A Legend of Montrose, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 16

Such mountains steep, such craggy hills,

His army on one side enclose:

The other side, great griesly gills

Did fence with fenny mire and moss.

Which when the Earl understood,

He council craved of captains all,

Who bade set forth with mournful mood,

And take such fortune as would fall.


Montrose had now a splendid career in his view, provided he could obtain the consent of his gallant, but desultory troops, and their independent chieftains. The Lowlands lay open before him without an army adequate to check his career; for Argyle’s followers had left the Covenanters’ host when their master threw up his commission, and many other troops, tired of the war, had taken the same opportunity to disband themselves. By descending Strath-Tay, therefore, one of the most convenient passes from the Highlands, Montrose had only to present himself in the Lowlands, in order to rouse the slumbering spirit of chivalry and of loyalty which animated the gentlemen to the north of the Forth. The possession of these districts, with or without a victory, would give him the command of a wealthy and fertile part of the kingdom, and would enable him, by regular pay, to place his army on a permanent footing, to penetrate as far as the capital, perhaps from thence to the Border, where he deemed it possible to communicate with the yet unsubdued forces of King Charles.

Such was the plan of operations by which the truest glory was to be acquired, and the most important success insured for the royal cause. Accordingly it did not escape the ambitious and daring spirit of him whose services had already acquired him the title of the Great Marquis. But other motives actuated many of his followers, and perhaps were not without their secret and unacknowledged influence upon his own feelings.

The Western Chiefs in Montrose’s army, almost to a man, regarded the Marquis of Argyle as the most direct and proper object of hostilities. Almost all of them had felt his power; almost all, in withdrawing their fencible men from their own glens, left their families and property exposed to his vengeance; all, without exception, were desirous of diminishing his sovereignty; and most of them lay so near his territories, that they might reasonably hope to be gratified by a share of his spoil. To these Chiefs the possession of Inverary and its castle was an event infinitely more important and desirable than the capture of Edinburgh. The latter event could only afford their clansmen a little transitory pay or plunder; the former insured to the Chiefs themselves indemnity for the past, and security for the future. Besides these personal reasons, the leaders, who favoured this opinion, plausibly urged, that though, at his first descent into the Lowlands, Montrose might be superior to the enemy, yet every day’s march he made from the hills must diminish his own forces, and expose him to the accumulated superiority of any army which the Covenanters could collect from the Lowland levies and garrisons. On the other hand, by crushing Argyle effectually, he would not only permit his present western friends to bring out that proportion of their forces which they must otherwise leave at home for protection of their families; but farther, he would draw to his standard several tribes already friendly to his cause, but who were prevented from joining him by fear of M’Callum More.

These arguments, as we have already hinted, found something responsive in Montrose’s own bosom, not quite consonant with the general heroism of his character. The houses of Argyle and Montrose had been in former times, repeatedly opposed to each other in war and in politics, and the superior advantages acquired by the former, had made them the subject of envy and dislike to the neighbouring family, who, conscious of equal desert, had not been so richly rewarded. This was not all. The existing heads of these rival families had stood in the most marked opposition to each other since the commencement of the present troubles.

Montrose, conscious of the superiority of his talents, and of having rendered great service to the Covenanters at the beginning of the war, had expected from that party the supereminence of council and command, which they judged it safer to intrust to the more limited faculties, and more extensive power, of his rival Argyle. The having awarded this preference, was an injury which Montrose never forgave the Covenanters; and he was still less likely to extend his pardon to Argyle, to whom he had been postponed. He was therefore stimulated by every feeling of hatred which could animate a fiery temper in a fierce age, to seek for revenge upon the enemy of his house and person; and it is probable that these private motives operated not a little upon his mind, when he found the principal part of his followers determined rather to undertake an expedition against the territories of Argyle, than to take the far more decisive step of descending at once into the Lowlands.

Yet whatever temptation Montrose found to carry into effect his attack upon Argyleshire, he could not easily bring himself to renounce the splendid achievement of a descent upon the Lowlands. He held more than one council with the principal Chiefs, combating, perhaps, his own secret inclination as well as theirs. He laid before them the extreme difficulty of marching even a Highland army from the eastward into Argyleshire, through passes scarcely practicable for shepherds and deer-stalkers, and over mountains, with which even the clans lying nearest to them did not pretend to be thoroughly acquainted. These difficulties were greatly enhanced by the season of the year, which was now advancing towards December, when the mountain-passes, in themselves so difficult, might be expected to be rendered utterly impassable by snowstorms. These objections neither satisfied nor silenced the Chiefs, who insisted upon their ancient mode of making war, by driving the cattle, which, according to the Gaelic phrase, “fed upon the grass of their enemy.” The council was dismissed late at night, and without coming to any decision, excepting that the Chiefs, who supported the opinion that Argyle should be invaded, promised to seek out among their followers those who might be most capable of undertaking the office of guides upon the expedition.

Montrose had retired to the cabin which served him for a tent, and stretched himself upon a bed of dry fern, the only place of repose which it afforded. But he courted sleep in vain, for the visions of ambition excluded those of Morpheus. In one moment he imagined himself displaying the royal banner from the reconquered Castle of Edinburgh, detaching assistance to a monarch whose crown depended upon his success, and receiving in requital all the advantages and preferments which could be heaped upon him whom a king delighteth to honour. At another time this dream, splendid as it was, faded before the vision of gratified vengeance, and personal triumph over a personal enemy. To surprise Argyle in his stronghold of Inverary — to crush in him at once the rival of his own house and the chief support of the Presbyterians — to show the Covenanters the difference between the preferred Argyle and the postponed Montrose, was a picture too flattering to feudal vengeance to be easily relinquished.

While he lay thus busied with contradictory thoughts and feelings, the soldier who stood sentinel upon his quarters announced to the Marquis that two persons desired to speak with his Excellency.

“Their names?” answered Montrose, “and the cause of their urgency at such a late hour?”

On these points, the sentinel, who was one of Colkitto’s Irishmen, could afford his General little information; so that Montrose, who at such a period durst refuse access to no one, lest he might have been neglecting some important intelligence, gave directions, as a necessary precaution, to put the guard under arms, and then prepared to receive his untimely visitors. His groom of the chambers had scarce lighted a pair of torches, and Montrose himself had scarce risen from his couch, when two men entered, one wearing a Lowland dress, of shamoy leather worn almost to tatters; the other a tall upright old Highlander, of a complexion which might be termed iron-grey, wasted and worn by frost and tempest.

“What may be your commands with me, my friends?” said the Marquis, his hand almost unconsciously seeking the but of one of his pistols; for the period, as well as the time of night, warranted suspicions which the good mien of his visitors was not by any means calculated to remove.

“I pray leave to congratulate you,” said the Lowlander, “my most noble General, and right honourable lord, upon the great battles which you have achieved since I had the fortune to be detached from you, It was a pretty affair that tuilzie at Tippermuir; nevertheless, if I might be permitted to counsel —”

“Before doing so,” said the Marquis, “will you be pleased to let me know who is so kind as to favour me with his opinion?”

“Truly, my lord,” replied the man, “I should have hoped that was unnecessary, seeing it is not so long since I took on in your service, under promise of a commission as Major, with half a dollar of daily pay and half a dollar of arrears; and I am to trust your lordship has nut forgotten my pay as well as my person?”

“My good friend, Major Dalgetty,” said Montrose, who by this time perfectly recollected his man, “you must consider what important things have happened to put my friends’ faces out of my memory, besides this imperfect light; but all conditions shall be kept. — And what news from Argyleshire, my good Major? We have long given you up for lost, and I was now preparing to take the most signal vengeance upon the old fox who infringed the law of arms in your person.”

“Truly, my noble lord,” said Dalgetty, “I have no desire that my return should put any stop to so proper and becoming an intention; verily it is in no shape in the Earl of Argyle’s favour or mercy that I now stand before you, and I shall be no intercessor for him. But my escape is, under Heaven, and the excellent dexterity which, as an old and accomplished cavalier, I displayed in effecting the same — I say, under these, it is owing to the assistance of this old Highlander, whom I venture to recommend to your lordship’s special favour, as the instrument of saving your lordship’s to command, Dugald Dalgetty of Drumthwacket.”

“A thankworthy service,” said the Marquis, gravely, “which shall certainly be requited in the manner it deserves.”

“Kneel down, Ranald,” said Major Dalgetty (as we must now call him), “kneel down, and kiss his Excellency’s hand.”

The prescribed form of acknowledgment not being according to the custom of Ranald’s country, he contented himself with folding his arms on his bosom, and making a low inclination of his head.

“This poor man, my lord,” said Major Dalgetty, continuing his speech with a dignified air of protection towards Ranald M’Eagh, “has strained all his slender means to defend my person from mine enemies, although having no better weapons of a missile sort than bows and arrows, whilk your lordship will hardly believe.”

“You will see a great many such weapons in my camp,” said Montrose, “and we find them serviceable.” [In fact, for the admirers of archery it may be stated, not only that many of the Highlanders in Montrose’s army used these antique missiles, but even in England the bow and quiver, once the glory of the bold yeomen of that land, were occasionally used during the great civil wars.]

“Serviceable, my lord!” said Dalgetty; “I trust your lordship will permit me to be surprised — bows and arrows! — I trust you will forgive my recommending the substitution of muskets, the first convenient opportunity. But besides defending me, this honest Highlander also was at the pains of curing me, in respect that I had got a touch of the wars in my retreat, which merits my best requital in this special introduction of him to your lordship’s notice and protection.”

“What is your name, my friend?” said Montrose, turning to the Highlander.

“It may not be spoken,” answered the mountaineer.

“That is to say,” interpreted Major Dalgetty, “he desires to have his name concealed, in respect he hath in former days taken a castle, slain certain children, and done other things, whilk, as your good lordship knows, are often practised in war time, but excite no benevolence towards the perpetrator in the friends of those who sustain injury. I have known, in my military experience, many brave cavaliers put to death by the boors, simply for having used military license upon the country.”

“I understand,” said Montrose: “This person is at feud with some of our followers. Let him retire to the court of guard, and we will think of the best mode of protecting him.”

“You hear, Ranald,” said Major Dalgetty, with an air of superiority, “his Excellency wishes to hold privy council with me, you must go to the court of guard. — He does not know where that is, poor fellow! — he is a young soldier for so old a man; I will put him under the charge of a sentinel, and return to your lordship incontinent.” He did so, and returned accordingly.

Montrose’s first enquiry respected the embassy to Inverary; and he listened with attention to Dalgetty’s reply, notwithstanding the prolixity of the Major’s narrative. It required an effort from the Marquis to maintain his attention; but no one better knew, that where information is to be derived from the report of such agents as Dalgetty, it can only be obtained by suffering them to tell their story in their own way. Accordingly the Marquis’s patience was at length rewarded. Among other spoils which the Captain thought himself at liberty to take, was a packet of Argyle’s private papers. These he consigned to the hands of his General; a humour of accounting, however, which went no farther, for I do not understand that he made any mention of the purse of gold which he had appropriated at the same time that he made seizure of the papers aforesaid. Snatching a torch from the wall, Montrose was in an instant deeply engaged in the perusal of these documents, in which it is probable he found something to animate his personal resentment against his rival Argyle.

“Does he not fear me?” said he; “then he shall feel me. Will he fire my castle of Murdoch? — Inverary shall raise the first smoke. — O for a guide through the skirts of Strath-Fillan!”

Whatever might be Dalgetty’s personal conceit, he understood his business sufficiently to guess at Montrose’s meaning. He instantly interrupted his own prolix narration of the skirmish which had taken place, and the wound he had received in his retreat, and began to speak to the point which he saw interested his General.

“If,” said he, “your Excellency wishes to make an infall into Argyleshire, this poor man, Ranald, of whom I told you, together with his children and companions, know every pass into that land, both leading from the east and from the north.”

“Indeed!” said Montrose; “what reason have you to believe their knowledge so extensive?”

“So please your Excellency,” answered Dalgetty, “during the weeks that I remained with them for cure of my wound, they were repeatedly obliged to shift their quarters, in respect of Argyle’s repeated attempts to repossess himself of the person of an officer who was honoured with Your Excellency’s confidence; so that I had occasion to admire the singular dexterity and knowledge of the face of the country with which they alternately achieved their retreat and their advance; and when, at length, I was able to repair to your Excellency’s standard, this honest simple creature, Ranald MacEagh, guided me by paths which my steed Gustavus (which your lordship may remember) trode with perfect safety, so that I said to myself, that where guides, spies, or intelligencers, were required in a Highland campaign in that western country, more expert persons than he and his attendants could not possibly be desired.”

“And can you answer for this man’s fidelity?” said Montrose; “what is his name and condition?”

“He is an outlaw and robber by profession, something also of a homicide or murderer,” answered Dalgetty; “and by name, called Ranald MacEagh; whilk signifies, Ranald, the Son of the Mist.”

“I should remember something of that name,” said Montrose, pausing: “Did not these Children of the Mist perpetrate some act of cruelty upon the M’Aulays?”

Major Dalgetty mentioned the circumstance of the murder of the forester, and Montrose’s active memory at once recalled all the circumstances of the feud.

“It is most unlucky,” said Montrose, “this inexpiable quarrel between these men and the M’Aulays. Allan has borne himself bravely in these wars, and possesses, by the wild mystery of his behaviour and language, so much influence over the minds of his countrymen, that the consequences of disobliging him might be serious. At the same time, these men being so capable of rendering useful service, and being as you say, Major Dalgetty, perfectly trustworthy —”

“I will pledge my pay and arrears, my horse and arms, my head and neck, upon their fidelity,” said the Major; “and your Excellency knows, that a soldado could say no more for his own father.”

“True,” said Montrose; “but as this is a matter of particular moment, I would willingly know the grounds of so positive an assurance.”

“Concisely then, my lord,” said the Major, “not only did they disdain to profit by a handsome reward which Argyle did me the honour to place upon this poor head of mine, and not only did they abstain from pillaging my personal property, whilk was to an amount that would have tempted regular soldiers in any service of Europe; and not only did they restore me my horse, whilk your Excellency knows to be of value, but I could not prevail on them to accept one stiver, doit, or maravedi, for the trouble and expenses of my sick bed. They actually refused my coined money when freely offered — a tale seldom to be told in a Christian land.”

“I admit,” said Montrose, after a moment’s reflection, “that their conduct towards you is good evidence of their fidelity; but how to secure against the breaking out of this feud?” He paused, and then suddenly added, “I had forgot I have supped, while you, Major, have been travelling by moonlight.”

He called to his attendants to fetch a stoup of wine and some refreshments. Major Dalgetty, who had the appetite of a convalescent returned from Highland quarters, needed not any pressing to partake of what was set before him, but proceeded to dispatch his food with such alacrity, that the Marquis, filling a cup of wine, and drinking to his health, could not help remarking, that coarse as the provisions of his camp were, he was afraid Major Dalgetty had fared much worse during his excursion into Argyleshire.

“Your Excellency may take your corporal oath upon that,” said the worthy Major, speaking with his mouth full; “for Argyle’s bread and water are yet stale and mouldy in my recollection, and though they did their best, yet the viands that the Children of the Mist procured for me, poor helpless creatures as they were, were so unrefreshful to my body, that when enclosed in my armour, whilk I was fain to leave behind me for expedition’s sake, I rattled therein like the shrivelled kernel in a nut that hath been kept on to a second Hallowe’en.”

“You must take the due means to repair these losses, Major Dalgetty.”

“In troth,” answered the soldier, “I shall hardly be able to compass that, unless my arrears are to be exchanged for present pay; for I protest to your Excellency, that the three stone weight which I have lost were simply raised upon the regular accountings of the States of Holland.”

“In that case,” said the Marquis, “you are only reduced to good marching order. As for the pay, let us once have victory — victory, Major, and your wishes, and all our wishes, shall be amply fulfilled. Meantime, help yourself to another cup of wine.”

“To your Excellency’s health,” said the Major, filling a cup to the brim, to show the zeal with which he drank the toast, “and victory over all our enemies, and particularly over Argyle! I hope to twitch another handful from his board myself — I have had one pluck at it already.”

“Very true,” answered Montrose; “but to return to those men of the Mist. You understand, Dalgetty, that their presence here, and the purpose for which we employ them, is a secret between you and me?”

Delighted, as Montrose had anticipated, with this mark of his General’s confidence, the Major laid his hand upon his nose, and nodded intelligence.

“How many may there be of Ranald’s followers?” continued the Marquis.

“They are reduced, so far as I know, to some eight or ten men,” answered Major Dalgetty, “and a few women and children.”

“Where are they now?” demanded Montrose.

“In a valley, at three miles’ distance,” answered the soldier, “awaiting your Excellency’s command; I judged it not fit to bring them to your leaguer without your Excellency’s orders.”

“You judged very well,” said Montrose; “it would be proper that they remain where they are, or seek some more distant place of refuge. I will send them money, though it is a scarce article with me at present.”

“It is quite unnecessary,” said Major Dalgetty; “your Excellency has only to hint that the M’Aulays are going in that direction, and my friends of the Mist will instantly make volte-face, and go to the right about.”

“That were scarce courteous,” said the Marquis. “Better send them a few dollars to purchase them some cattle for the support of the women and children.”

“They know how to come by their cattle at a far cheaper rate,” said the Major; “but let it be as your Excellency wills.”

“Let Ranald MacEagh,” said Montrose, “select one or two of his followers, men whom he can trust, and who are capable of keeping their own secret and ours; these, with their chief for scout-master-general, shall serve for our guides. Let them be at my tent tomorrow at daybreak, and see, if possible, that they neither guess my purpose, nor hold any communication with each other in private. — This old man, has he any children?”

“They have been killed or hanged,” answered the Major, “to the number of a round dozen, as I believe — but he hath left one grand-child, a smart and hopeful youth, whom I have noted to be never without a pebble in his plaid-nook, to fling at whatsoever might come in his way; being a symbol, that, like David, who was accustomed to sling smooth stones taken from the brook, he may afterwards prove an adventurous warrior.”

“That boy, Major Dalgetty,” said the Marquis, “I will have to attend upon my own person. I presume he will have sense enough to keep his name secret?”

“Your Excellency need not fear that,” answered Dalgetty; “these Highland imps, from the moment they chip the shell —”

“Well,” interrupted Montrose, “that boy shall be pledge for the fidelity of his parent, and if he prove faithful, the child’s preferment shall be his reward. — And now, Major Dalgetty, I will license your departure for the night; tomorrow you will introduce this MacEagh, under any name or character he may please to assume. I presume his profession has rendered him sufficiently expert in all sort of disguises; or we may admit John of Moidart into our schemes, who has sense, practicability, and intelligence, and will probably allow this man for a time to be disguised as one of his followers. For you, Major, my groom of the chambers will be your quarter-master for this evening.”

Major Dalgetty took his leave with a joyful heart greatly elated with the reception he had met with, and much pleased with the personal manners of his new General, which, as he explained at great length to Ranald MacEagh, reminded him in many respects of the demeanour of the immortal Gustavus Adolphus, the Lion of the North, and Bulwark of the Protestant Faith.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00