Category Archives: Battles

20 May…..The Battle of Dunnichen 685AD

The Battle of Dunnichen….known also as Nechtansmere….is deemed to be one of the most significant of the many battles fought in Dark Age Scotland, settling as it did, political power for several centuries to come, in the area between Hadrian’s Wall and the Firth of Forth.

Its importance is indicated in its rating a mention in all of the key commentaries of the times: Bede, Nennius, the Annals of Ulster, the Annals of Tigernach to name but a few.

As with that earlier battle of great significance, Mons Graupius, fought almost exactly six centuries earlier, its exact location has long been lost….in the mists of time.

We DO have a monument, though. And that is placed where most consider the battle to have been fought, in the village of Dunnichen, a few miles east of Forfar. That the engagement is remembered and commemorated with such splendour is a cause for celebration in itself.

The Battle monument in the village of Dunnichen

While we might be uncertain of exactly where it was fought we do know a number of other things about the battle. Principally that the Picts won a comprehensive victory over a Northumbrian army which had come north the re-instate their previous domination. And with this victory they re-established their position as an independent people, right through until their unification with the Scots under Kenneth MacAlpine in 843.


Northumbria, as a political entity, had come into being after the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, which was completed, after a protracted and stormy struggle in 654. Within a few years the Northumbrians appeared to have imposed themselves on the Picts to the north. Bristling under this the Picts rose up in 671 but were heavily defeated at the Battle of the Two Rivers. Yet another ancient battlefield whose precise location is a mystery today. The only source for this encounter, Stephen of Ripon’s Vita Sancti Wilifrithi, records that, following the battle, the Picts were “reduced to slavery and subject to the yoke of captivity for the next 14 years”.

The probable extent of the Kingdom of Northumbria at the turn of the 9th century

In 685 Bridei III was King of the Picts, having come to the throne in the aftermath of the disaster of the Battle of the Two Rivers in 671. The Northumbrians were ruled by Ecgfirth, cousin to Bridei, who had led the Northumbrians at the Two Rivers Battle.

One way or another Bridei was deemed to have cast of the yoke of captivity of his people and Ecgfrith duly led another army north to re-impose his suzerainty. Despite, it is alleged, much advice to the contrary.

The placing of the battle site at the eponymous village of Dunnichen is primarily etimilogical. And a similar case has been made for Dunachtan, 60 miles further north at Loch Insh in Badenoch. And while this more northerly location may stretch credulity a little….stranger things have happened….we may never know.

The widely accepted site of the Battle of Dunnichen (Nechtansmere) in relation to the territories of the two protagonists

After their dismal showing at the Battle of the Two Rivers, Bridei’s Picts seem to have given this encounter more thought and utilised a stratagem of a feigned retreat, drawing the Northumbrian army on then ambushing them at a narrow point between the hills. The absence of any significant hills in the Dunnichen area is an issue but need not be a showstopper.


In any event Ecgfrith’s army was completely destroyed and the unfortunate king with it. The Picts were re-established in their sovereignty and, also, from this point is commonly determined the beginning of the decline of the Northumbrian kingdom.

A battle scene on the back of the Aberlemno Stone

There exist in the village of Aberlemno, only six miles from Dunnichen, a number of carved Pictish stones dating back to the period in question. On the rear of Aberlemno Stone 2 is a clear battle scene, believed by many to be representative of the very battle. Perhaps the conclusive piece of evidence concerning the location of the battle field.

21 March 1918 Kaiserschlacht….the End of Trench Warfare…a Presage of Blitzkreig..

Kaiserschlacht…….launched on 21st March 1918, was the final German attempt to secure victory in World War One. Although a tactical triumph it was, ultimately, a strategic failure. However, it clearly demonstrated two things. First that the British Army commander General Haig’s long-term policy of attrition, pursued on the basis that there was no alternative strategy since the defensive positions on the Western Front were impregnable, was wrong because these defences COULD be overcome by frontal assault, as was all to clearly demonstrated during the Kaiseschlacht offensive. Second, that Haig’s principal two attacks on the German line, on the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendaele in 1917 were utterly futile because every square inch of each of these battlefields which had been won at such dreadful cost over the prolonged months of both campaigns, was recovered by the attacking German forces during the Kaiserschlacht offensive. In the case of the Somme, this took just a few days. And in the case of Passchandaele, all the ground in question was voluntarily surrendered by British troops without a shot being fired.

General Sir Douglas Haig. Commander of the British Army.Having failed with his attacks at the Somme, Passchendaele and Cambrai now faced the storm of Kaiserschlacht.

Furthermore, the key modifications to the German Army’s attack methods, which were so effective during Kaiserschlacht, can be seen quite clearly to lead directly to the blitzkrieg tactics which they were to employ again so successfully in attacking the British and French armies in May 1940, when, having sat on their collective derrieres during the nine months of the Phoney War, both allies were then driven to the Channel coast in only ten days and forced to completely evacuate their forces.

Masses of British POW’s taken during the opening phase of Kaiserschlacht.

100 hundred years on from the titanic struggle of WW1 and so much of what happened then is still argued about. The mythology is wrapped so tightly around the accepted facts that it becomes difficult to tell one from the other.

Those of us domiciled in the UK are educated about WW1 in terms of the major British offensives. Kaiserschlacht is rarely mentioned. Indeed it is generally only dealt with grudgingly in the context of final victory, achieved with the welcome, but apparently unnecessary assistance of 3 million fresh combat troops from the USA. Yet the German attack, while it failed in its ultimate strategic goal, was a dazzling tactical success which vividly underscores the persistent and chronic inability of the British military leadership to find for themselves a solution to the problem of trench stalemate, despite taking three years and sacrificing some 600, 000 lives in their uninspiring efforts to do so.

And there is that most contested of viewpoints: was Haig a criminal bungler, or a highly capable general and inspired leader of men?

One of the principal arguments put forward by those who would have Sir Douglas hailed as a hero is that the commanders of all the armies involved in the struggle were faced with the same difficulties. And that  barbed wire, machine guns and the endless mud presented those who stood on the defensive, with the strongest of advantages, against which any competent general would have struggled. … Germany struggled against the British Army from the failure of their offensive at the 2nd Battle of Ypres in May 1915 until the collapse of the British effort at Cambrai in December 1917.

The Battle of the Somme. In 5 months the British Army pushed the front line back less than 9 miles.

Thus the fruitless British campaigns at the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele in 1917 are presented as regrettable necessities in the process of wearing down the German Army and without which the final victory achieved in 1918 would not have been possible.

However…..even the most casual study of the Kaiserschlacht campaign in the Spring of 1918 demonstrates irrefutably that these conclusions are incorrect.

The Britsih Army’s Passchendaele campaign of 1917. In 5 months less than 5 miles were gained.


Following the failure of Germany’s initial invasion of France and Belgium in  August 1914 with Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen’s eponymous plan, Chief of the German General Staff, Moltke the Younger, was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn.

Under his command the German Army carried out another two frontal assaults on the British positions at the First and Second Battles of Ypres in October 1914 and May 1915. With the failure of both of these to break the British line, Von Falkenhayn came to the conclusion that none of the protagonists on the Western Front could achieve such a breakthrough at that point in time because the strength and width of defensive positions required that a successful assault would necessitated the use of TWO attacking armies: the first to punch the necessary 18 to 20 mile gap through the three lines of defence and a second to exploit the gap thus opened. And in May 1915 neither side had a spare army with which to implement such a plan.


Thus von Falkenhayn turned his attention eastwards that he might achieve progress there, thereby conceding the strategic initiative to the British, still under the command of General Sir John French prior to his replacement by General Haig in the aftermath of the failure of the British attack at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 and as a consequence of the Haig’s shameless conspiring to have the former replaced.

General Erich von Falkenhayn. Commander of the German Army September 1914 till September 1916 who realised as early as May 1915 that frontal assaults on the Western Front were futile.


Neither French nor Haig drew such conclusions concerning the feasibility of frontal assault and gamefully set about devising stratagems to break the German line, roll up their flanks and return the war to one of rapid movement where superior British cavalry forces could bring about final victory . And so began to smash their faces in futile fashion against the German defences.


The subsequent failure of their strategic assault at Loos in September 1915 was followed by the utter disaster of the Somme in July – November 1916 and then by the self-destructive futility of the 3rd Battle of Ypres in July – November 1917. With the last reserves of British military manpower then thrown away at Cambrai in December 1917, along with the huge potential of a surprise attack of massed tank formations, Haig had now no choice but to stand his remaining troops on the defensive and prepare for the inevitable and potentially overwhelming German counter attack. Since with the announcement of the USA’s decision to participate in the conflagration, any German victory would need to happen before July 1918 by which time the Allies would be able to field in the order of 3 million reinforcements.

President Woodrow Wilson who persuaded Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917 thereby initiating preparations for Kaisershlacht.

Strong arguments have been put forward that the British had no alternative but to attack the Germans, that there was no feasible alternative. And that the limitations imposed on any attacking force by barbed wire and machine guns meant that massive casualties were inevitable. Indeed that it was a viable option to throw tens of thousands of infantry into the killing zone so that they might kill more Germans than they themselves lost, thus paving the way to final victory. Even today, the merits of the  philosophy of attrition is commended.


Let us challenge this viewpoint. Let us consider that there WERE solutions to the stalemate of trench warfare and that with the appropriate amount of focused thought that such solutions could be found…….as indeed the Germans found them. Only not Von Falkenhayn who had paid the price for his failure of the Verdun offensive (another case of galloping mythology). But his successors, Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Hindenburg & Ludendorf.
Architects of Kaiserschlacht, who finally broke the stalemate of the trenches but  led Germany to final ultimate defeat.

In most fields of human activity, the numbers inevitably tell the true story. This is as true in war as in any other. So let us look at the key numbers and how they measure up with respect to Kaiserschlacht in relation to the previous main British attacks.

At Loos in 1915 the British attacked for 2 weeks, gaining 3 miles. At the Somme in 1916 offensive action continued after the unprecedented disaster of that first day for a further five months. The front line was pushed back a total of 9 miles. And at 3rd Ypres in 1917 British forces slogged uphill for five months to gain a total of 5 miles. With each of these attacks the strategic value of the ground gained was none. None. The total casualty count was in the order of six hundred thousand combat troops. This was presented at the time, and in the century since, as being an acceptable price to pay in order to wear down the German Army. And in any case we won so we must have been doing the right thing.

Kaiserschlacht Phase One: Operation Michael. In ten days the Germans took 1000 square miles of Allied territory, pushed the front line back 40 miles and almost captured the key transport node of Amiens.


So how did the Germans manage to turn the whole situation on its head in the Spring of 1918?

In April 1917, Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress to declare war on Germany. Probably the single most significant event of World War One, although taking place thousands of miles from European battlefield. This started the clock ticking.


The principal European protagonists knew exactly how long it took to train hundreds of thousands of civilians to the necessary state of combat readiness, at least fifteen months. So if Germany was to secure victory it had to do so before July 1918.

Having rigorously examined all the previous failed strategic assaults which had been carried out on the Western Front, Hindenburg and Ludendorff identified the reasons for failure and thence developed solutions to the problem.

Firstly, they acknowledged that by this late stage in the war there was a wide disparity in the physical condition of Germany’s combat troops. Recognising that many of their soldiers were capable at best of holding a trench line against frontal assault, they combed the best out of the ranks to be designated as stormtroopers and given specific training in the task that awaited them.

Picked men, specially trained in the new battle tactics and lightly equipped to ensure maximum progress.


Secondly, they tackled the issue of the pre-attack artillery bombardment. For many centuries of warfare surprise has often been the decisive factor in battle. By 1914 the merits of surprise had to be weighed against the value of attacking with an opening artillery barrage in order to; destroy the front line defensive positions, take out the defenders’ artillery and disrupt communications and the process of reinforcement. It was this notion that induced Haig to assault the German lines with artillery for 5 days prior to sending in the infantry at the Battle of the Somme and for 7 days prior to Passchendaele. Hindenburg and Ludendorff took the other option and combined the destructive merits of the devastating artillery bombardment with the element of surprise by firing all their shells over the course of just five hours.


Also, where the British attackers waited patiently till their artillery bombardment was concluded before leaving their trenches, cued by officers’ whistles, the Storm Troopers crossed the parapet when their barrage BEGAN. And having cut their way through the barbed wire, positioned themselves as close as possible to the British trenches without incurring injury from their own shells. Then they simply waited untill the shelling stopped. At which point they immediately stormed the British trenches.


Finally, also in the face of accepted wisdom at the time, the German attackers were directed to bypass any British strong points which were able to hold out against the initial assault. On the day these few positions were quickly isolated as the wave of attackers pushed the defenders back by a measure of miles.


Fortuitously on the morning of the initial attack the Germans were aided by heavy mist. This also has been used to defend the abject performance of the British ……… really has. Fortuitously also General Hubert Gough, upon who’s 5th Army the devastating storm was to break, deemed it best to position the majority of his infantry in the front line positions, such was his concern about the likely volume of enemy infantry that would be crossing no man’s land to attack. The inevitable result of this was to increase the casualties incurred during the initial artillery bombardment. Much has been made of the lessons learned by the British Army during the Battle of Passchendaele from the defence in depth tactics developed by the Germans during this campaign. The truth of the matter is that if any such lessons were learned then none were implemented.

General Hubert Gough, commander of British 5th Army which bore the brunt of Kaiserschlacht. All possible lessons to be gleaned from German defensive tactics at Passchendale were lost on him.

Ultimately, of course, Kaiserschlacht failed and under the command of Generals Haig and Foch, who had been appointed Allied Supremo during the height of the Kaiserschlacht offensive, with the able assistance of 3 million fresh American combat troops,  the Germans were defeated just a few short months later.


Nonetheless, through the lens of Kaiserschlacht it is possible to discern the reckless, foolhardy and wasteful manner in which Haig and his senior commanders pursued the war for over three years. This is the real lesson we should take from Kaiserschlacht.












The Battle of Tippermuir, 1st September 1644

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.

Montrose and MacColla’s route to Tippermuir

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.

Lord Elcho, Covenant commander on the day

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.

A not untypical study of the Royalist infantry

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.









9th December 1688 The Battle of Reading

This was the main military event of William of Orange’s Dutch invasion.


Britain, we are often told, has never been successfully invaded in a thousand years. Napoleon and Hitler both gave it serious thought but apparently realised the futility of the idea. And since William’s Norman knights destroyed the Shield Wall of Harold’s Saxons at Hastings in 1066, it has never been successfully attempted.

This, like so many other notions handed down to schoolchildren over the years, is in fact false.

In the dying months of 1688, as James II, the last incumbent of the House of Stuart struggled to hold on to the legacy which had been faithfully handed down continuously over three centuries, a hostile Armada sailed from Holland, intent on removing said monarch from his throne and seizing the kingdom by naked force of arms.

King James II

King James II

Ever since James had ascended the throne following the death of his brother, Charles II, in 1685, his calamitous and cack-handed rule had emphasised the divisions within his three kingdoms and given strength to the various bodies of self-interest who were opposed to his Catholicism on the grounds of their own narrow religious inclinations.

On 10th June 1688 James’ wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a male heir and the concerns of many of these bodies now crystallised and plotting for a military overthrow of the British Kingdom which had been on-going since April now burgeoned into action.

James' wife, Mary of Modena

James’ wife, Mary of Modena


Chief amongst these holders of vested interest was the Dutch Parliament, the States-General. The smouldering embers of the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-78 now re-ignited as this august body, envisaging a formal Catholic Alliance between the British and French thrones with the consequent damage to Dutch interests, moved to direct military intervention.

The Dutch States General in 1688. The principal instigators of the successful invasion of the United Kingdom.

The Dutch States General in 1688. The principal instigators of the successful invasion of the United Kingdom.

William’s fleet of some 500 ships, probably four times greater than the legendary Spanish Armada of 1588, set sail after on 1st November and made landfall at Torbay in Devon 4 days later. 21, 000 hostile and, mostly foreign troops stepped ashore with the Dutch Parliament’s front man, prepared to conquer the kingdom by force of arms.

William lands at Torbay

William lands at Torbay

Amongst their number walked that intrepid military opportunist Hugh MacKay. Under whose generalship  William’s now British Army would be destroyed at Killiecrankie the following summer.

Concern about the threat of a Dutch invasion had been clear for many months. In September King James had written to the Scots Privy Council with instructions that Scotland’s entire standing army, with the exception of the garrisons of Edinburgh, Stirling and Dumbarton Castle should forthwith heads south, initially to Carlisle and thence to Chester.


It has been argued cogently that these forces could do nothing to stem the progress of William’s invasion force and that had they remained then Dundee would have had considerably greater resources to hand when the decisive Scottish encounter was fought at Killiecrankie ten months later. But this is to surrender to the vicissitudes of hindsight.


One week after William’s forces landed, James raised the faithful Claverhouse to the Scottish peerage, conferring upon him the title Viscount of Dundee.


Meantime William’s army sat inactive at Exeter. King James’ forces took up station at Salisbury to block the route to London. And on 17th November the King left the capitol to take up personal command of the army.

James’ timorous nature and clumsy handling of his regal responsibilities now began to bear fruit as many of his senior commanders, more mindful of their personal interests than of their proper, sworn loyalty to their rightful monarch, now began to melt away.


Given this encouragement, William began to advance from Exeter and as they reached Wincanton, the increasingly irresolute James withdrew the army to Reading.


The newly ennobled Bonnie Dundee had watched James’ futile efforts at warfare and the treachery which had done much to make it so, with increasing dismay. Maintaining the Scottish cavalry as a single coherent body he marched it to Reading.

At this point he then endeavoured to present to his monarch the three realistic options which he now believed to face him: to give battle to William, to meet with him personally and negotiate a position or to “make his way to Scotland, upon the coldness he observed in the English army and nation”.

Viscount Dundee

Viscount Dundee


The accounts of the battle itself are brief and depressingly similar with the suspicion of convenient re-interpretation inevitably hanging heavily in the air. A contingent of Dutch troops, some 250 in number, against the town. They engaged a portion of James’ army, mostly Irish, and within a short period of time had mastered them. Much is made of the apparent efforts of Reading citizens to our hostile fire from their windows into the ranks of the home army but it stretches credibility somewhat.


Nonetheless, the outcome is beyond dispute and any realistic military opposition in England to the hostile Dutch invasion had come to an end.


The dismal consequences of this require no repetition: William and his spouse were installed first as joint rulers of England then at a disastrous Convention in Edinburgh in March, the decision was taken to confer the Scottish Crown upon them. Dundee’s subsequent military campaign to restore King James to his throne effectively ended at the Battle if Killiecrankie where Dundee fell at the moment of victory.


The unhappy litany of disaster then continues with such notable events as the Massacre of Glencoe and the signing of the Act of Union in 1707.










17 January 1746, the Battle of Falkirk (II)

The 1745 Jacobite Rising lasted nine short months, from Charles Edward landing on Eriskay in July until the destruction of the Army at Culloden the following April. During this time there were three major battlefield engagements and at least two minor skirmishes. Charlie’s Jacobite Army won all of these engagements bar one.

You could fill a book analysing the reasons for the failure of the Rising. Many people have. It is this writer’s view that failure was inevitable. However, the military performance of the Jacobite Army throughout this campaign cannot be gainsaid.

The history of the Rising, commonly given to us, highlights; the Jacobite victory at Prestonpans, deemed to be simply lucky; the drive south into England which reached Derby before turning for home when victory was seemingly within their grasp; then the final denouement at Culloden with the apparently inevitable victory of professional, experienced British troops over badly organised, badly led, uncivilized highlanders.

This superficial assessment of events fails to recognise the two key conclusions that a proper, balanced analysis would reach. Firstly, the Jacobite Army was an extremely effective military force. Secondly, as was so often the case since its inception under Cromwell, the performance of the British Army was utterly sub-standard.

In this post we’re focusing on Falkirk, the second of the three battles, using it an attempt to answer two questions. How good a military force was the Jacobite Army, particularly the generalship, and how good or bad were the British Army who opposed them?

The Commanders

Lord George Murray commanded the Jacobite Army at Falkirk. At fifty years of age he had significant previous form with respect to Jacobite Risings. Out in the 1715 event, he commanded one of the three Atholl regiments in the Earl of Mar’s Army during this campaign and fought in the defeat at the Battle of Preston in November where he was taken prisoner. He escaped and made his way to France. In the 1719 Rising he had a prominent role at the Battle of Glenshiel, the only field action fought during that campaign. Murray commanded the right wing and was wounded during the action but escaped the field.

Lord George Murray de facto military commander during the '45

Lord George Murray de facto military commander during the ’45

He returned to Scotland in 1724 and was pardoned by the Government the following year. When Charles arrived at Blair Atholl in September 1745 at the head of the newly assembled army, Murray joined and was installed as Lieutenant-General. By the time the first battle of the campaign was fought, at Prestonpans on 21st September, Murray was virtually in full military command. However, Charles, as commander-in-chief was never fully comfortable with this arrangement and the relationship between the two men, both personally and in matters military was often disputatious. It was on Murray’s initiative that the bold move was taken the night before Prestonpans to change flanks by taking his infantry in narrow file across the marsh before falling on Cope’s redcoats, annihilating the British Government’s force.

This victory aligned with his comfortable command over the mostly highland army put him in a strong position. However, Charles was less than comfortable with him on a personal level from the outset and his counsellor’s dripped poison in his ear regarding Murray at every opportunity.

Murray was opposed to the Prince’s plan to march into England and at Derby he led the arguments in favour of retreating northwards. A decision which Charles was fully opposed to but had little choice other than to concur with in the face of almost unanimous agreement amongst the chiefs.

As the army made its way back north Murray took command of the rearguard, with redcoat detachments maintaining a continuous presence at his rear and flank. Twelve days, and almost two hundred miles into this ordeal when they reached Clifton Moor in Cumbria, Murray turned his rearguard of several hundred men around and engaged an enemy contingent of similar size under the personal command of the Duke of Cumberland, sending word up the line to Charles of his intentions.

Once again Murray won the day. And the Jacobite Army was able to continue its northward march untroubled by further enemy interference.

Henry Hawley commanded the Hanoverian force that was to fight at Falkirk. He was 67 years old and, like Murray, a Lieutenant-General. He too had previous form in Jacobite Risings. As Lieutenant-Colonel of the 19th Regiment of foot he fought at, and was wounded in, the Battle of Sheriffmuir. Which was fought on the same day as Murray led his force at Preston.

General Henry Hawley. Commander of the losing side at the battle.

General Henry Hawley. Commander of the losing side at the battle.

His upward progress in the British Army continued at a steady pace and in 1743 he was second-in-command of the cavalry at the Battle of Dettingen, during the War of the Austrian Succession. A commander with a particularly harsh reputation in a particularly harsh environment, James Wolfe once said of him “The troops dread his severity, hate the man and hold his military knowledge in contempt.”

On 29th December 1745, following General Cope’s disastrous defeat at Prestonpans, Hawley was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of George’s forces in Scotland. Following the destruction of his own command at Falkirk, he was involved at Culloden in the aftermath of which he further enriched his reputation for brutality in dealing with the prisoners of war.
The Armies

The Jacobite army consisted entirely of volunteers, not all of whom were convinced of the possibility of success. Prince Charles’ arrival on Eriskay on 2nd August 1745 with but seven companions was largely unexpected by those who he hoped to lead. Twenty six years had elapsed since the last failed restoration attempt and the weapons had long been lying under the thatch. Nonetheless, he made his way to Moidart on the mainland and, crucially, managed to convince both MacDonald of Clanranald and Cameron of Lochiel to commit to this fresh attempt. The fiery cross was duly sent out and the Prince penned many letters with the rally set for Glenfinnan on 19th August.
The Standard was raised, as it had been on four previous occasions and the Rising was on. Albeit the army at this point comprised little more than 1000 men, virtually all Highlanders.

In the traditional manner of Highland armies whether under the command of Montrose, Dundee or the Prince, this force would grow then shrink in size and grow again on a continual basis as the individual clan Chiefs took it upon themselves to be part of it or not. By the time they reached Derby in early December it was no more than 4000 strong. And the force that Murray commanded at Falkirk was at its largest with a strength of some 8000 men.

King George’s armies were of a different nature altogether. These were paid professionals benefitting from formal training and for the most part combat-experienced from either the continental battlefields of the War of the Austrian Succession, or from the subjugation of various indigenous peoples across the world.

When General Cope watched his defeated men flee the field at Prestonpans, the 2,500 men he saw disappear into the distance was probably more than the force that had routed them. During the rest of the campaign the redcoat army would outnumber the Jacobites. Hawley’s command at Falkirk being in the order of 9000 men.

In terms of cavalry the Jacobites had little to speak of and none that could be effectively deployed at a tactical level on the battlefield. The welcome arrival of French troops later in the campaign, in the form of the Irish Brigade provided some additional cavalry who were deployed in a peripheral role at both Falkirk and Culloden.

The Armies’ Performance Prior to Falkirk

In the first four months of the Campaign Murray had marched his little Army out of the Highlands and taken the Capital, unopposed by enemy forces. He’d destroyed the first army sent against him at the Battle of Prestonpans. He had then marched them all the way to Derby through what was unmistakably hostile territory, regardless of the false hopes held by Prince Charles and his immediate circle that huge numbers of latent, English-born Jacobites would flock to their banner.

On the way back, harried by redcoat soldiery at rear and flank, he had turned a portion of his force around and dealt a decisive blow against these, allowing the army to continue their return to Scotland without further menace.

By contrast the performance of King George’s men looked pretty poor. Having failed to stamp out the rebellion in its crucial, nascent stage they had then been forced to abandon Edinburgh to their enemy. Given the opportunity to crush it at a full, formal field engagement at the Battle of Prestonpans. Which was exactly the type of engagement where the esteemed quality of the British Army’s training, equipment, leadership and martial stock, provided huge superiority. And they failed utterly.

General Cope, as so many redcoat generals before and since, succumbed to the delusions they cherished so dearly. That there enemy was an undisciplined rabble, poorly armed and poorly led. Blinded by the chasm he believed to exist between his force’s superiority in all military aspects and the paucity of those of the Jacobites, he was outthought, outfought and completely outgeneraled. Like Cope, like Chelmsford at Isandlwana, Burgoyne at Saratoga, Percival at Singapore. Hubris abounded.

Granted when Murray viewed the dispositions of the two sides the evening before Prestonpans it would have given him cause for thought. Particularly with his personal experience of battlefield defeats against just this type of force. It’s at times like this that a resourceful commander has to think outside the box. Exactly as Cromwell did with his flank march across the Pennines prior to the destruction of the Scots Engagement army at the first battle of Preston in 1648, or moving front by ninety degrees under cover of darkness as, again versus the Scots, at Dunbar in 1650.

It could be argued that Murray was fortunate to have at his side a man with the key local knowledge of the path through the marshy ground which allowed the outflanking to take place. History has proven that able commanders make their own luck.


Now, early in the New Year of 1746, despite their unquestioned success on the battlefield up to this point, the Jacobite Campaign was in a poor position. All could see now that there would be no further support than that already shown, whether political or military. England was a busted flush so if final success was to be achieved it would have to be found in Scotland. And so they moved to besiege Stirling Castle, in the absence of any other constructive option.

A fresh Hanoverian army had came north under the previously mentioned General Hawley. And in early January it left Edinburgh to attack them. Fortunately for the Jacobites, Hawley was as much a typical product of the school of redcoat generalship as Cope.

As Hawley reached Linlithgow, the Jacobite advance guard moved back and Murray made preparations for a full engagement at Plean on 15th January.
Hawley, however, having reached Falkirk, moved into a most comfortable billet and showed no signs of moving against them, as he engaged with local sympathetic nobility and enjoyed their hospitality to the fullest. His army was encamped some 2000 yards away.

Once again, as one commander sat on his arse convinced of his forces’ superiority over his enemy, said enemy then exercised his resourcefulness to the fullest. Early on 17th January Murray led the Jacobite army directly towards Hawley’s encampment at Falkirk. His approach was designed to bring his army onto the high ground above the Hanoverians. Exactly the same approach used by Dundee when he left Blair Castle on the morning of Killiecrankie in July 1689 seeking General MacKay’s redcoats during the first Jacobite Rising.

As was his wont the marching order of the army was determined by the order of battle with the MacDonald’s promised the right wing of any battle to be fought that day: Keppoch’s regiment led the van, some 450 strong with Clanranald and the Glengarry men following.

At about 1 o’clock in the afternoon word was brought to Hawley that the Jacobite army approached. Unbelievably, Hawley chose to ignore this intelligence. Clearly no reconnaissance was being conducted and if Hawley had posted some form of rudimentary advance guard then posterity has failed to record the details. By 2 o’clock the attack was imminent. A further message was conveyed to the good general, by te commendable General Huske, outlining the peril of their position and this, it seems, was enough to move Hawley out of his chair.

As he galloped into the camp, sans hat and breathing heavily, his men were already preparing to move out and they headed up the hill in a relatively orderly if somewhat hurried manner. Their artillery train of ten stout cannon, however, became stuck in the mud at the foot of the hill and would be unavailable to them in the imminent action. This would be a boon to the Jacobites when you recall the early damage wrought on their line at Culloden when Cumberland had the full train at his disposal.


The Initial Dispositions

The first redcoat troops to reach the top of the hill were the dragoons. They could clearly see the Jacobite army approaching from the right. They proceeded on for several hundred yards until stopped by boggy ground, then wheeled right ready for action as the remainder of Hawley’s infantry then took position to the right of them as the Jacobite force opposite them formed up into line of battle.

At this point it seems the calm but cold weather conditions which had prevailed all day now deteriorated significantly, with strong wind and stinging raining now enveloping the battlefield. The rain was to have a major detrimental impact on the performance of all the muskets deployed on the field. Another element which would favour the more lightly armed Jacobites whose weapon of choice was the broadsword.

The opposing forces stood opposite each other for some quarter of an hour while their dispositions were completed in the lashing rain (see map). The redcoat front line comprised the three regiments of dragoons on the left and six regiments of infantry. Their second line comprised a further five infantry regiments with the Glasgow and Campbell militias posted a little to the rear in keeping with the British military doctrine of the time.

The best of the many maps of the Battle of Falkirk, From Katherine Tomasson's seminal biography of Lord George Murray

The best of the many maps of the Battle of Falkirk, From Katherine Tomasson’s seminal biography of Lord George Murray

The Jacobite were deployed in three lines with all their cavalry deployed in the rear rank as reserve. Their front line of 10 clan regiments was some 4000 men strong.

Due to the haphazard manner in which they had been brought to the field by their commander in the first place and the limitation placed on their initial dispositions by the boggy ground in the second, the redcoats had to make do with the lie of the land as they found it. The luxury of fighting on chosen ground a la Napoleon at Austerlitz or Wellington at Waterloo having been denied them by the incompetence of their general. The problem that they faced was the huge ravine which is the prominent feature on the battlefield even to this day.
During this period Lord George Murray stood at the front of the Jacobite right wing, in front of Keppoch’s men with targe and broadsword in hand. Beside him stood his aide-de-camp Anderson of Whitburgh, the invaluable young man who had guided the army through the morass before the attack at Prestonpans. Word was brought to Murray by Colonel Stewart who had been sent to reconnoitre the enemy position that there was no infantry support behind the redcoat dragoons.


The Battle Begins

At about four o’clock Hawley started the ball rolling and ordered the aforementioned dragoons on the right to charge. During their march to the field and as they formed up on it, the entire Jacobite army had been a model of military discipline. This continued now as the dragoon charge drew near. Every man on the right wing with a firearm awaited the signal from Murray before firing at the enemy. The ripple of fire ran down the whole wing and some eighty redcoat saddles were emptied.

This was enough for the rest who turned and bolted. Crashing in amongst the infantry regiment who were now the end of the line, they swept away the Glasgow militia and disappeared from the battlefield.


The Highlanders Charge

Whether directed by Murray or by their Chiefs, the MacDonalds now launched the full-throated highland charge which had been so effective on battlefields for centuries.

These were the men who would, of their own volition, charge again at Culloden three months later. Each of them having witnessed first hand on two previous occasions thick, red lines of British infantry disappearing like snow off a dyke in the face of such irresistible ferocity.

Within seconds the MacDonalds and the Athollmen who had stood behind them in the second rank, were in among the redcoat infantry with broadsword and dirk. Nine of the redcoat infantry regiments from both ranks now began to unfurl like ripped knitting. Only the three regiments from the right wing who had formed up on the other side of the ravine, having had no other option, were able to make a stand and the remnants of the other nine sought shelter behind them as they tried to conduct a fighting retreat of the hill.

Hawley’s second in command, Major Huske, who appeared to conduct himself on the day to a standard far higher than that of his commander, now sought to rally the lurking remnants one of the dragoon regiments, Cobham’s. Having done so they now, to their credit, launched a fresh attack on the Jacobite forces nearest them. However, the French troops of the Irish Piquets, counter attacked and drove them in turn from the field.

In due course Murray found himself at the bottom of the hill beside Hawley’s stranded cannon having a discussion with the Prince and his advisors concerning their next move.

From the initial charge of the dragoons the whole action had probably taken about ninety minutes. A second redcoat army had been driven from the field albeit without their complete destruction. But, as is always the case in the history of the Jacobite risings, there would be another one along soon.

28th August 1640, the Battle of Newburn Ford

Newburn was the only battle fought during the Second Bishops War, an even more obscure campaign then the First Bishops War.

It was one of those unusual occasions when a Scottish army marched south, conducted itself in commendable martial fashion against an admittedly ill-led, ill-prepared English opposition and won the day handsomely. Its worth looking at just on the basis of this rarity alone.

Of itself the battle had a profound impact, playing a key role in the prolonged deterioration of the relationship between Charles I and his English Parliament which led to the regicide of said monarch and all the unfortunate train of events which then ensued; the war of the Three Kingdoms, the Cromwellian Interregnum, the Restoration, James II’s disasterous reign, William’s usurpation, the Jacobite Risings, the Union of the Crowns and so on ad infinitum.

This war, as with its predecessor, arose from the belief amongst Covenanting Scots that the aforementioned Covenant could only be defended on the field of battle and so a sizeable Scottish Army, of some 20,000 infantry and 3, 000 horse, headed south in mid August in order to pursue the resolution of their grievances with King Charles’ military representatives. An army assembled by the unconstitutional authority of a Parliament which convened itself without the constitutionally essential Royal Commissioner and in the face of the King’s direct instruction for proroguement, declaring the King’s consent to be tacit. It was the same fiction by which the Long Parliament would be subsequently convened at Westminster


Command of this army was given to Alexander Leslie, one of the foremost military commanders in Scottish and Swedish history. 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 Flodden.

Alexander Leslie

King Charles, meanwhile, struggled to field a presentable force and was compelled to call the Short Parliament that he might raise the necessary supplies for it. Sadly, for this noble monarch, his persuasive efforts, as was so often the case, proved fruitless and he dissolved this august body of men.

Charles I, King of both the victors and the vanquished at Newburn Ford.

Charles I, King of both the victors and the vanquished at Newburn Ford.

The English army was commanded by Edward, Lord Conway. This would prove to be the only occasion that the good lord was entrusted to command men in battle, during his brief military career.

As Leslie’s army approached Newcastle’s unfortified flank from the north, Conway drew up his force at Newburn Ford to prevent his enemy crossing the river. There was, to be fair, little else he could do as the Scots Army greatly outnumbered his and the quality of men under his command led a great deal to be desired, according to various contemporary accounts.

Leslie’s army was on higher ground and well blessed with cannon which it used to shell the English into an early and full-scale retreat from the river bank. The following morning the city of Newcastle meekly surrendered.

Leslie's Scottish Army crosses Newburn Ford having blown the English soldiery out of their positions and into full-scale retreat

Leslie’s Scottish Army crosses Newburn Ford having blown the English soldiery out of their positions and into full-scale retreat

The battle had no small significance to the constitutional future of both kingdoms and was won in an afternoon with only sixty dead on the losing side and around a dozen from the victors.

The Covenanting Army then proceeded to occupy Newcastle, thus controlling the supply of coal to London and Charles was compelled to agree the raising of a levy from the surrounding district to maintain the occupying force in victuals.


The ramifications of Leslie’s victory went far beyond the mere financial and the dizzy descent into the War of the Three Kindoms gathered apace.


21 August 1689, the Battle of Dunkeld: the end of the Covenant Cause

In the previous post we looked once more at the Battle of Killiecrankie where King James II’s army in Scotland had triumphed over that of William, the Usurper. But in the course of the engagement, Viscount Dundee, James’ Lieutenant-General and architect of the victory, had suffered a mortal wound and with his death the chances of ultimate success in the Campaign were dealt a grievous blow.

Within days of the battle, the Jacobite army, now under the command of Colonel Alexander cannon, who had brought the Irish reinforcements across the previous month, pulled back north into safer territory.

The Privy Council, close to panic and with little military resources to hand following the virtual complete destruction of MacKay’s command, ordered the newly formed Earl of Angus’ Regiment to advance from Perth and engage the Jacobite Army.

Said Regiment, some twelve hundred strong, was largely formed from the Cameronians, followers of Richard Cameron, known to posterity as the Lion of the Covenant, who had met his death leading an unsuccessful rebellion against Scottish Government forces at the Battle of Airds Moss in 1680.

As would be expected from such men they were fiercely loyal to the Covenant and each company was required to have an elder in addition to a Cameronian chaplain to ensure adherence to their idiosyncratic religious views.

Dundee’s strength had been in forging the Jacobite Army in the first place, bringing together strongly minded but prickly clan chiefs and maintaining them in the field for the months of the campaign prior to Killiecrankie. Cannon was not so gifted. Few men are. And although he was able to hold the force together some chiefs took themselves off home, Cameron of Lochiel and MacDonald of Sleat specifically. However, they left their men under Cannon’s command, which still numbered over 3000 men, notwithstanding the losses suffered in the battle.

When news reached the Jacobites that the Cameronians had advanced to Dunkeld with the intention of moving on to take and hold Blair Castle, Cannon moved his men southwards again, to engage and destroy Angus’ regiment.

The military situation now was very different from that of three weeks previously. In the days prior to Killiecrankie, General MacKay’s overriding concern had been in bringing Dundee to battle. The overwhelming superiority of his men’s fighting qualities, their training and equipment and the leadership abilities of his officers was, he believed, significant in all aspects to that of his enemy. This view, naturally, would be shared by said enemy and so he believed that they would only with the greatest reluctance engage his force in combat. Thus when he led his men out of Dunkeld on the fateful morning of the battle, and through the defile of the Pass of Killiecrankie, he had little concern as to the possibility that the Jacobite Army might seek and secure favourable ground on which to engage MacKay’s troops.

This hubris was to prove his undoing and it was largely due to the fact that Dundee had been able to unleash the full ferocity of the highland charge down a steep slope that led to MacKay’s complete defeat.

The commander of Angus’ Regiment, Colonel William Cleland, a veteran of Bothwell Bridge, who had considerably less military experience than General MacKay but a more realistic appreciation of the martial abilities of the two sides, sought on this occasion to take up an initial position which was, in defensive terms, considerably stronger.

An aeriel view of Dunkeld today. Largely unchamged since the battle was fought there.

An aeriel view of Dunkeld today. Largely unchamged since the battle was fought there.

Dunkeld then, as now, is a small and compact settlement with the few streets set out closely around the cathedral and the mansions of the Bishop and Marquis of Atholl. Cleland’s men had fortified themselves in a strong position in the houses in the centre of the town backed onto the Cathedral precincts and awaited the attack of the Jacobite Army which outnumbered them in the order of three to one.

And at about seven o’clock on the morning of 21 August the Cannon launched the Jacobite Army in a full-scale assault on all sides of Cleland’s position. As the bitter hand to hand struggle progressed throughout the morning, Cleland’s men were gradually forced back towards the Cathedral with Cleland himself killed at an early stage in the fight.


By noon, however, a stalemate had been reached, with the Jacobite Army unable to make any further progress against their enemy and they disengaged from the action, retreating back to the north. King

William Cleland commanding the Earl of Angus' regiment during the battle.

William Cleland commanding the Williamite forces during the battle.

William’s men had suffered great losses but they had won the day and the momentum which the Jacobites had gathered from their victory at Killiecrankie was now all but completely dissipated.

Cleland's monument

Cleland’s monument

History would prove that the high water mark in the fortunes of the Jacobite cause had been reached and despite further risings in 1708, 1715, 1719 and 1745, the Stuarts would come no closer to re-securing the throne.

But what of the Covenant that other complex, mystical and symbolic cause for which so many men and women had fought since the original document was first penned in 1638, some fifty years previously?

Dunkeld was the last battle that could be said, in any small measure, to have been fought in its name, albeit for the cause of an uncovenanted king. Fifty years of struggle had gained it nothing and “it faded away, impotent and gloomy, like one of Ossian’s ghosts. From that day on it had no authority in Scotland, and no living relation to the church.

Even more so it is clear that the cause of the Covenant and the input of Covenanters and strict Presbyterians of all shades had played no part in those events which had brought about the change of monarchy and all that followed on, for better or worse, mostly the latter, from what became known as the Glorious Revolution.

And going forward it would be more moderate and temperate views that prevailed in defining the role of the Kirk in Scottish life

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