The Cromwellian invasion of Scotland


Cromwell at Dunbar. Painting by Andrew Carrick Gow.


The Battle of Dunbar (3 September 1650) was a battle of the Third English Civil War. The English Parliamentarian forces under Oliver Cromwell defeated a Scottish, French and Albanian army commanded by David Leslie which was loyal to King Charles II, who had been proclaimed King of Scots Charles was pronounced King of Great Britain, Ireland and France on 5 February 1649. The battlefield has been inventoried and protected by Historic Scotland under the Historic Environment (Amendment) Act 2011.

In 1649, following the Royalist defeat in the English Civil War, Charles I was executed and a republic proclaimed. In 1650 his son sailed for Scotland from exile in Holland, landing at Speymouth. After swallowing his pride and most of his principles, he made an alliance with the leading Scots in church and state and was proclaimed King Charles II. To crush him, Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland in traditional fashion, using his navy to support the army in its march up the east coast. Cromwell massed his army of 16,000 men in the English-held, fortified town of Berwick, where ships could bring supplies. Twenty-three merchant ships, of 3,325 tons, were taken up for the first supply and contracts were placed for 400,000 lb of biscuit, 180 tons of cheese and 2,000 quarters of oats. Tents were ordered at a cost of just over £1 each, except for Cromwell’s headquarters tent which cost £46. A squadron of eight warships of ‘considerable countenance’ was appointed to ‘attend the motions of the army’, while eight more warships were to convoy the merchantmen. The squadron was headed by Rear-Admiral Edward Hall, an outspoken anti-Royalist, in the 44-gun Liberty (Charles under the old regime). While Cromwell assembled his army, Hall used his ships to harass Scottish trade, which had no protecting warships. By 8 July, after three weeks in the area, he had captured seven ships, which, according to an English report, ‘will much startle the Scots’. Spoils included a ceremonial purse carried by the Chancellor at the Coronation of the Scottish King.

Cromwell’s army left Berwick on 22 July and soon found the country as bare of supplies as he had expected. The Scots lit hilltop beacons and the men fled towards Edinburgh, taking their foodstuffs and cattle with them. The women stayed behind and earned a living by baking and brewing for the English, until a Scots decree forbade them. On the 26th the English reached the small port of Dunbar where in Cromwell’s words they received ‘some small pittance’ of supplies from their ships. Two days later they took Musselburgh, an even smaller port, where the ships failed to land supplies because of bad weather. Cromwell marched towards Edinburgh. David Leslie, the Scottish general, deployed his army of 26,000 men with considerable skill, keeping his forces between Cromwell and his lines of supply and preventing him from getting to the far superior port of Leith, despite a bombardment by the English fleet. On 27 August there was an inconclusive battle at Gogar Loch to the west of Edinburgh, but Cromwell was too far from his supply ships and retreated to Musselburgh and then Dunbar, arriving on 1 September.

After more than five weeks of campaigning, the New Model Army was less than 30 miles inside Scottish territory, surrounded by superior forces, with its men starving and falling ill because of the unfavourable weather. A supply convoy was windbound at Harwich on the English east coast, much to the concern of the English government. An intelligence report suggested, ‘Cromwell must fight or be gone. His men eat nothing but bread and cheese, and lie on the ground without huts. He has probably lost 2,000 men in killed, wounded and run away.’ A plan to withdraw by sea was rejected. But the Scots snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when the Committee of Estates ordered Leslie to abandon his position in the hills and fight the Battle of Dunbar on 3 September: 3,000 Scots were killed and 10,000 taken prisoner and Cromwell’s position was safe.

Cromwell had much to do before Scotland was conquered. Edinburgh and Leith were soon captured, apart from the Castle, but Stirling Castle still held out and the English were unable to send their ships so far up the Forth with supplies and heavy artillery. Glasgow was taken and another English force, supplied from Carlisle, was sent up the west, but King Charles and his government remained in Perth. In February 1651 Tantallon Castle, on the cliffs of East Lothian, was captured with the aid of a naval bombardment and remains a spectacular ruin to this day. On 17 July the English forces finally crossed the Forth, sending 1,600 men of the first wave across at Queensferry in boats; 3,500 more followed three days later. The people of Inverkeithing blocked their harbour by ‘casting great stones in the mouth thereof and sinking of shipes and barks therein for holding out the English’ but Burntisland was captured and the English advanced on Perth, which they took on 2 August 1651.

Fifty flat boats or ‘double shallops’ were assembled in England, crewed by six men each, and sent north. Four battering guns and two mortars were brought by water up the Forth to Stirling on 10 August and the Castle surrendered after four days of bombardment. Three of the guns were put on a shallop for Dundee, which the English forces were now attacking, but it broke under the weight. The frigate Speaker, one of the newest and most effective ships in the English Navy, was loaded with royal regalia and public records taken at Stirling. In the meantime, the main Scottish Royalist army had marched south into England, where it was heavily defeated at Worcester on 3 September. The King fled to France to begin nine years of exile.

Dundee was stormed by the English on 1 September, probably with the aid of naval forces. The looting and massacre which followed were reminiscent of the taking of Wexford in Ireland two years earlier. A Scottish warship or privateer of six guns took refuge in Aberdeen, but the inhabitants told blockading English warships that ‘they would neither protect them nor deliver them up; but that if they pleased they might come and take her.’ The crews of English warships went ashore and captured her. By October only four strongholds held out in the Lowlands. The Bass Rock in the Forth was blockaded by Parliamentary forces. Andrew Bennet, a ferryman of Elie in Fife, was acquitted of helping the garrison on the grounds that he had acted under duress. The Rock surrendered later in the month. Dumbarton surrendered in January 1652. Brodick Castle on Arran gave up in April after a party of troops was shipped across the Firth of Clyde from Ayr. Dunottar Castle near Stonehaven was the last place in the Lowlands to surrender, in May 1652.

The Highlands remained unconquered and an army could not move far inland without dealing with the old problem of supply. A train of 400 horses, ‘led by Country people laden with Bisket and Cheese’, went with the army. As Major-General Deane wrote from Badenoch in July, ‘We are marched up into the middle of this craggy country, where we have great difficulty to live in a body together for want of provisions both for horse and men. It is a dismal place where we scarce see a man or beast for 40 miles together.’ Even the native baggage-carriers refused to continue, claiming ‘that none of their forefathers ever went these ways.’ The English reached Inverness, where a 40-ton pinnace was built and dragged across six miles of land to be launched into Loch Ness.

An agreement was reached between the English forces and the Marquis of Argyll in August. Garrisons were established in five positions in Argyll, four of which could be supplied by sea. But when a convoy escorted by the warship Elias arrived in Inveraray a few days later, it was found that the clansmen had risen up and taken possession of the posts at ‘Kincarn’ (probably Kilchurn on Loch Awe), Tarbert and ‘Lochead’ (probably Castle Lachlan). The English were forced to withdraw and they held only Dunolly and Dunstaffnage. There was an uneasy peace by October 1652.

In 1653 the nature of the war changed. Until then it had been a traditional defence of Scotland against the English, in a form that would have been recognisable to Edward I and Robert Bruce. It now became a war of a new kind, which anticipated the conflict between Prince Charles and the Duke of Cumberland ninety years later. The Lowlanders were reasonably content with the religious settlement and with prosperity brought about by economic union with England. An exiled Stuart prince inspired a rising in the Highlands, though he did not take part in person. The state navy was diverted by a foreign war, for conflict with the Dutch had broken out in May 1652. The navy tried to stop the rebels by patrols, blockades, troop movements by sea and by trying to prevent them crossing rivers such as the Forth.

The revolt was sparked off when a Parliamentary privateer anchored off Lewis and sent men ashore to seek fresh meat for the crew. They were seized and Lord Seaforth declared on behalf of the King, demanding that the privateer support him. Robert Lilburne, commanding the Parliamentary forces in Scotland, complained that he had very few ships to guard the coast and that ‘without shipping all our fortifications in these islands signifies little or Nothing.’ The Earl of Glencairn led the Highland revolt until Charles’s appointed leader, John Middleton, landed at Tarbartness in the north-east from his exile in Holland, with supplies of arms and ammunition. He quickly gathered support.

The rebellion was supported by the Macleans of Duart and in August 1653 a force of six government ships under Colonel Ralph Cobbett sailed from Leith and Ayr to repress them. They took Mull with no difficulty, because the Macleans had fled to Tiree. Anchored off Duart Castle, the Commonwealth ships were struck by ‘a most violent storme’ which lasted 16 or 18 hours. Three ships lost their masts while three others, including the Swan of about 200 tons, were sunk. The survivors of the disaster fled overland to Dumbarton.

The English army continued to rely on support by sea, including drafts of money sent north to pay their troops. Throughout the wars, the supply of hay and straw was particularly vital and many ships were used to carry it northwards. The English could not afford to send out small forage parties to find food for their horses, for that would provide the Scottish ‘moss-troopers’ or guerrillas with just the opportunity they needed. When a store of hay was destroyed by fire at Leith, a Stuart agent confessed to it and was executed as a spy.

General Monck, now in command of the English forces, invaded the Highlands in 1654. Knowing he would lose contact with his supply ships, he waited until May and then marched ‘as soone as their is any grasse in the hills for our horse to subsist on’. It was difficult for him to arrange rendezvous with his ships. When one carrying biscuit, cheese and ammunition arrived at Inveraray from Dumbarton in September 1654, it was attacked by a party of Royalist cavalry and seized. Nevertheless Monck was able to defeat Middleton at Dalnaspidal in the Grampians in July and most of the Highland chiefs made peace.


Scottish ship (1650–1674)

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