Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 43

It was about the middle of December that Argyle was residing at his castle of Inverary, in the most perfect confidence that the enemy could not approach him; for he used to say, he would not for a hundred thousand crowns that any one knew the passes from the eastward into the country of the Campbells. While the powerful Marquis was enjoying the fancied security of his feudal dominions, he was astounded with the intelligence that Montrose, with an army of Highlanders, wading through drifts of snow, scaling precipices, and traversing the mountain-paths, know to none save the solitary shepherd or huntsman, had forced an entry into Argyleshire, which he was laying waste with all the vindictive severity of deadly feud. There was neither time nor presence of mind for defence. The able-bodied men were slaughtered, the cattle driven off, the houses burnt; and the invaders had divided themselves into three bands, to make the devastation more complete. Alarmed by this fierce and unexpected invasion, Argyle embarked on board a fishing-boat, and left his friends and followers to their fate. Montrose continued the work of revenge for nearly a month, and then concluding he had destroyed the influence which Argyle, by the extent of his power, and the supposed strength of his country, had possessed over the minds of the Highlanders, he withdrew towards Inverness, with the purpose of organizing a general gathering of the clans. But he had scarce made this movement, when he learned that his rival, Argyle, had returned into the Western Highlands with some Lowland forces; that he had called around him his numerous clan, burning to revenge the wrongs which they had sustained, and was lying with a strong force near the old castle of Inverlochy, situated at the western extremity of the chain of lakes through which the Caledonian Canal is now conducted.

The news at once altered Montrose’s plans. He returned upon Argyle by a succession of the most difficult mountain-passes covered with snow; and the vanguard of the Campbells saw themselves suddenly engaged with that of their implacable enemy. Both parties lay all night on their arms; by, by break of day, Argyle betook himself to his galley, and rowing off shore, remained a spectator of the combat, when, by all the rules of duty and gratitude, he ought to have been at the head of his devoted followers.(2nd Feb. 1645) His unfortunate clansmen supported the honour of the name with the greatest courage, and many of the most distinguished fell on the field of battle. Montrose gained a complete victory, which greatly extended his influence over the Highlands, and in proportion diminished that of his discomfited rival.

Having collected what force he could, Montrose now marched triumphantly to the north-east; and in the present successful posture of his affairs, at length engaged the Gordons to join him with a good body of cavalry, commanded by their young chief, Lord Gordon. The Convention of Estates were now most seriously alarmed. While Montrose had roamed through the Highlands, retreating before a superior enemy, and every moment apparently on the point of being overwhelmed, his progress was regarded as a distant danger. But he was now threatening the low country, and the ruling party were not so confident of their strength there as to set so bold an adventurer at defiance. They called from the army in England General Baillie, an officer of skill and character, and Sir John Urry, or, as the English called him, Hurry, a brave and good partisan, but a mere soldier of fortune, who had changed sides more than once during the civil war.

These generals commanded a body of veteran troops, with which they manoeuvred to exclude Montrose from the southern districts, and prevent his crossing the Tay, or Forth. At the same time, the mandate of the Marquis of Huntly, or the intrigues of Lord Lewis Gordon, again recalled most of the Gordons from Montrose’s standard, and his cavalry was reduced to one hundred and fifty. He was compelled once more to retire to the mountains, but desirous to dignify his retreat by some distinguished action, he resolved to punish the town of Dundee for their steady adherence to the cause of the Covenant. Accordingly, suddenly appearing before it was a chosen body selected for the service, he stormed the place on three points at once.(4th April) The Highlanders and Irish, with incredible fury, broke open the gates, and forced an entrance. They were dispersing in quest of liquor and plunder, when at the very moment that Montrose threatened to set the town on fire, he received intelligence that Baillie and Urry, with four thousand men, were within a mile of the place. The crisis required all the activity of Montrose; and probably no other authority than his would have been able to withdraw the men from their revelling and plundering, to get his army into order, and to effect a retreat to the mountains, which he safely accomplished in the face of his numerous enemies, and with a degree of skill which established his military character as firmly as any of his victories.

Montrose was well seconded in this difficulty, by the hardihood and resolution of his men, who are said to have marched about sixty miles, and to have passed three days and two nights in manoeuvring and fighting, without either food or refreshment. In this manner that leader repeatedly baffled the numerous forces and able generals who were employed against him. The great check upon his enterprise was the restlessness of the Highlanders, and the caprice of the gentlemen who formed his cavalry, who all went and came at their own pleasure.

I have told you that the Gordons had been withdrawn from Montrose’s standard, contrary to their own inclinations, by the command of Huntly, or the address of Lord Lewis Gordon. By employing his followers in enterprises in which the plunder was certain and the danger small, this young nobleman collected under his standard all those who were reluctant to share the toilsome marches, military hardships, and bloody fights to which they were led under that of Montrose. Hence a rhyme, not yet forgotten in Aberdeenshire,

“If you with Lord Lewis go,

You’ll get reif and prey enough;

If you with Montrose go,

You’ll get grief and wae enough.”

But the Lord Gordon, Lewis’s elder brother, continuing attached in the warmest manner to Montrose, was despatched by him to bring back the gentlemen of his warlike family, and his influence soon assembled considerable forces. General Baillie, learning this, detached Urry, his colleague, with a force which he thought sufficient to destroy Lord Gordon, while he himself proposed to engage the attention of Montrose till that point was gained.

But Montrose, penetrating the intention of the Covenanting generals, eluded Baillie’s attempts to bring him to action, and traversed the mountains of the North like a whirlwind, to support Lord Gordon, and crush Urry. He accomplished his first object; the second appeared more difficult. Urry had been joined by the Covenanters of the shire of Moray, with the Earls of Seaforth, Sutherland, and others who maintained the same cause, and had thus collected an army more numerous than that of Montrose, even when united to Lord Gordon.

Montrose prepared, nevertheless, to give battle at the village of Auldern, and drew up his men in an unusual manner, to conceal his inequality of force.(4th May, 1645) The village, which is situated on an eminence, with high ground behind, was surrounded by enclosures on each side and in front. He stationed on the right of the hamlet Alexander MacDonald, called Colkitto, with four hundred Irishmen and Highlanders, commanding them to maintain a defensive combat only, and giving them strict orders not to sally from some strong sheepfolds and enclosures, which afforded the advantages of a fortified position. As he wished to draw the attention of the enemy towards that point, he gave this wing charge of the royal standard, which was usually displayed where he commanded in person. On the left side of the village of Aulderne, he drew up the principal part of his force, he himself commanding the infantry, and Lord Gordon the cavalry. His two wings being thus formed, Montrose had in reality no centre force whatever; but a few resolute men were posted in front of the village, and his cannons being placed in the same line, made it appear as if the houses covered a body of infantry.

Urry, deceived by these dispositions, attacked with a preponderating force the position of MacDonald on the right. Colkitto beat the assailants back with the Irish musketeers, and the bows and arrows of the Highlanders, who still used these ancient missile weapons. But when the enemy, renewing their attack, taunted MacDonald with cowardice for remaining under shelter of the sheep folds, that leader, whose bravery greatly excelled his discretion, sallied forth from his fastness, contrary to Montrose’s positive command, to show he was not averse to fight on equal ground. The superiority of numbers, and particularly of cavalry, which was instantly opposed to him soon threw his men into great disorder, and they could with difficulty be rallied by the desperate exertions of Colkitto, who strove to make amends for his error, by displaying the utmost personal valour.

A trusty officer was despatched to Montrose to let him know the state of affairs. The messenger found him on the point of joining battle, and whispered in his ear that Colkitto was defeated. This only determined Montrose to pursue with the greater audacity the plan of battle which he had adopted. “What are we doing?” he called out to Lord Gordon; “Macdonald has been victorious on the right, and if we do not make haste, he will carry of all the honours of the day.” Lord Gordon instantly charged with the gentlemen of his name, and beat the Covenanters’ horse off the field; but the foot, though deserted by the horse, stood firm for some time, for they were veteran troops. At length they were routed on every point, and compelled to fly with great loss.

Montrose failed not instantly to lead succours to the relief of his right wing, which was in great peril. Colkitto had got his men again secured in the enclosures; he himself, having been all along the last to retreat, was now defending the entrance sword in hand, and with a target on his left arm. The pikemen pressed him so hard as to fix their spears in his target, while he repeatedly freed himself of them by cutting the heads from the shafts, in threes and fours at a time, by the unerring sweep of his broadsword.

While Colkitto and his followers were thus hard pressed, Montrose and his victorious troops appeared, and the face of affairs was suddenly changed. Urry’s horse fled, but the foot, which were the strength of his army, fought bravely, and fell in the ranks which they occupied. To thousand men, about a third of Urry’s army, were slain in the battle of Auldern, and, completely disabled by the overthrow, that commander was compelled once more to unite his scattered forces with those of Baillie.

After some marching and counter-marching, the armies again found themselves in the neighbourhood of each other, near to the village of Alford.

Montrose occupied a strong position on a hill, and it was said that the cautious Baillie would have avoided the encounter, had it not been that, having crossed the river Don, in the belief that Montrose was in full retreat, he only discovered his purpose of giving battle when it was too late to decline it. The number of infantry was about two thousand in each army. But Baillie had more than double his opponent’s number of cavalry. Montrose’s indeed, were gentlemen, and therefore in the day of battle were more to be relied on than mere hirelings. The Gordons dispersed the Covenanting horse, on the first shock; and the musketeers, throwing down their muskets, and mingling in the tumult with their swords drawn, prevented the scattered cavalry from rallying. But as Lord Gordon threw himself, for the second time, into the heat of the fight, he fell from his horse, mortally wounded by a shot from one of the fugitives. This accident, which gave the greatest distress to Montrose, suspended the exertions of the cavalry, who, chiefly friends, kinsmen, and vassals of the deceased, flocked around him to lament the general loss. But the veterans of Montrose, charging in separate columns of six and ten men deep, along a line of three men only, broke the battle array of the Covenanters on various points, and utterly destroyed the remnant of Baillie’s array, though they defended themselves bravely. This battle was fought 2d July, 1645.

These repeated victories gave such lustre to Montrose’s arms, that he was now joined by the Highland clans in great numbers, and by many of the Lowland anti-covenanters, who had before held back, from doubt of his success in so unequal a contest.

On the other hand, the Convention of estates, supported by the counsels of Argyle, who was bold in council though timid in battle, persevered in raising new troops, notwithstanding their repeated misfortunes and defeats. It seemed, indeed, as if Heaven had at this disastrous period an especial controversy with the kingdom of Scotland. To the efforts necessary to keep up and supply their auxiliary army in England, was added the desolation occasioned by a destructive civil war, maintained in the north with the utmost fury, and conducted on both sides with deplorable devastation. To these evils, as if not sufficient to exhaust the resources of a poor country, were not added those of a wide-wasting plague, or pestilence, which raged through all the kingdom, but especially in Edinburgh, the metropolis. The Convention of Estates were driven from the capital by this dreadful infliction, and retreated to Perth, where they assembled a large force under General Baillie, while they ordered a new levy of ten thousand men generally throughout the kingdom. While Lanark, Cassilis, Eglinton, and other lords of the western shires, went to their respective counties to expedite the measure, Montrose, with his usual activity, descended from the mountains at the head of an army, augmented in numbers, and flushed with success.

He first approached the shores of the Forth, by occupying the shire of Kinross. And here I cannot help mentioning the destruction of a noble castle belonging to the House of Argyle. Its majestic ruins are situated on an eminence occupying a narrow glen of the Ochil chain of hills. In former days, it was called, from the character of its situation perhaps, the castle of Gloom; and the names of the parish, and the stream by which its banks are washed, had also an ominous sound. The castle of Gloom was situated on the brook of Grief or Gryfe, and in the parish of Doulour or Dollar. In the sixteenth century, the Earl of Argyle, the owner of this noble fortress, obtained an act of parliament for changing its name to Castle Campbell. The feudal hatred of Montrose, and of the clans composing the strength of his army, the vindictive resentment also of the Ogilvies, for the destruction of “the Bonnie House of Airlie,” and that of the Stirlingshire cavaliers for that of Menstrie, doomed this magnificent pile to flames and ruin. The destruction of many a meaner habitation by the same unscrupulous and unsparing spirit of vengeance has been long forgotten, but the majestic remains of Castle Campbell still excite a sigh in those that view them, over the miseries of civil war.

After similar acts of ravage, not to be justified, though not unprovoked, Montrose marched westward along the northern margin of the Forth, insulting Perth, where the army of the covenanters remained in their intrenchments, and even menacing the castle of Stirling, which, well garrisoned and strongly situated, defied his means of attack. About six miles above Stirling, Montrose crossed the Forth, by the deep and precarious ford which the river presents before its junction with the Teith. Having attained the southern bank, he directed his course westward, with the purpose of dispersing the levies which the western lords were collecting, and doubtless with the view of plundering the country, which had attached itself chiefly to the Covenant. Montrose had, however, scarcely reached Kilsyth, when he received the news that Baillie’s army, departing from Perth, had also crossed the Forth, at the bridge of Stirling, and was close at hand. With his usual alacrity, Montrose prepared for battle, which Baillie, had he been left to his own judgment, would have avoided; for that skilful though unfortunate general knew by experience the talents of Montrose, and that the character of his troops was admirably qualified for a day of combat; he also considered that an army so composed might be tired out by cautious operations, and entertained the rational hope that the Highlanders and Lowland Cavaliers would alike desert their leader in the course of a protracted and indecisive warfare. But Baillie was no longer the sole commander of the Covenanting army. A Committee of the Estates, consisting of Argyle, Lanark, and Crawford–Lindsay, had been nominated to attend his army, and control his motions; and these, especially the Earl of Lindsay, insisted that the veteran general should risk the last regular army which the Covenanters possessed in Scotland, in the perils of a decisive battle. They marched against Montrose, accordingly, at break of day on the 15th August, 1645.

When Montrose beheld them advance, he exclaimed that it was what he had most earnestly desired. He caused his men to strip to their shirts, in token of their resolution to fight to the death. Mean time the Covenanters approached. Their vanguard attacked an advanced post of Montrose, which occupied a strong position among cottages and enclosures. They were beaten off with loss. A thousand Highlanders, with their natural impetuosity, rushed, without orders, to pursue the fugitives, and to assault the troops who were advancing to support them. Two regiments of horse, against whom this mountain-torrent directed its fury, became disordered and fell back. Montrose saw the decisive moment, and ordered first a troop of horse, under command of Lord Airly, and afterwards his whole army, to attack the enemy, who had not yet got into line, their rearguard and centre coming up too slowly to the support of their vanguard. The hideous shout with which the Highlanders charged, their wild appearance, and the extraordinary speed with which they advanced, nearly naked, with broadsword in hand, struck a panic into their opponents, who dispersed without any spirited effort to get into line of battle, or maintain their ground. The Covenanters were beaten off the field, and pursued with indiscriminate slaughter for more than ten miles. Four or five thousand men were slain in the field and in the flight; and the force of the Convention was for the time entirely broken.

Montrose was now master, for the moment, of the kingdom of Scotland. Edinburgh surrendered; Glasgow paid a heavy contribution; the noblemen and other individuals of distinction who had been imprisoned as royalists in Edinburgh, and elsewhere throughout the kingdom, were set at liberty; and so many persons of quality now declared for Montrose, either from attachment to the royal cause, which they had hitherto concealed, or from the probability of its being ultimately successful, that he felt himself in force sufficient to call a Parliament at Glasgow in the King’s name.

Still, however, the success of this heroic leader had only given him possession of the open country; all the strong fortresses were still in possession of the Covenanters; and it would have required a length of time, and the services of an army regularly disciplined and supplied with heavy artillery, to have reduced the castles of Edinburgh, Stirling, Dunbarton, and other places of great strength. But if Montrose had possessed the forces necessary for such a work, he had neither leisure nor inclination to undertake it. From the beginning of his extraordinary, and hitherto successful career, he had secretly entertained the dazzling;hope of leading a victorious army into England, and replacing King Charles in possession of his disputed authority. It was a daring scheme, and liable to many hazards; yet if the King’s affairs in England had remained in any tolerable condition, especially if there had been any considerable army of royalists in the north of England to join or cooperate with Montrose, there no calculating what the talents and genius of such an enterprising leader might have ultimately done in support of the Royal cause.

But Charles, as I will presently tell you more particularly, had suffered so many and such fatal losses, that it may be justly doubted whether the assistance of Montrose, unless at the head of much larger forces than he could be expected to gather, would have afforded any material assistance against the numerous and well-disciplined army of the Parliament. The result of a contest which was never tried can only be guessed at. Montrose’s own hopes and confidence were as lofty as his ambition; and he did not permit himself to doubt the predictions of those who assured him, that he was doomed to support the tottering throne, and reinstate in safety the falling monarch.

Impressed with such proud anticipations, he wrote to the King, urging him to advance to the northern border, and form a junction with his victorious army, and concluding his request with the words which Joab, the lieutenant of King David, is recorded in Scripture to have used to the King of Israel, — “I have fought against Rabbah, and have taken the city of waters. Now therefore gather the rest of the people together, and encamp against the city, and take it; lest I take the city, and it be called after my name.”

While Montrose was thus urging King Charles, by the brilliant prospects which he held out, to throw himself on his protection, his own army mouldered away and dispersed, even in a greater degree than had been the case after his less distinguished successes. The Highland clans went home to get in their harvest, and place their spoil in safety. It was needless and useless to refuse them leave, for they were determined to take it. The north-country gentlemen also, wearied of the toils of the campaign, left his army in numbers; so that when Montrose received, by the hands of Sir Robert Spottiswood, the King’s commission under the Great Seal, naming him captain-general and lieutenant-governor of Scotland, he commanded a force scarcely more effective than when he was wandering through Athole and Badenoch. The King’s orders, however, and his own indomitable spirit of enterprise, determined his march towards the Borders.

About fifty years before, these districts would have supplied him, even upon the lighting of their beacons, with ten thousand cavalry, as fond of fighting and plunder as any Highlander in his army. But that period, as I have told you, had passed away. The inhabitants of the Border-land had become peaceful, and the chiefs and lords, whose influence might still have called them out to arms, were hostile to the Crown, or, at best, lukewarm in its cause. The Earl of Buccleuch, and his friends of the name of Scott, who had never forgotten the offence given by the revocation of James’s donations to their chief, were violent Covenanters, and had sent a strong clan-regiment with Earl of Leven and the Scottish auxiliaries. Traquair, Roxburghe, and Hume, all entertained, or affected, regard to the King, but made no effectual effort in raising men. The once formidable name of Douglas, and the exertions of the Earl of Annandale, could only assemble some few troops of horse, whom the historian, Bishop Guthrie, describes as truthless trained bands. Montrose expected to meet a body of more regular cavalry, who were to be despatched from England; but the King’s continued misfortunes prevented him from making such a diversion.

Mean while the Scottish army in England received an account of the despair to which the battle of Kilsyth had reduced the Convention of Estates, and learned that several of its most distinguished members were already exiles, having fled to Berwick and other strong places on the Border, which were garrisoned by the Parliamentary forces. The importance of the crisis was felt, and David Lesley was despatched, at the head of five or six thousand men, chiefly cavalry, and the flower of the Scottish auxiliary army, with the charge of checking the triumphs of Montrose.

Lesley crossed the Border at Berwick, and proceeded on his march towards the metropolis, as if it had been his view to get between Montrose and the Highlands, and to prevent his again receiving assistance from his faithful mountaineers. But that sagacious general’s intentions were of a more decisive character; for, learning that Montrose, with his little army, lay quartered in profound security near Selkirk, he suddenly altered his march, left the Edinburgh road when he came to Edgebucklingbrae, above Musselburgh, crossed the country to Middleton, and then turning southward, descended the vale of the Gala to Melrose, in which place, and the adjacent hamlets, he quartered his army for the night.

Montrose’s infantry, mean while, lay encamped on an elevated ascent, called Philiphaugh, on the left bank of the Ettrick, while his cavalry, with their distinguished general in person, were quartered in the town of Selkirk; a considerable stream being thus interposed betwixt the two parts of his army, which should have been so stationed as to be ready to support each other on a sudden alarm. But Montrose had no information of the vicinity of Lesley, though the Covenanters had passed the night within four miles of his camp. This indicates that he must have been very ill served by his own patrols, and that his cause must have been unpopular in that part of the country, since a single horseman, at the expense of half an hour’s gallop, might have put him fully in on his guard.

On the morning of the 13th September, 1645, Lesley, under cover of a thick mist, approached Montrose’s camp, and had the merit, by his dexterity and vigilance, of surprising him, whom his enemies had never before found unprepared. The Covenanting general divided his troops into two divisions, and attacked both flanks of the enemy at the same time. Those on the left made but a tumultuary and imperfect resistance; the right wing, supported by a wood, fought in a manner worthy of their general’s fame. Montrose himself, roused by the firing and noise of the action, hastily assembled his cavalry, crossed the Ettrick, and made a desperate attempt to recover the victory, omitting nothing which courage or skill could achieve, to rally his followers. But when at length left with only thirty horse, he was compelled to fly, and retreating up the Yarrow, crossed into the vale of Tweed, and reached Peebles, where some of his followers joined him.

The defeated army suffered severely. The prisoners taken by the Covenanters were massacred without mercy, and in cold blood. They were shot in the court-yard of Newark castle, upon Yarrow, and their bodies hastily interred at a place, called, from that circumstance, Slain-men’s-lee. The ground being, about twenty years since, opened for the foundation of a school-house, the bones and skulls, which were dug up in great quantities, plainly showed the truth of the country tradition. Many cavaliers, both officers and others, men of birth and character, the companions of Montrose’s many triumphs, fell into the hands of the victors, and were, as we shall afterwards see, put to an ignominious death. The prisoners, both of high and low degree, would have been more numerous, but for the neighbourhood of the Harehead-wood, into which the fugitives escaped. Such were the immediate consequences of this battle; concerning which, the country people often quote the following lines:—

“At Philiphaugh the fray began;

At Harehead-wood it ended.

The Scots out owre the Grahams they ran,

Sae merrily they bended.”

Montrose, after this disastrous action, retreated again into the Highlands, where he once more assembled an army of mountaineers. But his motions ceased to be of the consequence which they had acquired before he had experienced defeat. General Middleton, a man of military talents, but a soldier of fortune, was despatched against him by the Convention of estates, which was eager to recover the same power in the Highlands, which David Lesley’s victory had reestablished throughout the Lowlands.

While Montrose was thus engaged in a obscure mountain warfare, the King having already surrendered himself to the Scottish auxiliaries, in total despair of the ultimate success, and anxious for the safety of his adventurous general, sent orders to him to dissolve his army, and to provide for his personal security, by leaving the kingdom. Montrose would not obey the first order, concluding it had been extorted from the monarch. To a second, and more peremptory injunction, he yielded obedience, and disbanding his army,(3d Sept. 1646) embarked in a brig bound for Bergen in Norway, with a few adherents, who were too obnoxious to the Covenanters, to permit of their remaining in Scotland. Lest their little vessel should be searched by an English ship of war, Montrose wore the disguise of a domestic, and passed for the servant of his chaplain and biographer, Dr George Wishart. You may remember that he wore a similar disguise on entering Scotland, in order to commence his undertaking.

This, and the preceding chapter, give an account of the brief, but brilliant period of Montrose’s success. A future one will contain the melancholy conclusion of his exertions, and of his life.

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