Following his stunning victory over a formidable Covenant army at Auldearn on 9 May 1645 Montrose halted for a while at Elgin to rest his troops and tend the wounded. The success at Auldearn had not been won without cost and the Royalists needed time to recover and rebuild.
As was customary with irregular highland armies many from the Royalist ranks had drifted home and Montrose was forced to march his depleted force up and down the Spey valley drawing Baillie after him and out manoeuvring him at every turn. This suited the Royalists however as it bought them time to recruit and regain their strength. When Baillie tired of the game and withdrew to Inverness Montrose took the opportunity to turn his attention to Lindsay who was harrying Atholl with another Covenant force.
After pursuing Lindsay through the glens of Dee; Glen Muick and South Esk Montrose found himself within a few miles of him, but then his plans received a blow. Huntly recalled his Gordons back to Strathbogie. The reason for this is not clear but it was an action which was typical of Huntly and was, history seems to show, based on a jealousy of Montrose. Even Lord Gordon was incensed by this command from his father but ultimately Montrose had no option but to leave Lindsay for the time being and head back to the north.
The Royalists crossed the Dee and made camp at Corgarff Castle in Strathdon. Here MacColla left Montrose to once again recruit the western clans, and Lord Gordon and Nathaniel Gordon departed to try to gather once again the Clan Gordon. In the meantime Baillie, thoroughly sick of the level of interference of the Committee of Estates without whose permission he could do nothing, was desperately trying to resign his commission, without success however.
In late June Baillie, who had been ravaging the Gordon lands, now prepared to lay siege to Huntly’s castle at Bog of Gight. Montrose had been rejoined by Lord Gordon, with 250 Gordon troopers, and he now decided to advance to try to cause Baillie some discomfort. He found the Covenanters drawn up in a strong position on the river Deveron, close to the town of Keith. Montrose tried to draw them out of this position but Baillie showed his usual caution and declined to move. The next morning Montrose tried to bring Baillie to battle by offering to withdraw a distance to allow the Covenanters to cross the Deveron. When this offer was refused Montrose decided to march south in the hope that the sight of this would cause Baillie to follow.
In this he succeeded, but Baillie had another reason for following. He had just been informed that the feared MacColla was not with the Royalists. With a renewed confidence the Covenanters now hurried south in pursuit of Montrose. They caught up with him on the River Don on 2 July 1645.
Montrose had marched from Deveronside by the ancient Suie Road, which forded the Don at the village of Forbes (Boat of Alford on plan). This was the direct route to the lowlands and Baillie believed that the Royalists were in full retreat. Directly to the south of the ford is the Gallows Hill, a raised area of ground which rose gently southwards from the river. Montrose had stationed his force on the Gallows Hill but, as at Auldearn, he had concealed the bulk of his men beyond the crest out of view of the Covenanters.
Baillie could clearly see the Royalists gathered on the Gallows Hill but he believed this to be only a small rearguard and he directed his troops across the ford at Forbes. Baillie was in the process of his flanking movement round the base of the Gallows Hill when it became apparent that the force above him was the full Royalist army. Baillie had walked into a trap.
The Battle Begins
It is generally believed that the two infantry forces now facing each other were roughly equal in size, at about 2000. Baillie had the 1st line regiments of Cassilis, Lanark and Glencairn, along with several hundred northern levies. The Royalist centre was made up mainly of Badenoch highlanders; Farquharsons and Huntly’s lowland tenants, Glengarry and O’Cahan’s Irish. A small Royalist reserve, under the command of the Master of Napier, was held behind the crest of the hill. Montrose placed equal numbers of Gordon Horse on his wings, stiffened with Irish musketeers. In terms of cavalry Baillie would have outnumbered Montrose’s 250 Gordon horse by about 2 to 1. Balcarres commanded the Covenant horse.
If the decision had been Baillie’s he would probably have tried to extricate himself from the precarious position in which he found himself. But the overburdening Committee of Estates, including Argyll himself, overruled him and instructed him to do battle.
When Baillie had been ravaging the Gordon lands he had lifted a large number of Gordon cattle which he had been driving south on his march. The Gordon cavalry could clearly see these cattle on the moor below and they were enraged. Lord Gordon vowed to hold Baillie to account and he then led a furious charge on the Covenant left wing. The Covenanters yielded at first but, led by Balcarres, managed to rally and a fierce fight ensued. This conflict continued under the eye of both bodies of foot which were at that time inactive.
Nathaniel Gordon then led the foot on the right wing to support the cavalry. Frightened of firing on his own side during the melee he ordered his troops to drop their muskets and to get in among the Covenant horse with their dirks to stab the bellies of the horses. Cruel though this was the tactic worked and the Covenant horse panicked and fled. The Gordon cavalry then turned on the unprotected flank of Baillie’s infantry.
Meanwhile on the left wing Aboyne’s cavalry had charged and, supported by O’Cahan’s Irish, swept aside the Covenant left wing and then turned to assault the centre. Glengarry then led the Royalist foot forward and Baillie’s regiments were overwhelmed.
Unusually for Argyll, he got a bit too close to the action and at one point he almost met his end at the point of Glengarry’s sword. The Covenant leader was an experienced escape artist however and he managed to hastily make his way from the conflict. Baillie and Balcarres, realising all was lost, made to leave the field, but the Covenant foot were not so lucky and many hundreds died in the slaughter.
Lord Gordon Falls
The battle was all but won when Lord Gordon, in the process of trying to capture Baillie, was shot fatally from behind. The death had an immediate and devastating effect on the Royalists. The Covenanters were routed but the Gordons broke off the pursuit and, in much grief, mourned the death of their young Lord. They laid his lifeless body on a nearby stone on the battlefield, known to this day as the Gordon Stane, and wept openly.
Montrose felt their loss every bit as much as the Gordon Clan but few there at that time perhaps realised what the real cost of this tragedy would be to the Royalist cause. With Huntly’s jealousy of Montrose manifesting itself in pointless inactivity Lord Gordon was the one figure of influence who could raise the Gordons in the Royalist cause. Huntly’s second son Aboyne remained with Montrose but the flower of the clan was gone and the Royalist cause would not see again that Gordon might which had been witnessed at Auldearn and Alford.
Once again Montrose had smashed the best the Covenant could throw against him. Whilst the Royalist cause looked favourable in Scotland in England things could not have been much worse. The battle of Naseby, fought on 14 June 1645, had seen Rupert’s cavalry scattered by Cromwell’s New Model Army. This was significant for Scotland in that it confirmed the ascendancy of Cromwell and, as a consequence of that, sounded the death knell of the Covenant cause, the fanatical leaders of which Cromwell despised.
This resounding defeat on Charles’s forces also served to release for service elsewhere Scots forces such as that under the command of the experienced General David Leslie. That name would hold a greater significance to Montrose and the Royalists in Scotland in the months ahead.