Prince Charles Edward The Pretender in Glencolumbkille, 1746

(Bonnie Prince Charlie)



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Letter written by Valentine P Griffith, Rector of Glencolumbkille, 22 Apr 1852, to Dr Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin 



Co Donegal

April 22 1852

My Lord -

Upwards of a year ago, in the cabin of a pious member of my congregation, I casually elicited the particulars of what has even since remained on my mind, as forming an interesting historical fact which I do not think I would be justified in confirming to the obscurity of my own family; more especially as they have amused and interested occasional visitors to these remote wilds; by some of whom I have been much urged to collect - with a view to publication - such details as might be likely to prove so far worthy of attention as to invite inquiry into the matter.


In order therefore to test whether or not the assumed interest is really ascribable to the traditional memorials in question, it has occurred to me that I might venture appropriately, to submit to your Grace - as a Vice - President of the Royal Irish Academy (a note adds: "not so: Thorn's Almanac for 1851 misled the writer") - the substance of those traditions; feeling assured that whatever might at all tend to attach additional fascination to perhaps the noblest scenery in Ireland would be truly acceptable to your Grace.


But of in doing so your Grace would pronounce my judgment erroneous or my discretion culpable; it may induce you to make indulgent allowances for both when I admit that in my mountain solitude, I have had no one to dissuade me

from exposing myself and my narrative (if I overestimate the latter) to well-founded discredit, or even to ridicule.


Your Grace need not be apprehensive of my repeating the Liberty I now take: I purpose to state (with one reservation) all I know or am likely to know on the subject. I do so too - as nearly as possible - in the very words that the details have been communicated to me.


The persons from whom I have collected the main facts are Lanty Hamilton and his wife, both of this parish, & both being still alive. They are most artless, though intelligent and could not have been made-up by any reading or romance. Their statements must be received as being yet scarcely in the first stages of tradition: Lanty is in his 75 th year; his mother Margaret Abercrombie - who supplied the information I commence with - died according to a parish Registry - in 1824 at the age o f 98 years and 9 months, being supposed to have been upwards of  20 years at the period the incident she witnessed, or was aware of, took place .


Reference to a map of Ireland would show that Glencolumbkille, Co. of Donegal, stands far, and prominently, out to sea . The Promontory is surrounded by cliff scenery of unrivalled magnificence. The place derives much interest from being associated with St. Columbkill; and may originally have been selected, courageously, on account of the abounding influence of heathenism ; many traces of which remain, Cromlechs - "standing stones" & c. being numerously

scattered through the district: and possibly it was, with a view of diverting from those, that the ancient stones and stations were erected in this Glen, (which lamentably are still in [use] but too geneal estimation) as Christian substitutes for

Dr Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin

Heathen altars. It is worth mentioning by the way that in a field near the west shore of the Parish there is a chain of seven Cromlechs. The slab of one of them is a beautiful block of snow-white quartz, of the following dimensions;

(at the field side) Two feet thick - four feet six inches wide and six feet long. It now stands beside its former bearers, or props, built up in a dry fence wall. About 12 years ago it was displaced from the original slanting position it had held for so many ages by the tenant who occupies the farm on which it stands: at a convenient season, he engages the services of an assemblage of labourers, furnished with crowbars to perpetrate the authorised but irreparable spoilation; which he now justifies - indeed almost claims credit for - by complacently maintaining - that it is - "an ornament in the dirch!"

Fearing that I have already tired your Grace, by a too tedious preamble - I shall endeavour t o make amends by getting through my subject as briefly as I can. One evening in Summer towards the middle of the last century, a stranger of a remarkably fine person and very handsome face, sought a lodging in the cottage of Andrew McIlwain. The house was situated in the immediate vicinity of the antiquities that have been just alluded to and was close to the sea at the western extremity of the parish of Glencolumbkille.

He was accompanied by one attendant: His dress was the Highland Costume - including the Kilt; and the people - to use their own homely remark - "thought it odd to see his knees bare"! The accommodation sought was readily granted and mountain fare as cheerfully supplied. It never transpired where the stranger came from, how long he designed to remain - or whether he was proceeding. His reserve was excessive, but was not intruded upon and he was left to the full and undisturbed gratification of the extraordinary seclusion and privacy, that it seemed to be his only aim and anxiety to preserve. His habits were necessarily simple and uniform: he rose at four or five o'clock in the morning and retired early to bed. "The room" was given up by the family for his exclusive use, & in it, alone, he partook of his meals. It was particularly noticed that he always had loaded pistols within reach and at night they were placed on the table by his bedside.

To the north of McIlwain's cottage, the land gradually rises by a gentle acclivity towards the sea, for about half a mile, where it abruptly terminates in stupendous cliffs. The Atlantic - here receiving its first check - beats against their base, with fearful force; and so ceaseless in the dash of the waves against those cliffs, that they present an aspect of unvarying blackness; yet even the circumstance helps to enhance, by contrast, the effect of the wonderful columns of foam that occasionally glide up them to an astounding height.

To the northwest of the headlands, there is a long grassy promontory extending far out into the sea. It became the stranger's habit, "from the fright he was in" to repair to this most solitary point at the early hour he arose; and when the air was cold he used to wrap a great plaid about him which reached down to the ground. Here he lingered, until about 8 o'clock, when his attendant first returned to the house, to ascertain if breakfast was ready and the course clear; & then, he himself would walk in.

But it did not appear that it was the noble scenery that attracted him so perpetually to this spot, rather would it seem that the vast view of the sea and shore which it commanded was the inducement which led him to frequent it ; - his concern thus being to watch more than to admire, and to keep himself out of the way.

The enormous bay, extending from the 'Stags of Broadhaven' t o Arranmore Island northward, is here under view, and no vessel could pass within the bounds of the wide horizon unperceived. This headland is, besides, so decidely the last land that from it seagoing ships "depart". Its admirable position as a look - out station is proved by a watch tower having been erected by the Government on the very spot at the commencement of the present century when a French invasion was apprehended. (note added : "The present Tower on Glen Head was built subsequently"). His companion always closely attended him when dressing or undressing: no one else presumed to enter his apartment; yet the family contrived so far to get a glance at what was going on, as to have occasionally discerned, while the attendant arranged his master's inner clothing, that it was a very fine description : which circumstance contributed much to convince them that he was at all events a person of great rank & consequence. Lanty Abercrombie (of Fermanagh extraction) lived in the same village with the McIlwains, but in a part of it more removed from the usual thoroughfare, his garden was thus particularly secluded. One sunny morning Abercrombie's daughter Margaret (already mentioned as the mother of Lanty Hamilton & who died only in 1824 aged 98 ) being then about 22 years of age, in going to gather greens for the dinner, playfully jumped across the low wall into the garden. She was much alarmed on finding that she had leaped over the stern stranger, while lying secreted and at full length close to the wall, and where - it is literally correct to say - "He lay like a warrior taking his rest, with his martial cloak around him."

(note added: "The actual spot where McIlwain's cottage stood, can be shown, but another cabin now occupies its site : The garden is a garden still, and a portion of the original enclosure wall is pointed out - being supposed to remain to the present day, just as it then was").

Her embarrassment at once betrayed her fears, but he promptly and politely assured her and in the most soothing manner, that she need not be frightened - that he would do her no harm. He immediately rose up and bot h, on the instant, left the garden.

During the sojourn at Malinmore, it happened that a new boat was launched - on such an occasion, it is necessary to have the assistance of many men and - as a matter of course - whiskey was distributed amongst those assembled . The stranger and his attendant were present, the latter having partaken of the spirits showed a tendancy to be talkative; which being observed by the other, he went over to him - addressed him in a language unintelligible to those standing by, & slapped him on the face. The punishment had its effect and the man remained perfectly silent afterwards.

The construction put on this incident was - that the Chief was apprehensive that his servant, by becoming chatty and familiar with the people - might possibly betray his position & so compromise his safety.

Sometime before he left Malinmore, (from which he departed stealthily) Madgie McIlwain - an aunt of Lanty Hamilton's wife (note added : "the latter is still living and it was in her father's house the stranger lodged. She well remembers Lanty's mother mention the circumstance") had a bad scrofulous sore on her shoulder for seven years. One morning while it was being dressed, the stranger chanced to pass through the kitchen. He paused, stood by the sufferer for a moment, & in the kindest manner remarked that he "once knew a person who could cure it". He was observed to stroke the shoulder compassionately and then he immediately walked out. It afterwards struck the family that he happened to attend the dressing of the sore on two mornings more, consecutively, repeating on those occasions the same sympathising stroke on the shoulder (note added : "another account of this incident states that he added, as he rubbed the sore, "Patience is like Faith - and removes mountains"). It was noticed - as is asserted - that never did a bad sore dry up and heal so rapidly & so thoroughly as did Madgie McIlwain's from that very time!

Long after the wanderer had disappeared from Malinmore - for he went, as he came, without any sort of previous notice - "Papers" came into the Glen describing accurately (as is now done in the Hue & Cry) the personal appearance of an individual whom the Government were anxious to secure. Then was there neither doubt nor difficulty in clearly recognizing the identity of the great unknown (such they always felt he was) with the proscribed Refugee : Then, too they remembered and as they thought, accounted for, the thrice repeated touch on Madgie's shoulder; and I firmly believe that no power on earth could have persuaded the McIlwain family of that day or its descendants to the present time, that the mysterious guest was any other than - Prince Charles Edward the Pretender!

Of the perfect truth of the foregoing particulars I have not the smallest doubt, having collected them myself from the Hamiltons, who - I and satisfied - are neither deceived themselves, nor would impose upon me: and I cannot at all understand how they or their people could be able so accurately and feelingly to describe the personal appearance of Prince Charles Edward, his very height, his comeliness and noble bearing - according exactly with history of the Prince himself had not stamped the original impression. In still speaking of him - which they do so with the utmost ardour & admiration - the constant exclamations to be heard one such as - "He was the tallest and portliest Gentleman!" and - (as if kindling at the recollection of animated descriptions by those who had seen him) "Och! But he was the handsome Gentleman!"

So thoroughly are they imbued with the conviction of that Andrew McIlwain's guest being the Pretender, that on one of the interviews I have had with them, when I attempted - with a motive - to throw discredit on the whole story - the solemn and deliberate declaration thereby called forth was asseverated in such a manner as to put the supposition that they had any doubt of "Prince Charlie" having been in Glencolumbkille out of the question.

I shall now give additional independent particulars derived from other sources. I have carefully sifted the channel through which the following circumstantial statements have been handed down, and the result is very satisfactory to my own mind.

Some have been written out for me by a person whose ancestors were well-informed and well-educated: others have been corroborated & personally communicated to me - by an old woman - a shrewd, sensible person, in perfect possession of her faculties, between ninety and a hundred years of age. She has imbibed distinctly and positively - the conviction that Prince Charles was in the neighbourhood, & she has declared to me lately that she remembers before she was ten years old hearing her father & mother speak of his having been here - of his embarking from Glenlough (again to be alluded to) and (to adopt her own earnest but simple expressions) "indeed she heard them say a hundred times - how nice & how big & how tall he was!" Thus we have a living person remembering to have heard her parents mention - less than four & twenty years after the period, that Prince Charles was in Glencolumbkille! And surely it is scarcely possible that the hardiest propagandist would venture to circulate, on the spot, a circumstantial report of events, such as this woman confidently testifies to having heard - to which was attributed so recent a date & a character so remarkable (thus rendering it proportionately capable of ready refutation) had it been, not only unfounded on facts, but notoriously repugnant to much more juvenile recollections than those of the "oldest inhabitant".

As to the credibility such retention of memory, as has been just adduced, I believe it almost amounts to a rule, that aged persons recollect what has been impressed on the mind in very early life, better than the incidents of later years.

In proceeding I shall promise further only that the numerous and varied (note added: "when we compare the different narratives together, we find them so varying as to repel all suspicion of confederacy; so agreeing under this variety, as to show that the accounts had one real transaction for their common foundation")  legends, with which this district teems, bear out & substantiate each other and form a mass of distinct, yet concurrent testimony which seems to place beyond a reasonable doubt the presumed fact, that Prince Charles Edward wandered through the whole length of Donegal into these Glens immediately prior to his departure from the British Isles.

When the Prince went through Scotland and observed that people suspected who he was, he became greatly alarmed and sought at once the sea shore whence he embarked for Ireland and so arrived in Lough Foyle.

His first manoeuvre on landing was to retire into the wilds of Ennishowen, accompanied only by McComb, his attendant. He walked on as far as Slieve Snaght or the 'Snowy-Mountain' & stopped there. (Note added: "The writer recently (1856) ascertained that the people living in the neighbourhood of Slieve Snaght declare that at the present time that Prince Charles was there. He was expected through every place in that country to which he came; and was sought by Gerald O'Doherty, one of Caithir Rhadh's race, who found him on Slieve Snaght. The only possession the Prince and McComb possessed at this juncture was about a pint of barley meal, which, when mixed with water, they ate raw. McComb being exhausted & asleep, the Prince divided the lump of dough he had himself made, and formed the mass into two cakes : - one of the Bairrins (sic), "being bigger than the other, they offered it to McComb on awaking: McComb, observing the disparity between the cakes, and that the Prince handed him the larger, said - 'My Liege, why are they not equal?' The Prince replied 'You were sleeping!' When O'Doherty, knowing the Prince, saluted him, the latter rose up from off the hillock he had been sitting on, and left it to O'Doherty. O'Doherty afterwards brought him to his own residence, where he stopped a few days: he then went northwards, and proceeding along the shores of Lough Swilly, came to Letterkenny; there he stayed also a couple of days, with Robert Fletcher. He then went through the Lagan, a district situated north of Strabane: here he encountered - as he sauntered along - a convivial assembly & went in among the company. At this gathering, the Prince met and danced with "Bonny Mary -", daughter of Mr John C- -: when the party broke up he accompanied by invitation the party home; & a considerable period elapsed before he took his departure.

Ultimately his progress lay along the sea shore, as far as Glenlough in the parish of Glencolumbkille; and there he remained three or four nights with Patrick Byrne, the Glen herd. Thus advancing into Glencolumbkille, he sojourned a week in the house of Oliver Sweeny of Fearnkillbride (note added: "Byrne was Oliver Sweeny's guide in Glencolumbkille and he conducted the Prince to the cabin of the latter, in Glencolumbkille, where the remains of the house can be traced"). He then went on to Andrew McIlwain's of Malinmore; so terminating his long wanderings through Donegal and resting at McIlwain's house for one month.

Poll-an-Uisge - a little port at Glenlough - (already mentioned) is the place assigned by tradition at that from which Prince Charles stepped on board the boat which conveyed him to the French ship that awaited him in the offing, & so was enabled to effect his escape from Ireland. Poll-an-Uisge was judiciously selected for the purpose, if any choice remained to those concerned in the adventure.

Ports on these shores are indeed few & far between. But Poll-an-Uisge possessed the paramount advantage of being discernable far at sea by a most remarkable & conspicuous landmark (Tormore Rock) which would indicate its vicinity from a great distance; while the actual entrance into the little harbour, might be recognised at once, by a token, in the shape of a huge white stone or rock - which stands out in the sea at its very mouth. Immediately to the westward of the rivulet that discharges itself into the ocean from its precipitous & shattered bed at Poll-na-Uisge, there is a most superb scene, and those visiting it will rejoice that any inducement or attraction - (to say nothing of such a one as associates it with the embarkation of Prince Charles Edward) should have lead them to it. The position for beholding this matchless prospect from, is the little ravine called "Fokhar-Shelagh". From that hollow are to be seen - all grouped together - six enormous detached council rocks; the magnificent Tormore - their chief - (about four hundred feet high, on a base of 4 1/2 acres) towering to a perfect pinnacle above them all. The intermediate & embayed range of headlands - so exquisitely tinted - are of vast height! Along their base is a great while sweeping strand - composed of large round stones, which enlivens and relieves the awful sombre grandeur of the astonishing scene. (note added: "About a mile from Poll-an-Uisge to the eastward on the top of Glenlough mountain - 1513 ft high - an extremely grand and expansive prospect opens; extending over all Boylagh and the Rosses - with their bays and promontories - to the mountains beyond the Gweebara in the neighbourhood of the beautiful Glenveagh".

An incident mixed up in the foregoing sketch of Prince Charles Edward's wanderings through Donegal might be followed out and developed by details of a curious nature, supported by circumstantial, tangible evidence. As such particulars, however, would lead down to our own times and acquaintances, they must be withheld. Names should be given & connexions defined, which by making the subject absolutely personal even still - might accordingly invest it with an offensive character & tendency.

Glencolumbkille - from its remarkable & suitable position - was likely to be the object & limit of the Prince's flight. To him it secured a refuge & an exit; and it may not be an extravagance to surmise - from the place being so associated with St Columcille - that its existence was even a matter of notoriety among the inhabitants of the Western Isles, where Prince Charles had been. More especially might it have been to one well acquainted, as he - no doubt - was with the history of Iona, as sister settlement of Columbkille.

When all possible devices & contingencies must have been canvassed & brought to bear on arrangements for the Prince's flight towards France, Glencolumbkille might thus have attracted its due share of consideration & weight. Let it also be borne in mind that the French navy has proved itself in later times particularly conversant with this part of the coast of Ireland. Killala is within the great bay described, and the battle fought by Sir John Warren took place in sight of Glencolumbkille: previously to which "a descent had been made on the coast of Donegal by a French brig" (History of England). So that this seeming hankering after these northwestern shores may have been matured & established by former experience of their fitness for furtive enterprise, of which the rescue & abduction of Prince Charles Edward from Donegal might have been reckoned a dashing & romantic illustration.

As to the route from Scotland to Glencolumbkille instead of difficulties being in the way of its accomplishment - it is rather to be conjectured (as might easily be shown) that peculiar facilities were readily attainable. Tradition asserts, that the Prince embarked for Ireland far north from the Highlands (note added: "The last trace of him ascertained by Boswell in the Tour to the Hebrides, was - his leaving the Island of Sky for the mainland; and then our tradition seems to take him up. That the course of his flight was shaped towards Ennishowen, would be rendered even more likely - if it is indeed true, as is supposed, that an ancient intercourse subsisted between the coast of Donegal and the Scottish Islands"). The island of Raghery - off the Antrim coast, is about 20 miles from Islay & 15 from Argyleshire. This favoured & charming island was renowned in Scottish history centuries before, as the asylum of King Robert the Bruce; he and his brother Edward having spent the winter of 1306 there. The remains of "Bruce's Castle" still stand on their sea-girt rock, in sight of his beloved Scotland. A natural & chivalrous curiosity - independent of a very probable necessity - might have tempted the Prince (following in Bruce's steps) to land on "Rakrin" to glance at scenes rendered so deeply interesting by undoubted facts. A legend exists that many of Prince Charles' adherents fled to Raghery after their defeat in 1745; and if so - had it been desirable for him on any account to put in there, he might have been sure of meeting steadfast friends who would proudly harbour & serve him at the risk of loss of their lives.

From family circumstances connected with the events of 1688 - 9 the Prince must have acquired some knowledge of Derry and its localities and it can scarcely be doubted but that he had many hereditary & devoted partisans among the Irish in Donegal.

I shall so far further defend what I have stated - as to suggest - that it would have been manifestly & essentially important to mislead as to the Prince's movements and haunts subsequently to the Battle of Culloden - when concealment was a matter of vital necessity. His party did not scruple to circulate very ingeniously some false reports.

Sir Walter Scott records (in "Tales of a Grandfather") that "another project was to cause Government to receive information which, though false in the main, was yet coloured with so many circumstances of truth as to make it seem plausible and which came to them through a channel which they did not mistrust." From the specimens of "authentic intelligence" thus alluded to, it is quite fair to conclude that deception was the order of the day, and the essence of a system unavoidably & perpetually in operation.  

Sir Walter Scott


I shall introduce one other quotation for the purpose of showing, that reasonable room for doubt exists as to the actual refuge & route which the Prince availed himself of in his desperate extremity.

A suspicion of the kind is sufficiently justified by reflecting on an admission made by Mr Boswell, while discussing the subject. His remarks date from 1773. That period was only 27 years after the events recorded which being so close to the time of their transaction enabled him to procure the most original & genuine details without the intervention of tradition: while at the same time the length of the interval is extremely important in another point of view, as favouring, or rather substantiating the notion that up to that day & during all that long term of years, it never had transpired or was developed - or could be ascertained - what really became of Prince Charles after escaping from the place in Sky named by Mr Boswell; and in estimating the force of his testimony, it should be particularly taken into account that when he came to the conviction he expresses, he was in the very heart of the scenes of the Prince's wanderings, with first-rate advantages for acquiring intelligence. He had even an interview with Flora McDonald (and surely she must have enquired & searched anxiously) who actually in his presence rented "the particulars she herself knew" of his escape and notwithstanding all this, and in what he was told besides by others personally concerned, he still says "These are all the particulars I have collected concerning the extraordinary concealment & escapes of Prince Charles in the Hebrides; he was often in imminent danger; the troops traced him from the Long Island across Sky, to Portree, but there lost him. Here I stop; having received no further authentic information of his fatigues & perils before he escaped to France." (Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides 1773)

Flora MacDonald James Boswell

Permit me to detain your Grace a moment longer while I attempt a simple justification, not only of what I have written, but for having written it at all. I conceive that the details of an unknown, yet highly interesting historical incident - which I cannot disbelieve - have fallen in my way. The persons who can recruit them will soon be in their graves. No one else, that I am aware of, has been engaged in the subject, nor seems likely to do so; - while the chances of getting at the truth are daily on the wane.

Influenced by some such considerations as these, I have considered it even a duty to make the attempt to collect - to rescue & perhaps preserve - these truthful stories of the Glens while memory can reach & authenticate them.

I shall conclude by strengthening the doubts I have just ventured to advance that the popular versions of Prince Charles Edward's wanderings & ultimate escape may not be undoubtedly correct by adopting (as I believe) your Grace's own words & reasoning; so appropriate to the purpose.

"Let it be observed that I am not now impunging any one particular point; but merely showing generally that what is unquestioned, is not necessarily unquestionable: since men will often, at the very moment when they are accurately sifting the evidence of some disputed point, admit hastily or on the most unofficial grounds, what they have been accustomed to see taken for granted" (Historic Doubts, Page 11, 1833 (note added : see 1827 edition page 7)).

I have the honour to be - my Lord -

Your Grace's very humble servant,

Valentine P Griffith

(Rector of Glencolumbkille, Diocese of Raphoe) 


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