In mid-September the army of James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose, was all triumphant in Scotland, having won two great and unexpected victories over its Covenanter foes. It had done so through effective use of the troops at its disposal, none less than the Ulster Irish contingent led by Alasdair MacColla.
That Irish contingent had fought hard and well, and gained quite a reputation from the differing sides of the Civil Wars. To the Royalists and the Confederates they were some of the best troops that they had, proving Irish mettle and taking the fight to the Kings enemies in a way that the Kilkenny government had largely failed to do so far. To the Covenanters and Parliamentarians, they were butchers and criminals, mercenaries involving themselves in an affair that was none of their business, and doing so in as bloody a manner as possible. What could not be denied, from either side, was that the Irish were having a great effect on the war in Scotland.
But this army, despite the victory at Aberdeen, was still small, and still needed to pick its battles. In the aftermath of that clash and the sack of the city that followed, Montrose and MacColla were forced to head west to avoid a battle with the forces of the Marquis of Argyll, the head of the much hated Campbell clan.
The fighting for the rest of that year was piecemeal and indecisive, as Montrose headed into the Highlands to avoid a confrontation and Argyll hesitantly followed. Knowing that their future welfare depended on taking advantage of the growing legend surrounding Montrose, MacColla took his leave and headed into friendlier areas of Scotland on a recruiting drive, a very necessary task, but one that left Montrose badly undermanned as many of his Irish troops went with MacColla.
But Argyll missed out on his opportunity. At the end of October he appeared to corner Montrose at Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire, but the Royalist commander had taken the high ground in front of an extremely marshy area, making any assault on his position a foolish endeavour. After two days of low-intensity fighting, both sides withdrew. The worsening weather and reduced supplies influenced the decisions of both sides. Argyll moved back to his stronghold in the city of Edinburgh, hopeful that the winter might defeat Montrose where armies had failed, while Montrose went back to Blair Atholl, the place where he had first met up with MacColla.
MacColla’s recruitment drive had some partial success, with plenty of Campbell enemies willing to join his cause, especially now that it had been proved that Argyll and his Covenanters could be beaten. The clan rivalries and disputes ran deep in Scotland, and any chance to hit back would be taken. Already, Montrose’s campaign had been marked by savage reprisals in Campbell and Campbell-friendly areas, with the Irish troops taking a full part In what were nothing less than atrocities.
But the winter proved a bad time for new recruits. As MacColla impressed upon Montrose, probably with the aid of his immediate Irish subordinate Manus O’Cahan, they couldn’t simply recruit Highlanders and then do nothing. These were tough, hard-living men, who would not tolerate simply standing around in Blair Atholl when there were Campbell’s to butcher. Despite the weather, something had to be done.
MacColla’s plan was to head south-west into the Highlands and aim for the Campbell position at Inverary, with everything in-between to be plundered or burnt. Given the fact that it was winter, this was a dangerous idea – the Highland were covered with snow and would remain so for months – and Montrose, wary that he was one of the only Royalist commanders enjoying any kind of success, worried about being drawn headfirst into internecine Scottish feuds that would not aid the cause of Charles I. But, he allowed himself to be convinced by MacColla. The rewards could be great, and the possibility of surprise was large; Argyll would never expect such an assault at that time of year.
The march, in the months of December of 1644 and January of 1645, was a brutal affair. The weather was just mild enough to allow passage through the mountain passes, and the Argyllshire area paid for it. Entire communities were destroyed by the oncoming army, homes and crops burnt, with any Campbell’s put to the sword if they were caught. Montrose went mostly unheeded, all the way to Inverary. The castle there could not be taken by the relatively meagre number of troops Montrose had, but the town could still be pillaged, and was. The death and destruction meted out here only added to the hatred given to Montrose and MacCalla from the Parliamentarians and the Covenanters, with the Irish troops especially despised. With plenty of Scottish blood in those men, they would have had few scruples about what was happening and may well have carried out such slaughter to further aggrandise their reputation as fearsome warriors.
When the path to Inverary had been all used up, Montrose simply changed direction and kept up his activities, now heading northward towards Kilcumin, near Loch Ness. Again, they went largely unopposed, free to plunder, burn and destroy any Campbell’s that crossed their path. This was why the Highlanders had largely joined up, and they were easy days for the Royalist army.
Only upon reaching Kilcumin did Montrose discover that he was walking into a trap.
Argyll, appearances to the contrary, had not been idle. Unwilling to leave anything to chance this time, he had been patient in marshalling his armies, perhaps still hoping that the weather and attrition could do what armed force had, thus far, been unable to. But by the end of January, he was willing to go back into the field himself.
Taking careful note of Montrose’s movements in the narrow passes of the Highlands, he had arranged what forces he had to try and squeeze his opponent between two points, and force a battle upon him. To the north, 5’000 Covenanters under Lord Seaford blocked Montrose’s path from Inverness, threatening any potential forward movement. Then, Argyll approached from the south with 3’000 men. His army had been swelled by veterans from the fighting in the north of England and by at least one regiment returned from Ulster. These were not the same troops that Montrose had faced before, but veteran fighting men, with battlefield experience who could not be counted upon to simply run away at the first sign of trouble. Moreover, they were better armed and better supplied than Montrose, whose army would not even have breached 1500 in number, with a tiny amount of cavalry compared to his foes.
Montrose and MacColla faced a hard choice. Reconnaissance told them that they would be outnumbered wherever they went, but less so if they faced Argyll. Moving in another direction was largely impossible, given the mountainous terrain and the poor weather. If the army was to survive, a fight would have to happen.
Montrose and MacColla choose to take the easier of the harsh options and double back, marching to meet Argyll. But Montrose, ever the daring leader, was determined not to do so on his enemy’s terms, instead seeking to surprise him as best he could.
To that end, he set off on an extraordinary flanking march over the western Highlands. Through use of local guides, invoking the hatred that his army had for the Campbell’s and just sheer determination, from the dawn of the 31st of January to the night of the 1st of February, Montrose’s army marched through the roadless, mountainous land, covering 30 miles in 36 hours, and doing so without any knowledge of it being passed to Argyll. Avoiding the actual roads, they successfully managed to reach their destination by the more rugged path. As the 2nd of February dawned, Montrose’s army prepared for battle at the castle of Inverlochy, with the Campbell Covenanters caught largely by surprise.
Montrose’s march, with the Irish in tow, was a risky move that paid off brilliantly, and just added even further to his growing legend, aided by several poets who had joined his service. With less men, his could not be a war of caution, but of action, and Montrose was lucky in having subordinates who could not only charge headfirst into battle against a numerically superior foe, but who had the grit and the will to lead and accomplish such a feat as the flank march from Kilcumin, an act of martial movement wholly unique in the Civil Wars.
The battle that took place on the 2nd of February was still going to be a difficult one. The Royalists had gained a measure of surprise, but the Covenanters were still able to form up, holding the ground between Inverlochy Castle and Loch Linnhe. They outnumbered Montrose two to one, and held the castle as a defensive point to augment their position. The Royalists arrived at the battlefield tired, hungry and footsore, facing a well-rested enemy.
But other things had already gone in Montrose and MacColla’s favour. Their enemy had never expected to fight a battle, so were mentally unprepared, roused from their beds and tents unexpectedly to fight an unlooked for battle. Argyll himself, having suffered a dislocated shoulder on the way to Inverlochy, had temporarily retired from command of his army, giving it to his kinsman, Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck, while he moved to a galley on the Loch from which he observed the day’s proceedings. And many of the Covenanter Army, the Lowlanders who had just returned from the fighting in England, were completely ignorant of the terrain where they were expected to give battle, adding to a sense of nervousness among Argyll’s troops.
The armies arraigned themselves for battle as dawn broke, with the Covenanters naturally doing do in a rush. Auchinbreck placed his Campbell troops in the centre, with the Lowlander infantry holding the flanks, in a line that had the castle as left point and a guard on its flank. Montrose did as he had before, to great effect: thinning his army to just two lines so that it outflanked that of the enemy, with Montrose himself leading the centre, and MacColla and O’Cahan commanding the regiments on either flank, with the Irish in both. His small amount of horse was kept back, ready for a killer blow.
Before the day was bright enough for the Covenanters to make a proper inspection of the battlefield, Montrose attacked. The Irish on both flanks advanced furthest, under a hail of fire from the Lowlanders they faced. As they had before, the Irish then broke into the Highland charge that MacColla so favoured: firing a single volley from their guns when within range, and then charging at the enemy screaming, brandishing swords and dirks (a long dagger) for the task.
The battle was, much to the horror of the Campbell’s, already decided. The Lowlanders on both flanks broke under the fierce assault and the Campbell line disintegrated, with whoever was left trying desperately to escape to the safety of the castle. Montrose unleashed his cavalry into the rout, and a slaughter ensued. Any Campbell captured was put to the sword, with MacColla allegedly killing Auchinbreck himself. Argyll fled by boat.
Half of the Covenanter army had been eliminated, at the cost of around 250 casualties to Montrose’s force. Unlike his previous two major engagements, this had been a fight against experienced, capable soldiers, and it had been even more of a rout than Tippermuir or Aberdeen. The power of the Campbell’s in the Highlands was totally smashed and the Royalists reigned supreme. It has been little more than a repeat of the same pattern of Tippermuir and Aberdeen.
The Highland charge, in the conditions that it was employed, was simply too much of a shock to withstand. It was the best method, given the circumstances in which Montrose operated, with which to destroy the flanks of the enemy as fast as possible. Such an act, given the numbers employed in these battles, would usually have been more than enough to cause the enemy to fracture completely, and then be easy pickings in the resulting rout. The Irish in Montrose’s army had long before become experts in such things and were truly deadly when employed in this fashion.
Everything about the victory aided the Royalists. The manner in which Montrose had been able to defeat Argyll – the flanking march through the snow, the sudden assault and the rapid rout – made the young commander seem invincible, with his vicious Irish regiments seemingly unstoppable on the battlefield. Recruitment to his army soared, with hundreds of Highlander clansmen now flocking to his banner. The Campbell’s and Covenanters withdrew from the region, licking their wounds and beset by doubts, with many blaming divine intervention, of God chastising the sinful ways of the Covenanters. That Montrose and MacColla were being likened to a scourge from the Almighty is telling of their effect.
The Irish were there at every step, and were, as they had been already repeatedly, the decisive factor. The Highland charge, when carried through with determination, was something that the Covenanters could mount no effective defence against. These regiments were proving that the Irish could not only fight, but win against their British enemies, providing greater hope for the Confederates at home, and bringing substantial aid to Charles I at a time when his fortunes were reaching a low ebb elsewhere.
We’ll come back to Montrose, MacColla and O’Cahan again. For now, we must return back to Ireland, and to the Confederate attack on the territory of Inchiquin.
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