A Legend of Montrose, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 15

But if no faithless action stain

Thy true and constant word,

I’ll make thee famous by my pen,

And glorious by my sword.

I’ll serve thee in such noble ways

As ne’er were known before;

I’ll deck and crown thy head with bays,

And love thee more and more.

MONTROSE’S LINES.

We must now leave, with whatever regret, the valiant Captain Dalgetty, to recover of his wounds or otherwise as fate shall determine, in order briefly to trace the military operations of Montrose, worthy as they are of a more important page, and a better historian. By the assistance of the chieftains whom we have commemorated, and more especially by the junction of the Murrays, Stewarts, and other clans of Athole, which were peculiarly zealous in the royal cause, he soon assembled an army of two or three thousand Highlanders, to whom he successfully united the Irish under Colkitto. This last leader, who, to the great embarrassment of Milton’s commentators, is commemorated in one of that great poet’s sonnets, was properly named Alister, or Alexander M’Donnell, by birth a Scottish islesman, and related to the Earl of Antrim, to whose patronage he owed the command assigned him in the Irish troops. In many respects he merited this distinction. He was brave to intrepidity, and almost to insensibility; very strong and active in person, completely master of his weapons, and always ready to show the example in the extremity of danger. To counterbalance these good qualities, it must be recorded, that he was inexperienced in military tactics, and of a jealous and presumptuous disposition, which often lost to Montrose the fruits of Colkitto’s gallantry. Yet such is the predominance of outward personal qualities in the eyes of a mild people, that the feats of strength and courage shown by this champion, seem to have made a stronger impression upon the minds of the Highlanders, than the military skill and chivalrous spirit of the great Marquis of Montrose. Numerous traditions are still preserved in the Highland glens concerning Alister M’Donnell, though the name of Montrose is rarely mentioned among them.

[Milton’s book, entitled TETRACHORDON, had been ridiculed, it would seem, by the divines assembled at Westminster, and others, on account of the hardness of the title; and Milton in his sonnet retaliates upon the barbarous Scottish names which the Civil War had made familiar to English ears:—

. . . . why is it harder, sirs, than Gordon,

COLKITTO or M’Donald, or Gallasp?

These rugged names to our like mouths grow sleek,

That would have made Quintillian stare and gasp.

“We may suppose,” says Bishop Newton, “that these were persons of note among the Scotch ministers, who were for pressing and enforcing the Covenant;” whereas Milton only intends to ridicule the barbarism of Scottish names in general, and quotes, indiscriminately, that of Gillespie, one of the Apostles of the Covenant, and those of Colkitto and M’Donnell (both belonging to one person), one of its bitterest enemies.]

The point upon which Montrose finally assembled his little army, was in Strathearn, on the verge of the Highlands of Perthshire, so as to menace the principal town of that county.

His enemies were not unprepared for his reception. Argyle, at the head of his Highlanders, was dogging the steps of the Irish from the west to the east, and by force, fear, or influence, had collected an army nearly sufficient to have given battle to that under Montrose. The Lowlands were also prepared, for reasons which we assigned at the beginning of this tale. A body of six thousand infantry, and six or seven thousand cavalry, which profanely assumed the title of God’s army, had been hastily assembled from the shires of Fife, Angus, Perth, Stirling, and the neighbouring counties. A much less force in former times, nay, even in the preceding reign, would have been sufficient to have secured the Lowlands against a more formidable descent of Highlanders, than those united under Montrose; but times had changed strangely within the last half century. Before that period, the Lowlanders were as constantly engaged in war as the mountaineers, and were incomparably better disciplined and armed. The favourite Scottish order of battle somewhat resembled the Macedonian phalanx. Their infantry formed a compact body, armed with long spears, impenetrable even to the men-at-arms of the age, though well mounted, and arrayed in complete proof. It may easily be conceived, therefore, that their ranks could not be broken by the disorderly charge of Highland infantry armed for close combat only, with swords, and ill furnished with missile weapons, and having no artillery whatever.

This habit of fight was in a great measure changed by the introduction of muskets into the Scottish Lowland service, which, not being as yet combined with the bayonet, was a formidable weapon at a distance, but gave no assurance against the enemy who rushed on to close quarters. The pike, indeed, was not wholly disused in the Scottish army; but it was no longer the favourite weapon, nor was it relied upon as formerly by those in whose hands it was placed; insomuch that Daniel Lupton, a tactician of the day, has written a book expressly upon the superiority of the musket. This change commenced as early as the wars of Gustavus Adolphus, whose marches were made with such rapidity, that the pike was very soon thrown aside in his army, and exchanged for fire-arms. A circumstance which necessarily accompanied this change, as well as the establishment of standing armies, whereby war became a trade, was the introduction of a laborious and complicated system of discipline, combining a variety of words of command with corresponding operations and manoeuvres, the neglect of any one of which was sure to throw the whole into confusion. War therefore, as practised among most nations of Europe, had assumed much more than formerly the character of a profession or mystery, to which previous practice and experience were indispensable requisites. Such was the natural consequence of standing armies, which had almost everywhere, and particularly in the long German wars, superseded what may be called the natural discipline of the feudal militia.

The Scottish Lowland militia, therefore, laboured under a double disadvantage when opposed to Highlanders. They were divested of the spear, a weapon which, in the hands of their ancestors, had so often repelled the impetuous assaults of the mountaineer; and they were subjected to a new and complicated species of discipline, well adapted, perhaps, to the use of regular troops, who could be rendered completely masters of it, but tending only to confuse the ranks of citizen soldiers, by whom it was rarely practised, and imperfectly understood. So much has been done in our own time in bringing back tactics to their first principles, and in getting rid of the pedantry of war, that it is easy for us to estimate the disadvantages under which a half-trained militia laboured, who were taught to consider success as depending upon their exercising with precision a system of tactics, which they probably only so far comprehended as to find out when they were wrong, but without the power of getting right again. Neither can it be denied, that, in the material points of military habits and warlike spirit, the Lowlanders of the seventeenth century had sunk far beneath their Highland countrymen.

From the earliest period down to the union of the crowns, the whole kingdom of Scotland, Lowlands as well as Highlands, had been the constant scene of war, foreign and domestic; and there was probably scarce one of its hardy inhabitants, between the age of sixteen and sixty, who was not as willing in point of fact as he was literally bound in law, to assume arms at the first call of his liege lord, or of a royal proclamation. The law remained the same in sixteen hundred and forty-five as a hundred years before, but the race of those subjected to it had been bred up under very different feelings. They had sat in quiet under their vine and under their fig-tree, and a call to battle involved a change of life as new as it was disagreeable. Such of them, also, who lived near unto the Highlands, were in continual and disadvantageous contact with the restless inhabitants of those mountains, by whom their cattle were driven off, their dwellings plundered, and their persons insulted, and who had acquired over them that sort of superiority arising from a constant system of aggression. The Lowlanders, who lay more remote, and out of reach of these depredations, were influenced by the exaggerated reports circulated concerning the Highlanders, whom, as totally differing in laws, language, and dress, they were induced to regard as a nation of savages, equally void of fear and of humanity. These various prepossessions, joined to the less warlike habits of the Lowlanders, and their imperfect knowledge of the new and complicated system of discipline for which they had exchanged their natural mode of fighting, placed them at great disadvantage when opposed to the Highlander in the field of battle. The mountaineers, on the contrary, with the arms and courage of their fathers, possessed also their simple and natural system of tactics, and bore down with the fullest confidence upon an enemy, to whom anything they had been taught of discipline was, like Saul’s armour upon David, a hinderance rather than a help, “because they had not proved it.”

It was with such disadvantages on the one side, and such advantages on the other, to counterbalance the difference of superior numbers and the presence of artillery and cavalry, that Montrose encountered the army of Lord Elcho upon the field of Tippermuir. The Presbyterian clergy had not been wanting in their efforts to rouse the spirit of their followers, and one of them, who harangued the troops on the very day of battle, hesitated not to say, that if ever God spoke by his mouth, he promised them, in His name, that day, a great and assured victory. The cavalry and artillery were also reckoned sure warrants of success, as the novelty of their attack had upon former occasions been very discouraging to the Highlanders. The place of meeting was an open heath, and the ground afforded little advantage to either party, except that it allowed the horse of the Covenanters to act with effect.

A battle upon which so much depended, was never more easily decided. The Lowland cavalry made a show of charging; but, whether thrown into disorder by the fire of musketry, or deterred by a disaffection to the service said to have prevailed among the gentlemen, they made no impression on the Highlanders whatever, and recoiled in disorder from ranks which had neither bayonets nor pikes to protect them. Montrose saw, and instantly availed himself of this advantage. He ordered his whole army to charge, which they performed with the wild and desperate valour peculiar to mountaineers. One officer of the Covenanters alone, trained in the Italian wars, made a desperate defence upon the right wing. In every other point their line was penetrated at the first onset; and this advantage once obtained, the Lowlanders were utterly unable to contend at close quarters with their more agile and athletic enemies. Many were slain on the held, and such a number in the pursuit, that above one-third of the Covenanters were reported to have fallen; in which number, however, must be computed a great many fat burgesses who broke their wind in the flight, and thus died without stroke of sword. [We choose to quote our authority for a fact so singular:—“A great many burgesses were killed — twenty-five householders in St. Andrews — many were bursten in the flight, and died without stroke.”— See Baillie’s Letters, vol. ii. page 92.]

The victors obtained possession of Perth, and obtained considerable sums of money, as well as ample supplies of arms and ammunition. But those advantages were to be balanced against an almost insurmountable inconvenience that uniformly attended a Highland army. The clans could be in no respect induced to consider themselves as regular soldiers, or to act as such. Even so late as the year 1745-6, when the Chevalier Charles Edward, by way of making an example, caused a soldier to be shot for desertion, the Highlanders, who composed his army, were affected as much by indignation as by fear. They could not conceive any principle of justice upon which a man’s life could be taken, for merely going home when it did not suit him to remain longer with the army. Such had been the uniform practice of their fathers. When a battle was over, the campaign was, in their opinion, ended; if it was lost, they sought safety in their mountains — if won, they returned there to secure their booty. At other times they had their cattle to look after, and their harvests to sow or reap, without which their families would have perished for want. In either case, there was an end of their services for the time; and though they were easily enough recalled by the prospect of fresh adventures and more plunder, yet the opportunity of success was, in the meantime, lost, and could not afterwards be recovered. This circumstance serves to show, even if history had not made us acquainted with the same fact, that the Highlanders had never been accustomed to make war with the view of permanent conquest, but only with the hope of deriving temporary advantage, or deciding some immediate quarrel. It also explains the reason why Montrose, with all his splendid successes, never obtained any secure or permanent footing in the Lowlands, and why even those Lowland noblemen and gentlemen, who were inclined to the royal cause, showed diffidence and reluctance to join an army of a character so desultory and irregular, as might lead them at all times to apprehend that the Highlanders securing themselves by a retreat to their mountains, would leave whatever Lowlanders might have joined them to the mercy of an offended and predominant enemy. The same consideration will also serve to account for the sudden marches which Montrose was obliged to undertake, in order to recruit his army in the mountains, and for the rapid changes of fortune, by which we often find him obliged to retreat from before those enemies over whom he had recently been victorious. If there should be any who read these tales for any further purpose than that of immediate amusement, they will find these remarks not unworthy of their recollection.

It was owing to such causes, the slackness of the Lowland loyalists and the temporary desertion of his Highland followers, that Montrose found himself, even after the decisive victory of Tippermuir, in no condition to face the second army with which Argyle advanced upon him from the westward. In this emergency, supplying by velocity the want of strength, he moved suddenly from Perth to Dundee, and being refused admission into that town, fell northward upon Aberdeen, where he expected to be joined by the Gordons and other loyalists. But the zeal of these gentlemen was, for the time, effectually bridled by a large body of Covenanters, commanded by the Lord Burleigh, and supposed to amount to three thousand men. These Montrose boldly attacked with half their number. The battle was fought under the walls Of the city, and the resolute valour of Montrose’s followers was again successful against every disadvantage.

But it was the fate of this great commander, always to gain the glory, but seldom to reap the fruits of victory. He had scarcely time to repose his small army in Aberdeen, ere he found, on the one hand, that the Gordons were likely to be deterred from joining him, by the reasons we have mentioned, with some others peculiar to their chief, the Marquis of Huntly; on the other hand, Argyle, whose forces had been augmented by those of several Lowland noblemen, advanced towards Montrose at the head of an army much larger than he had yet had to cope with. These troops moved, indeed, with slowness, corresponding to the cautious character of their commander; but even that caution rendered Argyle’s approach formidable, since his very advance implied, that he was at the head of an army irresistibly superior.

There remained one mode of retreat open to Montrose, and he adopted it. He threw himself into the Highlands, where he could set pursuit at defiance, and where he was sure, in every glen, to recover those recruits who had left his standard to deposit their booty in their native fastnesses. It was thus that the singular character of the army which Montrose commanded, while, on the one hand, it rendered his victory in some degree nugatory, enabled him, on the other, under the most disadvantageous circumstances, to secure his retreat, recruit his forces, and render himself more formidable than ever to the enemy, before whom he had lately been unable to make a stand.

On the present occasion he threw himself into Badenoch, and rapidly traversing that district, as well as the neighbouring country of Athole, he alarmed the Covenanters by successive attacks upon various unexpected points, and spread such general dismay, that repeated orders were dispatched by the Parliament to Argyle, their commander, to engage, and disperse Montrose at all rates.

These commands from his superiors neither suited the haughty spirit, nor the temporizing and cautious policy, of the nobleman to whom they were addressed. He paid, accordingly, no regard to them, but limited his efforts to intrigues among Montrose’s few Lowland followers, many of whom had become disgusted with the prospect of a Highland campaign, which exposed their persons to intolerable fatigue, and left their estates at the Covenanters’ mercy. Accordingly, several of them left Montrose’s camp at this period. He was joined, however, by a body of forces of more congenial spirit, and far better adapted to the situation in which he found himself. This reinforcement consisted of a large body of Highlanders, whom Colkitto, dispatched for that purpose, had levied in Argyleshire. Among the most distinguished was John of Moidart, called the Captain of Clan Ranald, with the Stewarts of Appin, the Clan Gregor, the Clan M’Nab, and other tribes of inferior distinction. By these means, Montrose’s army was so formidably increased, that Argyle cared no longer to remain in the command of that opposed to him, but returned to Edinburgh, and there threw up his commission, under pretence that his army was not supplied with reinforcements and provisions in the manner in which they ought to have been. From thence the Marquis returned to Inverary, there, in full security, to govern his feudal vassals, and patriarchal followers, and to repose himself in safety on the faith of the Clan proverb already quoted —“It is a far cry to Lochow.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29