This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

April 2004



At Aberdeen, Montrose and Alasdair’s army demonstrated that they were a potent military force. They had previously employed the Highland charge to great effect, but at Aberdeen they also exhibited their ability to stand up to repeated and concerted assault and to continue to press the attack with tactical innovation and flexibility. A cavalry charge had been repulsed and an organized retreat by the enemy thwarted. But what could have been a day of glorious triumph would dissolve into a day’s slaughter, plunder and drunken excess.

Friday the 13th of September 1644 would indeed be an unlucky day for both Aberdeen and our Celtic army. Having totally eliminated all military resistance, the Irish in this army charged headlong towards the gates of Aberdeen cutting down the fleeing adversaries who could not escape. Breaching the gates of Aberdeen the Irish burst into the city killing, robbing and plundering. Men were forced to strip before being killed so as not to damage the clothing. Residents of the city attempted to wear bunches of oats around their necks, a badge of royalism, to display their support for the victors, only to be cut down. Women folk dared not weep or display mourning for their menfolk who had been killed for fear of being killed themselves. For three days drunken Irish troopers ransacked the town. Alasdair led a large number of the Irish troops north out of the city to camps in Kintore an Inerurie in an effort to restore order in the town. But in spite of the presence of Montrose in the town, the most recalcitrant of the Irish troopers were not effectively restrained. Aberdeen was a specter of the future brutality that would mark this campaign.

The Irish in this campaign were veterans of brutal fighting in Ulster in which mutual slaughter of civilians was the norm. They did not share the same language as the vanquished and the age-old problem of the language barrier mitigated against them from understanding the potential political commonality they may have had with the majority of Aberdonians. However, the connections ethnically and linguistically between the Lowland Scots they had defeated and the settlers in Ulster must have been apparent. On some level they must have felt that they had taken the battle to the homeland of the enemy. Combined with lack of pay, general hardship, and deprivation and fueled by the heat of battle - and most importantly - the disinhibition of alcohol, this was a recipe for disaster.

Montrose remained in Aberdeen for three days when he learned that Argyll was approaching from the south. At first Montrose wanted to stand and fight this army, but under the advice of his advisors and Alasdair, he was convinced that he did not have the resources to do this. Staying in the Lowlands was now out of the question. The rape of Aberdeen had now totally alienated the majority of potential allies in the Lowlands. No longer could Montrose look to the Lowlands and/or Lowland Protestant Royalists for support. By savaging Aberdeen, his army had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. With the covenanting army of the Marquis of Argyll on his heels, a retreat back to the Highlands was in order. Advancing through Gordon territory to the north the army retreated back to Atholl via Badenoch.

In Atholl, where Alasdair and Montrose first met, the two again parted. This was no falling out, but a carefully calculated strategy. Alasdair needed to relieve his besieged forces at Kinlochaline and Mingarry castles - and more importantly raise new recruits in the West Highlands. Aberdeen may have alienated potential Lowland allies, but in the West Highlands it emboldened many of the local clans which had been reluctant to join the venture when Alasdair first landed at Mingarry. In order to do this, Montrose needed to play the decoy, keeping Argyll’s force busy pursuing him around the eastern Highlands and northwestern Lowlands. Additionally Montrose needed to keep his credibility in the east alive. By dividing their forces they also divided the focus of their opponents while strengthening their own positions.

As Alasdair entered Lochaber and approached the two besieged castles, the Campbell forces melted before him. Meanwhile his cousins the Clanranald rose up in full force to secure the area, ravaging Sunart in the process. His liberation of the two sieges went virtually unopposed. His hopes of trading his hostages, held at Mingarry, for his brothers and father were now dashed. After Alasdair’s successes, Coll Ciotach had become far too valuable to be traded for a few Presbyterian ministers. Nonetheless, his forces were now joined by the MacDonalds of Glencoe (Clan Iain Abrach) as well as the Stewarts of Appin (who had by swordpoint held off Campbell legal machinations to usurp their lands). The captain of Clanranald now called up his men in Uist in the Outer Hebrides as well as the men of the Isle of Eigg and the men of Moydart and Arisaig on the mainland.

After securing the two castles, Alasdair and his force headed northward where they gained the support of the MacDonnells of Keppoch in Knoydart. Clan Huisdean, the MacDonalds of Sleat, as well as Macleans of Duart and the Mackenzies remained aloof, however. Macleod of Dunvegan also balked at joining the expedition. Alasdair’ incursion was, nonetheless, a complete success. He had cowed the Campbells in their own backyard and greatly augmented his force.

Meanwhile back east, at the end of October, Montrose had led The Marquis of Argyll’s forces on a humiliating wild goose chase. At Fyvie Argyll caught up with Montrose, but Argyll’s army was stung by a successful rearguard action by Colonel Manus O’Cahan’s Irish regiment. Eluding Argyll again, Montrose marched back to Atholl where in mid-November he met the returning Alasdair MacColla and his greatly expanded army. Alasdair and Montrose had now doubled their forces and were ensconced east of the Drum Alba, the great Highland massif, as winter was coming on.

Argyll, anticipating the end of the campaigning season, and ignorant of Alasdair’s return from the west, marched the bulk of his men from the northeast Lowlands up the Strathspey through Badenoch into Lochaber. Hoping to catch Alasdair in the west after the mountain passes closed by winter snows would preclude Alasdair’s escape, was now himself cut off from the rebel army, which was now concentrated in the east central Highlands.

The Highland winter had now set in with deep snows, howling winds and frigid temperatures enveloping the great Highland massif. Argyll now hunkered down in the relatively mild temperatures of the west coast of the Highlands, warmed by the currents of the Atlantic drift. Looking east to the frozen pinnacles of the Drum Alba, Argyll felt secure in his capitol of Inverary until the start of the next campaigning season in the spring.

But Alasdair had other plans. He and his Highland allies anticipated the complacence of the Campbells, behind their snowy fortress, to deliver a stunning blow to the now somnolent Siol a’Dhiarmaid. Alasdair and Montrose were now ready to turn the tables on their pursuer and deliver defeat to the doorstep of the Campbell empire.

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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