Early in the morning of Sunday 1st September 1644, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose stood on the field of Tippermuir, some 3 miles to the west of the town of Perth, watching his enemies assembling their force into battle order.
Behind him, already formed up and ready to engage, stood the motley army he had managed to assemble in the previous two months.
His ultimate aim was to conquer whatever forces that the Covenant put into the field against him thus restoring the rule of Charles I to the troubled kingdom of Scotland. Then he would march his army south, join with Prince Rupert of the Rhine, defeat the armies of the English Parliament and restore the King to his throne. That process would start today on this sunny Sabbath morning.
Ultimately Montrose would require to fight six battles in the 12 months of this campaign, the Year of Victories. And he would win them all. However, final success would elude both him and his sorry monarch.
The army he commanded was as eclectic as any that had ever taken to a battlefield in Scotland, before then or since. As King Charles’ properly commissioned Captain-General, Montrose was designated commander of all forces raised in the King’s name, However, a significant element of the men under his command had been brought from Ireland by Alasdair MacColla, who presently stood with them in the centre of the royalist formation.
On the flanks of Alasdair’s Irish stood men from both north and south of the Highland Line. Some of these were experience soldiers, most were not. And it was their rawness that had persuaded Montrose to put them on the flanks ensuring that Alasdair’s men took the centre of the formation to face the most experience element of the Covenant force facing them.
This very force, however, exceeded the Royalist army in its lack of battle experience. With the full Covenant Army deployed south of the border in support of the English Parliamentary army, there were few left behind with any experience or appetite for fighting. They did have two advantages though: greater numbers, probably twice Montrose’s 2000 men; and cavalry, some 300 against Montrose’s complete lack of mounted warriors. With the undisputed Covenant leader, Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll, temporarily missing from the scene. The command of the army fell to The Earl of Lothian. He, however, was in Edinburgh “attending important meetings” so it was Lord Elcho who suddenly found the position thrust upon him, wholly unexpectedly. 11 months later he would once again command in battle against Montrose, at the equally disastrous Battle of Kilsyth.
On the face of it, it seemed like an easy victory for the home team. However, it was to prove to be men against boys. While there were some seasoned veterans of the wars in the Spanish Netherlands amongst the Royalist Scots, Alasdair’s men were emphatically battle-hardened, primarily from the fighting in Ireland which had raged since the initial outbreak of warfare there in 1641.
The men they faced were for the most part hastily levied peasants and burghers, untrained and poorly led. Although Montrose was not aware of this and his decision to now engage superior enemy forces reflects his temperament and his need for a swift and conclusive victory to establish his own martial credentials and to both retain his army as a cohesive fighting force and to attract further recruits.
With the opposing forces now drawn up the action could commence. The Covenant leadership sent forward a detachment of horse in the traditional manner to draw their enemy’s fire and lure them into a premature and ill-co-ordinated forward thrust which could then be exploited by their massed infantry. This manoeuvre back-fired completely. Within moments, in response to this opening move, the entire Royalist centre under Alasdair’s personal command launched what was to become the trademark move of Royalist / Jacobite armies over the next century – the Highland Charge.
The ferocity of this so discombobulated the Covenant centre that they broke almost immediately. Their flank forces followed soon after and the engagement soon dissolved into full-scale, one-sided slaughter as the fleeing Covenanters were pursued back to Perth.
Numbers in Montrose’s battles are always contentious as for the most part the primary sources often contradict one another. However, a consensus of 1500 dead is evident. With corresponding Royalist losses so small as to merit a mention.
First blood then to Montrose.