I strolled around the shore of Lochan Hakel hoping to see something glittering in the water. Briefly, I did, but it was only the flash of a trout as it surrendered with a final flourish to a delighted angler. No sign of Prince Charlie’s gold, I’m afraid.
Lochan Hakel is a tranquil wee loch in the shadow of craggy Ben Loyal, a few miles south of Tongue on the north Sutherland coast. Its tranquillity today belies its vital part in the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden.
It is March 1746, and Prince Charles Edward Stuart is on the back foot. His excursion to Derby is but a memory, and he is retreating north to the safety of the Highlands. His men are weary, hungry, and more than a little miffed because they haven’t been paid in a long while. The Prince’s funds are dangerously low, but cash and provisions are on their way from France, courtesy of Louis XV.
The French King recruits one Captain Talbot and the services of his sloop Hazard. Hazard is despatched from Dunkirk in early March with arms, provisions, and most importantly, £13,000 in gold coin. She is to sail for Inverness, which the Prince has made his base.
It is a journey fraught from the outset. She is set upon by pirates shortly after leaving port, and has to flee to Ostend for sanctuary, and some patching and mending. Then she is on her way again, but is attacked by King George’s vessels in the Moray Firth. She runs north, and with the frigate Sheerness in hot pursuit, rounds Duncansby Head and enters the treacherous Pentland Firth.
The Sheerness is still hot on her stern, so Captain Talbot sails into the Kyle of Tongue, hoping his lesser draught will allow him into the shallows where the Sheerness cannot follow. He passes between Eilean nan Ron and the mainland, through the Caol Rainneach, and…
Well, you just know what happens next.
Sure enough, Hazard runs aground on the sandbanks by Melness. Sheerness stays in the main channel, but is close enough for her cannon to blast Hazard to kindling.
Under cover of darkness, Talbot and the military commander aboard, Colonel Brown, manage to transfer the gold, stores and the many wounded to the beach at Skinnet. There is no choice now but to trek to Inverness.
But the worst is yet to come. Talbot is in the heart of Mackay country. Clan Mackay remained loyal to the King throughout the uprising. So now the Chief of Mackay hears of the incident, and musters a force, intent on putting a spanner in Captain Talbot’s works.
Talbot marches south with the Prince’s gold, down the west shore of the Kyle of Tongue. Mackay charges south also, down the east shore. Ben Loyal towers high above them, and in its shadow, at the head of the Kyle, the tranquil wooded shore of Lochan Hakel is a tempting resting spot for the Prince’s weary followers.
But as soon as the Jacobite faithful put down their precious but heavy burdens, the Mackays are upon them. Talbot’s party are mostly French and Welsh Jacobites. The Mackays know every inch of this ground. It’s a home game, and the result is never in doubt. Every fleeing Jacobite survivor is rounded up, ultimately to languish in the jail at Berwick Castle.
But search as they may, the Mackays can find only part of the Jacobite gold. The Prince’s followers, recognising inevitable defeat, hide the provisions as best they can, and fling as much of the gold as they can manage far and deep into the waters of Lochan Hakel.
And there most of it probably remains. Local tales abound of cattle wading into the water and emerging with gold coins embedded in their hooves. One local shepherd became mysteriously wealthy, long before Lotto was invented. And many’s a ceilidh was fuelled by good French brandy instead of the usual illicit distillation.
Anyway, three weeks later the Duke of Cumberland routed the hungry, unpaid Jacobite force at Culloden. But perhaps the battle had already been lost, courtesy of the Clan Mackay and the deep waters of Lochan Hakel.
Who knows what wealth lurks there still?
© Mike Clark 2004