This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas
ALASDAIR MacCOLLA, GAELIC WARRIOR, Part Sixteen
In late November of 1645, the Marquis of Argyll was in Edinburgh fighting to keep his command before the Committee of Estates. His failure to check the rebels had cost him dearly in terms of prestige. He, Burleigh and Lothian had revealed themselves to be incompetent commanders in that they could not stop a supposedly ragtag army of Highlanders and Irish from delivering one humiliating defeat after another to the forces of the Covenant in Scotland. The chief of Clan Campbell was ultimately relieved of his command and a more experienced soldier, William Baillie, was recalled from the Scottish army in England to take over as supreme commander.
The MacCailein Mor did not suffer this indignity with humility; he and Baillie clashed as the more seasoned Lowland commander tried to assert his authority over the Campbell clan chief. Baillie was made lieutenant general, but Argyll was allowed to keep his authority in the West Highlands and Hebrides. The Committee of Estates, though having lost confidence in his overall command of the Scottish forces, still needed his influence in the Highlands and his ability to raise men there. Argyll,s pride needed to be assuaged in order to secure the Highland flank.
Argyll had barely returned to his capital of Inveraray when he heard the astonishing news that the forces of Montrose and Alasdair had breached the Drum Alba in dead winter and were surging over his lands. Soon he found himself surrounded by Montrose sweeping up from the south. As he fled in his galley down Loch Fyne in disgrace, he watched his capital burn. He now seemed to have no home either in the Lowlands or the Highlands. Defeat sought him out in every quarter. As he fled east he encountered Baillie in Roseneath in Dumbartonshire, who was racing west to intercept Montrose and Alasdair. They again clashed. Argyll found it far too embarrassing to be rescued by the forces of a Lowland general. Had this been the case, he would have lost all credibility in the eyes of the Highland Clans. The Committee of Estates ordered Baillie back to Perth and 1,100 of his Lowland troops were left in the command of Argyll.
By this time the rebel army was moving north. Argyll moved back into the lands of his western empire, trying to pick up the pieces. As he began to rally and reorganize his clan and reimpose his supremacy on his vassal clans, he faced the harsh realization that the economy of Argyllshire was literally a smoldering heap. With vengeance in his heart he brought to heel Clan MacDougall and Clan Lamont, pressing them into service. His allies, Clan Menzies (Mingus), were reorganized, armed and brought back into fighting shape. Along with the numerous branches of Clan Campbell and the Lowland auxiliaries they were now prepared off set off in pursuit of Alasdair, Montrose and their Highland/Irish army.
To further reinforce these gathering forces, a contingent of the Scottish army in Ireland returned under Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck. However, upon landing in Scotland a body of MacLeans, including Ewen MacLean of Treshnesh and Hector MacLean of Kinlochaline, immediately defected to Alasdair and Montrose. To add injury to insult, Argyll dislocated a shoulder in a fall from his horse, forcing him to command his army from his birlinn or sea galley. Ill fortune seemed to anticipate the doom facing his forces. But for now Argyll was confident in the superiority of his forces in terms of numbers and equipment. But as we saw in the past, Alasdair and Montrose prevailed under such conditions.
Argyll gathered his forces at Inverlochy near present day Fort William. Here at the elbow that is the confluence of upper Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil he would seal the southern approach to the Great Glen, trapping the rebel army between covenanting forces at Inverlochy in the southwest and at Inverness at the northeast of the Great Glen. With 5,000 troops at Inverness and 3,000 troops at Inverlochy, the odds seemed stacked against Alasdair and Montrose. Their army, 3,000 strong when they invaded Argyll's lands had now dwindled to 1,500 as Highlanders returned home with booty and to tend to family business. Montrose and Alasdair knew these Highlanders would eventually return with more of their kin, once personal business was settled, but in the meantime Alasdair and Montrose had to hunker down.
Escape was not impossible from this situation, for there was a route through the mountains at Glen Morriston further up the north coast of Loch Ness. But if this was done, the remaining Highlanders were likely to desert in that they would not leave their duthaich - their home ground - to the tender mercies of Clan Campbell. To isolate themselves from their kin in the lands of potentially hostile clans would be tantamount to suicide. Only one choice remained: to seize the initiative and turn and attack Argyll and his forces.
But how to do this? To march strait down the Great Glen would be to allow Argyll to deploy his numerically superior forces to the best advantage in a defensive position. Surprise would have to be achieved. Being greatly impressed by the fortitude of the Gael in crossing the Drum Alba in winter, Montrose proposed crossing the mountains in a flanking maneuver to surprise Argyll. Marshaling the knowledge of the terrain by the Clans of Loch Aber, a way was found through Glen Tarff (Gleann Tarbh). Here the rebel army would enter Glen Roy (Gleann Ruaidh) south over the mountains, proceed southwest then reenter the Great Glen near Inverlochy (Inbher Lochaidh) and surprise the covenant force. The march was made through deep snow, but a thaw had set in and the temperatures were not as bitter as could be expected.
Luck was with our little army once again. Meanwhile, Argyll, of the bad luck, was aboard his galley in the company of Locheil, the chief of Clan Cameron. Locheil, though a Protestant, was really an enemy, not a friend of Argyll. He was impelled to play up to Argyll because Argyll held his grandson and Locheil needed to conceal the fact that many of his clansmen were in the rebel army. With a reputation as a prophet who possessed the "second sight," the Gaelic belief in the ability to foretell the future, Locheil was actually pursuing a campaign to demoralize Argyll. Pointing out the string of bad luck that had been befalling the chief of Clan Campbell, Locheil gave a dire prophecy regarding the impending battle. Argyll laughed this off, but remained on his galley, letting Auchinbreck take command of the forces in the field.
Meanwhile, to conceal the approach of their army, Alasdair and Montrose used unconventional methods. Knowing that they would encounter Campbell scouts, they sent out a reconnaissance in force. This force would drive the scouts back to camp, but with the impression these were local hostile clansmen - thus concealing the approach of the main force. The ruse worked and the rebel army proceeded down Glen Roy, reentering the Great Glen above Inverlochy. There, during the night, they assembled on the Braes of Ben Nevis (Bein Nebhis) where the rebel army camped. There in the clear cold air of an early February night they watched the glow of the camp fires of the enemy below. By now the forces of the Marquis of Argyll knew that attack was eminent, but they had no idea how closely they were being stalked. Alert for a night attack, the surprise was to come in the morning.
Winter dawn in the Highlands comes late in the day. For those of us in North America we must remember that Scotland is on the same latitude as Labrador and Norway. Only the Gulf Stream, or the Atlantic Drift as it is often known in Scotland, turning south at Greenland and Iceland, spare Scotland the frigid temperatures typical of such a northerly latitude. For that matter winter is quite mild at sea level. On February 2, 1645 the sun must have risen somewhere around 10:00 AM. On that morning the light must have been harsh, with the sun low in the sky, casting long shadows.
As Argyll's forces assembled that morning, the sun was in their eyes as it rose dim, winking over the mountains of Lochaber. The Lowland troops formed the wings of the army with the Campbells and their Highland allies forming the center. The left wing rested on Inverlochy Castle and in the castle was stationed 40 to 50 Lowland musketeers. And in the faint light of the late morning dawn, Argyll's troops watched as the banners of the clans of Lochaber unfurled in the breeze and accompanied by the skirl of the pipes, the Highland / Irish army swept down the braes of Ben Nevis. Just ahead of the Campbell line they paused and knelt in prayer, led by their priests, they uttered prayers to the two saints venerated by Irish and Scottish Gaels alike, St. Patrick and St. Brigid. Now the battle would commence.
Outnumbered by 2-1 the rebel army was prepared to launch the assault. The wings were comprised of the Irish. The right wing, opposite Inverlochy Castle was lead by Alasdair and his Antrim men. On the left was Alasdair's friend and cousin Manus O'Cahan with more Ulster men. The center consisted of three lines. The vanguard was led by the King's Highland cousins, the Stewarts of Atoll and Appin. With them were the MacIains (MacDonalds) of Glen Coe, various Lochaber men, and while their clan chief consorted with Argyll on his galley whispering prophecies of doom in his ear, 300 - 400 Camerons. In the second line were various branches of Clan Donald: Glengarry, Keppoch, Clanranald. Though few of their clansmen were with them, all the chiefs of the various branches of Clan MacLean (MacGill Eain) stood in the second line with the MacDonalds. The third line consisted of the remaining Irish.
The battle commenced with the two Irish wings assaulting the Lowlanders to the left and right of Argyll's main body of troops. The Irish rushed to point blank range, fired into the Lowland troops, then threw down their firearms and charged with claymore, dirk and targe. The terrified Lowlander broke and ran at the sight of screaming Gaels bearing down on them with edged weapons. The main Campbell force was now out flanked and in danger of being surrounded. What happened next has been confused by history.
By most accounts, that day Montrose led his center in a charge on the Campbell force; by Montrose's account, the Campbells charged first. In any event the centers of both armies met. Out flanked and confused, the Campbell forces could not deploy to take full advantage of their numerical superiority. Disorder soon overtook the front line and as the front line sought to flee back through the ranks, general chaos ensued. The Campbell forces were soon in complete disarray and a general flight ensued.
As was typical in the Highland Charge, most of the casualties were suffered in the flight. Hundreds upon hundreds of Campbells and their allies were cut down as they ran for their lives. Many Campbells leapt into the river Lochy, which runs behind the castle, in an attempt to escape the avenging blades of their foes and were swept away by the swift and frigid current. The pursuit of the Campbell forces went on for 8 - 9 miles until the rebels, already weary from their march through the mountains, ceased pursuit. All along the route of flight hacked and hewn bodies marked the desperate course of escape. In the matter of a couple of hours the flower of Campbell manhood was virtually exterminated. Seeing the course of events, the Marquis of Argyll for a second time was forced to flee in disgrace in his sea galley.
Shockingly, it is estimated that a full 50% of the covenanting forces were killed on that day. Sixteen Campbell lairds were killed and because it was the Highland custom for warriors to fight in family units, patriarchs were often killed with most or all of their sons. Entire families in Campbell country would now consist of widows and their children. Mercy was shown to Lowlanders and non-Campbell Highlander who wished to surrender, but unless a Campbell could demonstrate that he would be valuable for a future prisoner exchange, there was no mercy. Alasdair was, of course, was interested in obtaining prisoners to exchange for his father and his two brothers now in Campbell captivity at Dunstaffnage Castle.
One prisoner who would receive no mercy was Duncan Campbell, Lord Auchinbreck, the functional commander of the covenanters that day. Auchinbreck had ravaged the lands of Alasdair's Irish cousins in Antrim as a commander in the Scottish army in Ireland. Also he had plotted to assassinate Alasdair when Alasdair tried to reconcile with the Scottish army following the defeat at Glen Maquin. Now Alasdair had Auchinbreck brought before him. Sensing the danger, Auchinbreck reportedly offered to inform on the clans that had cooperated with the Campbells that day. Alasdair replied by offering Auchinbreck two choices, to be made longer, that is hanged, or made shorter, that is decapitated. Auchinbreck reportedly replied, "da dhiu gun aon roghain," which could be roughly translated as two worst alternatives without one choice. At this point Alasdair swung his sword, but aimed badly and instead took off the top of Auchinbreck's head like the top of a soft-boiled egg.
February 2, 1645, the second battle of Inverlochy, was a day when the Siol a'Shormhaile, the MacDonalds, took their vengeance on the Siol a'Dhiarmaid, the Campbells, for stealing their hegemony in the west. A clan that seemed destined for the scrap heap of history had turned, and with a little help from their friends, eviscerated their foe. But more importantly, it was a battle where Scottish and Irish Gaels together turned and defeated the agent in their world that had done the most to aid the enemies of the Gael. History's victims were now it's victors and at least for a moment the Gaeltachd stood united.
Griogair Dubhghlas, Am Fear Cathrach Albannach, Meur Ameireaga Gregory Douglas, Scottish Chair, American BranchFor 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 2005 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.
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