Following the Royalist victory at Aberdeen on 13 September 1644 Montrose kept his army on the march and always managed to stay one step ahead of the pursuing Covenanters, now under the command of Argyll himself.
Argyll clearly had no intention of facing Montrose in the field and his policy was to follow the Royalists at a distance in the hope that he could trap them between himself and one of the other Covenanting forces. The speed of the Royalist marches however always meant that Argyll was never able to catch up with Montrose and Argyll was obviously quite content with this arrangement.
MacColla was at this time recruiting in the West and, with winter approaching, Argyll called off the pursuit. He then dismissed his cavalry and headed to Dunkeld. This was almost his undoing because, in a dashing raid which saw the Royalists advance 24 miles in one night, and which was to typify Montrose’s strategy in the following campaigns, he was almost captured. Argyll caught wind of the Royalist advance at the last minute however and fled to Edinburgh, where he resigned his commission. This was accepted by the Committee of Estates who wryly commented that “it was all the more deserved because there had been so little bloodshed”.
During the 2nd week of December MacColla returned to Montrose along with a powerful contingent of 1500 or so broadswords from the Western Clans. The men of Clanranald, Glengarry, McIan of Glencoe, McLean, McNeill, Cameron, and the Stewarts of Appin all came in to the Royalist banner. Along with the loyal men of Atholl and the other clans Montrose now had a force of 3000 men at his disposal. But what in the dead of winter could he do with them?
The Die is Cast
Montrose held a council of war and he himself advocated a swoop on the Lowlands of Scotland. The group was not for it however and they much preferred to strike west to take on the power of Argyll and the Campbells. Montrose argued that in winter it could be suicide to attempt to cross the high mountain ranges and narrow passes which protected Argyll. The Campbell boast ‘It’s a far cry to Lochow’ was not a hollow one and the Campbells well knew that these high mountains and narrow frozen passes made Inveraray and Argyll virtually impregnable at this time of year. There were some men amongst the clansmen however who had knowledge of the passes into Argyll, and the Clan chiefs argued that they had an opportunity here to strike a crippling blow upon an unsuspecting Clan Campbell.
With the arguments over the decision was made and Montrose found himself outvoted. The Royalists would strike west and take the war to the Clan Campbell.
Their march took them by Loch Tay, Glen Dochart, Tyndrum, and on to Glen Lochy where the force split into three. Montrose would carry the main assault on Inveraray by Glen Shira while MacColla and Clanranald would go respectively via Glenorchy and the Kilmartin Glen and join up with Montrose at Inveraray. The Campbells were to be caught in a pincer movement which was designed to cause devastation to Argyll and the Campbell Clan.
Although the conditions were harsh on the march the weather favoured the Royalists and they were able to win through the high frozen passes which otherwise could have been impassable. With little to stop them now they descended with lightening speed down Glen Shira and they were within 2 miles of Inveraray before fleeing locals burst into the town shouting that Montrose was over the mountains and was upon them. Panic ensued as the startled residents grabbed what they could and fled for their lives before the rampaging Clans. Argyll himself fled from the town and took to his galley for the open sea, leaving his Clan to its fate.
The Royalists occupied Inveraray and settled down to enjoy the benefits of ‘tight houses and fat cattle’ while ranging far and wide exacting revenge on the hated Clan Campbell.
After a couple of weeks Montrose decided to leave Inveraray and to head north to try to confront a force of 5000 Covenanters under the command of the Earl of Seaforth at Inverness. Montrose knew that Argyll and Clan Campbell would soon be roused and bent on revenge so on 14 January 1645 he took his force out of Inveraray by the banks of loch Awe. At the Pass of Brander an old woman, no doubt incensed by the treatment of her people, cut down a soldier with a scythe but was then quickly overpowered. When she was brought before Montrose he would not have her harmed and she was sent on her way.
Passing through the Pass of Brander Montrose then found his way barred by the powerful Connel Narrows of Loch Etive. Strangely enough it was a local Campbell, Campbell of Ardhatten, who provided 3 boats to allow Montrose’s army to cross the Narrows. The Royalists spared Ardhatten’s lands for this and he in turn was no doubt relieved to be helping them on their way.
Montrose continued his march northward via Glen Creran, Loch Leven, the Lairig, past Inverlochy and on to Kilcummin at the present day Fort Augustus. In the style of highland armies at the time many clansmen had drifted away home to deposit their booty and Montrose now found himself with a diminished force of around 1500 men.
In the meantime Argyll had rallied around 2000 Campbells and, along with 1000 regular lowland infantry, was in hot pursuit of Montrose.
At this time a young Keppoch man, Ian Lom MacDonald, came to Montrose with information that Argyll was close behind him and had in fact reached Inverlochy, only 30 miles behind. MacDonald was to gain great notoriety in later years as the famous Bard of Keppoch but at this time he was relatively unknown and there was a suspicion that he may have been passing false information to the Royalists.
Montrose had intended to march to meet the threat of Seaforth at Inverness but he knew that he could not afford to get caught in Glen Mor between two hostile forces. At this moment in time he perceived Argyll and the Campbells to be the greater threat so he decided to about turn and confront them. He knew that the element of surprise was important so marching back down the Glen was not an option. Instead he had to think of another way of approaching Inverlochy, one which would grant him that element of surprise.
In what was to become one of the most arduous and daring feats of Scottish military history Montrose decided to take his army by a circuitous route out of Kilcummin and up Glen Tarf, Carn Dearg and along the parallel roads of Glen Roy. In Glen Roy the army was passing a large tree and legend has it that Montrose promised to hang Ian Lom MacDonald from the tree if the information he had given him was false. The stump of that tree is still to be seen today in Glen Roy. Further up the Glen the army came to a large stone, known locally as The Sharpening Stone, at which many of the soldiers stopped to sharpen their blades.
By Roy Bridge and Leanachan the army continued its 30 mile march. In freezing temperatures and over frozen wastes, often in waist deep snow, the army struggled with little to eat and unable to light fires for fear of being spotted. In the fearful nights they huddled together in the open air trying to get any warmth into their frozen bodies.
After 2 days and nights they finally came to the shoulder of Ben Nevis where they were able to look down to Inverlochy below. Near the dark looming shape of Inverlochy Castle they saw, and envied, the numerous camp fires of the Campbells but they instead had to bed down for yet another bitter night with only a little Dramachs, oatmeal in cold water, which they ate off their dirks.
The Campbells had got wind of what they thought was a raiding party high above them on the slopes of Ben Nevis, but they never suspected that it was the whole Royalist army which was there. Montrose’s daring plan had worked, the surprise was almost complete. During the long and bitter night the small Royalist army huddled together as best they could and awaited the dawn.
When dawn finally broke on 2nd February 1645 the Royalists could at last see the plain below them stretching to the west from the slopes of Ben Nevis to the dark waters of Lochs Linnhe and Eil.
The Banner is Unfurled
The Campbells were still unsure who it was above them but they were left in no doubt when the Royal banner was unfurled and then they realised that Montrose himself was upon them.
The Campbells were no cowards and they wanted this confrontation just as much as Montrose. They had by now witnessed the devastation to their homeland caused during the previous weeks and they were burning for revenge. They had 2000 stout Campbell broadswords, as well as 1000 Lowland infantry, and they must have been confident that the day would go their way. Confident or not however, as Montrose led his army down off the slopes of Ben Nevis Argyll took himself off to his galley on Loch Linnhe to await events. Campbell of Auchinbreck, an able commander who had seen service in Ireland, was left in charge of the Covenant army.
As the Royalists came down off the slopes they chanted their ancient war cries and taunted the Campbells ahead of them. Most of them had suffered at one time or another from the expansionist tendencies of the Campbell Clan and they were keen to make amends. Today they would have their chance.
As the Clan’s descended, Ian Lom MacDonald stayed on the heights to observe the coming conflict. When asked if he would not go with them he replied to the Clansmen, “If I go with thee today and fall in battle, who will sing thy praises and thy prowess tomorrow?” Inverlochy was not just a battle between Royalist and Covenanter; it went much deeper than that. Here were two hereditary enemies, MacDonald and Campbell, the Heather and the Gayle, and today many old scores were going to be settled. This was to be a battle to the death, uncompromising and ferocious, and Ian Lom did not break his promise to immortalise the events of the day with his pen.
Inverlochy Castle stands on low ground close to the shore of Loch Linnhe in an area protected by the River Lochy to the north and the River Nevis to the south. Close to the southern corner of the castle there exists a spine of raised ground, approximately 300m long, with its northern end close to the castle walls. The Campbell’s had occupied this spine to try to gain some height advantage and their 2000 clansmen lined up here facing the approaching Royalists. The lowland regulars, in the main soldiers of Leven’s Regiment from Stirlingshire, were divided and positioned on the wings and musketeers manned the castle walls to give some protection to the left wing of the Covenant army. The regulars were a force which was well equipped and well drilled and many of them had seen action in England and in particular at Marston Moor. Nothing could have prepared them however for what awaited them at Inverlochy.
The Royalists were lined up in four divisions. MacColla commanded the right wing which consisted of Ranald Og’s Irish regiment. Magnus O’Cahan commanded his Irish on the left wing. The highlanders held the centre; men of Clanranald, Glengarry, Keppoch, Glencoe, Appin, MacLean, Atholl and Lochaber. Montrose positioned his standard close to the centre, protected by Thomas Ogilvie’s single troop of horse. The highland clans had come together to confront the hated Campbell Clan at Inverlochy and, under the watchful eye of The Bard of Keppoch, immortality beckoned.
As the Royalists crossed the plain towards the Covenanters they shouted their ancient war cries and broke into a trot. As they closed on the raised spine of ground on which stood the motionless Campbell’s the highlanders started to charge, each clansman trying to outdo his neighbour and win the glory of reaching the enemy first.
The lowland regulars stood and fired one volley but the Irish facing them, still running, crouched low with their targes over their heads and the shot passed harmlessly above them. The Lowlanders had no time to reload before the Irish smashed into their ranks with slashing pikes and broadswords. Those in the rear ranks witnessed the brutal slaughter of their comrades before them and they quickly broke and fled. As the Covenant wings disintegrated the Irish closed in round the Campbells and, with the lowlanders out of the way, the main business of the day could commence.
The Campbells stood and fought bravely but they were slowly overwhelmed by the fury of the Royalist assault. Ultimately they gave way and started to flee, many being cut down from behind as they tried to outrun the highlanders. Small pockets of men tried to make a stand but the highlanders and Irish were not in the mood for clemency. Those unable to outrun the clansmen stood little chance and there followed a running slaughter which went on for 14 miles and in which it is estimated 1500 Campbells died. The number would have been greater were it not for sheer exhaustion which ultimately overcame the pursuers. This is not surprising when you consider the hardships which they had been enduring during the previous 3 or 4 days. As the Campbells fell in their hundreds Argyll, watching from the safety of his galley, set sail and made good his escape down Loch Linnhe to the open sea.
Auchinbreck survived the onslaught but he was captured and brought to MacColla who swiftly administered his own justice and decapitated him with one sweep of his broadsword. Auchinbreck was a brave soldier but the rift between the MacDonalds and the Campbells was too great for MacColla to let him live. These were undoubtedly vicious times.
Writing after the battle Wishart, Montrose’s biographer, said of the Campbells “They were stout and gallant men worthy of a better chief and a stouter cause”. The Campbell Clan suffered a major blow at Inverlochy and their recovery from it was to take many years.
Montrose had now faced and overcome the force which had been pursuing him and he was now free to face Mackenzie of Seaforth at Inverness. As he approached Inverness however Seaforth and the other northern Covenanting Lords came in and made their peace with the King’s Captain General. Montrose welcomed them and pardoned them for their previous misdemeanours. Having done so however he marched out of Inverness, whereupon they all promptly returned to their Covenanting ways.
Such action was typical of Seaforth in particular and it would not be the last time that he was to let down Montrose and the Royalist cause.
Ian Lom MacDonald kept his word to the clans and immortalised in script the deeds of MacColla and the Clan MacDonald. The power of Clan Campbell had, for the time being, been checked, and the MacDonalds who had fought that day at Inverlochy would forever be known as the heroes of their race.