became a source of discord and contention between the surviving Jacobites. Cluny, meanwhile, would remain at The Cage before escaping to France in 1765 and would be said to have died of a broken heart soon afterwards, longing for his highland home and his lost cause.
So what did happen to the rest of the Jacobite gold? Most believe that the treasure was never secreted in one single place, with the money split between at least four locations for safety and buried and reburied to foil the British.
“It’s unlikely it would have all been buried in one spot, for safety’s sake. Even if some of it was retrieved shortly after being buried, I’m sure there’s still some of the treasure left to be found.”
Ross Hunter, metal detectorist, The Telegraph, August 2020
The most suggested location for the treasure is close-by to Cluny’s Cage, logic suggesting that Macpherson would have wanted the gold close to hand. The “cave” has never been positively identified but is believed to be located on the southern slopes of Ben Alder at the northwestern shore of Loch Ericht.
Clan Cameron records suggest it was buried at Murlaggan, a small hamlet located on the north shore of Loch Arkaig. It had been Clan Cameron to who the treasure was initially entrusted when it passed to Donald Cameron. Legend states that Archibald Cameron did find the treasure when tasked to do so and buried the gold alongside Alexander MacMillan of Glenpeanmore when Hanoverian troops were pursuing the duo. The record states that they were forced to bury the stash in an open grave at Murlaggan private burial-ground.
Another account as noted in Chambers History of the Rebellion in the Years 1745–46 tells of how a stash of the treasure was buried in woods at Loch Arkaig by Cameron in the presence of Sir Stuart Thriepland, Major Kennedy, and Mr Alexander MacLeod.
“The time fixed for the rendezvous was altered to a week later, during which interval 15,000 of the Louis d’ ors were secretly buried in the wood on the south side of Loch Arkaig, about a mile and a half from the head of the loch, by Doctor Cameron, in the presence of Sir Stuart Thriepland, Major Kennedy, and Mr Alexander MacLeod; and when the day at length arrived, only two hundred Camerons, a few MacLeans, a hundred. Divided into three parcels of 500 Louis Dors each, two of which were buried in the ground and (the third-placed under a rock in a small rivulet).”
In 2003, a lead was discovered that seemed to support the account of the treasure being buried at Loch Arkaig. Found in the most unlikely of places, a second-hand store in England, the clue took the form of a letter which recoded the deathbed confession from Neill Iain Ruairi. The letter had initially been found in 1911 and presented to Alexander Campbell, a doctor in the Arisaig area. In the confession, Ruairi claimed that he passed Loch Arkaig during the burial of the gold, hiding nearby and stealing a bag of coins while unobserved. Before he could make good an escape, however, he was spotted and pursued. He managed to make enough of a head start to bury his loot at Arisaig, secreting the bag under a black stone with a tree root springing from it. Despite a search by the original owner of the letter in 1911, nothing was found. However, Cameron records state that French gold coins were found buried on a hillside, near Tomonie, in the 1850s.
While these stories of potential buried treasure in the highlands invoke the romanticism of many a Jacobean tale, with murderous Redcoats rampaging across the glens and brave rebels fighting for freedom, sadly the truth may be a lot more down to earth. Broken up and split into several caches, the gold was seemingly spirited away first by Bonnie Prince Charlie himself and then by his comrades, with many having their hands in the Prince’s coffers. Wasted on personal greed and dreams of rebellion that would never materialise, it seems likely that the vast majority of the gold is but a myth. Yet, like the dreams of a Stuart restoration and the Jacobean cause as a whole, faint glimmers of that dream still linger. While we know the majority of that gold may be gone, somewhere out there may be a chest of gold waiting yet to be discovered amongst Scotland’s Highlands.
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth ;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
Robert Burns, My Heart’s In The Highlands
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