Ireland’s Wars: MacColla And Montrose In Scotland

Away from events in Ireland in this entry, to discuss the more tangible effect the Confederates had on the war in Britain.

Randal McDonald was the Earl of Ulster at the time of the Confederate Wars. The MacDonald presence in Antrim had become recognised by London since the end of the Nine Years War but their Catholic nature and acrimonious streak were never likely to be let go. Randal, despite evidence that he was involved in the initial plots of 1641, had remained nominally neutral during the early part of the war, but it was not long before he was regarded as an enemy and captured, placed in Carrickfergus on the orders of Robert Monro.

Randal would wind up escaping to England, returning home, being captured again, and escaping yet again over the next while (noble prisoners at the time were frequently under guarded, usually in a form of house arrest, and even Charles was able to escape from captivity without much trouble later in the war), becoming one of the leading royalist Earls at the same time. Travelling to and from England, he became an important go between when it came to the negotiations between the Confederates and Ormonde. While Randal was probably far from gung-ho about the Confederate cause, much like Castlehaven, they suited his immediate situation. The Confederate leadership recognised the advantages of having someone like the Earl of Antrim onside, made him part of their governing council, and even gave him a general’s commission.

Antrim, under pressure from the King, was constantly agitating for attacks into Ulster and for expeditions to be sent across the sea to aid Charles, ideas that the Confederates were ill-disposed to agree to, for reasons already discussed. Charles was having extensive troubles in the north of England, where an invasion from the Scottish Covenanters had led to a decisive defeat for the royalists at Marston Moor, which essentially left the north in the hands of the Scottish and the Parliamentarians. The King hoped that a rising of his supporters in Scotland, combined with Irish troops, could swing things back in his favour in the region. Antrim, growing tired of his apparent lack of control in Ireland, made his own plans. Those plans depended heavily on a man named Alasdair MacColla.

MacColla was a member of the MacDonald clan, who aside from holding land in what we recognise today as Antrim, were also a power in Scotland, in the western Highlands, where they had a bitter enmity with the Protestant Campbell clan, the MacDonalds being mostly Catholic. Shortly before the Confederate War broke out in Ireland, MacColla had been forced to flee Scotland due to a Campbell assault, their rivals being firm Covenanters whereas the MacDonald’s were more predisposed to Charles.

MacColla, living in exile under the Earl of Antrim, was swept up into the violence of 1641, joining the cause of Phelim O’Neill and leading a group of men during the fighting in Ulster, made up of native Irish, MacDonald’s from Antrim and exiled Highlanders from MacDonald lands in Scotland who had left with him. Operating as a mobile guerrilla force, they inflicted harsh punishment on whatever Protestant forces were in their path, and were implicated in several massacres. While their overall effect was less than MacColla’s reputation, they were still a problem, operating on the run and fighting savagely, bringing a Highland way of battle to Ulster.

This was seen most effectively in one of MacColla’s favoured tactics, the “Highland charge”, which he is often credited with perfecting in the gunpowder age. This involved groups of men running towards the enemies in wedges, stopping before physical contact to fire off whatever guns they had, and then charging directly into the opposing line without reloading, fighting only with melee weapons, if even those. This tactic took advantage of the fact that guns at the time could take anywhere from 20 to 40 seconds to reload depending on the skill of the gunner, so the defending force would only have time to fire one volley, if even that. It also took advantage of the general lightness of the Highland soldier which allowed him to run faster, and his greater expertise in hand-to-hand fighting. By all accounts, a Highland charge was a terrifying thing to encounter, that routinely caused opposing troops to flee. MacColla himself, recorded as nearly seven foot tall and carrying a claymore into batte, was a terrifying figure.

MacColla fought hard in the early years of the war, sustaining several critical wounds in an assault on Lurgen. In 1644, the Earl of Antrim – MacColla’s nominal superior – selected him to head his plan.

That plan was to lead an expedition of Irish troops to join in the war then engulfing Scotland. Scotland had a relatively peaceful start to the English Civil War, but by 1644 royalist elements in the country were getting more and more agitated, opposed to the Covenanter majority. That clash, as things tended to do in the Scottish highlands, characterised itself as just another continuation of the Campbell/MacDonald feud, but it would need a kick start if it was to really get going.

The Confederate government, while doing nothing to really aid the expedition more than they had to, were happy to see MacColla go. It showed that they were willing to aid Charles and his cause more directly, and more importantly, by sending troops to Scotland they would be able to tie-down Covenanter forces that may have been on their way to Ireland. MacColla’s troops, thanks to the continuing domination of Monro in Ulster, were probably better served being sent to Scotland anyway, where they would have a chance to be useful. They were also persuaded by Ormonde’s supplies of transport and money to the expedition, leaving the Confederates only with the job of arming them – a job they largely failed to do properly, leading to delays in the expedition’s departure.

Mac Colla was eager to return home and enact some revenge on the Campbell’s at any rate, and eagerly took up command of his small expeditionary force, which would have numbered little more than 1’500 to 2’000 men.  Despite their small size, they were nearly all battle-hardened fighting men, who had been warring in Ulster for several years.

The major figure on the royalist side in Scotland was James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose. Though he had started off the war as a Covenanter – he was himself, Protestant – he had, like so many others, switched sides, believing that in Charles he had the right patron who could help him defeat his Campbell rivals, and rein in the power of the Scottish bishops, whom he disliked. Montrose, painted by contemporaries as a dashing, almost romantic figure, would raise his standard at Blair Atholl, pledging to re-install the authority of the King.

A young, daring commander, fighting for his King against overwhelming odds and with limited resources, it was easy to see why Montrose was viewed the way that he was. It belies the reality though, which was the fact that Montrose’s campaigns were savage wars against his Campbell enemies, which often turned to targeting civilians.

MacColla, travelling from the port of Waterford, had arrived in Scotland by July. He appears to have archived a complete measure of surprise, and was able to land at Ardnamurcham, quickly capture a local castle and then march inland without much harassment, destroying Protestant and Campbell property as he did so, and recruiting more men from sympathetic local clans. Soon, they were able to meet up with the forces of Montrose, travelling from the south. The meeting was not planned – MacColla had in fact, been hoping to meet with Marquis of Huntley, whose rebellion had already been neutered before MacColla arrived – but proved beneficial to both sides.

Montrose had problems recruiting – he had already attempted a royalist rising in Scotland earlier in the year that had ended ingloriously –  so the arrival of MacColla’s forces was a God send. And MacColla could not hope to achieve much by himself as well, and needed a more local figurehead to guide his forces and encourage Highlanders to join him. While their combined numbers were still quite small – not many more than 3’000 troops – it was still enough to cause a great deal of problems for the Covenanters, much of whose forces were engaged in Ulster and elsewhere. What was left in Scotland would have been untested in battle, which would be an absolutely crucial difference.

Montrose’s army, with MacColla and his regiments forming its core, now ,marched southwards to Perth, a major Covenanter city on the River Tay that controlled the routes into the Highlands. Three miles outside of it, on the 1st of September, they faced their first major test in the form of a rapidly assembled Covenanter army under Davud Wemyss, the Lord Elcho. The size of that army is, as is typical, in dispute. Sources sympathetic to the Irish claim that the Covenanter force outnumbered that of the Royalists by three to one, with 7’000 infantry and 700 horse facing 2’000 infantry and 150 horse. It is likely that the army Elcho commanded was much smaller than this, but he still should have had more men. The vastly different amounts of troops available to each side seemed to portend disaster for Montrose, but it would only add to his mystique later.

Montrose knew that his one key advantage was in the experience and fighting skill of what troops he had, so he knew that he must be aggressive. At the Battle of Tippermuir, the plain outside Perth where the clash took place, he placed the Irish troops under MacColla dead centre, putting himself on the right. He made a line only three men deep, thin, but then outflanking that of the enemy. His army was not even properly armed according to sources, with Montrose encouraging his forces to carry rocks with them when they charged so that they could bludgeon the enemy to death and take their weapons.

Montrose and other commanders were able to deflect flank assaults by Elcho’s cavalry, despite being outnumbered, and then actually drove the opposing flanks back ward with aggressive charges, though it cost them greatly in what few horses they had. In the middle, the Irish and Highlanders, with their patented charge, did the rest, smashing the Covenanter army completely and putting it to rout. 2’000 of them died in the headlong retreat back to Perth, with many civilians from the town, who had come out in expectation of seeing a Covenanter victory, being caught up in the confusion.

It was undoubtedly a great victory, and a nasty shock to the Covenanters in Scotland, but Montrose was soon beset by other problems. Many of his Highlanders went home after the battle, believing their service to be done, wanting to protect the plunder they had taken from Perth and fearful of further engagements destroying what strength they had to resist the Campbell’s. Montrose was down to less than 50 cavalry troops following Tippermuir, and with his limited infantry numbers could not hope to actually hold the captured Perth. This was especially true when word came that the Marquis of Argyll, the head of the Campbell clan and de facto leader of wartime Scotland, was leading an army north to face down Montrose.

Rather than give in to these problems and withdraw, Montrose instead changed course, and made for the port city of Aberdeen. Aberdeen was more lightly garrisoned and defended, and being the main Covenanter port, it was a tempting target, though taking it with what few men Montrose had would still be difficult. His rapid march north-east managed to suck in 500 more Highlanders or so and is indicative of his aggressive, swash-bucking style of command.

Less than two weeks after Tippermuir, Montrose was on the outskirts of Aberdeen, but faced a challenge. Aberdeen’s defence was led by a Lord Balfour of Burleigh, and though he did not have as many troops as Elcho had, he still outnumbered Montrose by around a thousand men, and had a very large superiority in horses.

Montrose demanded Aberdeen surrender. The towns leaders refused, and some of the messengers who brought the demand were apparently fired upon, an event that is used, perhaps, to excuse much of the slaughter that occurred later.

The Battle of Aberdeen was largely a replication of the Tippermuir, just on a slightly smaller scale. Again, Montrose stretched his lines as much as he could so that his opponent was outflanked, and again he left the centre to MacColla. The Covenanters had set up in a good position, on a ridge looking down on their enemy, but suffered due to having too many nobles in positions of command, which led to arguments and indecisiveness.

Montrose’s cavalry, working well in conjunction with their infantry, were able to deflect enemy attacks,  forcing Burleigh’s horse back. At one point, the well-trained and strong-willed infantry defeated a cavalry charge by opening up their ranks to let the horse through their lines, before opening fire at their backs. Then came another Highland charge in the centre, uphill this time, with another disintegration of the Covenanter side. The casualties were lighter, but the result was still the same.

While no great pillage of Perth is recorded, it is known that a sack took place in Aberdeen following its fall, with three days of looting, rape and plundering by Montrose’s forces, which he appears to have done nothing to try and curtail. The blood was up after the shooting incident before the battle, and Montrose was not in a forgiving mood. This episode did much to damage his reputation in Scotland, and engender greater hatred of his Irish troops, who were seen as bloodthirsty foreign mercenaries by the Protestants of Scotland.

With the advancing Argyll not far off, Montrose could not stay in Aberdeen, and before the 19th of September, he had taken his army and their plunder and moved into the Highlands, there to continue his campaigns against his Covenanter enemies. Montrose and MacColla had forged an effective partnership that had already archived great things, between Montrose’s strategic vision and commitment to the offensive, and MacColla’s hard fighting nature and unquestionable bravery. And while both men were Scottish, it was the Irish troops under their command who were making the crucial difference in the north of Britain.

That partnership would go to achieve further things, some great, some not so great, before the war was over in Scotland. But before we continue with their activities, we must move back to Ireland, where Thomas Preston was trying to repair his reputation.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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14 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: MacColla And Montrose In Scotland

  1. Mark Sullivan says:

    NFB’s series on the wars in the 1640s does much to show readers in England the extent of conflict in Ireland and Scotland before, during and (no doubt soon) after the main English part of the civil war. The English civil war is (or at least in my time at school used to be) such a dominant feature of history teaching in England that its events and its key personalities tend to obscure the Scottish and Irish sides of the conflict.
    But a modern book now covers the conflicts across the British Isles between the late 1630s and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660: the Scottish author Trevor Royle’s ‘The War of the Three Kingdoms’:
    Paperback: 912 pages
    Publisher: Abacus; New Ed edition (20 Jan 2005)
    ISBN-10: 0349115648
    ISBN-13: 978-0349115641
    A review by NFB of Trevor Royle’s important book is overdue. I appreciate that it was published before the NFB website was created, but NFB has a detailed knowledge of the wars that Royle’s book describes. So his view of Trevor Royle’s landmark book would be welcome.
    I should say that I enjoyed NFB’s review of Peter Heather’s ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ which was also published in 2005. I am reading Heather’s book currently. Can we hope for a review of Trevor Royle of similar length and liveliness ?

  2. HandsofBlue says:

    I actually have read Royle’s book, and have previously reviewed his piece on the War of the Roses: https://neverfeltbetter.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/the-wars-of-the-roses-englands-first-civil-war-by-trevor-royle/

    While I can’t make any promises, I might get round to reviewing Royle’s work someday, perhaps when I’ve finished off writing about the Confederate War. I certainly would consider it an important source for this series though. Thanks for reading, all feedback is appreciated.

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