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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.