Battle of Carbisdale, 26th April, 1650

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James Graham 1st Marquess of Montrose. (1612-1650)

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Whilst in Denmark, July 1649, Montrose wrote an appeal in the King’s name to the people of Scotland calling on all those loyal to the Crown to rise up against those who had ‘sold their sovereign into death’. The effect of this appeal was to cause ‘acute anxiety’ to Argyll and his government, who promptly distributed throughout the land a counter- proclamation, degrading Montrose in the foulest of ways. Continuing to deal with Argyll and his government, Charles appeared to show that he was on the point of abandoning his Marquis, which would have a serious effect on Montrose’s efforts. Denmark, too, thought Charles about to drop Montrose and withdrew it’s support, Sweden soon followed suit by withdrawing it’s help of men, ammunition and transport ships. Undeterred, Montrose set sail from Gothenburg early March 1650. Things were soon to get worse, for whilst at sea the small fleet were caught in a storm, scattering and sinking some of the valuable supply vessels. Battling the storm, many of the ships were able to limp into the shelter of the Orkney Islands on the 23rd March.

Once in the Islands, the Montrose received news that the King had opened up negotiations with Argyll’s government in Edinburgh. This did not mean that Charles had changed his mind and would now back Argyll. No, Charles thought it best to treat with them, giving them formal recognition in order to concur with their treaty. What you might call buttering both sides of the bread -if one side failed he could say he always backed the other. Argyll’s response at this formal recognition from the King? He was to put a price of £10,000 on Montrose’s head and made it clear that Montrose’s claim to have a commission from the King was entirely false. Argyll wasted no time in calling upon all loyal Scottish subjects to oppose the traitor James Graham. The recruiting of men for his army went well for the Marquis It is said he gathered in at least 700 to 800 men. The local gentry and Ministers throughout Orkney and Shetland signed a bond of allegiance. In all, Montrose spent two weeks in the Islands and prepared to set sail around the 9th of April, but, before his departure, a small garrison, to remain on the Island, was organised and placed under the governorship of Sir William Johnston. In all, the Royal army now consisted of at least 1,200 men, made up of 700 Orcadians and at least 450 veteran soldiers from Germany and Denmark. He had also with him two very experienced officers, his good friend Colonel William Sibbald and Colonel Sir John Hurry. A small flotilla of fishing boats was awaiting the soldiers on a beach at Holm as they made their way to the collection point, ready to be escorted across the Pentland firth by Captain Hall’s frigate the ‘Herderinnan’.

Once at sea the fleet was to split in two -Montrose would force a landing at Duncansby Head, near to John O’Groats, whilst Lieutenant-Colonel Drummond, with 500 picked men, were to land just up the coast near Wick. Both landings were unopposed and Montrose swiftly entered Thurso, forcing it’s garrison of 100 men to flee southwards without a shot being fired and establishing his quarters in a small house in the area known as ‘Fisher-biggins’. Here he awaited news of any of the local gentry coming to the King’s cause. Sadly, very few came, not be-cause they wished to have nothing to do with him, no, they simply thought it best to await developments before they risked everything on what might be a hopeless cause. They were fully aware that Argyll had a force of over 4,000 at his call.

Lieutenant-Colonel Drummond had orders to make all haste and secure the enemy entry to the area, but first he had to deal with the possible hostile garrison at Dunbeath Castle. Once at the castle, Drummond found that the owner, Sir John Sinclair, had already fled south to warn the Earl of Sutherland of the landing, leaving behind a small garrison to defend the castle. The Earl also issued orders for the garrisons of Dunrobin, Skelbo, Skibo and Dornoch castles to be strengthened. On the 17th April, Montrose, himself, arrived at Dunbeath and called upon the castle to yield, but when he found the garrison had no intention of doing so, he ordered Major Whitfield and the Laird of Dalgetty with 100 men, to try and force it’s surrender. Montrose knew he could not waste time in any siege and soon afterwards left to join Drummond and Hurry at the pass of Ord before arriving outside the walls of Dunrobin Castle, which had also closed it’s gates to him. The garrison of Dunrobin had captured an advanced party of Montrose’s men and Montrose demanded their return. The garrison, much to the Marquis’ anger, refused. Again, Montrose had no choice in the matter- as at Dunbeath he could not engage in a siege and so ordered his army southwards. This would be a bitter blow to his plans for it would be unwise to have a hostile garrison to his rear, especially if he were forced to retreat back to the north.

The next day, the Royal army set up camp at a spot called Rhives on the slopes of Ben Bhragie overlooking Colspie, but seeing this area was vulnerable to cavalry attack, shifted camp once more to Gruids, arriving there on the 21rd April. At Cruids, Montrose hoped to meet up with new recruits, for he believed the Mackenzie clan were up in arms in Inverness and close by in the hills to the west the Munros and Rosses, who had indicated that they might join him, but when none arrived he pressed on the Strathoikell and into the narrow valley of Carbisdale. For two days he waited in the valley for the Munros and Rosses It was to be his biggest mistake to wait for them, for Argyll had already set his counter plans in operation.

Argyll’s government had ordered the Scottish commander, David Leslie, to advance and destroy the rebels as quickly as possible, for he well knew that the Highland clans might rise up at Montrose’s call the longer his army remained in the field. General Leslie concentrated his army at Brechin and began to march northwards, where he was joined by a few of the Munros and Rosses. Once Leslie’s army entered Tain, he was met by the Earl of Sutherland and his small army. Also in support of Leslie’s army was the Inverness commander Colonel Strachan, whose force was said to number about 230 cavalry, and a body of infantry. Fully aware of the location of the Royalist’s, Leslie ordered the Earl of Sutherland’s army north over the Domoch Firth, then on to the Kyle of Sutherland, an inlet on the western end of the Firth, in the hope of driving in Montrose’s left flank should he remain in the valley of Carbisdale. The Earl would be in no great hurry to get to grips with the Marquis for he well remembered how he witnessed his men being badly mauled at Auldearn. Strachan was to march up the southern side of the Firth and engage the Royalist in a head on battle, holding them long enough to be joined by the Earl of Sutherland, whereby they would unite and destroy the rising swiftly. Whilst the Earl was busy crossing the Firth, Strachan made his way to Wester Fearn. Opposite the Dun of Criech, arriving there at about three in the afternoon. Here he hid the majority of his cavalry in the tall broom, which covered the majority of the slopes in that area, showing only about a quarter of his number to the north. About three miles away, rose the steep hill of Craigcaoinichean, at the base of which Montrose had pitched his camp, his left flank resting on the Kyle, his rear and right protected by the hills and a wood known as Scroggie Wood. His front was protected by what was described as ‘deep entrenchments and breast-work’. These earth-works must have been substantial for the author C Wishart in his book, The Deeds of Montrose, said they were visible for many years after the battle.

Montrose, knowing that the enemy must be close by, but not knowing in what number, sent out Major Lisle with the cavalry, about forty in all, to ascertain Strachan’s position. Before they had gone far, they had spotted Strachan’s ex-posed cavalry and sent word to Montrose that the enemy numbers were few. This was all the Marquis needed to know and ordered his orcadian infantry, under the command of Colonel Hurry, forward to give support to Lisle’s halted cavalry. Suddenly Strachan let loose a body of 100 cavalry who swiftly rode down the Royalist cavalry and began to make their way towards the startled Orcadians. The ambush had begun.

No sooner had Strachan appeared, than Captain Hackett swiftly followed him with 80 dragoons and Captain Hutchinson’s reserve cavalry. Slowly following these would be the Lawer’s infantry regiment, all eager to avenge their mauling at Auldearn. The Orcadians, seeing their cavalry almost disappear under a flood of enemy horse became panic-stricken, throwing down their arms they fled. To the Orcadians rear, the foreign troops, under Colonel Grey, maintained their composure. These were made of sterner stuff, they knew that to flee in front of disciplined cavalry would mean their complete annihilation and so retired slowly up the slope of the hill and lined the edge of Scroggie Wood. It seemed that the attack was so sudden that the Royal colours, along with a large party of officers, were set upon by Strachan’s horse and slaughtered. The Orcadians, who had never seen a troop of horse, fled in terror past the entrenchments and it is said at least 200 of them attempted to swim the Kyle and all were drowned. The remainder either still attempted their flight to the north or surrendered.

Despite the thickness of Scroggie Wood, Strachan’s men pushed head long into it and came under inaccurate musket fire from the Germans. One of their bullets was said to have struck Strachan ‘upon his belly, bot lighting upone the double of his belte and buffe coate, did not pierce’. It was at this point that treachery showed it’s ugly head when the Munros and Rosses joined in the fight against the foreigners in the wood. They were all too eager to grab their share of any plunder. The Germans and Danes fought gallantly deeper and deeper into the wood, but in the end the need for self-preservation took over and those that were left attempted to flee. History records that the bloodshed in the wood continued for over two hours. Even after the battle ended, the slaughter did not cease, for… ‘ the countrie-men of Rosse and Southerland continued the killing of such as escpaed from the battle many dayes thereafter.’

Montrose, struck with several blows and shot from his horse, was amongst the officers collected around the colours. Amazingly, he was not singled out for slaughter and so, in the confusion, was able to meet up with one of his gallant young officers named Frendraught, who was himself said to have had a couple of wounds, offered Montrose his horse, thus allowing him to escape. Frendraught rendered himself a prisoner after having willingly given away his only means of escape.

Casualties that day were as usual high on the losing side, much of the slaughter being done after the rout. Ten chief officers were slain, Hurry was wounded and captured, along with Colonel Grey. 58 lesser officers were also taken along with 386 common soldiers and two Orkney Ministers. Over 450 were dead, the rest scattered. Strachan’s losses were said to have been very slight by comparison.

Montrose fled the field with several other officers by his side, but knowing that he would be harder to spot on the moors, he soon abandoned his horse at the top of the valley and attempted to make his way north to the garrison at Thurso. With victory secured, the victors were said to have given thanks to God for their happy success and then made preparation to send the prisoners to Tain while they would await the arrival of General Leslie, the Lieutenant-General, who would give the orders for them to be marched to Edinburgh. Some of the prisoners would be held locally and forced to work in the Estate’s tin mines. The King’s standard, which was taken on the field, was put with the baggage and James Graham’s papers and also transported south.

Of course things did not end there, for there was the no small matter of the Royalist units stretching from Dunrobin castle to the garrison at Thurso, not to mention the garrison in the Orkney Islands that had to be dealt with. So whilst Montrose was being led to his death Leslie had dispatched 5 troops of horse, including some from Holburn and the Earl of Sutherland’s regiments. Their first task came when they arrived at the walls of Dunbeath castle. The defenders seeing the enemy approach shut themselves in and refused a call to yield, holding out valiantly for some days until their water supply was cut off, forcing them into surrender. These, like their comrades at Carbisdale, were then marched under escort to Edinburgh. From Dunbeath, the Earl of Sutherland dispatched 300 men under Captain William Gordon to march north to Thurso. At Thurso, the small garrison were warned of Gordon’s approach and swiftly boarded their ship and set sail for Orkney. Fifteen minutes delay would have cost them dear, for it is said that as Gordon entered the town he was able to watch them sail out of the bay. But Orkney, too, would prove to be no place of refuge, for Leslie would soon make plans to cross the Pentland and wreak his vengeance on those still there. Montrose’s Governor Sir William Johnston, made hasty plans to evacuate the islands, taking with him money, Montrose’s papers, and what artillery he could find. His departure was in such haste that he left behind some of his men to fend for themselves. Further proof of his haste came when the Frigate ‘Herderinnan’ struck rocks, the Skerries of Skea, off the island of Westray. The ship, though damaged, was said to have continued on it’s way to safety in Norway, where they were all immediately put under arrest. Those unfortunate enough to have remained behind in Orkney were left to the ‘mercy of Leslie’, but some did manage to evade capture by boarding fishing boats to Shetland and then onto Holland.

Extracted from an article by Stephen Maggs, Miniature Wargames No.197

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