21 May 1650, the Execution of Montrose

James Graham, the Great Montrose, born in Montrose in 1612 was tried for treason by the Scottish Covenanting government and hanged in 1650 in Edinburgh.

James Graham, Montrose

James Graham, Montrose

What WERE the man’s qualities exactly?

He was an outstanding military commander with a firm grasp of both strategic and tactical spheres of operation.
He was a charismatic leader of men. In his case, touchy and fickle highlander warriors who are not easily led.
He was a man of uncompromising principle whose adherence to those very principles in an age when the perceptions of society as to what principles mattered moved so wildly, that the impression was created in the eyes of the unwise that it was he who changed his stance.
He was a man of such vision and personal courage that when he failed to convince Prince Rupert, after the disaster of Marston Moor in the summer of 1644 to give him some of his soldiery to allow him to win Scotland for their King, Charles I, that he then entered Scotland with but two companions and subsequently pulled together an entire army by his own force of personality and led it to six consecutive victories between the summers of 1644 and 1645.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I, defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor, June 1644.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I, defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor, June 1644.

But if all this were true then he would stand as a historic icon, known to us all from childhood. Would that this were the case. However, with the ultimate triumph of the Protestant Ascendancy, the Glorious Revolution and the final disaster of the Union of Parliaments, our history has been written from the other side of this struggle. So Montrose is little known to us today and when his name is raised he is vilified as the military incompetent vanquished at Philiphaugh and a man of such uncertain principle that he would be the first to sign the National Covenant in 1638 then raise an army to oppose it in 1644.

Anyway, where’s the evidence?
As a military commander he stands with the other greats of this particular age, Conde and Cromwell. He is described by no less an authority than the honourable J.W. Fortescue in his 20 volume history of the British Army as “perhaps the most brilliant natural military genius disclosed by the civil war”.

Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Conde, the other outstanding general of the time

Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Conde, the other outstanding general of the time

A significant assessment of a man who’s only previous military experience had been the haphazard engagements of the Bishops’ War in 1639 when Scots took up weapons for the first time since the Battle of Langside in 1568, and thus he did not have the benefit of learning his craft in continental wars, in the fashion of the Earl of Leven or Alexander Leslie.

His six victories at Tippermuir, Aberdeen, Inverlochy, Alford, Auldearn and Kilsyth demonstrate clearly this outstanding ability. Ably assisted by Alasdair McColla and his Irish army, without which the whole 1644-45 campaign would not have been possible, he persuaded the clans of the central highland to fight together for the first time since the Battle of Harlaw in 1411 AND to fight with Alasdair’s men.

Much is made of the quality of the troops that opposed him at these fights but they were of exactly the same stock which he had led to victory during the aforementioned Bishops’ War.

His decisions first in November 1644, with deep winter looming, to attack Argyll’s citadel of Inverary, then in the following February to attempt a 40 mile flank march over the mountains in order to take on Argyll’s full army at Inverlochy and to utterly defeat them is the stuff of legend, and demonstrate his unrivalled grasp of the strategic aspects of warfare, with no less an authority than John Buchan describing the latter as “one of the great exploits in the history of British arms.”

His tactical dispositions particularly at Auldearn and Kilsyth merit close study.

Whilst Cromwell led a New Model Army fused together by his moral and religious authority, James Graham had no such aid and had to hold the whole army together by his personal authority alone.

Oliver Cromwell, who's military leadership owed much to external religious authority, seen here after Charles I's execution in 1649

Oliver Cromwell, who’s military leadership owed much to external religious authority, seen here after Charles I’s execution in 1649

And it was his achievements with a highland army which paved the way for another Graham, John of Claverhouse, to tread the same road some forty years later in his attempt to restore another Stuart monarch to the unified throne.

Montrose's kinsman, John Graham of Claverhouse, who follwed in Montrose's footsteps with another highland army in 1689

Montrose’s kinsman, John Graham of Claverhouse, who follwed in Montrose’s footsteps with another highland army in 1689

It was his success in persuading said highland army to fight south of the highland line which brought about his key victory at Kilsyth, the last of his six victories. And so to Philiphaugh where it all fell apart, his army was defeated on the field and then vindictively annihilated in the aftermath with Montrose forced to flee abroad. The subsequent campaign in 1650 saw only one battle fought, his defeat at Carbisdale. And when he threw himself upon the mercy of Neil MacLeod of Assynt only to be betrayed to the Government’s forces by the aforementioned’s spouse.

The execution of Montrose, 21 May 1650

The execution of Montrose, 21 May 1650

His execution in May, some 16 months after that of his King, Charles I was a turning point in our history. The ultimate triumph of Cromwell over all military forces allayed against him throughout the three kingdoms and the establishment of his Commonwealth was followed inevitably by the Stuart Restoration as the internal contradictions of Cromwell’s interregnum tore itself apart after his death. The general merriment of Charles II’s reign then led to the criminal mishandling of the job by his brother James II with William’s subsequent invasion and elevation to the throne in the Glorious Revolution, closely followed by the Union of the Parliaments.

And so we live with the consequences.

A traitor sold him to his foes;
O deed of deathless shame!
I charge thee, boy, if e’er thou meet
With one of Assynt’s name–
Be it upon the mountain’s side,
Or yet within the glen,
Stand he in martial gear alone,
Or backed by armed men–
Face him, as thou wouldst face the man
Who wronged thy sire’s renown;
Remember of what blood thou art,
And strike the caitiff down!



16 April 1746: The Battle of Culloden Moor, The End of The Whole Jacobite Adventure

And so, 47 years and 3 days after Claverhouse first raised the Royal Standard on Dundee Law to initiate the military attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne of their fathers, the last such efforts were crushed at Culloden Moor.

Culloden Moor, the final defeat (16 April 1746)

Culloden Moor, the final defeat (16 April 1746)

During this period there were five unsuccessful efforts to bring about the Stuart Restoration. Some of them, such as in 1708, barely got off the ground. Others, such as 1745, achieved enough sustained success over a period of months to create genuine grounds for optimism as to their possible success. But none of them really came close.

There are questions that we might ask concerning the entire adventure: was there ever, realistically, any hope for success? In the light of the huge sacrifices that were made over the years by those who strove to bring about the second Restoration, might greater efforts have been made in the first place to avoid the need? If success had been achieved would the world be a better place now? And, given that in the end the whole thing crashed and burned so disastrously, what are the positives that can be taken from it?

Was there any chance of success? Of course there was. But it would have needed a lot of ducks to line up nicely and a strong following wind. When Claverhouse kicked it all off on 13 April 1689 the prospects were slim. All the principals in England had repudiated James and signed up in support of William as king. Both English and Scottish Parliaments had deemed James to have absconded and anointed William and his wife in his place.

James VII/II flees to France (Dec 1688)

James VII/II flees to France (Dec 1688)

So the only remaining hope for those who wished to see James restored was with the common folk in Scotland and Ireland. Claverhouse followed a path that had been trodden so successfully by his kinsman Montrose a generation previously and forged an army from highlanders who, whilst among the finest fighting men in Europe at that time, were led by chiefs who were constrained by the most idiosyncratic mores that even the greatest of history’s military commanders would have struggled to assemble them together on a single battlefield. Assembling and preparing such an army in the first place was probably a greater achievement by Claverhouse than leading it to victory at Killiecrankie.

Claverhouse's victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie, July 1689.

Claverhouse’s victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie, July 1689.

With his death during the battle that powerful, unifying, commanding force was gone and with it any prospects of success. But what if he’d survived the fighting? There was no point in heading south as any support there was for James was fragmented and subdued. The choice would have been to ship the entire army to Ireland to join with James’ army there or to hold Scotland and await James’ arrival following his victory over William’s forces at the Boyne. And we know how that one turned out.

The 2nd Rising in 1708, when enthusiasm was re-ignited by the heavily opposed Union of Parliaments of 1707, was the only one of the five where no battle was fought and was also the only one where the sovereign-in-waiting turned up to participate in the process. However, it was a disappointed James (VIII/III) who sailed away from Montrose on a cold, wet night in February 1708.

In 1714 Queen Anne died without issue and the unified Parliament cast around Europe seeking a suitably Protestant candidate to be shipped in, declining the credentials of some 64 possible candidates before determining that Sophia, Electress of Hannover was sufficiently non-Catholic for their purpose. This pantomime re-ignited the process and the Earl of Mar raised the Standard to initiate the 1715 Rising.

The Earl of Mar raises the Standard (1715)

The Earl of Mar raises the Standard (1715)

Controversy still surrounds the major field action of that campaign, the Battle of Sheriffmuir. A cold and clinical assessment of that day, however, would decide that King George’s man, the Duke of Argyll, in preventing Mar’s army from heading south into England and joining forces with the Jacobite Army there, was clearly the day’s victor.

And it was here on Sheriffmuir, 13 November 1715 that hindsight would suggest the possibility of success came closest. That if Mar had not been Mar, but had been of the mettle of Claverhouse or even Lord George Murray, field commander during the ’45, that a proper, decisive effort would have been made. An effort worthy of those who fought and died through all of those campaigns, which would have seen Argyll’s army driven from the field.

But with the English end of the operation losing the Battle of Preston in shameful fashion at virtually the same time, those prospects would have become dimmed once more.

The 4th effort in 1719 saw often-promised foreign support materialize for the first time with Spanish Grenadiers participating in the only field action fought at Glenshiel. However, defeat was again the order of the day. And even victory would have left a small army isolated and far from where the key decisions needed to be made.

The Battle of Glenshiel (10 June 1719)

The Battle of Glenshiel (10 June 1719)

The ’45 is often portrayed as the closest that the Jacobites came to achieving the dream of a second Restoration. And with outstanding military victories over formidable, experienced redcoat formations at both Prestonpans in September 1745 and Falkirk in January of the following year, there were real grounds for optimism. Notwithstanding the decision to retreat back to Scotland when at Derby, some 71 miles north of London.


The Jacobite Army victorious at the Battle of Falkirk (17 Jan 1746)

The Jacobite Army victorious at the Battle of Falkirk (17 Jan 1746)

Once again, however, lack of support in England for the whole notion critically undermined the operation. And when Bonnie Prince Charlie, egged on by his sycophantic fellow-exiles decided that removing overall military command of the operation from Lord George Murray, who had masterminded the two earlier victories and taking that role on himself with all his palpable lack of military experience and understanding of the nature of the men at his command, was the best course of action then the die was cast.

When that last Jacobite Army lined up in the sleet on Culloden Moor that April morning, only hours after failing in the unsuccessful night march on Nairn and with one third of their number still engaged in foraging supplies far from the battlefield, the possibility of success grew slimmer with each passing hour.

The morning of the Battle of Culloden...exhausted after the failed night attack...awaiting orders that would never come..

The morning of the Battle of Culloden…exhausted after the failed night attack…awaiting orders that would never come..

Defeat was by no means inevitable but the lack of clear leadership then proved to be the decisive factor as the rank and file had to take it upon themselves to determine the best way forward.

And so it ended. And with the commencement of the Industrial Revoluton in Scotland some 14 years later with the opening of the Carron Ironworks, the Jacobite Risings passed into history.

If there had indeed been any prospects of success they were so slim as to be deemed, from our perspective, impossibly marginal. Better by far if away back in the dog days of 1688, James VII/II had taken it upon himself to become a leader of men and not a spineless oaf, and had led an army to threw William back into the sea. Then things would be different.

IF somehow any of these individual campaigns had succeeded, would we be any better of? Given what we know of the manner in which the early Stuarts engaged so enthusiastically in their pursuits of British interests then that would seem unlikely.

If the result had been to undo the disaster of parliamentary union then that would have been a step in the right direction. However, that would only have led back to the ridiculous and unsustainable situation with a single head of state and two parliaments of two nations with disparate and conflicting interests.

Are there any positives to take from it other than a host of images for shortbread tins and the basis of a healthy tourist industry today? Of course there are. Not least that all of this process did a little to sustain the notion that the interests of the people of Scotland are best served when they are controlled by the people of Scotland working with people everywhere else to make the world a better place. A debate which today takes place anew. Time will tell how this one works out.

27 March 1625 James VI/I Dies, Charles Succeeds, Disaster Ensues.

James died after a protracted period of illness and the crown was handed on, without demur, to his and heir Charles, his fourth child and only surviving son.

James has been much criticized as a monarch and as a person but the facts remain that his 57 year reign as monarch of Scotland was the longest of any of his 42 odd predecessors and also the most peaceful, on a per year basis.

From the Battle of Langside in 1568 when his mother’s final attempt to hold onto the Scottish throne was decisively defeated, to the opening salvo of the First Bishops War in 1639, when his son’s cack-handed attempts to enforce contentious forms of religious worship upon his unwilling subjects led to open civil war in his homeland, there were no major military engagements fought anywhere Scotland, beyond long-standing, local disputes.

So in 1639 when disenchanted Scotsmen felt compelled to pick up weapons to oppose King Charles in there were none alive who had previously wielded such, other than those who had gained experience in distant foreign wars.

When you consider the turmoil of previous reigns and the turbulent bloodshed that the next seventy years would see throughout the three kingdoms, this is an achievement of some note.

And it is the comparison between the smooth handling of his reign, both north and south of the border versus the many and manifest failings of Charles that James’ abilities as a monarch stand most markedly.

The widely held historical view of James is not complimentary. Infamously described as ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’, as having a tongue too big for his mouth and ‘preferring the company of men’ he stands pilloried as ugly, homosexual and unable to competently discharge his responsibilities as head of state.

It makes you wonder to what extent each of us has our view of a particular period of history shaped by the images available. There are many portraits of James throughout his reign and he is represented in an attractive manner in none of them. From his earliest portrayal with his mother, dressed in apparel strangely matching hers, through the many depictions during his reign where undue emphasis might seem to put on his less appealing physical features.

A not untypical, less than heroic portrait of James VI/I

A not untypical, less than heroic portrait of James VI/I

It all compares poorly to the extensive glamorous and heroic portraiture of Charles I generated throughout his reign by his court painter, Anthony van Dyck. Perhaps this was simply Charles’ good fortune.

A typical Van Dyck heroic  portrait of Charles I

A typical Van Dyck heroic portrait of Charles I


Similarly who is not familiar, even subconsciously, with Alec Guiness’ depiction of the troubled Charles in the 1970 film Cromwell. Whereas James’ only depiction in cinematic drama is limited to the occasional TV mini series.

Alec Guiness as the troubled monarch, Charles I

Alec Guiness as the troubled monarch, Charles I

Whatever James’ shortcomings as a monarch it is unarguable that he presided over predominantly peaceful times. This is testified to by the cultural flourishings seen during his reign; the development of drama with Shakespeare and Bacon and their like and the publishing of the eponymous King James Bible to name but two.

Shakespeare flourished under the peaceful reign of James

Shakespeare flourished under the peaceful reign of James

Whereas under Charles we see turmoil, political schism, civil war waged separately and together throughout the three kingdoms under his charge. In Scotland his unshakeable belief in the rectitude of his view regarding divine worship led to the drafting and the signing of the National Covenant, its subsequent supercession by the Solemn League and Covenant, the then inevitable Covenant Wars and thence to that infamous period in Scottish history still referred to as the Killing Time. A gross misrepresentation of the facts which is so widely held to be true even to this day that men are driven to blog about it!

James was the first incumbent of the unified throne: the first head of state of two kingdoms which had been at war for a great deal of the previous millennium to one degree or another. A daunting prospect for even the most gifted of his forebears yet he managed to run the thing calmly and peacefully. When Charles succeeded in 1625 the whole operation had been up and running smoothly for 22 years but before he was done he had lost wars with both his Parliaments and met his end on the executioners block with his charge in ruins around him.

If Charles was to prove a less capable monarch how did they compare as men? To what extent did the value the efforts and service of those around them? Perhaps in James’ case the peaceful nature of the times meant there were no challenges to him in this area. Men rose and fell in his favour, such as the Earl of Carr and his replacement by the Duke of Buckingham. However, to lose the King’s favour in these times resulted only in loss of status and financial opportunities.

With Charles the opportunities to behave weakly in the treatment of those who served him led to such unfortunates being flung under the proverbial bus: with bothThomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud beheaded as a direct result of their service to their king. Montrose’s remarkable efforts in Scotland during the 1644-45 campaign to defeat the forces of the Scottish Parliament and restore Charles to his throne met with little acknowledgement and he too met his end through execution.


The Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud: flung under the bus by Charles their king.

The Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud: flung under the bus by Charles their king.

On balance then, however you judge the wisdom of James taking up the position of the first monarch on the unified throne, he made a far better job of it than his generally higher-rated offspring.

Perhaps, gentle reader, you have a view you would like to share.


2nd February 1645, The Battle of Inverlochy: Montrose’s Finest Hour

By the end of January 1645 King Charles I had been at war with both of his parliaments for over two years and so far his fortunes had been mixed. In England it wasn’t going so well. His army, under the command of his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, had fought two major engagements against the forces of the English Parliament. The first at Edgehill in the autumn of 1642 had been inconclusive. However, in June 1644, Rupert’s army had been heavily defeated at Marston Moor and prospects for overall victory had dimmed as a consequence.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I, defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor, June 1644.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I, defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor, June 1644.

In Scotland it was a different story. There, his Captain-General, James Graham the Marques of Montrose had contrived to pull together an army of around 4000 men to serve his king’s interests. This comprised Scottish highlanders and a sizeable body of Irish warriors under the command of Alasdair McColla. How Montrose had persuaded the clans of the central highlands to fight on the same side for the first times since the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, and combined them with a similar size force of Irish whom they had set to destroy in the first place is a further remarkable story.

The Great Montrose

The Great Montrose

With himself and McColla at their head this little army had fought and destroyed two armies sent against them by the Scottish Parliament, at Tippermuir in August 1644 and then at Justice Mills (Aberdeen) in the November following. Despite this success their position was still vulnerable as Parliament had still further military resources at their disposal and was preparing these to inflict comprehensive defeat on the Royalist army.

With the bleak Scottish winter drawing in Montrose’s options were limited. It was the custom of the time for such bodies of armed men to seek winter quarters and await the arrival of springtime when campaigning could be resumed. And this was the expectation of his enemies. This was an unattractive option for Montrose as it would have meant his army dissolving to return to their homes and he would then have had to start recruiting afresh some months later.

The principal leader of the covenanting Government was Archibald Campbell, Marquess of Argyll and chieftain of Clan Campbell, the largest of the highland clans which had been engaged in an ambitious programme of expansion for some generations, to the cost of those clans whose land bordered Argyll’s.

Our Archibald's grandfather, also Archibald. 8th Earl and 1st Marquess of Argyll. In black-cowled Geneva Minister manifestation

Our Archibald’s grandfather, also Archibald. 8th Earl and 1st Marquess of Argyll. In black-cowled Geneva Minister manifestation

In a daring manoeuver which was to become his trademark, Montrose then led his men across Scotland and through the narrow snow-covered passes into Argyll and shortly before Christmas 1644 he attacked the town of Inverary, the principal settlement and port and the location of Argyll’s own castle. Argyll fled in his galley as Montrose and McColla’s men put all enemy combatants to the sword and then holed up in the town for another three weeks consuming the rich bounty of food and drink that they found there.

On 22nd January Montrose evacuated Inverary in the expectation that Argyll would be assembling fresh  forces with which to pursue them. A force of some 3000 men they were laden with booty and the principal township of the lands of Clan Campbell sat a smoking ruin behind them.

They were still deep in the hostile territory of Argyll in the depths of winter. And Argyll himself was assembling strong forces to attack them and avenge this assault on his home territory and, equally importantly, his personal political status.

Additionally, but probably unbeknownst to Montrose, General William Baillie had been newly appointed as the commander-in-chief of the government forces. An old soldier of Gustavus Adolphus and veteran of Marston Moor, Baillie was his own man and did not hesitate in refusing to take instructions from Argyll when they met to discuss the pursuit of the Royalist army. Although he did transfer to the Marques’s command some 1100 of his regular troops. Baillie now sat in Perth with a sizeable force thus constituting a significant but unknown threat to the eastern flank of Montrose’s route north.

General William Baillie, whose force blocked Motrose's route east

General William Baillie, whose force blocked Montrose’s possible escape route to the east.

The immediate task facing Montrose was to conclusively defeat the remaining military forces of the Scottish covenanting parliament. As he marched his army north from Argyll negotiating the comb-frettted difficulties of the landscape of the west highland coast where the land was punctuated by deep sea lochs and boats were a scarcity, he would have been considering how best to achieve this goal.

Within a week they had made it to Inverlochy in the friendly territory of Lochaber where, as they rested, they were joined by further reinforcements as various clan chiefs, pushed off the fence of vacillation by the outcome of the remarkable attack on Inveraray now rallied to the King’s standard.

However, much of Scotland was still hostile territory for the King’s army. In the far north at Inverness the Earl of Seaforth, Clan Chief of the MacKenzies, who like many powerful men in Scotland had for long avoided full commitment to either cause had recently declared against the King. It was likely that he would soon be heading south down the Great Glen at the head of another sizeable force, bent on the destruction of Montrose’s command. By now Montrose would be aware of Baillie’s army positioned to the east in Perth and confirmation was also received that the Earl of Argyll approached from the south with the remainder of his Clan Campbell’s soldiery as well as the 1100 hundred men supplied by Baillie.

Positioned thusly between three hostile forces, each of which matched or exceeded his own in size, he probably determined that the best course of action was to seek out Clan Gordon in the north-east. The Gordons were second only in size and martial strength to the Campbells. And alone among the highland clans they had a measurable element of mounted men at their disposal. The Marquis of Huntly, Chief of Clan Gordon, had hitherto declined to declare support for his beleaguered monarch. Partly though resentment that Montrose had been given the royal commission in the first place; a rank which diminished his own of Lieutenancy of the north, and partly also due to previous disagreements between the two men during the Bishops Wars half a dozen years previously.

Nonetheless, in Montrose’s eyes, despite his victories at the Battles of Tippermuir and Justice Mills and the recent outstanding success in sacking Inverary, the struggle in Scotland now required the input of the Gordons if it were to be ultimately successful. And it was this challenge of persuading Huntly to throw in his lot with his King which would have pre-occupied Montrose’s mind as he led his army up the Great Glen where they overnighted at Kilcumin (now Fort Augustus) on the evening of 30 January.

Events, however, were about to overtake him and his plans for sweetalking the Marquis of Huntly would have to be shelved. Firstly a messenger arrived at their camp confirming that the Earl of Seaforth had assembled some five thousand men, Mackenzies and Frasers mostly but also two regiments of regular soldiery. They were currently some thirty milesto the north and about to march directly down the Great Glen to engage him. As Montrose weighed up the implications of this news another messenger arrived. He had been sent north from Lochaber by Locheil, Chief of Clan Cameron, and advised that the Earl of Argyll had arrived at Inverlochy, thirty odd miles to the south with over three thousand men and was on the point of heading up the Great Glen to find and engage Montrose.

So what now for the King’s Captain-General? A numerically superior force approached from the north, with another heading up from the south similar in size to his own and hell-bent on revenge, with Baillie’s army blocking the route east and to the west only the winter-gripped barrenness of the highland seaboard.

Negotiations with Huntly and the work of increasing the size of the King’s army would now have to wait as the fate of said army and, with it, the King’s cause in Scotland, and perhaps throughout the three kingdoms, was now threatened with disastrous defeat.

Stood around the campfire on that winter’s evening Montrose, Alasdair MacColla and the clan chiefs now discussed their options. Seaforth’s force was perhaps twice their size but the calibre of much of that they knew to be questionable. But Argyll’s assembly of Clan Campbell’s finest fighting stock, notwithstanding the losses suffered in the attack on Inverary, was a different matter altogether and included the 1100 regulars handed over by Baillie. And even if Montrose were to engage and defeat Seaforth, Argyll’s men would still need to be faced in turn. Furthermore it was clear that as this force had made their way north they had taken time to burn and pillage through the territory of any believed to be in sympathy with Montrose. Men who stood with him now and were moved to protect their own lands.

Thus the decision as to their next move made itself. Once victorious over Argyll they could then march to Gordon country and with a greater likelihood of success in persuading them to join forces.

However, to simply turn about and head back down the glen to attack Argyll was to invite defeat. It would require a different approach if their unlikely record of success was to be maintained. And so in the dark of the following morning, Friday 31 January, Montrose and his army of three thousand men embarked on that legendary flank march which has been deemed one of the great exploits of arms in the history of the British Isles. With the Great Glen carving a gash from south-west to north-east, they disappeared south-east up the rocky course of the little River Tarff and disappeared into the mountains.
Over the next thirty six hours they covered over thirty miles in weather as unkind as the Scottish winter can deliver, as Argyll and Seaforth’s scouts combed the Great Glen fruitlessly. Late on the Saturday evening they crossed over the northern buttress of Ben Nevis’ long slope and looked down upon the dark mass of Inverlochy Castle with the many camp fires of Clan Campbell dotted around it. The surprise was complete. Montrose, who had been confirmed at Loch Ness not two days before now stood at the head of his army ready to attack the assembled mass of the Sons of Diarmid.

Inverlochy Castle, around which Argyll's army was camped prior to the battle.

Inverlochy Castle, around which Argyll’s army was camped prior to the battle.

Argyll himself, recently injured in a horsefall and with little stomach for pitched battle, conferred full authority on his kinsman Duncan Auchenbreck, who he had, to be fair, recalled from Ireland specifically to lead this army. And the Chief of Clan Campbell was, one again,rowed out to his waiting galley which sat at anchor safely out on Lich Linnhie.

And so, on 2nd February, Candlemas Day, both armies lined up in battle order and waited out the remainder of the freezing night. As soon as there was deemed to be enough light to fight by, Alasdair, at Montrose’s direction led the two flanks of Irishmen forward. When they were close to the enemy they fired their muskets then followed up with sword and dirk. In just a few minutes the enemy flanks were in disarray and the centre quickly followed suit with many of the regular troops fleeing the field. At this point Montrose took the royalist centre forward and completed the rout.

Inverlochy was to be one of the bloodiest battles fought on Scottish soil and as is so often the case in such circumstances the majority of the slaughter was carried out on a terrified and defeated rabble as they fled the field. Some 1800 men of Argyll’s force met their end, some as far away as ten miles from the battlefield.

In terms of deaths per combatants involved, Inverlocht was one of the bloodiest battles fought in Scottish history.

In terms of deaths per combatants involved, Inverlochy was one of the bloodiest battles fought in Scottish history.


This success following so close on from the triumph of the raid on Iveraray would have been more than Montrose could have hoped for just two months previously. In the immediate aftermath of the fight he wrote a comprehensive despatch to his King detailing the recent successes and anticipating, not without some cause, ultimate victory.

General Thomas Dalyell of the Binns

General Thomas Dalyell, of the Binns, was an enigmatic character who pops up from time to time in the narrative of Scottish history during the 17th century. Classically, he’s known for a small number of apocryphal tales and typically, has been done a great disservice in the way he has been handled by covenant historians and that notorious dissembler of historical faction, Sir Walter Scott.

General Thomas Dalyell (Auld Tam)

General Thomas Dalyell (Auld Tam)

In the last post we looked in some detail at his involvement in the Pentland Rising of 1666. Specifically, how as commander of the government forces he featured in the final dénouement of that unhappy episode, the Battle of Rullion Green, and his input to the judicial process in its aftermath. Previously, we have also touched on his non-involvement at the later Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679. Another crushing defeat of a covenant rebellion which started uncertainly and progressed in a leaderless manner to inevitable and shambolic defeat.

So let’s have a closer look at Auld Tam and see if we can rescue some of his memory from the sad traducement which has been inflicted on so many figures of 17th century Scottish history who opposed those who supported the extremes of the Covenant. Not least of all John Graham of Claverhouse, the very subject of this blog.

Tam’s very origins are somewhat murky, with many sources quoting his date of birth as 1615. It’s more likely that it was 1599, so when he finally passed away in 1685, the same year as Charles II died, he was well into his eighties.

Auld Tam in his latter years

Auld Tam in his latter years

He was involved in military service from his earliest years, it would seem, and when the wars between Charles I and his various parliaments kicked off throughout the British Isles in the 1640’s, he had aspired to the level of senior command, and we see him serving as a general with Argyll’s army in Ireland in the 1640’s, defending protestant settlers against the rebelling indigenous population. Any involvement in the Bishops Wars of 1639 and 1640 is apparently unrecorded and he was evidently also uninvolved in Montrose’s campaign of 1644 – 45, with no further mentions until that oft recounted tale that, having heard of the execution of Charles I by the leadership of the English Parliament in 1649, he undertook never again to shave and thus continued to grow his beard until the time of his death forty odd years later.

When Carrickfergus capitulated to Cromwell’s forces in 1649 he was taken prisoner but then released, remaining in Ireland until the Scottish Army headed south in the summer of 1651 in their do-or-die attempt to restore Charles II to the throne of his fathers. An effort which ended so disastrously at the Battle of Worcester. So he had no involvement in the Engagement in 1648 when the Scottish Army under the Duke of Hamilton was taken by surprise and destroyed at the 1st Battle of Preston nor in the various battles fought in Scotland against Cromwell’s invading army in 1650.

Battle of Preston (1648) where a Royalist army under the Duke of Hamilton was destroyed by Cromwell

Battle of Preston (1648) where a Royalist army under the Duke of Hamilton was destroyed by Cromwell

Following the Battle of Worcester he was taken prisoner and held with the rest of the POW’s in the Tower of London whence he escaped in 1652. Although the Tower has long been held up as the most secure of establishments the list of prisoners who escaped thence is not short. However, no details of how the General managed this seem to have survived.

The Tower of London, whence General Dalyell escaped in 1652

The Tower of London, whence General Dalyell escaped in 1652

He fled abroad at this point, probably to join the court of the exiled King Charles II, who had been crowned King of Scots in 1650. When the Earl of Middleton led the Glencairn Rising back in Scotland in 1652, Dalyell was there as 2nd in Command. And when this final campaign was defeated at Dalnaspidal in July 1654 and all vestige of military opposition to Cromwellian rule had come to an end, Auld Tam had to flee abroad once more.

William Cunningham, 9th Earl of Glencairn, who commanded Charles II's forces at the Battle of Dalnaspidal (1654)

William Cunningham, 9th Earl of Glencairn, who commanded Charles II’s forces at the Battle of Dalnaspidal (1654)

This time it was to the court of the Tsar of All the Russia’s, Alexis I, who was happy to provide a haven for all servants of the Stuart Monarchy who chose exile.

There is little recorded of the detail of his time in Russian service. There was a lot going on, particularly the Thirteen Years Was between Russia and Poland (1654 – 1667), the Deluge (a Swedish invasion) and the Cossack Revolt of Stenka Kazin. By the time Alexis passed away in 1676 the territory of his Tsardom exceeded 2, 000 million acres . It would seem Auld Tam featured prominently in the Tsar’s military successes. He is recorded as having earned for himself a couple of colourful soubriquets during his time there, including “the Muscovy Beast Who Roasted Men”, but the provenance is of this is less than certain and it may well be unfounded.

In any event, in !660 Charles II was finally and famously restored to the throne of the 3 Kingdoms after General Monck had made his way down from Scotland and chased Cromwell’s bickering and ineffectual successors out of Parliament. Now all the exiled soldiery loyal to the Stuarts were once more able to return home and Auld Tam came with them.

When Charles II renounced the Covenants in 1662 some tumult ensued as those citizens who still held to these, and the principles imbued within them, bristled under the imposition of the law.

In 1666 the Privy Council of Scotland authorised the establishment of a standing army of Scotland to assist in maintaining public order and General Dalyell was given overall command of this body. Within months this force was required to be fully deployed as open rebellion came about with the Pentland Rising. Even to this day if you scan the internet for information relating to Rullion Green you will read nonsense relating to the allegedly barbarous nature of Dalyell in his ruthless treatment of virtually defenseless, god-fearing citizens both during and after the battle.

The facts of the matter are, however, not disputed. As the shambling covenant mob drew closer to Edinburgh their commander, Colonel Wallace, sent a communication to Dalyell indicating that they were willing to discuss terms for surrender. Dalyell, who held his appointment at the direction of the Privy Council, quite properly, forwarded Wallace’s communiqué to them. Their, not unreasonable reply, that the rebels arms should first be given up prior to any discussions, considered merciless by some, was given without any input from the army commander.

The decision to launch a full attack on the rebel mob at Rullion Green, as they hesitated once more, cold, exhausted and thoroughly demoralized and somewhat puzzled, no doubt, as to why the God of Jacob had apparently forsaken them in their hour of need, was taken by Auld Tam in the cold light of military expediency. And his subsequent crushing victory probably spoke as much to the amateurishness of the defeated as it did to Auld Tam’s competence.

The defeated rebels could hope for little mercy having raised full scale rebellion against the lawful government. However, the treatment they received was considerably better. They were given the highest legal council for their defence in the shape of Sirs George Lockhart and George Mackenzie. And if the view is expressed that these gentlemen would put their loyalty to the Privy Council above their best efforts in the pursuit of justice then they know too little of the mettle of these two gentlemen.

Auld Tam himself made an extensive submission on behalf of Wallace’s men, stipulating clearly that they had made entreaty for quarter on the field during the battle, and that this had been granted to them on his authority. The decision by the Privy Council that they had been involved in an act of open sedition and not regular warfare and thus did not merit this treatment, was entirely theirs and contrary to his view. He is, therefore, blameless, regarding the treatment of these people.

His subsequent elevation to the Privy Council itself in 1667 was a logical promotion and for the next wee while his profile returned to the murky and unrecorded as it seems he went home to an uneventful semi retirement.

In 1679, Charles II controversial brother, the future King James II & VII, was shipped north in an effort to take him out of the English public eye, as concerns there focused in both his unwanted Catholicism and the likelihood of him succeeding his brother to the throne. During this period the star of one of Charles’ illegitimate sons, the Duke of Monmouth, rose in ascendancy and that of James fell correspondingly, as did that of those associated with him which included, among others, Auld Tam and John Graham of Claverhouse.

Duke of Monmouth: commander of the Government force at the Battle pf Bothwell Bridge (1679). Appointed above Dalyell to end the Covenanters' rebellion.

Duke of Monmouth: commander of the Government force at the Battle pf Bothwell Bridge (1679). Appointed above Dalyell to end the Covenanters’ rebellion.

During the summer of that year another Covenant rebellion occurred, extensively covered in a previous post on the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. During this tumult Charles determined that the best way to crush this rebellion was by sending Monmouth north as Commander-in-Chief. A move which shuffled Auld Tam aside, and as a consequence, he, not surprisingly, refused to serve under the King’s illegitimate offspring.

Despite this, Sir Walter Scott, in his still-considered-valuable work Old Mortality, portrays Dalyell as the principal General in the battle, who pursues luckless, god-fearing Covenanters in a thoroughly ruthless manner. It is this version of events which has passed into the fabric of accepted history. Once more, it simply didn’t happen this way.

As an old soldier approaching his eighth decade with a highly successful military career behind him, he would have been a reasonable judge of character and clearly had little time for a political opportunist such as Monmouth.

On Monmouth’s return to London James, who was now well-ensconced in Scotland with his place on the Privy Council, arranged to have Dalyell restored to his position of Commander-in-Chief. On one occasion he invited the old soldier to dinner. When James’ good lady, Mary of Modena, saw 3 places at the table she queried who the third place was for and on being told she ‘refused to permit a private gentleman to sit with her’. Dalyell meantime had entered the room and on hearing this exchange calmly took his seat, telling the duchess that he had dined at a table ‘where her father had stood at his back’. A reference to her father, Duke of Modena, who had been a vassal to the French Emperor, Auld Tam having served in some senior military role.

Mary of Modena, wife of the future King James VII & II. Put in her place by General Dalyell.

Mary of Modena, wife of the future King James VII & II. Put in her place by General Dalyell.


The subsequent events of 1685 when Monmouth led a full scale invasion of his father’s kingdom with the aim of taking the throne for himself, speak to the old fella’s wisdom. Additionally, the amateurish nature of Monmouth’s entire expedition would indicate that the victory at Bothwell Bridge owed less to his leadership and more to the quality of the men around him on the day.

Moving on…….What of Auld Tam’s relationship with Bonnie Dundee? Which is, after all, of the greater interest to this Blog? It would appear not to have been the smoothest and, once more, many recounters of the history of the times have beefed the controversy up. In the years following Bothwell Bridge (1679) Dalyell was Claverhouse’s commander but, it would appear from Claverhouse’s correspondence that Auld Tam was reluctant to engage with him on a personal level. No doubt the presence of a young, ambitious and clearly charismatic character coming up behind him might have proved at best tiresome and at worst threatening to him.

Other than Claverhouse’s letters we have little to go on in terms of the primary sources. Hence the supposition. However, there remains one controversial and oft-recounted incident between the two men which also features prominently and inaccurately, in Google scans of the period. And that relates to the events of Claverhouse’s wedding day.

In a previous post we looked at the detail of his courtship of and marriage to Jean Cochrane. This was a match of considerable controversy at the time given the staunch Covenanting background of Jean Cochrane’s family.

After an extensive courtship of the good lady their nuptials were celebrated in Paisley on Tuesday 10th June 1684. (35 years later, on this very day, would be fought the Battle of Glenshiel, where a Jacobite army supported by regular Spanish troops failed in the 4th and penultimate effort to restore the Stuarts to the throne, A series of campaigns initiated by Claverhouse in 1689). It was a tempestuous time with the groom in the midst of his attempts to impose law and order in Ayrshire and Galloway, as directed by the Privy Council. A single day had been set aside to accommodate the ceremony and associated celebration.

Dundee had ridden through from Edinburgh on the Saturday, 3 days before. On the Monday Dalziel received word of a “formidable conventicle” to be convened at Blackloch, near Slamannan somewhat to the east of Paisley, and duly sent out a scouting party. They pursued the unruly host but lost track of them after crossing the Clyde near Hamilton and sent back word to Dalziel that they numbered “about one hundred, most men and all armed with guns and swords”.

Many histories will tell you that, in response to this threat, Auld Tam summonsed Claverhouse to direct his attentions immediately towards this threat and that the groom dutifully responded leaving his new wife to attend to their guests alone, such was the man’s overwhelming desire to pursue the god-fearing.

There is clear evidence that Dalyell, in order to allow his big day to pass undisturbed, sent word to William Ross, one of Claverhouse’s officers, who was in attendance at hic commander’s wedding. However, being the man he was, on hearing of the nature of the disturbance, saddled up and rode out with his men to pursue his duty, returning to Paisley only on the 12th, two days later, with no success to report. Once more, it seems, Auld Tam is blameless for an unkind act which has been laid at his door often down the years.

He was indeed the man who raised and first commanded the Royal Regiment of Dragoons in 1678. There is a widespread belief that this command subsequently became known as the Royal Scots Greys due to the colour of the horses. There is, though, a slight suggestion that they were called this because of the, unusual, grey uniforms that Dalyell first kitted them out in. Once more uncertainty prevails.

All in all, it would seem, a colourful character who packed a lot in to his eighty six years. But not so much the ogre that we have been led to believe.

28th November 1666, The Battle of Rullion Green and the End of the Pentland Rising

When the National Covenant was drawn up in 1638 virtually the whole nation of Scotland queued up to append their signature (below Montrose’s) to this historic document. By the time the Solemn League and Covenant was drafted in 1643, the tone had become more extreme and the appendants fewer.

The National Covenant (1638)

The National Covenant (1638)

By 1660, when Charles II was restored to his throne, signaling the end of that most miserable of periods known as the Cromwellian Interregnum, most Scots had had their fill of covenants, particularly amongst the political leadership, the nobility. And only the hard core remnant in the south west of the country held to the now extremist viewpoint.

During the 25 years between Charles ll’s restoration and his death in 1685, hard core factions in Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Galloway maintained the pot of febrile fanaticism in a boiling condition. Despite the efforts of the authorities to maintain law and order, lawlessness whilst quelled, was never fully eliminated. With conventicles,open air gatherings presided over by kirk ministers where often hysterical behaviour masqueraded as divine worship , the principal mechanism for coordinating community-wide disregard for the law.

Periodically during this quarter century, the enthusiasm of these factions peaked and armed insurrection then ensued. For the most part these efforts displayed common characteristics leading inevitably to disasterous failure: lack of weapons, lack of leadership, lack of a coherent plan, an absence of common agreement as to the specific nature of their divine mission and a grievous failure to ignore minute stratifications of doctrinal disagreement on the eve of battle in order to present a united front to their enemy.

On the one occasion when their ducks fortuitously lined up in a row, at the Battle of Drumclog in 1679, they were able to combine the element of surprise, a local advantage in numbers and favourable terrain, to achieve limited, localised military success. However, this merely encouraged yet more of the unruly to harness their fortunes to a wagon which subsequently careered madly to destruction.

Drumclog stands alone as a covenanting military success during this period, and is balanced out by a litany of failure; the Battles of Bothwell Bridge (June 1679), Airds Moss (1680), and earliest of all, Rullion Green (1666).

Indeed if some of the basic lessons from this initial, sweeping defeat had been absorbed then the future calamities might have been avoided. However, it was not part of the philosophical approach of covenanters to look dispassionately on their failures in order that learnings might be taken from them, since this might too closely require some admission that the chosen sons and daughters of Jacob were mistaken in their analysis or intent. So each subsequent rising saw efforts renewed to re-invent the wheel from its most basic level.

Let us look, specifically then at the train of events that culminated in the Battle of Rullion Green.

After Charles ll’s restoration to the throne in 1660, the various mechanisms of Cromwellian rule were dismantled and things largely returned to they way they were before his father’s disagreements with both his parliaments led to full scale civil war in 1642. In 1663 bishops were re-installed as an estate of the Scottish Parliament, much to the disgruntlement of covenanting folk who held no truck with those appointed to intercede between good Presbyterians and their god.

Charles ll, restored to the throne in 1660

Charles ll, restored to the throne in 1660

Soon, the scale of illegal field conventicles was such that the Government felt compelled to take action, passing legislation to fine any and all who failed to attend worship, as it was intended, in their own parish church. Rather than administer this process through the local land-owners, who were often overtly sympathetic, they brought in external support in the shape of Sir James Turner, whose troops were required to be supported in he area. In the face of this escalation of government action against non-conformers, the extent of field conventicles did not diminish.

Sir James Turner, appointed by the Privy Council to impose order in the south west

Sir James Turner, appointed by the Privy Council to impose order in the south west


Things did not improve and further forays by Turner were carried out in the spring of 1666. Shortly thereafter, the Government took the decision to establish a standing army in Scotland. A combined infantry and cavalry force of some 3000 men, with the command given to General Thomas Dalyell, a veteran of the Battle of Worcester (1651) and subsequently the Polish Wars under the Russian Tsar, Alexei l.


General Thomas Dalyell, commander of the Government army at Rullion Green

General Thomas Dalyell, commander of the Government army at Rullion Green

The decisive flashpoint occurred on 15 November 1666 when a number of Dumfries-shire lairds with their tenants, who had been involved in a minor confrontation with troopers two days previously decided to strike at Turner before he took any further action.

They surprised him in his pyjamas and took him prisoner. Finding themselves, even at this early stage in the proceedings, without a plan, they paused. Once word of their imprudence was out, however, the full mechanism of government reaction began to move apace. The Privy Council immediately took the appropriate steps to quell what they perceived to be a full-scale rebellion. Tam Dalyell was instructed to march his available force to Glasgow while Stirling bridge and various Forth ferry crossings were guarded to prevent any southward movement of covenant sympathisers.

Turner’s captors were in a difficult position. They perceived of their action as being simply a loyal protest against military oppression. Their options were now to disband and await arrest or move to extend their act into full-scale rebellion. On 21st November, an official proclamation was issued which denounced their action and made no mention of any indemnity for those surrendering. And so they moved for escalation. Their appeals for support fell largely on deaf ears but by close of play on the 22nd they had pulled together a force of over 600 men and command was given to Colonel James Wallace. A soldier not entirely without experience having served as a captain in the Marquis of Argyll’s covenanting army during the Bishop’s War in 1640 and subsequently in Ulster.

Colonel James Wallace, commander of the insurgents at Rullion Green

Colonel James Wallace, commander of the insurgents at Rullion Green

Turning to face their perceived oppressor this uncertain body of men began to march towards Edinburgh, hoping to pick up reinforcements on the way. Trudging through the cold, wet, short days they held a council of war at Douglas in Lanarkshire. Loud voices were raised in favour of abandoning their enterprise. However, as was often the case when the extremists met to discuss issues, more fanatical tones held sway. Surely the very sudden and unexpected nature of this mission was, in itself, a sign from God. A purpose was proclaimed – the restoration of the Covenants. With the redoubtable Reverend John Welsh of Irongray present in their midst, anything less would have been the surprise. And renewed somewhat in their vigour, they continued to squelch their way towards the Capital.

Most onlookers, even those who sympathised with their cause, viewed the whole escapade as hopeless and remained indoors. During the next dismal, rain-swept night in Bathgate, around half of them straggled away.

The following day, what was left of them, probably 900 in number, reached Colinton, from where they could see Edinburgh Castle. An emissary from the Duke of Hamilton approached them and pleaded for their surrender. Colonel Wallace, who could recognise a doomed project when he saw one but could not be accused of lacking optimism, sent messages to Hamilton and Dalyell indicating that he and his men were willing to discuss terms of surrender.

The reply duly received from the Privy Council advised them simply to lay down their arms “that they might petition for mercy”. Things were beginning to look pretty bleak indeed for these sodden souls and they began to withdraw whence they came, along the eastern flank of the Pentland Hills, while Dalyell continued to close in on them.

On the 28th they paused again, at Rullion Green to regroup and prepare a fresh parley. Dalyell though had had enough and immediately attacked. The few covenanting horsemen made something of an issue of the fight on their part of the field but Wallace’s infantry, exhausted, ill-armed, ill-prepared, ill-led, so much like their compadres at Bothwell Bridge, succumbed quickly to the musket fire of their regular opponents. The covenanting army dissolved into a terrified rabble and fled in all directions leaving some fifty dead and the same number prisoner. Wallace and Welsh escaped the field, and justice, escaping in the end to Holland to swell the ranks of the disaffected already encamped there. And it was from here some 23 years later that their ultimate salvation would come

The graves and monument at Rullion Green today

The graves and monument at Rullion Green today

Retribution for the prisoners was reflective of the times: balanced but harsh in the end. The Privy Council accorded them the not insignificant legal services of Sir George Lockhart and Sir George Mackenzie, two of the foremost advocates of the day. Mackenzie pleaded for clemency on the basis that they had been offered quarter on the field of battle. A claim supported by Dalyell himself. However, it was determined that the accused had not been involved in a just war but rather an act of sedition and so the accepted rules relating to war did not apply.

Their right arms, which had been raised to support the Covenant at the outset of the rising, were cut off and sent to Lanark for display. A further 30 supporters were hanged in the ensuing days in Glasgow and some 50 odd transported to Barbados. Extensive finings and forfeitures were also carried out.

An unhappy episode in Scotland’s history. However, worth placing in some context. Although ministers were drawn towards it at an early stage, its Covenanting label was only adopted by the rebellion after it had begun. Furthermore the initial spark behind it all was simply long-standing resentment against government fines and the associated aggressive methods used by government forces to enforce these and to obtain quarters and victuals for themselves.

And while the stoking of the flames of hatred by Presbyterian ministers at conventicles led directly to this unhappy finale, as it did indeed at Bothwell Bridge, there was as has been pointed out “a genuine feeling of grievance, a real wish to preserve important things, seen to be under threat. Something precious and pure, personal as well as communal, was perceived within the rites of the Presbyterian Kirk”.

Sadly, for us all, the preciousness and pureness were always drowned out by the hatred and the fanaticism.

The inscription on the monument at Rullion Green

The inscription on the monument at Rullion Green

13th November 1715, The Battle of Sherrifmuir

Sheriffmuir was the only battle fought in Scotland during the 3rd Jacobite Rising. Often deemed a draw on the basis that at the end of the engagement both sides withdrew from the field in good order, it was, in fact, a complete strategic defeat for the Jacobite Campaign and effectively ended Jacobite hopes for the Rising there and then.

The monument at the site of the battle

The monument at the site of the battle

The 1715 Rising was a more complex adventure than any of the other Jacobite campaigns (Claverhouse’s in 1689, the 1708, the 1719 and the 1745) involving, as it did, simultaneous, co-ordinated military efforts north and south of the border and an ambitious splitting of the Scottish arm to reinforce the southern effort.

Viewed from the historical perspective this was to be the closest that the Jacobites were ever to come to securing military victory and thus the political ambition of restoring the Stuart monarchy to the unified throne.

Unfortunately, the not unfamiliar crisis of leadership emerged at the key battles of Sheriffmuir and Preston, fought at the same time, and the opportunity slipped away, with even the subsequent and much vaunted effort of the ’45 failing to match the promise of this earlier drama.

There are those who have argued that by 1715 the restoration of the Stuart monarchy had become entirely anachronistic over the course of the past 27 years which had seen the House of Hannover become firmly entrenched in Whitehall and the final establishment of political union between Scotland and England. It’s hard to disagree with that view.

However, in 1715 there were many among the Clan Chiefs of the Highlands who took the view that the political situation that existed at the time was detrimental to the interests of Scotland and, more importantly, threatened their very way of life. This awareness, coupled with the repressive measures implemented by the London Government in the wake of the failed 1708 Rising, led many of the chiefs to believe that they had a simple choice of two alternatives: take up arms to bring about the restoration of the Stuart monarchy and thereby preserve their existence or be swept passively away within the foreseeable future.

The Earl of Mar who was to raise King James Standard to initiate the Rising, was a not untypical product of the political climate of 17th century Scotland. His efforts to maintain one foot in each political camp giving rise to his nickname of ‘Bobbing John’. As one of the Commissioners of the Union he was heavily involved in the establishment of the 1707 Treaty and held the position of Secretary of State for Scotland, thoroughly in bed with the unionist and Hanoverian establishment. However, with the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the subsequent succession of George I, he fell out of political favour as Whigs superceded Tories as the party of power. He was removed from his position and headed back home in a huff.

John Erskine, 22nd Earl of Mar. Commander of the Jacobite Army

John Erskine, 22nd Earl of Mar. Commander of the Jacobite Army

In his next act was then to assemble an army for King James, raising the Royal Standard on 6 September at Braemar, although he didn’t receive his formal commission till later in October.

Mar had no military experience and was poorly equipped on a personal basis both to lead men and to take decisive action when required. His every move in his political life hitherto had been made on the basis of risk minimization. And his conduct of the Rising reflected these personal shortcomings. He was able to quickly put together an army of considerable size; estimates vary, as is usual in Scottish history, between 6 and 12, 000 men with the smaller number being the likelier. This, and the fact that most towns on the east coast declared for King James, is a fair reflection of the depth of popular antipathy towards both the rule of the House of Hannover and to political union with England.

Despite these factors and the strong position they put him in, Mar habitually hesitated: reluctant to commit himself fully in either direction lest he end up on the losing side to the wreck of his personal ambition.

The other key figure commander in the Jacobite ranks, north of the border was William Borlum of Mackintosh. And on 11th October after an extended period of inactivity on the part of the Jacobite Army, Borlum was despatched south with some 2000 clansmen. His mission was to link up with such of those English and border Jacobites who had mobilized in support, under the leadership of the Earl of Derwentwater and Viscount Kenmure. History is vague as to who determined this move. But given his overwhelming lack of vision and reluctance to take decisive action, it seems unlikely to have been Mar. With Borlum, in consultation with the other chiefs, being the likeliest candidate.

Borlum, now unleashed as it were, was able to demonstrate exactly the kind of decisive action and ability to manoeuvre a large body of men at speed which was required and which had been so clearly displayed in the past by other men of substance such as Claverhouse and Montrose.

John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee

John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee

With the Firth of Forth heavily patrolled by the English navy he was able to muster sufficient small boats to ferry his entire command across to the other side, during the hours of darkness, incurring no loss and with his enemy entirely unaware of what was happening. A remarkable action comparable with Montrose’s strike at Inverary at Christmas 1644, his surprise flank march prior to the Battle of Inverlochy in February 1645 and the merry dance that Claverhouse and his small army led the unfortunate General MacKay during the Killiecrankie campaign in the summer of 1689.

After this excellent start, though, things fell away and once Borlum joined his command with Kenmure’s and Derwentwater the southern campaign was similarly blighted by hesitancy and indecision and ended in ignominy with the surrender of the entire force at the Battle of Preston. Events which don’t concern us here.

The Jacobite Army is surrenedered after the Battle of Preston

The Jacobite Army is surrendered after the Battle of Preston

Mar, meantime, finally cajoled into action by his men made a move south from Perth on 11th November. He knew no further recruits would join his army until some degree of success had been seen to be achieved and ominously, news had reached him that regular Dutch troops had landed in England to strength the government forces.

As he moved the army south the government army in Scotland under the command of the Duke of Argyll moved to intercept them at Dunblane. Mar’s force was now, most agree, a mximum of 7000 troops with possibly 1000 of them mounted. Argyll’s command was barely half that number.

By the evening of November 12th both sides were aware of the other’s presence and in the morning they commenced to make their dispositions for battle. The ground at Sheriffmuir, on the lower slopes of the Ochils is rough and broken and it would seem that for much of this preparatory period neither side had a clear view of what the other was doing.

In contrast to Mar’s lack of military experience, John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and the first leader of the House of Campbell in 4 generations not to be christened Archibald, was a different creature.

John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll. Victor at Sheriffmuir Archibald's son, John. The first head of the House of Argyll in 4 generations not christened Archibald.

John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll. Victor at Sheriffmuir Archibald’s son, John. The first head of the House of Argyll in 4 generations not christened Archibald.

He had seen service in both the Wars of the Grand Alliance and the Spanish Succession and was familiar with what needed to be done to meet the demands of this particular situation.

As the battle opened the right wing of each side achieved significant early success, much in the manner of the initial stages of the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. As each commander then rallied his victorious wing back to the field it was clear that the earlier inequality in nunbers had become more acute and Mar’s force was now some three times greater in magnitude than Argyll’s who, consequently, chose to now position his men in a strong defensive situation based on some ditches and turf walls and awaited the inevitable onslaught from Mar’s force.

And this was it, the decisive point of the Battle of Sheriffmuir. The decisive point indeed of the entire 1715 Jacobite Rising. The decisive point, arguably, for the whole Jacobite dream, stretching back from when Claverhouse first raised the Standard on Dundee Law in April 1689 to the final destruction of the massed clansmen on Drumossie Moor in April 1746.

All that was required was a commander of simple courage and expediency with firm personal loyalty to the cause he espoused, who would send his men forward to complete the destruction of the enemy and leave the way open to take the army south to where the decisive military decisions would ultimately be determined.

But sadly what we had was the 22nd Earl of Mar. A man haunted by his unfulfilled, if ill-defined, personal ambition. Whose loyalty to any cause stretched no further than the furtherance of personal goals. “Oh, for an hour of Dundee”, legend has it, was the cry that went up from his waiting men. But they waited in vain.

Although Argyll, taking advantage of the fading light, led his men across the Allan Water for the night, Mar made no move and in the morning withdrew his force back to Perth.

It could, of course, be argued that even if Mar had won the day at Sheriffmuir, that it would have been to no avail as the southern Jacobite Army was, that very day, experiencing defeat at the Battle of Preston and the northern town of Inverness fell back into Hanoverian hands. Thus in the same way that Claverhouse’s victory at Killiecrankie did not lead to the ultimate triumph of the House of Stewart and that even after his Year of Victories when he vanquished 6 parliamentary armies in 6 battles and became military master of Scotland, ultimate victory eluded even the Great Montrose.

The Great Montrose

The Great Montrose

It would seem that the fortunes of the righteous in Scotland would ever be thus.

Detail on the Sheriffmuir monument

Detail on the Sheriffmuir monument


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