If you are a covenanter, the period of the Scottish Civil War known as the Annus Mirabilis (Sep 1644 – Aug 1645) by supporters of Montrose, is best forgotten altogether except, and only except, for the crushing defeat inflicted on Montrose at Philiphaugh on 13th September 1645. The Annus Mirabilis is celebrated by supporters of Montrose because of a string of victories often against overwhelming odds. The names of the battles, and their dates, at Tippermuir, Aberdeen, Inverlochy, Auldearn, Alford and Kilsyth just trip of the tongue. All these battles with the possible exception of Inverlochy were formal engagements with battlelines and preliminaries prior to the fighting. Even at Inverlochy, Montrose managed a fanfare of trumpets to announce his presence. In some cases, these battles were won in a very short space of time, in the case of Tippermuir in minutes rather than hours. None lasted more than half a day. In some cases, the casualties on the Royalist side were very light even if the worst reports are taken as being closer to the truth. At Tippermuir, Royalist casualties were as low as 9 or 10 and possibly only one in the actual battle. At Inverlochy, it is generally agreed that the Royalists lost only three men killed. This gives a fairly remote feel for the type of warfare that took place in the mid seventeenth century. This is not to say that there were not serious casualty figures or awful brutality. Both of those circumstances pertained but normally after the battle, in the pursuit or sack as at Tippermuir or Aberdeen.
However, Fyvie is not like other battles of this period. There were no formal battle lines and no preliminaries. Neither were there spectators confident of victory as at the Battle of Tippermuir. At Fyvie, Montrose was caught unawares, let down by poor intelligence and not for the last time. There is some doubt as to when he and his army actually arrived at Fyvie, after their circuit of the central highlands. Most sources suggest that he arrived on 27th October, believing that Argyll’s army was at least five days behind him. In which case he was wrong and this accounts for his army’s lack of preparedness on the morning of 28th October. Buchan suggests however that Montrose might have arrived as early as 24th October, in which case Montrose should not have been surprised and he should have taken steps to ensure that he would not be surprised. However much time Montrose had to prepare, and I prefer to believe that it was the shorter period, his army went to work stripping Fyvie Castle of useful war making impedimenta. All the pewter that could be found was stripped out and turned into ball ammunition by the armourers accompanying the Irish contingent. Montrose correctly assessed Fyvie Castle as being unsuitable for defence and chose a position about 500 metres to the East. This was a piece of higher ground with steep slopes to the West and South and with the River Ythan to the North. The feature was wooded and the lower slopes were covered by small enclosures. These were reinforced for defence by further earth works even though his Army did not expect an attack imminently. The remnant of the earth works can still be seen at the site.
Early on the morning of 28th October, the outlying piquets ran in reporting that Lothian’s cavalry were only two miles away having approached from the South. Montrose was forced to adopt a hasty defensive position around his camp whilst continuing to reinforce the enclosures for defensive purposes. Argyll was very close with an army of 2500 foot and 1200 horse which greatly outnumbered Montrose’s force of approximately 1200 foot and no more than 50 or so horse. The ground was not suitable for formal deployment into line and the Covenanters were forced to approach up narrow spits of firm ground and attack the Royalist force from the line of march. Lothian’s infantry attacked on a narrow front and with considerable vigour. They gained a foothold amongst the lower enclosures and clearly there was some fierce hand to hand fighting. The Royalists lost some 15 or 16 men killed in action and no doubt there would have been at least a similar number wounded. More Covenant infantry were introduced into what had clearly become a secure position on the lower slopes and Montrose quickly determined that the position must be restored by a counter attack as soon as possible. Montrose ordered O’Cahan and Donald Farquharson to do so and they were able to eject Lothian’s musketeers relatively quickly. But it would have been a hard fight at very close quarters and there is no doubt that there would have been further casualties on both sides. However, there are no further reports of Royalist casualties beyond those suffered in the initial assault. By recapturing the lower enclosures, the Irish were able to resupply themselves with powder looted from the dead Covenanters to go with their new supply of ball ammunition.
Now Argyll, in a spell of decisive command for which he was not noted, ordered a regiment of horse and 500 of Lothian’s troopers to attack on a very narrow front. This attack was pressed home but Montrose was keen to lure the horse into the wood where their manoeuvrability would be severely restricted so that they could be ambushed. Unfortunately, the Atholl clansmen possibly through over excitement and certainly ill discipline, fired too early and the Covenant force was able to extricate itself without further loss. Later on in the afternoon there was one further probing attack by the Covenanting Cavalry who tried to encircle Montrose’s position from the East where the ground was much more suitable for cavalry. The Royalist cavalry consisting of not more than 50 troopers under command of Nathaniel Gordon had returned from their foraging duties just before the battle was joined and was allocated this exposed flank to protect . They were reinforced by Irish musketeers to stiffen their defence. The Covenant horse ran into concentrated fire from the musketeers which caused casualties and confusion which was then exploited by a spirited counter attack by Nathaniel Gordon causing the Covenant horse to retire in some disorder.
No further substantive action took place of the 28th other than patrolling by each side to gain early warning of each others’ intentions. However, Argyll resumed his attacks on the morning of 29th October with assaults similar to those made the previous day. Under Lothian and Ramsay the infantry and cavalry continued their attacks but with little significant effect on Montrose’s position. The Covenanters took heavy casualties including the death of the Earl Marischal’s brother Lord Keith. It is hard believe that there would not have been Royalist casualties as well given the nature of the ground over which this battle was fought. Eventually after what had been for Argyll a sustained and determined attack to dislodge Montrose, Argyll withdrew 2 miles South to Crichie. The following morning discovering that he was short of provisions particularly for his horses, Argyll withdrew a further 6 miles South on the road to Aberdeen. Montrose took this opportunity to slip away North via Turriff and Rothiemay to Huntly Castle.
Although Fyvie is not considered one of the major battles of Montrose’s campaign the fighting around this position went on for over 36 hours, much longer than any of the set piece battles. There was no formal deployment and the fighting was more intense and prolonged in nature than was usual at this period. It is possibly a battle that a twentieth century soldier would be more familiar with. It is extremely difficult to assess casualties as none of the primary sources give us any definite clue. However, we are aware of casualties among the highlanders in the initial assault and these were higher than Montrose had suffered at both Tippermuir and Aberdeen. I would guess that Covenant dead would number in the low hundreds and Stuart Reid(1) refers to a steady stream of wounded heading back to Aberdeen.
Although Montrose had escaped to fight another day, Argyll’s tactics had been sound and he had prosecuted the battle with unaccustomed vigour. This was the closest Argyll came to capturing Montrose and had he done so there would have been no Annus Mirabilis.