Ireland’s Wars: The Irish And The “Annus Mirabilis”

While things were heating back up in Ireland, the war in Scotland, with Montrose’s Irish contingent in the thick of things, was continuing. The year of victories had only barely begun.

The days, weeks and months after Inverlochy were the golden time for Montrose, MacColla and O’Cahan. Having dealt a critical blow to Campbell and Covenanter power in the region with their victory, they had free reign to march into the north-eastern part of the country and rally support for the cause of King Charles. Now, men from both the highlands and the lowlands flocked to Graham’s banner, swelling his army to its largest ever size of roughly 3’000 men. Even better, some Covenanter nobles, like Lord Gordon, defected to Montrose’s side, seeing which way the wind was blowing and wanting to get a piece of what might have seemed like an inevitable victory in the country.

Suddenly, Montrose had scores of infantry, a substantial cavalry contingent, all backed up by his core of Irish troops under MacColla and O’Cahan. While their role in the army was now somewhat reduced in importance due to the arrival of the new troops, the Irish were still the best, most experienced and battle hardened soldiers that Montrose could call upon. All that being said, Graham could still have been doing better when it came to recruitment, which encouraged his movements to more friendly areas south of Loch Ness. His long term plan was probably to head further south and meet up with the remaining armies of Charles, or perhaps to swing around and threaten Edinburgh. But his plans were soon defined by what the enemy was doing.

The Covenanters, lacking the forces to immediately deal with Montrose in Scotland following the disaster at Inverlochy, were forced to detach part of their army that was engaged directly with the forces of King Charles in northern England. This army was under Sir William Baillie of Lamington, a veteran of the Thirty Years War and the Battle of Marston Moor. Exact numbers aren’t available, but Montrose would have been, once again, heavily outnumbered.

What followed was a game of move and counter-move between the two armies in the Grampian Mountains throughout March of 1645, with Montrose unwilling to bring his rapidly expanding army into a direct engagement just yet. In early April he struck out and attacked the poorly defended town of Dundee, but was forced to abandon his position shortly after capturing it, with Baillie right on his heels. The attack was probably influenced by the lack of commitment from much of his army, with many Highlanders being unwilling to simply march back and forth around Baillie’s army when there was plunder and revenge on the Campbell’s to be had.

The Covenanters now decided to try and seize the initiative decisively, though in so doing, Baillie had to ignore conventional military thinking. He split his army, sizable enough, in two, sending several infantry and cavalry units northwards under Sir John Hurry (frequently spelled “Urry”), a former Parliamentarian who had switched sides after Marston Moor. This smaller force moved ahead of Montrose and into the, now friendly, territory of the Gordon’s, burning and pillaging much as the Royalists had previously done.

Montrose, seeing the damage being done to a newly acquired ally, had to respond, and set out in pursuit of Hurry. Baillie followed him, matching Hurry’s devastation strategy wherever he went. Montrose was caught between two implacable enemies. Worse still, Hurry was able to stay far enough ahead of Montrose to be safe from attack, while close enough to continually draw the young General on, deeper and deeper northward into enemy lands.

By May, Hurry had reached the town of Inverness, near Loch Ness, where his force was supplemented by a large amount of local levies. Montrose choose to make a large camp near the village of Auldern, 15-20 miles distant, seeking shelter from the sudden arrival of torrential rainstorms.

Hurry, well informed by spies, saw an opportunity to finish his foe once and for all (and maybe steal some of the glory from Baillie). Montrose had famously affected a forced march to surprise the Covenanter army at Inverlochy, surely the Covenanters could pull the same thing? On the night of May 8th, Hurry, with his force of around 3’000 infantry and 300 cavalry, set out on a rapid march to Auldearn.

Given the weather and the, thus far in the wars, predictable nature of the Covenanter armies, few in the Royalist camp were expecting an attack. The camp was large and scattered, with the Irish core occupying the village of Auldearn itself.

The morning of the 9th of May could very easily have spelled the end for Montrose, but he and his army were saved by the blunder of Hurry’s leading detachments who, anticipating a fight, fired their guns to clear out damp powder from the barrels. The element of surprise was instantly lost, as what few sentries there were became alerted and raised the alarm.

Even then, things could still very easily gone awry, were it not for MacColla and his Irish soldiers. With Montrose desperately trying to get the rest of his army together and into a battle ready condition, MacColla seized a small rise called Garlic Hill to the south of the village, which stood in the path of the advancing Covenanters.

What followed was a desperate delaying action. MacColla and the Irish were so heavily outnumbered that their typical Highland charge would have been foolhardy, if not outright suicidal against the battle-experienced troops of Hurry, some of which had previously fought in Ulster under Robert Munro. But Hurry could not ignore the Irish in his way, or leave them as a potential threat to his rear. As well, MacColla allegedly raised the royal standard at his position, fooling Hurry into thinking the main Royalist force was there.

As such, he had to send forward several infantry regiments with cavalry support to try and drive MacColla off Garlic Hill. A vicious firefight erupted, as the Irish were gradually pushed back and back, most likely inflicting much heavier casualties than they were taking. While used to the offensive, MacColla and his men were no lightweights when it came to the defence. Critically, Hurry was without any artillery to blast the Irish defensive position, having left it well behind in his speedy march from Inverness.

The fighting moved into Auldearn itself, where Hurry’s men became bogged down on the marshy approach. Now receiving some flanking support from other regiments entering the fray, MacColla called for an attack. Whether this was another wild Highland Charge or something a bit more disciplined, it failed, one of the only times in Scotland that the favoured tactic of the Irish did fail. This time, the enemy did not turn and run under the onslaught, but instead held their ground. MacColla’s apparent objective of retaking Garlic Hill was unattainable, and he was obliged to move back into Auldearn once more.

There, it was a battle of house fighting, of hand to hand urban combat. The cottages and narrow alleys and streets would have proved ideal for negating the advantages of Hurry’s numbers, and by now more and more of the main Royalist force would have been getting involved. Though barely doing so at this point, MacColla and the Irish held under the Covenanter assault.

Hurry must not have realised it, but the battle had already turned against him. So obsessed had he been with taking Garlic Hill and then Auldearn itself, he had failed to keep an eye on the rest of Montrose’s army. Now, two cavalry units swept around both side of the village to assault into the flanks of the advancing Covenanters. The initial defenders broke and ran, colliding with other regiments and creating an aura of chaos among Hurry’s army. The remainder of Montrose’s infantry now relieved MacColla in Auldearn and smashed into the confused, uncoordinated Covenanters, most of him now turning and running back in the direction they came. A core of the army remained coherent around Garlic Hill and fought nearly to the last man, but could do nothing to change the result of the battle. Half of Hurry’s Covenanters were cut down in the pursuit that followed, though Hurry was able to escape.

It was another stunning Royalist victory in Scotland, and again in came down to the Irish units in Montrose’s army. On another day his forces could have been caught and annihilated in a surprise attack, but thanks to the mistakes of Hurry’s advance parties and the hard-fighting nature of MacColla and his men, Montrose was able to take what should have been a disaster and turn it into a triumph. MacColla did not really receive his just share of the credit afterwards, but it had been his leadership and iron will – fighting at the head of his troops throughout – that had kept the Royalist lines intact.

But Montrose still had to deal with the threat to his rear, with Baillie’s own forces still in play. Baillie feared that Montrose would make yet another attempt at Aberdeen, within range, or turn into the centre of Scotland to threaten Glasgow and the Covenanter heartland.

Montrose lost MacColla shortly after Auldearn, as the commander of the Irish headed west to try and drum up more volunteers. Baillie was encouraged when he learned this, thinking that, if Montrose had to fight without his best subordinate, then he could finally be beaten. After several more weeks of move and counter move, Montrose and Baillie finally came to blows on the 2nd of July, at Alford in Aberdeenshire.

Montrose was now dictating the course of the campaign, facing an enemy with nearly equal amounts of men for the first time. He seized the high ground of the Gallows Hill near the River Don, and awaited Baillie’s movements from the north.

When Baillie drew close, he thought he saw an opportunity, but in trying to seize it merely insured his own defeat. Montrose had cleverly placed most of his army on the opposite side of the hill out of sight, leading Baillie to believe that the few he could see were the vanguard of a retreat. With a quick forward movement, the Royalists could be outflanked on the plains at the bottom of the hill. Eager to capitalise on this apparent withdrawal, he hurried his army across a ford on the Don, only to, presumably, be horrified when all of Montrose’s forces suddenly crested the hill.

Baillie was forced to fight in marshy ground close to the river, caught by his own commitment and the aggressive exhortations of some of his more die hard Covenanter subordinates. Both sides placed their troops in a standard formation – infantry in the centre, cavalry on the flanks, with the Covenanters hoping that their slight advantage in horses might prove the difference.

It didn’t. After a typical stand off for a time, it was the Royalists who made the first move. Some have suggested that it was the sight of the Covenanter cattle train behind Baillie’s army that provoked that first assault, as they were likely the livestock of the men doing the attacking, stolen out of their lands previously .

The Royalist cavalry on the right, commanded by Lord Gordon, smashed into their opposing number at the start of the battle. Commencing one of the only true cavalry on cavalry fights of the entire Civil War in Scotland. While at first evenly matched, the support for Gordon from Irish units fighting on foot, who entered the fray after the initial charge and used their weapons to hack at riders and hamstring horses, was decisive. The Covenanters that were left broke apart and fled. Gordon led his cavalry around the back of Baillie’s army and attacked the rear of the other flank, which had been engaged in a stalemated firefight with Montrose’s left. Caught on both sides, this flank too broke, though Gordon paid with his life, with tradition saying he was hit in the back by friendly fire.

All that was left was for the centre force of infantry, blasting away at their Royalist counterparts, to realise they had been outflanked at both sides. While they had stood toe to toe up to that point, once the cavalry had retreated another rout of the army as a whole commenced. As this necessitated fording back over the river, it was especially difficult. As with nearly all battle of the campaign, little quarter was given, even more so when news of Gordon’s death went round, and the Covenanters casualties were huge.

Another victory, although this one had more to do with Montrose than the last. He had successfully stolen the momentum from Baillie, forced the Covenanter to fight on his terms, and had utilised his new force of cavalry to the full by augmenting them with his Irish infantry. Together, they had proved a very effective combination, with Gordon taking the brunt of the initial action, before the Irish made the decisive difference in the resulting melee. Once the cavalry were dealt with, the rest fell into place. The seizure of the high ground and Baillie’s decision to cross the ford in unsuitable conditions were the key decisions of the day.

Still, Montrose was not done. Baillie offered to resign his command after Alford, but was forced to retain his position on a temporary basis because no suitable replacement was available (in fact, the Covenanters went about trying to recall Robert Munro for the task, but events overtook them). Things got worse and worse for Baillie, as MacColla returned from his recruitment drive with close to 1600 additional Highland men, bringing the Royalist army to its largest ever size.

Montrose now headed into the centre of Scotland, threatening both Glasgow and Edinburgh, though in the latter case an outbreak of plague made it a less than tempting target. The Covenanters pulled out all the stops in the following couple of months to try and bring Montrose to heel before the situation was lost completely, recruiting or conscripting any levies they could find for Baillie to command. This left the Covenanters, once again, with the numerical advantage over Montrose, but the vast majority of his new army was poorly trained and badly equipped, if at all.

In August Montrose was marching steadily towards Glasgow, though he was not prepared to make an attempt on the city before an engagement with the Covenanters. He knew that the Earl of Lanark, with a small force of around a thousand men, was in the area and wanted to prevent him from joining up with the main Covenanter army.

Baillie was obliged to march out from his ad hoc base in the Fife region to try and stop Montrose. The Covenanter general was now not only plagued with the knowledge that his command was temporary, but with the presence of the “Committee of Estates”, the group of leading Covenanter nobles like the Earl of Argyll who were, essentially, the government of Covenanter Scotland, who consistently urged Baillie to the attack and furnished him with contradictory and unhelpful advice or instructions throughout.

Montrose sought to ambush Baillie, who probably had between 4’000 and 7’000 troops depending on who you believe, near the village of Kilsyth on the Glasgow road, but Baillie, well informed of Montrose’ movements, refused to spring this trap.

Instead he tried to outflank his opponent; using the high ground of the area to conceal his movements before attempting to seize the Auchinrivoch ridges overlooking the Royalist army. Allegedly, Baillie wanted to simply standoff and wait for reinforcements from Lanark, but the Committee forced his hand. The terrain prevented the quick accomplishing of this objective however, and soon Montrose was sending his own men to prevent Baillie’s ambition.

What started as a small skirmish around some scattered farm buildings soon drew in more and more of both armies, as MacColla went  in to support the initial Royalist defenders and Baillie was obliged to send more regiments in to keep trying to seize the high ground, badly effecting his resulting ability to form his army up in battle order.

On the other side of the battlefield, another large fight was developing, as Baillie sought to break the Royalist flank and seize another section of high ground. But he failed to do so, with various Royalist units, infantry and cavalry, joining the fray here, often without specific orders to do so. When Montrose committed the bulk of his cavalry to deflecting this assault, the Covenanter horse was forced to withdraw.

Now Montrose saw the advantage, and pressed forward with a general attack across the line of battle, with MacColla and his Irish/Highlander forces at the forefront. The inexperienced levies of the Covenanter army, again without cavalry support on the flanks, broke and ran. The pursuit was once more bloody, though a disproportionate amount of the casualties inflicted were on the newly raised regiments, and not the more regular infantry. Baillie and the Committee escaped, but their overall casualties were enormous, probably not less than 75% of their total force, the slaughter of the routed provoked by news of Covenanter massacres along their marching route.

Lanark disbanded his own army upon hearing the news, and the Committee of Estates had to flee across the border into England. On the 18th of August, Montrose was able to march into Glasgow without opposition, carefully making sure that no repeat of the destruction suffered by other towns and cities he had captured was repeated, much to the chagrin of some of his army, who had been looking forward to a chance for plunder. Now the apparent undisputed master of Scotland, Montrose called for a new Parliament in the Kings name.

It was the Annus Mirabilis – the year of miracles – for Montrose and the Royalists. Victory after victory after victory, nearly always from positions of numerical inferiority or apparent weakness. Now, Montrose seemed poised to complete a Royalist takeover of Scotland, having repeatedly sent enemy armies packing, with so much of the credit going to his Irish core.

But the truth was very different. Like so many of the enemies he had faced and defeated on the field of battle, Montrose appeared to be on the cusp of an ultimate victory, but was already heading towards an ignoble defeat.

Plenty of Scotland, especially the Lowlands, would not support him, the memories of the sack of Aberdeen fresh in their minds. The Church in Scotland, whom Montrose was never on the best terms with, would not support him. Plenty of his forces, unsatisfied with the lack of booty after the string of victories, deserted and went home, ill-suited to the role of a standing army. Much of his infantry core, like the Irish under MacColla had suffered despite their lack of defeat, worn down by constant fighting and simple attrition. Many of them were getting homesick, and were seeking to withdraw from Montrose’s service and head back across the sea.

But it was not all of his, or MacColla’s doing. Montrose’s entire position in Scotland was dependent on the political and eventual expected military support of Charles and his Royalist armies in England. On the 14th of June, just a month before Kilsyth, he suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Naseby, perhaps the critical battle of the entire Civil War in England. That defeat crippled the Royalist cause throughout Britain, including Scotland. Montrose, with MacColla and the Irish in tow, was heading for a fall.

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

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Irish And The “Annus Mirabilis”

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Philiphaugh And The End Of The Irish In Scotland | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Dungan’s Hill | Never Felt Better

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