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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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!