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.


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