Published 12th June 2019, 17:16

    IT'S easy to drift back in time when you are standing on the heights of the Five Sisters ridge with the mists swirling around beneath your feet.

    It's an area with a long and bloody history, and next Monday marks the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Glen Shiel which was fought on the steep slopes of these mountains on June 10, 1719.

    This was the conclusion to the brief Jacobite Rising of that year which saw a small force of Spanish soldiers join more than a thousand clansmen to meet a British government force head on in the narrows of the glen.

    The outbreak of war between Spain and Britain the year before had convinced the Spanish of the benefits of backing a fresh uprising in Scotland. They planned a two-pronged attack, sending an armada with some 7,000 troops to invade Britain while a smaller contingent would help create a diversion in north-west Scotland.

    The northern insurgence was led by George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal, of Dunnottar Castle, who had been in exile in Spain since the debacle of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. Among their number was Rob Roy MacGregor.

    The strategy fell apart when fleet was wrecked by a storm off England's south coast but word never managed to reach the invaders who had set up base at Eilean Donan Castle.

    Royal Navy ships sailed into Loch Duich and Loch Alsh and bombarded the castle which forced the garrison to surrender. What remained of the castle was then blown up along with the entire store of ammunition, and 39 Spaniards were taken prisoner. The castle would lie in ruins for nearly 200 years before it was rebuilt in 1911.

    At the same time, Government troops were dispatched from Inverness to counter the approaching 1200-strong force. They met in Glen Shiel. The Jacobites and Spanish were already dug in on the steep slopes of the glen but despite holding the higher ground and having superior numbers, those advantages were thrown away by poor leadership and military tactics. 

    The British Army went on the offensive, using mortars in their assault before sending in the infantry and in the ensuing panic the defenders' positions were overrun. There was relatively little loss of life. Government casualties were 21 dead and 121 wounded, while the Jacobite forces, most of whom had fled the field early in the battle, suffered around 100 fatalities. 

    The Spanish were forced to retreat over the summit we know now as Sgurr nan Spainteach – the peak of the Spaniards. Many were later taken prisoner, then sent home as a peace gesture, and the cessation of hostilities between the countries put paid to any thoughts of a resurrected Scottish rebellion for the next few years.

    Sgurr nan Spainteach is not the only mountain in this region to have links with the Spanish invaders. After the battle, coins found on the slopes of Sgurr nan Ciste Duibhe – the peak of the black chest – suggested there may have been a greater treasure hoard left behind somewhere in these hills, although the black chest is more likely to refer to the deep hollow of the Allt Dearg on the south-west slope.

    And the hill which sits above Loch Duich at the head of Loch Duich, Sgurr an Airgid – the peak of silver (or money) – also hints at a cache of foreign loot being left behind. So far, no one has got lucky.

    The legend of the Five Sisters is lost even further back in time. It is said there were seven sisters in Kintail, the daughters of a local farmer. Two married brothers from Ireland who said they would send their five other brothers to claim the remaining five sisters as brides. On their way home, the brothers' ship was caught in a storm at sea and they never returned.

    The five remaining sisters waited in vain, and eventually they asked a wizard, the Grey Magician of Coire Dhunnid, to transform them into peaks in order to preserve their beauty for eternity. Those who walk this stunning ridge can't deny he cast a wonderful spell.