Following the resounding victory of the Royalists at Alford no significant Covenant force remained in Scotland to oppose Montrose. The plague had driven Parliament out of Edinburgh to Perth, and it was from there that an Act was hurriedly passed to levy a new Covenant army of 10000 foot and 500 horse. They were instructed to assemble at Perth on 24 July. Baillie’s foot had been obliterated at Alford but he had managed to save a sizeable body of horse some 400 strong.
Once again he had attempted to resign his command but this was refused and he found himself in charge of the new army. He was not alone in this command however as he found himself once again with a committee of ‘advisers’ amongst whom were Argyll, Tulliebardine and Burleigh, all of whom had been defeated by Montrose previously, but who had learned little in the process.
Montrose once again looked to the south for an assault on the lowlands, which he knew he had to conquer before he could lead a Royalist army into England. He knew however that such a move would require the support of all his available forces.
Montrose Gathers His Strength
He had heard of the Covenant muster called at Perth however and he decided to lead his depleted force south in an attempt to cause the Parliament some discomfort. On his way south he stopped at Fordoun on the Mearns to welcome new allies to the banner. In came Alasdair and his Irish, along with the Macdonalds of Glengarry and Clanranald and a strong force of Macleans from Mull. Added to these were the loyal men of Atholl, the Appin Stewarts, Macphersons from Badenoch, the Lochaber Camerons, Farquharsons, Macnabs and Macgregors. Montrose was still deficient in cavalry but he had as strong a force in foot as he had yet commanded in the campaign.
He desperately needed the appearance of Aboyne and the Gordon horse and he chose to wait for them at Dunkeld where he could also keep an eye on movements at Perth.
Parliament was protected by a strong cavalry force which Montrose could not match but he mounted his foot on as many baggage horses as he could muster and paraded them where they could be seen by the alarmed Perth citizens. He couldn’t keep this ruse up for long however and presently the Covenant Horse sallied from the city and drove the Royalists back towards Methven. The Royalists were forced to retire further to the west but the Covenant cavalry were easily held in check and many were brought down by Royalist musketeers. The hurried retreat however had isolated a body of Irish camp followers who had been cut off at Methven Wood and they were butchered mercilessly by the Covenanters. This act would not be forgotten by the Irish who would soon find themselves in a position to revenge this barbarous deed.
A few days later Montrose was joined at Dunkeld by Aboyne with 300 cavalry and musketeers and the ever faithful Lord Airlie, having recovered from his earlier sickness, rode in with 80 of his Ogilvys.
Readying for Battle
Montrose now found himself in an unusual position. For the first time in this campaign he found himself at the head of a force which roughly matched the size of the Covenant force which opposed him. He had in the region of 4500 foot and 500 horse but, more significant perhaps, they were all tough fighting men and well experienced in the art of warfare. The Irish in particular, the backbone of the Royalist army for many months, had time and time again bettered anything the Covenant could put in the field against them.
Back in Perth Baillie continued to be troubled by the overburdening committee and he attempted, once again without success, to resign his commission. He already had a force assembled which outnumbered Montrose by one thousand or so but, in addition, Lanark was hurrying to join him with 1500 men of Clydesdale, and a body of Fife levies was also marching to the Covenant. Baillie naturally wanted to wait for these reinforcements but the committee would not hear of it and urged him to be up and doing.
Montrose was not particularly concerned about the Fife recruits as he knew from past experience that their commitment would be doubtful and indeed their presence in the Covenanting army could even work to his advantage in any coming conflict. He did however wish to confront Baillie before he could be reinforced by Lanark and in the days before the battle he started to manoeuvre himself into a position between the two Covenanting forces.
On 10 August the Royalist force was in the area of Kinross. Baillie at first thought that Montrose was moving to cut off the Fife recruits but he soon learned that the Royalists had moved swiftly along the southern edge of the Ochills and were harrying the lands around Dollar. When Baillie received this intelligence he surmised that Montrose was trying to advance against Lanark’s approaching force and led a swift advance west along the northern edge of the Ochills in an attempt to get ahead of Montrose. The Royalists responded to this move and, hurrying westwards by the Fords of Frew and Bannockburn, they found themselves on the evening of the 14th August at Colzium on the River Kelvin, about 1 mile from the town of Kilsyth. Montrose knew that he now stood between Baillie and Lanark and that Baillie would have to cross him if he wished to move to join up with Lanark, who was now approaching from the direction of Glasgow.
Bailie continued his pursuit but found himself hampered by the instructions of the committee which was now enlarged and included Argyll, Lindsay, Burleigh, Tulliebardine, Balcarres, and Elcho; all of whom, barring Lindsay, Montrose had beaten previously in the field. On the evening of 14th August Baillie camped at Hollinbush, within 3 miles of the Royalists. Baillie was for waiting for the reinforcements of Lanark but once again the controlling committee took a hand and urged him on. They argued that they at long last had Montrose where they wanted him; in the lowlands and away from his familiar hills which had so often before helped him in the conflict. The Covenanters had a superior force of some 6000 foot and 800 horse, so why wait for Lanark when with every minute Montrose could be planning to slip away to the north? They could engage Montrose now and let Lanark do the mopping up once the Royalists had been beaten. Baillie resigned himself to the inevitable and prepared for battle.
The morning of 15th August broke dry and clear and it promised to be a calm and hot summer’s day. The Covenanters were on the move early and began to close the gap between themselves and the Royalists, gaining height on the Campsie Hills. Soon they reached the edge of the basin and gazed down on the Royalists gathered below in the hollow (in the area now occupied by the Banton Loch). The committee believed, as they had done on other occasions before, that the day was as good as won and their thoughts turned to preventing Montrose’s escape after the battle.
The way to the north was currently open to Montrose and the committee decided to reposition their forces to deny the Royalists an opportunity to flee in that direction. If they could manoeuvre their army round the rim of the basin to take up a position on the heights to the north of Montrose they would be in an almost unassailable position. In that they were correct, but their order to Baillie to begin a march to gain that position meant that they would be moving across the Royalists front, and their flank would be exposed. They still held the heights obviously and thus, they argued, their position remained strong. Baillie argued strongly against the flank march but he was outnumbered and overruled.
Montrose by this time, knowing Lanark was close by, had resigned himself to doing battle with the reinforced Covenant force. Although the Covenanters held the higher ground he was happy with the position he had chosen as lack of height was never a particular disadvantage to fit highland warriors who were well skilled in moving over rough terrain. He did not expect Baillie to come down from the heights and so he was fully expecting to have to lead a charge up the slope to the Covenant positions.
Battle is Joined
Montrose asked his army whether they wanted to fight or flee and the resounding response left him in no doubt that they were there for battle. Anticipating the heat of the day he instructed his infantry to cast off their plaids and knot their saffron shirts between their legs. His cavalry he ordered to wear their shirts over their jerkins so that they could be more easily identified.
Although the flank march the Covenanters were about to attempt was highly risky it might yet have been undertaken successfully if the moving force had been kept behind the ridge, in other words, out of sight of the Royalists. This was not done however and Montrose, watching the spectacle of the Covenanters moving slowly across his front, could scarcely believe his eyes.
Balcarres led the movement with his horse and Baillie, Lindsay and Burleigh followed with the foot. Soon the Covenanters were strung out along the ridge and the vulnerability of their position did not escape Montrose.
At the head of the glen, not far below where the Covenanters were in flanking movement, stood a few cottages and dry stone enclosures (now the present day farms of Auchinrivoch and Auchinvalley). Montrose recognised the importance of these enclosures and he ordered MacColla and one hundred Macleans under Ewan of Treshnish to move forward and occupy them. On the slopes above, a Major Haldane watched the MacLeans moving up the slope and occupying the enclosures. Without the authority to do so he led a group of musketeers down the slope to attempt to remove the MacLeans from their position. The MacLeans soon drove Haldane back but the sight of Haldane’s men fleeing up the slope was too much for them. MacColla ordered all the MacLeans forward, closely followed by the Clanranald Macdonalds. The MacLeans and Macdonalds bounded up the slope after the fleeing Covenanters in a race to see who could reach the crest first. The Royalist centre, now in a general advance, swept up and over the ridge and slammed in to the Covenant centre. Cassillis’, Glencairn’s and Argyll’s regiments tried to make a stand behind some dry stane dykes but the momentum of the Royalists was unstoppable. The Covenant centre gave way and their army was effectively split in two.
The Covenant van by this time had crossed the head of the glen and was working their way round to the north of the Royalists. Montrose saw clearly the threat which they posed and sent a contingent of Gordon foot forward to the attack. Unfortunately for the Gordons however much of the Covenant van was out of sight of the Royalists from the low ground. The Gordons were very quickly engulfed by the superior numbers of their adversaries and they were in great danger of being annihilated. Although Montrose, following the loss of Lord Gordon at Alford, had been keen to keep Aboyne to the rear it was clear that the Gordons were in dire straights and Aboyne quickly moved forward with a body of Gordon cavalry to their support. Balcarres drove the Covenant horse on however and very soon Aboyne too was in danger of being overwhelmed.
At this point Montrose turned to the gallant Cavalier Airlie and his Ogilvys to save the day. The staunch sixty year old knew immediately what was required of him and he drove his small group of 80 or so forward into the flank of Balcarres horse. Nathaniel Gordon too was sent forward and soon the tide began to turn in favour of the Royalists. Eventually Balcarres horse was driven off the field.
Baillie tried to rally what foot he had left at the head of the glen but the Fife levies had fled without striking a blow and Baillie know that the day was lost. At this point Montrose ordered a general advance but when the remaining Royalists surmounted the crest the battle was already won; only the flight and slaughter was to come.
The Ulstermen remembered the slaughter of their women and children at Methven Wood and they would not be laggard in taking their revenge. Of the six thousand Covenanters who had taken the field that morning only a few hundred escaped as the Irish and highlanders pursued and cut them down like a pack of hungry wolves. Some Covenanters in small groups did turn and try to make a stand and the place names of ‘Slaughter Howe’ and ‘Kill the Many Butts’ bear testament to the desperate life and death struggles which took place there. Their end however was inevitable.
The Dullater bog claimed many fleeing cavalry and indeed when excavations for the Forth & Clyde Canal were being dug 130 years after the battle the intact skeleton of a trooper in armour was uncovered still astride his horse.
The Covenant leaders were, as ever, the first away from the field. Argyll galloped to Queensferry where he took boat for Berwick. Baillie, Balcarres, Burleigh, Tulliebardine and Holbourn gained sanctuary in Stirling Castle. Glencairn and Cassilis fled to Ireland and Lanark joined Argyll at Berwick. Loudon and Lindsay fled to England.
What Montrose and the Royalists had achieved in the last 12 months was scarcely to be comprehended. In a year which was to become known as the ‘Annus Mirabilis’ the Royalists had overcome overwhelming odds, fought 6 pitched battles, and virtually annihilated 6 superior Covenanting armies which had been sent against them. Not one significant force now stood to oppose them in the field north of the border and the leaders of the Covenant had fled.
The Battle of Kilsyth represented the zenith of Royalist fortunes in the civil war campaign in Scotland. Who there on that glorious day at Kilsyth however could have known that within 2 months from then all that had been fought for and gained in the previous 12 months was to be lost on a mist shrouded morning on the bloody field of Philiphaugh?
Following Kilsyth, as the King’s representative in Scotland, Montrose found himself in charge of all Scotland. All those who had opposed him in the previous troubles now came to him to do homage to the King’s cause. The doubters, the waverers, the shirkers; all those who had done nothing to help the King’s Lieutenant previously now came in to proclaim loyalty and give assurances of future support. Montrose questioned none and welcomed them all in the name of his King.
Many of them he would gladly have clapped in irons but he knew that as the King’s representative he had to act magnanimously and to try to cement relationships which would carry the King’s cause forward and not backward.
Montrose had made no secret during the campaign that his overwhelming aim was to win Scotland and then to invade England from the north to help relieve the pressure on the hard pressed Royalist forces in the south. The Royalist campaign in Scotland had been fought up until then almost as guerrilla warfare with the small Royalist army relying on stealth and speed to counter the superior forces of the Covenant. The hills, and the safety they offered, had never been too far away. Montrose knew however that sooner or later he would have to bring the campaign to the lowlands. The help of the powerful border lords was required for this and hence, when Traquair, Roxburgh, Home, Douglas, Annandale and Hartfell and others came to the Royal banner they were welcomed with open arms.
Whether Montrose realised it or not, the bulk of the force which had carried the campaign so successfully during the previous 12 months; MacColla and the Irish, the western clans, the Atholl men, the highlanders and the Gordons were suspicious and perhaps a bit jealous of their new allies. They saw all the sacrifices which they had made in the past 12 months count for little as many of those whom they had until then regarded as the enemy were now welcomed to the Royal banner.
None could deny the contribution which MacColla and his Irish had made to the Royalist campaign but his priority was not to save Charles’ throne but to destroy their hereditary foes the Argyll Campbells. As long as his goals matched those of the Royalists then MacColla’s attention would be guaranteed, but as soon as they began to diversify MacColla would turn his attention elsewhere, and this is precisely what happened.
MacColla had no intention of helping with the invasion of England as long as there were Campbells to slay in the west and personal scores to be settled. The Macleans and Macdonalds feared reprisals on their own lands from the Campbells and they would not put any more distance between themselves and their homes and families. Thus it was that MacColla and most of the highlanders and Islesmen left the Royal standard to head west to continue the conflict with the Campbells.
Soon after this Aboyne, enraged by Montrose’s decision to appoint Crawford as cavalry commander, took his invaluable Gordon troopers and foot and headed home. It seems strange that Montrose should have made such a misjudgement but this defection would cost him dear in the weeks ahead. Huntly had also been working on Aboyne and no doubt this contributed to Aboyne’s decision to desert the Royalist army.
Thus, in the days and weeks following Kilsyth, Montrose saw his proud army melt away and he found himself in the company of new and uncertain allies, with new horizons lying ahead. Of the Irish only O’Cahan with 500 Ulstermen remained loyal to the Royal banner along with the old faithful warhorse Airlie and his small band of Ogilvys.
The Royalist campaign in Scotland was changing and the air of invincibility was being replaced with one of uncertainty. Montrose was still focussed on crossing the border and a false optimism perhaps prevailed in place of the realism of the past few months.
The events in Scotland during the past few months had been noted with consternation by a certain General David Leslie, commander of a sizeable contingent of Scottish soldiers fighting on the side of parliament in England. When the reports of Kilsyth reached him and his lieutenants he decided that he could no longer be distracted from the plight of his fellow Covenanters in his own country. It was a decision which would shortly have a catastrophic effect on the Royalist campaign in Scotland.