Scottish Mercenaries: Russia and the Netherlands, 1700–1751

Patrick Leopold Gordon

Patrick Gordon fathered three sons and two daughters. Of the lads, the eldest succeeded to the lands of Auchleuchries but the other two followed their father’s path into the Russian army. His eldest daughter, Katherine, married a German officer but was widowed in 1692 when her husband lost his life in an accident with fireworks. In 1700 she married again, this time to a kinsman of her father, Alexander Gordon. The latter came to Russia in 1696 after a spell in the French army, no doubt enticed by the success and status of Patrick, and stayed on to rise to the rank of major-general.

After securing his position on the throne of Russia, Peter the Great embarked on a drive to make his backward nation a powerful and significant force in Europe. At the start of his reign Russia’s only direct access to the open sea was through the cold, distant port of Archangel, and the temptation for Peter was to establish outlets on the Black Sea and the Baltic. It was an ambition, however, that brought him into conflict with the Ottoman Empire and Sweden. In 1697 Karl XII had succeeded to the throne of the Vasas and almost at once had to contend with troublesome neighbours: as well as Russia, Poland and Denmark were itching to recover lost territories. In 1698, all three formed an alliance to combat Sweden. Karl got his blow in first, capturing Copenhagen in 1700 and forcing a surrender on Denmark, before switching his attention to the east, defeating the Russians at Narva and Riga, and occupying Courland. In 1701 the Swedes moved into Poland and then on into Saxony. Karl, however, was stretching his resources dangerously thin, and it could only be a matter of time before he would meet a reverse. It came at the siege of the fortress of Poltava in Ukraine in July 1710: in the battle the Swedes lost almost 16,000 men as casualties or prisoners and, although Karl himself escaped with a handful of followers, it marked the end of Sweden’s dominance of the Baltic. Among the prisoners taken by the Swedes at Narva was Alexander Gordon. Back in Russian service, he defeated his former captors at Kysmark and went on to defeat the Poles at Podkamian. He died at Auchintoul in 1751.

The Gordons – Patrick and Alexander – stand out as examples of Scots in the service of Peter the Great, but there were several more of their kinsmen and their countrymen in prominent military positions. For example, take George Ogilvy. A grandson of James Ogilvy of Airlie and son of an Ogilvy who became governor of Spielberg in Moravia, George was born in 1648 and rose to the rank of major-general in the service of the Habsburgs before Peter the Great spotted him in Vienna in 1698 and invited him to join the Russian army. His work in training and modernising Peter’s forces brought him to the rank of field marshal. He later switched to the service of Poland and died in Danzig in October 1710. Then there were the brothers James and Robert Bruce, whose father, William, had been a colonel in Russian service. James followed an interest in the natural sciences, including chemistry, and Tsar Peter put him in command of artillery. He also apparently showed a talent for shady financial dealing but this did not prevent him playing an important role in the Peace of Nystadt in 1721 when Russia finally acquired Estonia, Livonia and the lands around the head of the Gulf of Finland from Sweden. James was rewarded with an estate, where he died in 1735; he was buried in the Simonoff Monastery in Moscow. His titles were inherited by his nephew Alexander, who also achieved the rank of major-general and fought against the Turks.

John Graham of Claverhouse, later Viscount Dundee

Among the many Scots who distinguished themselves under the different flags of Europe it is worth noting a few who are remembered for exploits on their home soil but who had their first taste of armed conflict abroad. John Graham of Claverhouse, Bonnie Dundee himself, travelled to France after he graduated from St Andrews in 1668 to be a volunteer in the service of Louis XIV. He moved four years later to the Low Countries to a commission as a cornet in one of the Prince of Orange’s troops of horse guards. His arrival coincided with the outbreak of war between the Netherlands and France, when William of Orange was able to form an alliance with, among others, the Habsburgs. On 11 August 1674, a joint Spanish–Dutch force under William’s command was attacked by a strong French army at Seneffe near Mons and forced into retreat. During the desperate confusion, William might have been captured when his horse foundered in a marsh had not John Graham dismounted to give his commander his saddle, an act for which he was promoted to captain. Perhaps Graham presumed too much on the prince’s good will for he was passed over when he later applied for promotion to lieutenant-colonel of one of the Scots regiments in Dutch service and was aggrieved enough to quit the Low Countries, returning to Scotland at the end of 1676.

Hugh Mackay (c. 1640 – 24 July 1692) was a Scottish military officer who settled in the Netherlands and spent most of his career in the service of William of Orange (later William III of England).

Graham of Claverhouse’s life ended in the battle on the braes of Killiecrankie in July 1689, falling in his moment of greatest triumph. It is perhaps typical of the twists of Scottish history that his opposing commander that day, Major General Hugh Mackay, had been a colleague in arms at Seneffe fifteen years before. Hugh Mackay was born in Scourie in the west of Sutherland in around 1640; an uncle had been killed fighting for Gustavus Adolphus at Lützen and his father had been a Royalist officer in the Civil War, and it was entirely natural that he also should pursue a military career. In 1660 he became an ensign in Dumbarton’s Regiment and went to France with it. In 1669, he was among a number of officers who volunteered to fight for Venice in an attempt to drive the Turks from Candia (now Iraklion), the capital of Crete, an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in which he nevertheless distinguished himself. Now a captain, in 1672 he served in France’s invasion of the Netherlands, where the horrors of the war struck him with such impact that he seriously thought of resigning to go home to his native braes. Fate, however, took a strange and happy turn. In Guelderland he was quartered in a widow’s house and so impressed his hostess, Madame de Bie, with his grave manner that she decided she could safely bring her daughters back from the refuge whither they had been consigned to keep them from the eyes and hands of rapacious foreign officers. Mackay became as one of the family, playing chess and reading with the widow and her daughters, and it was perhaps inevitable that the serious young officer should feel attracted to the eldest, Clara. She turned down his first proposal of marriage but changed her mind when Mackay made it clear that, like many Scots before and since, he liked the Dutch and was willing to leave French service to find employment under their flag. The transfer was completed, Hugh and Clara married, and Hugh now became a captain in the Scots Brigade.

He fought at Seneffe, where Graham of Claverhouse brought himself to princely attention, and at the siege of Grave in October 1674, and it was Hugh Mackay who was chosen to fill the post of lieutenant-colonel in preference to Graham. By 1680 Mackay was a colonel and not long after a brigadier. Implementing the terms of a 1678 treaty between Britain and the Netherlands, under which the British monarch could call on the three Scottish and three English regiments in Dutch service, James II summoned the help of the Scots Brigade to combat the rebelling Duke of Monmouth in 1685 and, although it saw no action before it returned to the Netherlands a year later, the king was so impressed by its appearance that Mackay was promoted to major-general. As James II’s power unravelled and relations with the Dutch deteriorated over the next two years, the brigade and the three English regiments in Dutch service were faced with the threat of divided loyalty. The Dutch government refused to allow the ordinary soldiers to respond to James’s call for them to be sent back to Britain but officers were permitted to choose the course to follow. Only a quarter of them opted to offer their swords to the British monarch. Mackay stayed with the majority in Dutch service, and he commanded a division of English and Scots troops in the subsequent landing in Britain by William of Orange and the successful ousting of James. Mackay was appointed as commander in chief in Scotland in 1689 and was set on the course that would lead to the confrontation with Graham of Claverhouse, once his companion in arms.

John Leslie succeeded his father as the twelfth baron of Balquhain in 1638 only to inherit a patrimony much burdened with debt and reduced to a castle and a farm. To support himself and possibly regain some wealth and honour, John took to soldiering under his kinsman Alexander Leslie during the Civil War and in 1647 left Scotland, as so many of his forebears had done, to see what fortune held for him in Europe. He ended up in Russia, where he became a colonel of cavalry but was killed at the storming of Igolwitz on 30 August 1655 when Russia invaded Poland. His cousin James Leslie had better success in the service of the Holy Roman Empire, where he inherited the title and lands of their uncle, Count Walter Leslie, the assassin of Wallenstein, when the latter died childless in 1667. James was in Habsburg service in 1683 when the Turks launched a major assault from the east, driving into southern Poland and up the Danube to lay siege to Vienna itself. In the fighting to recover the city, James Leslie played a conspicuous and gallant part, at one point managing to break through the enemy lines to reinforce and replenish the besieged citizens. He went on to command in further campaigns against the Ottomans in Hungary in 1684 and 1685 until ill-health forced him into retirement. James’s younger brother Alexander followed his sibling into Habsburg service and reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel, before being mortally wounded during a sally against the Turks.

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