This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

February 2004



It is said in politics that power and authority are two forces always seeking confluence. When Montrose and Alasdair met in Atholl in the eastern Highlands the crucible of conflict forged this nexus. Alasdair had the power, the military resources, but he lacked the legitimacy that Montrose would lend. Montrose had the Royal Commission, but no military power. Without the legitimacy Montrose would lend, Alasdair could not reinforce his troops with forces from outside the Scottish Gaeltachd - and within the Highlands his potential allies were too cowed by Campbell power to join the cause.

With the appearance of the young James Graham all of this changed in an instant. For Montrose, Alasdair gave him access to some of the most ferocious, motivated and skilled warriors in all of northwest Europe. With this combination of power and authority they both hoped, for different reasons, that they would gain access to greater military resources in both the Gaeltachd and the Lowlands of Scotland. When Alasdair MacColla raised his eyes to the heavens he was in despair. When he lowered them he saw Montrose. The miraculousness of the young Graham’s materialization must have deeply reinforced his sense of being led by divine guidance.

The meeting of Alasdair and Montrose brought together two of the greatest military minds of Scotland. Alasdair was the master of battlefield tactics. He could lead men to victory in the face of overwhelming odds and hold the loyalty of his men under adverse conditions. Montrose was a highly educated man, for his day, with a formidable knowledge of the arts and science of warfare. His ability to be highly flexible and unconventional in his conceptions of military strategy made him an early precursor to modern military principles.

Both men knew that playing it safe would lead to defeat at the hands of an enemy that would show no mercy. Their strategy would mirror the tactic of the Highland Charge, the use of mobility over firepower to deliver sudden unexpected blows to the enemy, disorient the foe and cause disorder in his ranks - the basic ingredients of guerrilla warfare that would be used again and again over the succeeding centuries. Alasdair and Montrose would be constantly on the move, avoiding the enemy when conditions were not right for victory and materializing out of nowhere to stun the foe with a sudden assault.

The forces of the covenant most feared that the city of Stirling was vulnerable. Stirling was a highly strategic sight. At the doorstep of the Highlands, from the walls of Stirling Castle one can literally see the Highlands rise like a curtain from the plain. At the beginning of 16th century it was a primarily Gaelic speaking city. Now it was a bastion of Lowland authority and the Protestant Reformation. Two of the most strategically important battles of the “Scottish Wars of Independence” were fought here. The English were defeated at the Battle of Stirling Bridge by William Wallace and by Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn, all within sight of the castle. Knowing this, Alasdair and Montrose decided to strike elsewhere while the forces of the covenant concentrated here.

Alasdair and Montrose now set their sights on the city of Perth. A city of lesser strategic importance, it was and is nonetheless one of great burghs of Scotland and an important economic center (and the birthplace of this writer’s paternal grandmother). Perth sits astride the mouth of the river Tay that flows out of the Highlands from Loch Tay. It was within easy striking distance of Atholl and a victory here would demonstrate the potency of the newly constituted army under the Royal banner.

The most convenient route to the city would be from the northwest down the Stath Tay. Alasdair and Montrose chose another route: south and then west via the Cochill Glen and the Sma’ Glen. On the way they encountered a force of 500 Highlanders in motion to reinforce the covenanting garrison at Perth. This force was, however, under the command of Montrose’s cousin John Grahame, Lord Kilpont, along with John Drummond and Montrose’s brother in law David Drummond, the Master of Maderty, as his subordinates. It is lost to history whether this meeting was accidental or secretly planned, but Lord Kilpont swiftly switched sides and added his men to Alasdair and Montrose’s army. Together they proceeded to Perth from the west.

A few miles west of Perth at Tippermuir (Tibbermore on current maps of Scotland) the royalist army met the forces of the covenanters. With between 5,000 and 6,000 men equipped with some light artillery and some cavalry the royalists were outnumbered by at least two to one. However, the Highlanders and Irish were crack veteran troops eager to exact revenge on the Lowland Gall who had stolen their land, persecuted their religion (in most cases) and attempted to impose their foreign tongue on the Gael. The covenant forces were by contrast green levies accustomed to the soft life of the burgh. The best of their military talent was away with the Scottish army in England and Ireland.

At the center of the royalist army were the Irish and Hiberno-Scots of the Glens of Antrim under the command of Alasdair. On the right wing the Stewarts and Robertsons of Atholl and the Badenoch men were led by Montrose. Lord Kilpont led his Highlanders on the left wing. The Highlanders contained many bowman and were stretched out thin at the wings to preclude out flanking by cavalry. Having never witnessed the Highland charge, Montrose was about to see its power.

The covenant forces initiated the fight by sending out a “forlorn horse” unit to draw out the Irish. Like at Glenmaquin, they hoped to lure the Irish out prematurely against this token force and then attack as the Irish attempted to restore their ranks as the “forlorn horse” galloped back to their lines. This did not happen, however. Instead, the Irish pushed forward the attack. They fired a single volley, threw down their firearms and charged through the smoke. The green levies of Perth looked on with horror as they saw a mob of screaming Gaels emerge from the billows of gunpowder smoke, bearing down on them with claymore, targe and dirk. Almost before the fight began they threw down their arms, turned and ran. The Irish overwhelmed the covenant line. At one point Irish veterans overran an artillery piece, seized it and spun it around to fire on the retreating covenanters.

Moments later the Highlanders swept around the flanks of the covenanting force eliminating all remaining resistance. Death had a jubilee on this day as Gaels fired up on adrenaline ran down fleeing lowlanders dispatching them with the horrible basket hilted claymore. An Irish officer who fought that day boasted that one could walk the three miles from the battlefield to the gates of Perth without once touching the ground, for so many bodies littered the road and the fields. While not literally true, the carnage was sobering. For the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland who fought on that day, they must have felt like a band of Fenians risen from their graves to avenge the honor of the Gael. For the Lowlanders of Perth, they must have felt they were set upon by the hounds of hell, now lurking outside the gates of their city, the blades of their broadswords dripping with the blood of their neighbors and kin.

Montrose could not prevent his unpaid army from plundering the countryside, for this was a Highland custom after battle and the Irish, many of whom brought their women and children with them, needed to replace their clothing, which was threadbare after marching hundreds of miles over mountain and moor. Montrose did, however, secure a quick surrender of the burgh of Perth, to spare it from the ravenous appetites of his hungry and weary troopers.

The Battle of Tippermuir was a great victory for Alasdair and Montrose. They showed they were a potent military force. A force for which those with similar sympathies could feel confident to support. Campbell and Covenant had been put on notice that their hegemony could be challenged. It showed to Clan Donald, the Irish, the Catholics and the royalists that the yoke of Campbell and Covenant could be lifted.

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.

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