This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

May 2004



As the winter of 1644/45 came on, Alasdair’s and Montrose’s army were hunkered down in Atholl in the central Highlands to the east of the Drum Alba massif. Montrose’s men had struggled through and over snowdrifts in the Grampians to reach this Stuart/Stewart stronghold. Alasdair’s men had precluded Campbells’ attempt to cut him off in the west by filtering through the high mountain passes of the Drum Alba before they could be intercepted by Argyll’s army returning to the Campbell strongholds in the west.

Atholl, Ath Fhodhla in Gaelic, evoked the ancient name of Ireland, Fodhla. Here the Dal Riadan Gaels consolidated their expanding power in the east and were organizing and establishing what would become Scotland. Atholl was now a plateau on the eastern slopes of the Drum Alba whose rivers and streams emptied into the Lowlands, an area that had evolved, linguistically, into a more Anglo-Norman alignment. Atholl was a Gaelic bulge into Lowlands. With the Drum Alba to their back, the Gaels of this region now interacted more with the populations of the towns and cities of the Lowlands than with their Irish cousins from which their land took its name. Alasdair and Montrose embodied this bifurcated nature of Scottish society in the 17th century. Their perceptions of their current situation and vision of future endeavors reflected this. Alasdair looked to the west and Montrose to the east.

Montrose insisted that Atholl be used as a base of operations against the Lowlands; Alasdair insisted that their army attack Argyll in the west. A crisis had now evolved. The MacDonalds/MacDonnells and other West Highland clans threatened to leave the army and return to the west to protect their homes and extract their own revenge on the hated Campbells. A council of war was called to resolve the impasse. Montrose argued that Argyll could not be invaded from the east. Protected by the Drum Alba, the few mountain passes into the province could easily be defended by a handful of men, without even taking into account the severe weather conditions. Furthermore, once the west coast was reached, their army would be confronted with a land of alternating peninsulas and long sea lochs. Montrose stated that this would amount to trying to invade the teeth of a comb. The opportunity to be cut off and trapped by the enemy was too great.

Alasdair, however, argued that The Campbells were complacent in this very sense of security. They would leave the passes unguarded preferring the comfort and warmth of their homes and glens seaside at the lower altitudes. Once the passes were breached the Campbells would be taken totally by surprise. As far as the difficult geography of Argyll, Alasdair’s men would be on their home ground. Sympathetic locals would help them with intelligence and provide vehicles to ferry his men when necessary. Furthermore Campbell estates were rich with plunder. The promise of bountiful provisions for an army always on the brink of starvation was an opportunity not to be passed up. The Lowlands, however, were now hostile and dangerous in the aftermath of the massacre at Aberdeen.

Alasdair’s eloquence won the day. Even the Gordons and the Eastern Highlanders understood Alasdair’s logic. Especially when Alasdair pointed out that the Chief of Clan Campbell was more than just the focus of West Highland antipathy, but a major player in the covenanting regime. To defeat him in the west, in the center of his empire, would make the covenanting regime vulnerable. Once freed from the curse of the Campbells, the other Highland clans would swell the ranks of the royal army. The vote was taken and Alasdair’s plan adopted.

The assault proceeded up the Strath Tay through Highland Perthshire. First the lands of Clan Menzies (Mingus), a primary Campbell ally, were ravaged. Then the army divided in two with each branch flanking opposing sides of Loch Tay plundering the lands of Campbell of Glen Orchy and Campbell of Lawers as they proceeded. By December 11, 1644 the west end of Loch Tay had been reached and the army reintegrated. The army now proceeded up Glen Dochart. Here they met their first obstacle. The guns of a castle on an island in Loch Dochart covered the only path through the glen. Montrose’s worst fears seemed to be materializing.

But Alasdair’s prophecy was born out. The local clan, the MacNabs, once owned this castle. They had had to bear the iron grip of the Campbells with a smile on their face. Now the moment of revenge had come. They approached the castle in a boat stating they had a correspondence from the Marquis of Argyll. Once inside the castle they seized it for Montrose. As a reward, Montrose returned to them their castle, with a promise of complete restoration of the lands they had lost to Clan Campbell once the royal cause was won. The way to Argyll was now open.

Descending from Drum Alba, the rebel army divided, like a trident, into three prongs to sweep and entrap the enemy with maximum devastation. The strategy of this MacDonald-led army was the extirpation of all things Campbell to the greatest degree possible. All property was to be destroyed or seized, all fencible men to be killed. Montrose, Alasdair and the captain of Clanranald were to command these various forks. Pincering in from three sides, the Clan Campbell was taken totally by surprise. Flowing around castles and fortified houses, leaving their garrisons trapped inside, the army focused on maximal economic destruction and the extermination of the flower of Campbell manhood. Whole villages fled up the braes of their glens only to watch the destruction and theft of all their property from the safety of their hills. Any men who tried to resist were killed.

As the rebel army left, the Campbell clanfolk returned to smashed and smoking homes and outbuildings. This destruction earned Alasdair the moniker, fear thollaidh nan tighean, or fear an tollaidh nan tighean. This comes from the Gaelic root toll, meaning hole. Thus the moniker literally means the piercer of houses, or more figuratively the destroyer of houses. Sweeping up from the south, Montrose nearly caught the Marquis of Argyll in his lair in his capital of Inveraray on Loch Fyne. Rather than stay and fight, Argyll fled down Loch Fyne in his galley as Inverary burned. Triumph was complete - and in the heart of Campbell country Catholic Mass was held on a portable alter hung around with tartans and plaids. The Campbells had been defeated and at least for a time, MacDonald hegemony had been restored in the heart of ancient Dal Riada.

Victory was sweet, but ephemeral. Argyll may have escaped down Loch Fyne, but all knew he would be returning with a covenanting army. Alasdair and Montrose needed to move on. More fat Campbell land lay waiting to the north to be plundered and the rebel army needed to avoid being trapped on the teeth of the comb when Argyll returned. So northward they marched.

In addition to the McNabs, na Gregarach, Clan MacGregor joined the rebel army. No other clan had been more ravaged by the avarice of Clan Campbell. Literally hunted down like animals with all their lands expropriated by various branches of the Campbells, this clan known as the children of the mist, lived as outlaws on the Rannoch moor and other inaccessible wastelands. Surprisingly, one Campbell, Patrick Campbell of Edinample, a brother of Glenorchy, defected to the rebel army out of royalist sympathies. But overall, other clans from south and mid Argyll, although exultant to see the Campbells defeated, were still too cowed by generations of Campbell dominance to join the cause. The Marquis of Argyll, when he returned would be merciless in exacting revenge on any who defied him. The MacGregors had nothing to lose, but set a terrible example of what could be done to a clan who crossed the mighty Argyll.

Montrose and Alasdair hoped that as they reached the districts of Lorne and Lochaber to the north they would find clans more willing to challenge the MacCailean Mor. But as they reached Loch Etive they faced the great obstacle of this long and wide sea loch that reaches inland over twelve miles to the southern approach to Glen Coe. A long risky march appeared inevitable. But deliverance came in an unexpected way. Campbell of Ardchattan, whose mother was a MacDonald, was eager to appease the rebels and get them safely off his land. Ardchattan provided ferry boats to hastened them on their way, with the plundered cattle swimming next to the boats.

Entering Lorne they were now in the lands of the Stewarts of Appin. This clan had preserved its land from Campbell legal maneuvering by right of swordpoint, literally challenging the Campbells "to come and get it." Kin to the monarch and reliable allies provision and protection could be expected. Yet only 150 men were recruited.

As the army approached the mouth of Loch Leven they entered the lands of Clan Iain Abrach, The MacDonalds of Glencoe. Boats were soon found and the army reinforced by more men from this small yet legendary clan. As they moved north the Catholic priests accompanying the army were pleased to be received by the Catholic clans of the region, MacDonalds/MacDonnells of Glengarry, Clanranald, Keppoch and Glencoe as well as the previously mentioned Stewarts of Appin. Yet there were Protestant clans such as the Camerons and MacLeans of Duart, who were potential allies and needed to be dealt with diplomatically. The MacLeans of Lochbuie were Catholic.

At Inverlochy Montrose and Alasdair moved their army into the Great Glen, the great fault in the earth that stretches from Inverness in the northeast then runs southwest to Inverlochy were Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil meet their confluence. In the final days of January 1645, Montrose and Alasdair settled their army down in Kilcumin (now Fort Augustus) at the southwest extremity of Loch Ness. Here Montrose drew up the Bond of Kilcumin, a bond of loyalty carefully crafted for both Catholics and Protestants to sign without reservation. Representatives of all the clans present as well as the major Lowland loyalist agents present in the army signed this instrument of royalist allegiance. Interestingly none of the Irish signed this bond, for they refused to make allegiance with the foreign monarch of a nation which imposed its rule on their country.

Montrose’s army was now on friendly territory, but the Great Glen could be a trap. A garrison of 5,000 men were at Inverness under the command of the Earl of Seaforth. All the Marquis of Argyll needed to do was maneuver his forces into place at Inverlochy and both ends of the Glen would be sealed. But Alasdair and Montrose had other ideas and as in the past, a surprise for their enemies. If the Great Glen could be a trap, it also limited the movements of their enemies to only two directions, which could be easily monitored. By sitting in a trap, Alasdair and Montrose were actually setting a trap. As in the past, the prey would turn predator and Clan Campbell was about to be delivered its greatest defeat.

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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