This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

March 2004



The Covenanters, by shifting their focus from defending Perth to Stirling, had offered Montrose and Alasdair a superlative opportunity from which they did not shrink. Montrose knew that Perth had been slotted as the initial staging point for the anticipated campaign against the rebel army. The Covenant forces, by playing it safe, gave Montrose and Alasdair the great opportunity for a calculated gamble. They seized the day and defeated a force much greater than theirs by the use of mobility over firepower applied by seasoned motivated and desperate forces.

None were more desperate than the Irish. Unlike the Scottish Gaels, they were not on their home ground and could expect no mercy from a foe that regarded them as literally subhuman. Scottish Gaels were held just a little higher than the Irish in the esteem of their Lowland brethren, who saw them as barbarians. But they had bonds of kinship within the country, even among Lowlanders who could be historical relatives (as in the case of the Stewarts/Stuarts), or from relatives who had moved to the Lowlands and adopted the ways of the town and burgh (it was not unknown for an adventuring Lowland lad to don the kilt and plaid to join his Highland relatives for some escapades such as cattle raids in the interim between university and career).

Though the Irish could count on some of the Highlanders who cleaved keenly to a Celtic identity for aid and comfort in flight, others would gladly betray them if they failed. They were, for the most part stranded, literally with their backs to the sea. Failure was not an option. Yet they responded to the challenge of this campaign not with a sense of doom or foreboding, but with courage, determination and indeed humor. They had a glory in martial conquest that equaled that of their Scottish Gael cousins. They literally spoiled for a fight and considered it honorable to die in battle, sword in hand.

The victory at Perth had done much to boost the morale of the Gaelic army. They occupied Perth for several days, but Montrose knew all too well that this army was an army of shock and awe, not siege. Alasdair, the consummate Celtic warrior, knew the sentiments and instincts of his people. They responded well to the passion and glory of battle, but had no stomach for the prolonged standoff. So the army struck off to the northeast with the forces of the Covenant at their heels.

On the way, however, an incident of great intrigue occurred. Lord Kilpont, while walking with his lieutenant and friend, Stewart of Ardvorlich, was seen to argue with Ardvorlich. He was overheard to say he “would not meddle in that business” whereupon Ardvorlich produced a dagger and plunged it into the heart of Kilpont, killing him instantly. Stewart of Ardvorlich then killed two Irish guards and escaped with several relatives.

It is lost to history why this act of treachery was committed. Various parties explained it in conjunction with their own interests, but clearly Ardvorlich had counted on Kilpont joining him in some intrigue against Alasdair and Montrose. When he realized Ardvorlich was indeed loyal to the cause, he killed him and escaped before he was forced to pay for his treachery. Several days later, Ardvorlich presented himself before Argyll, seeking his protection. Not only did Alasdair and Montrose lose a promising officer, but Kilpont’s men left the army to bear their leaders body home for burial.

As well as losing the some 500 men under Kilpont, many of the Atholl men had filtered back to their home province with the spoils of war. Rather than augmenting their army after Perth, Alasdair and Montrose’s army was now somewhat diminished. Approaching Dundee (Scotland’s fourth city after Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen) Montrose and Alasdair struck camp on Sept. 6,1644 and subsequently demanded the surrender of the city. Dundee, defiant, refused. Montrose, at this point, decided that Dundee was not worth the risk of an assault. With the forces of the Covenant on his heels he did not have resources or time to accomplish this. His eyes now looked to the northeast to a fatter prize.

Aberdeenshire, though predominately Lowland, was also strongly royalist and (at that time) contained a plurality of Catholic and Protestant. The Gordons traditionally held sway here. While their leader, The Earl of Huntly, was not on the best of terms with Montrose, this family had suffered greatly under the Covenant regime. Thus, Montrose hoped, the Gordons would feel obligated as Catholics and royalists to support his cause. The great city of Aberdeen was now in his sights.

Aberdeen, Scotland’s third city and a vital North Sea port, was a plum waiting to be plucked. Montrose, Alasdair and their army were between it and the main Covenant force to the south. Cut off, like Perth it would have to rely on poorly trained levies and secondary leaders left behind to hold the rear guard. To seize this town would demonstrate the potency of Montrose and Alasdair’s force. But if the Gordans could potentially be powerful allies here, there were also powerful foes. There were strong local covenanting families to be contended with, the Forbes, Frasers and Crichtons, who would rush to defend the Reformation.

Aberdeen also had powerful natural defenses. To the south was the tidal mouth of the river Dee and to the west the Den Burn and the burgh loch. Montrose and Alasdair would have to cross the River Dee and maneuver around to the north and east where they would be confronted by the city gates, which could be easily defended by a small force. Again, attrition is historically the mortal enemy of any Celtic army. Alasdair and Montrose might have to bypass this opportunity altogether, as they had at Dundee. But as they approached the city, the burgh’s commander Burleigh drew up his army to the west of the Den Burn offering our little Celtic army another opportunity comparable to Perth.

This Covenant force, however, had many deficits. Principally, many of the levies raised from burgh and countryside had strong royalist sympathies and thus were not strongly motivated to fight the opposing force. Additionally, this force had been augmented by some of the survivors of Tippermuir who must have emanated a sense of dread and doom. However, many of the sub-commanders from the aforementioned covenanting families were highly inspired supporters of the Covenant. They and their kinsman would fight stubbornly and create a backbone to this army. Furthermore, the covenant force had a considerable amount of cavalry. Montrose and Alasdair had less than 100 horses. Fortunately for our Celtic army, Robert Balfour, the second Lord Burleigh, a commander of eminent incompetence, led the Covenanters. His leadership would effectively neutralize the strengths previously mentioned regarding the covenant forces.

Alasdair and Montrose now faced a larger, better-equipped and more professional army than at Tippermuir - and the Celtic force was actually somewhat smaller. But here a stand had to be made. The only other burgh that could be moved on to was Inverness, which was garrisoned by a strong Covenant force that had a strong Highland element. To flee to the northwest, into the protection of the Highlands, would discredit the Gaelic army’s potency, thus discouraging other potential allies from rallying to the cause. The gains of Tippermuir would be squandered. To fight the opposing army offered a risk, but Burleigh’s foolish decision to draw his army up in the field where the Gaels could best maneuver, outside the protection of the city’s confines, offered a great opportunity. A calculated risk could be made and Montrose and Alasdair seized the day.

The opposing forces drew themselves up like at Tippermuir. The covenanting army placed the infantry at the center and the cavalry at the wings. The royalist army placed the Irish under Alasdair at the center and the Scottish Gaels on the wings. The tiny royalist cavalry would be held in reserve. Montrose sent a drummer boy forward with terms of surrender. The city was offered general quarter if surrender could be secured. If not, a short period of cease-fire would be observed for the elderly and women and children to evacuate the city. Otherwise there was to be no quarter. Such terms were commonplace in that day and age; and particularly during this period of civil war. But it is ironic that covenant leaders were offered a gesture of mercy for a largely royalist burgh. The covenanting commanders sharply spurned the offer. As the drummer boy was returning to his lines with the covenanting rebuke, a shot rang out from the covenanting lines and the lad was shot dead. The treachery of this act deeply offended the Gaelic sense of honor. The Gaelic warriors were now sanguinary with revenge.

The battle began with the application of an obsolete and ineffectual cavalry tactic by the covenanters called the caracole. In this maneuver, the cavalry formed a sort of carousel configuration; riding towards the opposing force discharging their firearms as they wheeled away, then reloading as they approached their own lines, to then repeat the process as they wheeled back towards enemy lines. The futility of this tactic on this day was almost comic, a sort of grand yet useless cavalier cavalcade. Exasperated by this show of futility, Sir William Forbes of Craigievar decided demonstrated the proper use of cavalry with his own body of horse. Hot-headedly he spontaneously charged the center of the royalist line. Forbes hoped to have much the same effect as the Highland charge. The sudden shock of hoof and saber would shatter the integrity of the enemy line creating disorder and collapse of military discipline and morale to be then further exploited by infantry drawing up after the horse.

But Forbes made a fatal miscalculation of the situation. Forbes was charging the mighty Alasdair MacColla and his battle hardened Irish veterans. Gaelic warriors traditionally have been foot soldiers and as such had had hundreds of years to formulate anti-cavalry tactics. The great William Wallace, in his day, was known to dismount a horse to fight mounted men. Alasdair’s Irish would not break in the face of a cavalry charge.

As Forbes’ force bore down on the Irish, under Alasdair’s order, the Irish parted like the Red Sea. Forbes’s men then charged into the yawning gap. The Irish then closed ranks behind Forbes and poured gunfire on his cavalry from all sides. Then the Irish charged with pole arms and claymore, dirk and targe. At this point I should discuss one of the primary anti-cavalry pole arms used at this time, the tuagh or Lochaber Ax. This was a butterknife-shaped blade on the end of a ten-foot-plus shaft that could be thrust and swung to deliver lacerating blows. On the reverse side of the pole was a hook that could be used to gaff the mounted trooper on the backswing and de-horse him. Surrounding Forbes’s horse, some of the Irish were de-horsing the enemy with pole arms, while those armed with claymores were hacking at the horses limbs to hamstring them. Few of Forbes’s men survived that day. Forbes himself was gaffed from the saddle and captured.

Meanwhile, infantry under Lords Fraser and Crichton charged the right wing of the Celtic army twice. But Burleigh’s incompetence shone through. Unable to command and coordinate, Burleigh’s army had to fight as if they had no general. Fraser and Crichton’s force never received the cavalry support they needed from the remaining cavalry to press home the attack.

On the left wing the fighting was fierce. A hundred Irish musketeers under the Catholic Anglo-Irish commander, Captain John Mortimer, along with the tiny royalist horse, beat off a determined assault. Reinforced by a further 100 musketeers, they advanced to frustrate a flanking maneuver.

After dispatching Forbes’ horse, Alasdair and Montrose led the Irish in the classic Highland charge. But unlike at previous battles, the covenant line held. Fighting continued, hand to hand, for almost two hours. But then the covenant line broke and ran. The remaining cavalry galloped away. Alasdair then noticed a body of Aberdeen’s more disciplined soldiers now attempting an orderly retreat across the river Dee. Leading a force of some 400 Irish, they fell on this body and virtually exterminated it.

By continuing to stand and fight when the initial charge did not break the opponents ranks - and then by routing the foe - the Irish once again displayed their discipline and professionalism. Alasdair also distinguished himself as a master tactician, as well as a great leader of men. Our little Gaelic army had shown that they were consummate and skilled soldiers. They had shown that they did not just rely on the novelty of the Highland charge to achieve victory, but could respond to the ebb and flow of battle and improvise as needed. Yet their conduct after the battle was to tarnish their victory. Montrose was to again see a victory that would frustrate his ambitions of gaining new recruits and wider financial and political support for the royalist cause.

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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