This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

July 2003



As the campaign of the rebels in Ulster progressed like a juggernaut across the Protestant plantation in the north, tension and suspicion gripped the home defense regiment raised by the Earl of Antrim. As rumors of Catholic atrocities (most of them exaggerated) reached north Antrim, the Protestant elements of the defense force began implementing tactics of intimidation against local Catholics to cow them into submission. The Catholic companies were torn between their loyalty to the Earl of Antrim and their sympathies with the rebels, who were not only akin to them in language, ethnicity and religion, but were often their kindred by blood and marriage. The rising suspicion and hostility between the Protestant troopers and the local Catholic population further compromised the integrity of this force. Formed initially to protect all of the local population, fear of the Catholics was pushing the Protestants into a reactionary mode that foreshadowed the approaching conflict.

The Catholic companies remained loyal for the better part of two months, none the less. Events would compel them to act, however. This force was now headquartered at Portnaw, about a third of the way from Lough Neagh, on the River Bann, and the seacoast. The Bann is the boundary of counties Derry and Antrim. The mission of the unit was to keep the rebels from crossing the river from county Derry; they were meeting with great success. At the end of December 1641 part of the force was called east to deal with a local uprising in the Braid River Valley, a river running northeast from Ballymena with strong historical connections to the pastoral mission of Saint Patrick.

While part of the force was away, Stewart of Ballintoy received an urgent plea from a Protestant settler, George Canning, to send a force to rescue his garrison which was besieged at Agivey Castle, just on the other side of the Bann. Alasdair MacColla and Turloch Og O’Cahan were ordered to provide men for this mission. The problem was that the commander of the besieging forces was Manus Roe O’Cahan, Turloch Og’s brother and thus Alasdair’s maternal cousin.

The point of no return had been reached. The companies under Alasdair and Turloch Ogs command could not move against this force and thus refused the order. Retribution was certain. The Catholic companies could at least expect to be forcibly disarmed. They could be massacred, either immediately or later. Loyalty to their kinsmen the Earl of Antrim and Archibald of Ballintoy was now irrelevant. Survival was now in the balance. As we shall see again and again it is in such dire predicaments that Alasdair came forward as a natural leader able to assess the situation quickly and take decisive action while the aperture of opportunity was still open. Secretly coordinating his actions with the rebels across the Bann he acted with haste in an organized well-reasoned and forceful manner. Once the decision was made, the commitment was total and the focus clear.

In the predawn hours of January 2, 1642 the Catholic companies assembled, fully armed with banners unfurled. Under the command of Alasdair, Turloch Og, James MacColl MacDonnell, Donald Gorm MacDonnell and Alasdair’s brother Ranald MacColla the forces proceeded with order and discipline on the headquarters of the home defense force at Portnaw. Surprise was complete. As the British officers attempted to rouse their men and get them in order and at arms the Catholic forces spread out to the right and the left flanks. When the British forces were nearly totally encompassed, the Catholic companies let loose a volley of gunfire followed by a charge. Significant casualties were inflicted and most of the British forces saved themselves by panicked flight. At this early stage, quarter was given and the MacDonnell commanders actively intervened to save the lives of captured and wounded men, many of whom they knew personally. Protestant Highlanders were, in particular, spared when possible.

An atmosphere of military discipline and honor was to be soon swamped by the tempest fury released by the local Catholic population which had indured religious and ethnic discrimination and watched as their lands were confiscated and given to the settlers, ancestral lands they had inhabited since time immemorial. The O’Hagans, a principal Clan in the area, crossed the Bann and returned with an army of rebels. The whole local Catholic population was now up in arms and ready to settle old scores. The force now swelled with local irregulars. The whole of Clans MacDonnell and O’Cahan were now called out as were the Hiberno-Scots of the Glens. Alasdair watched in horror as Protestants, men women and children, were massacred.

One litmus test of survival for Protestants was linguistic. The O’Cahans at one point declared the death penalty for anyone who spoke English to the exclusion of Gaelic. Alasdair was dispirited at the loss of military discipline. Soon the Protestants responded in kind with the massacre of men, women and children at Island Magee. What had started as a preemptive strike to neutralize an impending military debacle culminated in the the release of armed civil conflict that was highly personal in nature. A spirit that reverberates to this very day.

Yet the rebel onslaught moved on. 100 bowman from Rathlin Island landed to join the rebellion. The rebel tide moved across the county with Protestant garrisons holding out in strongpoints that could not be overwhelmed with Protestant refugees crowding in for protection. Balleymena, Ballymony and Cross were burnt by the rebels. Dunluce castle proved too formidable for the rebels to take. The Castle of Clough or Oldstone held out for a time under Captain Kennedy of the defense force. By tradition it is said he refused to surrender a MacDonnell castle to anyone but a MacDonnell, holding out until he could surrender to Alasdair MacColla. Alasdair, it is said, thus guaranteed the safety of Kennedy and his men. While this is a poignant tale, it is not supported by historical evidence and after the surrender many civilians were massacred.

The locus of Protestant resistance was in the town of Coleraine, near the mouth of the River Bann. Here Archibald Stewart of Ballintoy took refuge with about 300 to 400 men. The town raised another 650. However, there was a serious shortage of arms and at least 3,000 refugee women and children were crowded into the town. The situation was desperate. Stewart of Ballintoy appealed, to no avail, to the Dublin government. With Dublin unable to help him he turned to the MacCailean Mor, Archibald Campbell the former Earl of Argyll, now elevated to Marquis of Argyll. This is extraordinary because Stewart had formerly conspired with Antrim against Argyll. This shows how this conflict took old alliances which had been political and Clan-based in nature and realigned them in relation to religious orientation. In Scotland the Covenanters took notice and pledged to send an army (financed by the English) to intervene against the rebels. For they not only wished to help the Ulster Protestants but feared the spread of a Gaelic uprising to the Scottish Gaeltachd.

Although help for Coleraine was crystallizing on the horizon, political and economic negations bogged down its manifestation. Meanwhile, Stewart and Coleraine were on their own. Next something extraordinary developed. Running short of food, Stewart led a force of 600+ men on a mission to scour the countryside for provisions. Slipping out of the loosely besieged town, their movements were detected by the Irish and MacDonnell forces. At Laney, near Ballymony, a small force of Irish lured Stewart’s forces into pursuing them onto boggy ground. Here they were ambushed by a force commanded by Alasdair and his Irish and Scottish MacDonnell relatives. What happened next has often been cited as the debut of the famous Highland Charge, a tactic that would dominate the fighting style of the Scottish Gael for over the next 100 years. After discharging a single volley of rounds, the MacDonnell-led force fell upon the hapless British who were mired in the bog. Unable to effectively maneuver, the British were almost exterminated. Stewart of Ballentoy and a ragged fraction of his force managed to escape back to Coleraine. The Battle of Laney, also known as the Battle of Bendooragh, has come to be known as Black Friday by the local Protestants.

The Highland Charge was to be the standard offensive tactic used by Alasdair throughout his military career. This tactic was to be effectively deployed until the debacle of Culloden in 1746. The basic premise of this tactic was the use of mobility over firepower. When it came to close-in fighting with edged weapons the Gael was supreme. He was literally raised from childhood in the use of swords, dirks and polearms and how to use these weapons tactically in concert with organized military units, usually made up of kith and kin. Highland and Hebridean warriors were highly sought after as mercenaries not only in Ireland, but also in mainland Europe. They were supreme bowman and adept at the use of firearms, but in the coming conflicts they would be greatly out-gunned and would possess much less ammunition for the firearms they did possess than their advesaries. The prolonged exchange of gunfire while maneuvering was out of the question. The answer was to quickly close with the enemy and maximize the the great advantage the Gael had at hand to hand combat.

The Highland Charge was more than an anarchic onslaught, it was a structured and calculated tactic. First, a volley of musket fire would be discharged at maximum range. This would not only induce the adversary to discharge their weapons, but the gunpowder of the day would produce billows of smoke. Thus obscured by the smokescreen that would envelope both sides, the Gael could charge the enemy before he could reload. The adversary while struggling to reload his weapon would look up to see a force of screaming Highlanders upon him. But the Highlanders would not meet the enemy line stretched out willy-nilly. Before they hit the enemy line they would form columns or wedges to pierce the enemy line at many points. The enemy would then have the integrity of his defensive line destroyed, engulfed and overwhelmed. Discipline would be impossible to maintain and the fleeing troopers would be cut down. It was in flight that most of the casualties would be incurred.

The weapons employed by the Highlanders were also fearsome. Casting their muskets aside, the Highlanders would bear down on their opponents with claymore, dirk and targe, or sword, dagger and shield. The premiere weapon was the basket hilted claymore. It is different from the more well-known two-handed claymore. Basket hilted to enclose and protect the users hand, it is lighter and swifter. Like a three foot long straight razor it could sing through an arm or leg. Plus it had a device in the hilt to seize and break an opponents blade. Additionally, the hilt could be used as a set of brass knuckles with a metal ball in the pommel that could be used with a downhand blow to fracture an opponents skull. In concert with this was the targe and dirk. The targe, or target, was a round leather-covered wooden shield about two feet in circumference, embossed with metal studs with a foot-long spike coming out of the center. Held to the forearm with two leather straps, the user held a two foot long dirk in his hand which would protrude out the bottom of the targe. When the Highlander fell on his foe he could backhand one adversary with the spiked shield while cleaving another with the sword then swing the targe side ways to lacerate another with the dirk.

There are many explanations as to the evolution of this integrated weapons and tactics configuration. But David Stevenson best intimates that it must have evolved out of traditional Irish fighting tactics. Here again a MacDonald/MacDonnell forms a bridge between the cultures of Irish and Scottish Gaeldom in a dimension important to both cultures, the tradition of the Celtic warrior.

It was at the Battle of Laney/Bendooragh that a crescent of history for the Gael first began its ascent, an arch that would culminate in the second Battle of Inverlochy. But many a trial would face Alasdair MacColla MacDonnell. For soon, to some, it would seem that his career as Gaisgeach nan Gael, hero of the Gaels, would be thrown on the trash heap of history.

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, soon available from the Celtic League American Branch.

For more stories, click the links below:

Previous Month            •            All Months            •            Next Month