This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

January 2004



James Graham, the 5th Earl of Montrose, is one of the great romantic figures of Scottish history. The Scottish philosopher Carlyle considered him the epitome of the dashing cavalier. Youthful and idealistic, he presented a powerful counterweight to the deceit and cupidity of the Archibald Campbell. He was from one of the largest and most prominent Lowland families, which had many landed and titled cadet branches. On the matrilineal side, he was a descendant of the earl who led the murderers of Rizio, the doomed favorite of Mary Queen of Scots. A Lowlander and Protestant, he had knowledge of Highland ways from his family's holdings in the central Highlands. Additionally, an older sister married the chief of Clan Calqhoun. As a youth, he often frequented the Highland districts surrounding Loch Lomond and was a guest at Rosdhu, the Calqhoun fortress on the west side of Loch Lomond. He attended St. Andrews University, adding a first class education to a noble lineage.

Montrose attained his majority in 1632. A year later, the Stuart monarch held court in Edinburgh to be formally coronated as King of Scotland. This would have been an opportune time for him to be presented to the King. He certainly had many prestigious family and friends who would be honored to endorse him. However, a family scandal caused him to flee to the continent. His brother-in-law, John Calqhoun, seduced and abducted Montrose's younger sister. This was a Calqhuon trait, for in 1592 another Chief of the Calqhouns committed adultery with the wife of the Chief of Clan MacFarlane, provoking a brutal and bloody clan war. John Calqhoun, though guilty of both incest and adultery under Scottish law, was prosecuted for witchcraft for having cast a spell over the poor maiden.

As the Montrose family struggled to restore their honor, the young earl needed to make himself scarce. While he was in Europe he took the opportunity to study military science at the famous school of arms in Angers, France. Mainland Europe was embroiled in the Thirty Years War and this was a time of new military innovation. The collateral benefit of Montrose's exile was to prepare him for the historical role into which he would be thrust.

By 1633, when Montrose was ready to be presented to the King, Charles I had returned to his English court in London. Reentering Britain by this route he sought out the Marquis of Hamilton, the senior Scot at court, to do the honors. Montrose's idealistic naiveté did not serve him well. Far from the counsel of family and friends he had chosen wrong. Hamilton was a man of intrigue and ambition without the intellect or depth of character to give substance to the image. As the representative of a senior cadet line of the Stuarts/Stewarts, Hamilton was hoping to cash in on his kinship with the King to replace the assassinated Duke of Buckingham as the King's favorite. This was the same position of favor the Earl of Antrim was questing for when he married the Duke of Buckingham's widow, Catherine Manners.

Hamilton was too full of cupidity to enable such a bright, energetic young man to fall into good favor with a king for whose affection he was so jealously competing. Hamilton thus poisoned the meeting. He told the young Montrose that the King was prejudiced against Scots and he told the King that Montrose was an arrogant and conceited youth who was not to be trusted. Thus when Montrose was presented, Charles I put forth a cold hand to be kissed, sniffed and then turned away. The baffled and dejected Jamie Graham skulked back to Scotland to brood on how he deserved such a public rebuke.

Seeking the advice of family and friends, the stalwart young idealist fell under the spell of the National Covenant. Montrose believed that the Monarch had become arrogant and out of touch with the emerging social forces of the realm and needed to be corrected. He soon threw himself into promoting this movement and organizing the military resources to protect it. He soon rose to prominence in the Covenanting movement. The young Jamie Graham, however, was to soon have his idealism tested - and gain worldly insight into the byzantine machinations of British politics of his day.

In February 1639, Montrose had his first opportunity to prove himself as a military leader. He led the expedition to check the Catholic forces of the Earl of Huntly in Aberdeenshire. In a short campaign he defeated Gordan's forces with a minimum of bloodshed. But soon he found himself in conflict with the covenanting committee and the Presbyterian ministers who bore a vengeful wrath towards their opponents in contrast to his compassion and mercy towards the vanquished. He refused to sack the city of Aberdeen and offered a safe passage to Huntly, the Chief of the Gordans, to negotiate in Aberdeen. Under pressure of the committee he was forced to betray this safe passage and abduct Gordan and transport him to Edinburgh for imprisonment after Huntly's refusal to sign the covenant. Huntly, a future ally, would never forgive him for this and Montrose's honor suffered. Later historians would say of his treatment of Huntly as the only mean thing he had done.

As time progressed Montrose would become more and more disillusioned with the movement he had embraced. A critical participant in the brief Bishops War of 1639 and the negotiations that followed, he gained a new view of Charles I. He realized he had been misled and deceived. With this in mind he began to also revise his views of some of the more radical members of the National Covenant, which he increasingly viewed as irrational, hateful and intolerant. But an even more disillusioning was his increasing insight into how the Covenant movement was being cynically manipulated by some for political advantage.

No one convinced him more of this than the MacCailein Mor, the Earl of Argyll. Increasingly he found himself in conflict with the head of Clan Campbell. Hearing that Argyll had obtained an order of commission of fire and sword against Montrose's royalist neighbors the Ogilvie's, Montrose received Lord Ogilvie's surrender and garrisoned his seat, Airlie Castle, with men from his own Covenant troops as a diplomatic gesture to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary destruction of property. Agyll's response to Montrose's diplomatic gesture of mercy was to dismiss Montrose's garrison from Airlie Castle, then pillage the castle as well as the lands of the Ogilvie's. When Montrose protested, Argyll attempted to have him impeached before the Committee of Estates. Montrose easily exonerated himself, but he had tangled with one of the most powerful men in Scotland - a man known for his vindictiveness.

Montrose may have already put himself at odds with one of the main puppetmasters of Covenant machinations, but the intrigue would only intensify. After neutralizing the Ogilvies, Argyll lured the Earl of Atholl to a meeting at the ford of Lyon where he had Atholl seized and arrested. One of Atholl's relatives, Stewart of Ladywell who was present at Atholls arrest, reported to Montrose that Argyll had boasted of being the eighth from Bruce and had speculated on deposing the king. Amongst his followers, Argyll was being referred to as King Campbell. Additionally Montrose had learned through personal contacts that Argyll was conspiring to rule Scotland as a dictator "in the Roman fashion" through a triumvirate.

I don't know if Montrose was familiar with Shakespeare, but he was no Hamlet and nobody was going to say goodnight to this sweet prince. Montrose did not equivocate; he took action. Montrose became the leader of a secret band of moderate Covenanters. This group was communicating with the King and hoped to meet with him when the Monarch would attend the convening of the Scottish Parliament in August of 1641. Argyll, however, had learned of the secret band and used his title of Judiciar of Scotland to thwart their plans. Stewart of Ladywell was arrested on trumped up charges and forced to retract his accusations, most likely under torture. Montrose and his band were then imprisoned on trumped up charges. Argyll then had Stewart of Ladywell executed, thus eliminating the chief witness of Argyll's treasonous behavior. When Charles I came to Edinburgh he found himself without supporters. Once he departed the Scottish capitol Montrose and his supporters were released. Argyll had not been stopped, but his immediate plans to make himself dictator of Scotland had to be put on hold.

After their release, Montrose and his supporters tried to warn the King and the Queen of Argyll's duplicity, but Lord Hamilton was up to his old tricks, giving evidence against Montrose and his party. In fact, in league with Argyll, Hamilton was duping the King. Trusting in this false ally, the hapless King made Hamilton the Royal Commissioner of Scotland. Meanwhile Montrose tried to persuade the King of Hamilton's hypocrisy and conspiracies between the English Parliament and the Covenanters to have the Scottish army invade England and link up with the king's enemies south of the border. Initially rebuffed, the outbreak of civil war and the subsequent invasion of England by the Scottish army vindicated Montrose. Hamilton was arrested and on February 1, 1644, Montrose was commissioned Lieutenant of Scotland. On March 6, 1644, Montrose was elevated to Marquis.

Montrose's mission now was to regain Scotland for the King, or at least distract the Scottish army from its activities in England. The confluence of events did not favor this, however. The Gordans had been defeated in the north, and the whole of the country was under the thumb of Campbell and Covenant. Montrose's force was too small to take on the opposition, but the situation made it impossible to divide his forces to infiltrate. Finally, after the debacle for royalist forces at Marston's Moor, Prince Rupert requisitioned all but 100 of Montrose's troops.

Montrose had only one desperate plan left. He was aware that the Earl of Antrim had dispatched forces to Scotland from Ireland. Knowing that Clan Campbell was generally loathed in the Highlands, he hoped to infiltrate Scotland and link up with rebellious Gaels. His unique understanding of the Gaels would be crucial here. So with two attendants, Rollo and Sibald, in disguise the party slipped away from their forces in England and slipped into Scotland eventually finding their way to the Methven wood in Perthshire. Here they intercepted a pro-Covenant messenger carrying news that an Irish army was in Atholl to the garrison at Perth. Montrose then hurried to Atholl with the son of a local noble, Inchbrackie.

Meanwhile back at the side of river Tilt, Alasdair MacColla was bringing his eyes down from the heavens where he was seeking divine guidance for the dilemma he was in regarding the standoff between his army and the forces of the Atholl district. And what Alasdair saw must have appeared miraculous. Just as the forces were squaring off for combat, two figures in Highland dress came bounding down the brae on the opposite shore. As all looked on the two figures came their way through the water of the shallow river and crossed between the two armies. The Robertsons (aka Duncans) of Struan, who were arrayed against Alasdair recognized one of their own in the young Inchbrackie and the second man had the Royal Standard wrapped about his waist. This second man stepped forward producing the Royal commission and stated he was the Marquis of Montrose, the commander of the King's forces in Scotland. A cheer rose up from both armies as caps flew in the air and firearms were discharged heavenward in celebration.

Catastrophe had been averted. What had moments before been two armies on the verge of conflict had been transformed into one powerful force now ready to exact revenge on Clan Campbell and the King's enemies. Also a powerful alliance between two great military leaders was about to write history across the face of the Scottish Highlands.

Griogair Dubhghlas, Am Fear Cathrach Albannach
Greg Douglas, Scottish Chair of the Celtic League American Branch.

For more information on Scotland, see the Scotland Nation Page.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

For more stories, click the links below:

Previous Month            •            All Months            •            Next Month