The Battle of Auldearn – Was Montrose a Genius or Just Lucky?

The Battle of Auldearn was fought on 9 May 1645.

The Commemoration Stone on the battlefield of Auldearn

The Commemoration Stone on the battlefield of Auldearn

There was a time when Auldearn was seen to be the most straightforward of the six battlefield wins carved out by Montrose and Alasdair MacColla against the armies of the Scottish covenanting Parliament during their year of victories between the summers of 1644 and 1645.

Primarily this was because back in the nineteenth century that erstwhile legend of English Civil War historianship, Samuel Rawson Gardiner, in his seminal work The History of the Great Civil War, had included an extensive analysis of the battle in what was commonly deemed to be the definitive work on the episode.

Samuel Rawson Gardiner, key historian of the 'English'Civil War

Samuel Rawson Gardiner, key historian of the ‘English’Civil War

 

Some years later it was accepted that the principal road from Inverness to Nairn which passed through the village of Auldearn and was a key feature of the battlefield, had in fact been moved ninety degrees between the battle and Gardiner’s assessment. For this reason among others, most notably the discovery of further primary sources, his version of events has in recent years been extensively challenged by a number of significant authors, most notably David Stevenson (Highland Warrior, 1980) and Stuart Reid (The Campaigns of Montrose1990).

 

The Campaigns of Montrose by Stuart Reid

The Campaigns of Montrose by Stuart Reid

Furthermore since Auldearn was otherwise the least documented of the six battles, with the lowest number of first hand accounts, each of which contradicts the others even more so than is normally the case with Montrose’s battles, it is now the most disputed of the six victories.

Each of the key aspects of the battle are debated and thus the conclusions as to Montrose’s personal performance on the day are spread along a spectrum which on the one hand sees the King’s Captain-General as a tactical genius with the inspired deployment of the mounted flank attack which swung the battle in his favour as being reminiscent of Napoleon’s victory against the Third Coalition at Austerlitz in 1805. While on the other extreme it is claimed that his basic, and oft-repeated error in not deploying sufficient scouts, led to his force suffering a surprise attack from the Government force he believed to be camped in Inverness, in which only the determination and martial skill of Alasdair MacColla and his Irish troops prevented a disastrous defeat.

Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz

Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz

The mists of time obscure not only the events on the battlefield itself but also the movements of the armies in the days before with the decision by the covenanting General Baillie to split his force in two being central to their subsequent defeat. Whether this decision was one that Montrose compelled him to carry out, allowing the latter to then meet and defeat each element individually, or whether it was taken independently of any action by Montrose, is also hotly debated. Regardless, this last point is less of a concern as clearly Montrose, on realising the opportunity provided, exploited it with speed and skill.

Anyway, let’s focus on the events of the day. Montrose, for once, was in pursuit of a Government force. This commanded by Sir John Urry. It was testimony to the strangeness of the times that Urry had previously served in Prince Rupert’s royalist army at the battles of Chalgrove Field and Marston Moor and would in the future serve in the Royalist Engagement force which Cromwell destroyed at Preston in 1648 and, most strangely of all perhaps, would go on to lead the cavalry element in Montrose’s army during his 1650 campaign which ended in defeat at Carbisdale.

Now in May 1645 he was leading a force of probably 2000 infantry and cavalry towards Inverness with Montrose and Alasdair in pursuit. It was Urry’s aim to use the Inverness garrison and other recently raised troops to bring his force up to a strength greater than Montrose’s and then turn and attack him.

Whether Montrose pursued him right to Inverness before falling back to Auldearn or whether he stopped there first is not certain. The evidence favours the view that having passed though the village on his way to Inverness, he then pulled back to this favourable spot and thus the battle was subsequently fought on the ground of his choosing. We do know that Urry, now reinforced to about 4000 infantry and cavalry moved east during the night to find then attack the royalist army.

Now to the next major controversy: to what extent were royalist scouts deployed? It was a foul night and the assumption was that the enemy was fourteen miles away and camped for the night. The criticism has been levelled that, though there were scouts out they were at no fair distance from their own camp and were more concerned with keeping dry than keeping watch. Also that if Urry’s men had not been instructed to fire their muskets to ensure they were dry for action then the royalist army would have had no warning at all of the enemy’s approach.

So there were scouts deployed and they heard the test shots when fired some four to six miles from the camp. That’s over an hour’s march which in the event was sufficient to allow satisfactory preparations to be made to meet them. In this writer’s view, the criticism is unfair. It may well have been a determining issue for Montrose’s fortunes on other battlefields but not tonight.

Next issue: Urry’s approach route to the village. Was it through Nairn and from the west? Or over the River Nairn and then through Cawdor from the south west? It doesn’t matter. It makes no odds to the outcome. The key element is that Montrose had more than an hour’s clear warning of the attack and was able to determine and implement an effective battle plan.

What about the numbers deployed? More controversy here, but of the more usual kind. The various sources have Montrose’s force at a minimum of 1400 and a maximum of 3000. With Urry given between 4000 and 4500. A reasonable average of these would give the Government army an advantage of some two to one. In any event there were significantly more of them.

However, for the first time Montrose had at his disposal an effective number of mounted troops, some 200 Gordons. One would expect that his fertile imagination would have been seeking an opportunity to use these effectively from the moment they had ridden into his camp some days before. Indeed they were to be a primary feature of the plan he was now devising.

Alasdair and his Irish troops were camped in the village itself while Montrose, most of the rest of his highlanders and all the cavalry were resting behind, to the north east, of the village and effectively out of sight of the covenant army which now formed up to attack the village. Perhaps the criticism of weak, ineffective indeed non-existent scouting is more properly levelled at Urry as he now launched a full frontal attack on what he perceived to be the main body of his enemy with no awareness of what threats might lie out of sight across the broken, hilly ground.

Alasdair MacColla, commander of the Irish troops in Montrose's Royalist Army

Alasdair MacColla, commander of the Irish troops in Montrose’s Royalist Army

Alasdair and his 700 odd Irish were now formed across the front of the village with both his own yellow banner and the Royal Standard flying high and proud. Perhaps he had clear orders from Montrose to demonstrate as though they were the main royalist centre and then engage and fully occupy Urry’s frontal attack. A tall order indeed, facing odds of probably four to one, but one which he and his men were fully equipped for. More so probably than any other fighting force in the British Isles at the time.

A not untypical study of the Royalist infantry

A not untypical study of the Royalist infantry

Montrose meanwhile supervised the Gordon horsemen as they prepared their mounts to launch their lauded surprise flank attack.

And perhaps the comparisons with events on the Pratzen Heights in October 1805 are not so wide of the mark. On that occasion Napoleon led the Grand Army forward through Bohemia seeking the Russian / Austrian army of the Third Coalition. As he passed over the Pratzen Heights he realised the opportunity this terrain presented and so retreated back down into the valley surrendering, apparently, the advantage of the high ground to his enemy. He then deployed his right wing in somewhat weaker numbers than he normally would have and further instructed them to conceal themselves as much as possible among the villages and woods of the valley.

When the Russian and Austrian emperors surveyed the situation from the vantage of the high ground it was to see exactly what Napoleon wanted them to see and reach the conclusions he wanted them to reach. As they despatched the centre of their army down the hill to first destroy Napoleon’s right and then roll up the rest of the Grand Army in a magnificent victory, Napoleon with watch in hand, enquired of Marshall Soult how long it would take him to march his entire corps to the top of the hill. To Soult’s response of fifteen minutes he went back to studying his watch and the progress of the enemy advance.

When he was happy that the enemy force was fully committed to their descent of the hill with their vanguard engaged with his right wing, which while weak was fully capable of precisely this task, he then unleashed Soult’s Corp. They rode up the hill and, using their own right wing as some great hinge, they swung round and completely destroyed the Third Coalition Army which had been so painstakingly assembled through the efforts of William Pitt the Younger.

And so in a similar fashion, on a much smaller scale, granted, Urry has been persuaded to launch a full attack on what he thinks is the main body of the Royalist Army. Alasdair and his men keep them fully occupied although true to their nature and fighting experience this was best done by attacking themselves. So they moved forward from their original positions and began to push Urry’s force back before then in turn being forced back to their original positions by sheer strength of numbers. And so we can see how the view subsequently developed that Alasdair’s hot headedness almost lost Montrose the battle. When in fact he was fully complying with the orders he had been given in a situation he and his men would have relished.

So as the fighting raged in front of the village and the Gordon horse stood ready out of sight behind the hill over behind Alasdair’s left shoulder, Montrose carefully surveyed the entire situation and waited. He waited until he was convinced that Urry’s main force was irrevocably committed and indeed had suffered significant casualties before he then ordered the Gordon horse to ride out and strike Urry’s force full on from the right flank.

The unit on Urry’s right which was faced with this sudden onslaught was a cavalry detachment of northern levies, the Moray Horse, under the command of a Major Drummond. They were already struggling to make their own assault over the rough ground and were neither of the necessary calibre or state of readiness to meet this fast moving wall of horse and sword. They swerved to their left and were immediately overrun. In the inevitable climate of finger pointing and blame evasion that inevitably followed the comprehensive defeat this Major Drummond was to be accused of either giving the wrong order or even or treacherously steering his command to its destruction in order to suit the need of the enemy. The unfortunate man was executed some days later.

As Urry’s line began to fold up from the right Montrose himself brought the rest of the infantry forward, some moving through Alasdair’s men with the rest extending his line to the left. Although the enemy infantry still outnumbered them they were constrained now by the ground and their rear and flanks open to attack. The comprehensive slaughter of this now stationary and leaderless force commenced with all the horrors redolent of the time.

Complete victory was achieved by Montrose and Alasdair’s royalist army. Virtually the entire covenanting force was wiped out and for the fourth time in ten months Montrose was victor of the field.

Perhaps it was all perfectly straightforward after all. Urry was no bufoon and had demonstrated his military leadership qualities many times previously and would do so again. On this occasion he was up against an opponent who was on a different level altogether. The scouting issue could perhaps have been handled better but here it served its purpose satisfactorily. And when confronted with an unexpected attack Montrose, on ground of his own choosing was able to deploy his resources in situations which entirely suited their capabilities: Alasdair and his Irishmen slogging it out against superior numbers and the Gordon horse charging wildly in, to comprehensively defeat the enemy who had been beguiled to launch an attack without reconnaissance and having been misdirected in terms of the target for their attack.

This, of course, is just this writer’s view. There are many others. Feel free to share them.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Battle of Auldearn – Was Montrose a Genius or Just Lucky?

  1. […] tactical dispositions particularly at Auldearn and Kilsyth merit close […]

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  2. […] Leslie’s force marched south and was led in person across the Tweed at Coldstream by the Great Montrose, over the very ford that Walter Scott has Marmion riding on the eve of […]

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