Ireland’s Wars: Philiphaugh And The End Of The Irish In Scotland

James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose, seemed to be all triumphant. In his year of victories he had smashed numerous Covenanter armies, beating the best commanders that the Campbell’s had been able to throw at him, with the Ulster Irish contingent being involved in every fight. The Committee of Estates, the de facto ruling body of Covenanter Scotland, had been forced out of Glasgow. The way things were going, it was not inconceivable that Montrose would be able to now hook up with the Royalist forces of Charles, bringing the rest of Scotland firmly on to the King’s side.

But, before the handshakes had even stopped during the Montrose’s victorious entry into Glasgow, things were already beginning to fall apart for him.

The very manner that Glasgow was taken was the first step. Montrose received a payoff from its citizens to avoid scenes like those in Aberdeen previously, which had been brutally sacked by his army after the victory over Burleigh the previous year. Montrose reined his army in, preventing a seizure of plunder that many of his footsoldiers, especially the Highlanders who had joined his army for no other purpose, probably expected. Before Montrose even had time to enjoy his victory, he was already alienating a large part of the army that had made such victories possible.

Then Montrose called for a new Scottish Parliament to assemble in Glasgow. The town council complained of the expense that would require, and Montrose duly excused them the 500 pounds they were supposed to have paid him – money that had already been earmarked for payment for the army. Such actions inevitably caused further discontent.

It got worse and worse, as Montrose seemed to take leave of his senses when it came to whom to trust and who to rely on. As previously mentioned, much of the Scottish church had no love for Montrose, nor he for them, and their support for his new regime was severely wanting. Many of the areas that he now called upon to support him either refused, or offered only the most lukewarm of statements in his favour. Many Campbell-controlled areas would never place themselves under Montrose, and many other areas remembered the horrors that had been inflicted on Aberdeen.

And then there was the Irish, the infantry core of Montrose’s army. Responsible for so many of his victories, they were now almost a negative to him: their continued service meant so much of Scotland, horrified at the real and concocted behaviour of the Irish, refused to contemplate a backing of Montrose or his attempt at a new Scottish government.

Montrose continued to make mistake after mistake, proving himself no great leader of men when not on campaign. In order to try and shore up the support of the nobles he appointed the captured Earl of Crawford as his commander of horse, a very high ranking position in any army. This outraged the Gordon clan and its leadership, who had commanded Montrose’s horse throughout most of the previous year, and had proven themselves critical to his success in many battles. Many of them promptly abandoned Montrose and his Royalist cause, opting to head home and defend their own lands from any Campbell reprisals.

Such fears were also playing on the minds of Alasdair MacColla and his Highland troops, who made up probably the largest part of Montrose’s army. When the Marquis announced his plans to march south in search of more soldiers and an opportunity to link up with Charles, it brought a sundering with MacColla. The Highlander had no intention of leaving Scotland to fight in England. He had his own lands and the lands of his Highland allies to protect, a sentiment shared by many of his followers. They had joined Montrose for plunder and the chance to hit back at the hated Campbell’s. That achieved, they now wanted to hold what they had taken and defend their lands from the inevitable Campbell and Covenanter reprisals. Such parties still controlled large parts of Scotland after all, and could not be counted upon to refuse to opportunity to strike at their enemies when the Royalist forces under Montrose marched out of the country.

When Montrose headed south a few weeks after taking Glasgow, MacColla did not go with him. The two men, whose partnership was the bedrock of perhaps the most stunning and unexpectedly successful campaign of the entire Civil Wars, would never see each other again. The Irish contingent was similarly split, with men under Manus O’Cahan sticking with Montrose, and others continuing to follow MacColla. Those who followed Montrose probably believed that they were doing what the Confederation was supposed to be doing: aiding Charles and continuing the fight against the Covenanters in the most effective manner possible.

In only a few weeks, Montrose’s army had been reduced drastically, from several thousand at its height to a now pitiful force of around 500 musketeer infantry, most of them Irish, and a smattering of cavalry. It would have been barely enough to hold Glasgow from an attack, let alone most of Scotland. Having burned several bridges when it came to recruitment, and no longer able to rely on the like of MacColla and the Highlands, Montrose’s only chance of rebuilding any army that could actually match those of the Covenanters would be to head into southern Scotland and recruit there.

The Borders proved less fruitful than Montrose had hoped, his meagre army, little more than an expanded bodyguard really, hardly looking like the most appealing of ventures. Several nobles allowed themselves to be “arrested” by the Covenanters at Montrose’s approach, so they could appear to be Royalist supporters without having to actually do anything about it. The Lowlands still had no great interest in helping Montrose, and he was soon to face the most deadly threat of his rapidly ending campaign.

The Covenanters leading the Scottish army in England, which had been so effective in denting Charles’ hopes of victory, now detached another portion of that force. Having received the news of Kilsyth, they knew that they had to react with speed, lest the entire situation go beyond their reach if Montrose was able to link up with Charles, a fear that was more imaginary than anything, but still potent in the minds of many Covenanters.

The man chosen for the task was Sir David Leslie, a very experience soldier who, like so many Covenanters, came into the Civil Wars after serving under Gustavus Adolphus in Germany. Leslie gathered to him a force made up nearly entire of cavalry, 6’000 strong, and headed north. The make-up of his army was well chosen, giving him an advantage in terms of speed and freedom of movement. Better yet, it was the perfect force to finally end Montrose as a threat, given that he had barely 500 infantry left to call his army. Approaching the border region, Leslie started to hover up infantry from local nobles, growing his army still further, travelling along the eastern coast by Berwick.

Montrose was in the small town of Jedburgh when he received the first new of Leslie’s movements. Alarmed at the reports of both the size of Leslie’s army and the direction it was moving in, Montrose had a choice. He could maintain his current course, which would inevitably result in a clash, or he could retreat back north into the Highlands before Leslie had a chance to cut him off. Retreat was the safer option, but Montrose did not take it, perhaps out of blind self-belief in his own martial skills. Little else would have sustained the resolve of the Marquis or his army at this stage. All Montrose acquiesced to was a partial march in a backward direction, towards hilly ground.

Leslie’s aim had been to secure the city of Edinburgh, but when he received intelligence of Montrose’s location and disposition, he decisively decided to seek the engagement as soon as possible, turning south-west and releasing much of his slower infantry. On the night of the 12th of September, less than a month after taking Glasgow, Montrose and his officers quartered themselves in the town of Selkirk, with most of his army encamped on the low-lying meadows and woods of Philiphaugh, a few miles distant. On a misty and dark night, discipline was lax – drink was imbibed and few pickets or scouts were posted to warn against enemy attacks, so confident was Montrose in his intelligence that Leslie was still several days march away.

But Leslie’s rapidly mobile army had, in a grim replication of Montrose’s march before Inverlochy, made up that ground fast, covering near thirty miles in a single night. At dawn on the 13th, that Covenanter army came out of the morning mists in an attack that took Montrose’s force completely by surprise.

The only prepared defences were a few hedges and ditches that the Irish infantry had camped behind, and perhaps only those stopped the “battle” from becoming a total massacre from the get-go. Their experience in that regard, at least, had shown. Most of the officers were in Selkirk, leaving the men with no leadership. Chaos ensued. Only the command of Manus O’Cahan and his contemporary Thomas Laughton may have saved the Royalists from the initial assault. They managed to get some semblance of order to the defence, moving what cavalry they had to their right flank and manning the ditches and hedges with everything that they had, all while Leslie’s cavalry regiments tried to break through.

Montrose and most of his officers had rushed from Selkirk when given the news, but there was little they could add to the situation at this point. Due to the constraints of the marshy ground (between two rivers), Leslie could not commit all of his cavalry at once, and instead sent in one regiment at a time. The musketeers beat back the attacks, but were in no position to launch counter-offensives. It was no day for the Highland charge. Montrose was able to gather disorganised levies to form a second line, but the battle was already over.

Because Leslie had outmanoeuvred Montrose totally. With a large enough army to do so, he had been able to split off a detachment under a Lieutenant-Colonel Agnew, which, unseen by the Royalists fighting for their lives, had ridden around their position, attacked and captured Selkirk (and any officers who had stayed there) and now attacked Montrose’s rear.

Just as they arrived, Leslie had personally led another cavalry attack. This would probably not have been an all out charge, even if Leslie, as a veteran of the Swedish Army in the Thirty Years War, would probably not have used the usually favoured caracole gunpoweder/cavalry manoeuvre, but whatever he did with his horse, it was finally enough after around an hour of constant combat. As Agnew hit the Royalists in the back, Leslie was able to break through their front, scattering what few defenders were still fighting.

The rout was total. Montrose fled with a handful of officers, an act that garnered him much bitterness from others who survived, but he had been convinced that being captured or killed would not have served the cause of Charles. The infantry, lacking horses, were not so lucky. Most were cut down by Leslie’s attackers. O’Cahan and Laughton were able to keep around a hundred of their musketeers, the veterans of nearly all of Montrose’s battle, together. They made their stand at a nearby farm, but were hopelessly surrounded and outnumbered. After a desperate firefight beat off initial attacks, Leslie apparently offered O’Cahan and his men clemency if they would lay down their arms. They did so, albeit reluctantly, and then suffered the despair of seeing the clemency offer retracted to only cover officers, probably on the urging of Covenanter ministers who were accompanying Leslie. The Irish infantry were butchered, and their camp followers suffered the same fate. O’Cahan and Laughton, along with most of the officers captured that day, were later tried, sentenced to death, and hung. It could, perhaps, be viewed as an ignominious end for such men, but it should be remembered that they partook in their own fair share of brutality in Scotland throughout the previous year.

Most of the Irish who had accompanied Montrose south were now dead. A few survived, rallied by Montrose at the town of Pebbles in the following day, but they were now just the pitiful remains of a regiment. Those that survived the coming year were in some cases able to join up with MacColla again and later find a way out of Scotland, making it back to Ireland, but they were only a fraction of the number that had left.

Montrose was done, his armies defeated, his recruiting power now negligible, his allies missing and his expected support from Charles non-existent. He retreated to the Highlands with the few supporters that he had left, starting a guerrilla resistance that was mostly ineffective, save for a brief attempt to take Inverness in the Spring of 1646. When Charles surrendered that year, he was ordered to disband his “army” and forced to go into exile in Norway.

We have followed him this far, so it is only fair to offer a brief postscript for Montrose, whose path now diverged from that of Ireland or its soldiers. In March of 1650 he returned to Scotland with a small force of foreign mercenaries, in support of Charles II, who hoped that a military conquest of Scotland could improve his bargaining hand over the Parliament and the Covenanters he was trying to come to an agreement with over his disputed succession (something I will get to in time). The expedition was a disastrous failure, with the army annihilated at the Battle of Carbisdale and Montrose’s actions disavowed by the new Charles. Montrose escaped again, but was later betrayed and captured. Already sentenced to death due to his previous campaign, he was quickly hung, his body torn to pieces, with his limbs sent to the four great cities of Scotland and his head stuck on a pike for display in Edinburgh. After the restoration, his body was put back together and given a proper burial.

Montrose is remembered as one of the most dashing and romantic figures of the period, a man who fought against his countrymen for his King, who won amazing victories again and again, and who, in the end, was martyred for his cause. A more critical appraisal might perhaps mention his dependence on more capable subordinates, his unending run of luck when it come to his adversaries and their commanders, and his failure of leadership in the days following the capture of Glasgow.

The Irish who followed him were some of the best infantry who fought in the Civil Wars, proving it several times over throughout the campaigns in Scotland, when they routinely defeated larger armies. But at Philiphaugh, nothing could have been done with the sort of leadership they had to endure. That they were able to fight Leslie to an offer of clemency while the rest of the army ran or died was their last example of their fighting skill. Men of their fighting quality perhaps deserved better than the end that they got.

As for MacColla, well, I cannot offer an epilogue for him yet. His path would take him back to Ireland one more time, a story for another day.

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: Philiphaugh And The End Of The Irish In Scotland

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Spring 1646 | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Bishops Coup | Never Felt Better

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