The 1st Marquis of Montrose Society
Book Reviews

‘Highland Warrior’ by David Stevenson

Some years ago now I read a book entitled ‘The Covenanters’ by the above author. Upon finishing the book I was left in no doubt that the author was plainly pro-Covenanter and anti-Royalist.

A year or so ago it was with some trepidation therefore that I bought ‘Highland Warrior’ by the same author, this being the story of Alasdair MacColla and the civil wars.

During my original reading of the book I quickly learned that the author was certainly not a fan of Montrose, as he seldom missed a chance to ridicule him. Having now re-read the book I felt inspired to bring it to the attention of the society, and to offer one or two observations of my own on its content.

As a study of the life of MacColla this is an enjoyable and well researched account but, to the Montrose admirer, the veiled criticisms of Montrose which punctuate the text do tend to become rather tedious.

When in 1639 Montrose led the Covenanting delegation north to Aberdeen to try to win the city over to the Covenant, he invited Huntly to come to meet the delegation and to discuss their differences. Huntly accepted this invitation and was issued with a safe conduct by Montrose. Every account of this meeting I have read has informed me that Montrose’s safe conduct was over-ruled by the Covenanting committee and Huntly was seized and sent south to imprisonment in Edinburgh.

Stevenson on the other hand writes that Huntly was “treacherously betrayed” by Montrose. Quite where the evidence came from to support this accusation is not made clear.

His praise for MacColla as the victor of Aberdeen contrasts dramatically with his criticism of Montrose for permitting the sack of the city after the battle (as if, following the murder of the drummer boy, Montrose could have done anything to prevent it).

Of Montrose’s retreat from Dundee, which military observers have claimed was one of Montrose’s greatest feats, there is virtually no mention.

Stevenson’s description of Philiphaugh naturally leaves Montrose with little credibility and the author states that it was Montrose’s “overweening pride” which drove him south to the borders with his small band of supporters, despite knowing that Leslie was in the area with a strong Covenanting force.

Stevenson accuses Montrose of billeting himself on the eve of the battle in Selkirk town “four miles away from his troops”. The building in the West Port where Montrose spent the night before the battle still stands, and it is barely ¾ of a mile from the battlefield. This at best displays extremely poor research by the author or at worst a blatant and shoddy attempt to show Montrose in a bad light.

Paradoxically however the author is not always critical of Montrose and he is quick to point out that, contrary to Gaelic folklore which hails MacColla as the sole victor of Inverlochy, Montrose deserves credit for not only the victory but for taking the decision to march his army over the high snow topped mountains above Glen Roy to confront Argyll.

Other veiled compliments are to be found within the text but, just as the reader is being lulled into the thought that Stevenson may be mellowing in his opinion of Montrose, he unleashes another broadside to reaffirm his prejudice.

Stevenson’s theories of the royalist victory at Auldearn are controversial to say the least and they are explored in greater detail in an article about the battle on this website.

All things considered, this is a well researched and readable account of the life of Alasdair MacColla. The author also describes in interesting detail the struggle of Clan MacDonald during the first half of the 17th century to reclaim their lost territories from the expansionist Campbells.

I was disappointed however at the bias which the author regularly displays against Montrose, and in his occasional presentation of debateable ‘evidence’ (particularly against Montrose) as fact.

In trying to justify his theories that MacColla deserves more credit for the civil war victories than Montrose he fabricates a conspiracy between modern writers to blindly enhance the reputation of Montrose at the expense of MacColla.

In expounding this theory Stevenson implies that there was a friction between MacColla and Montrose and that MacColla’s reputation was sacrificed to account for, and to help cover up, Montrose’s many failures.

Stevenson’s description of Wishart as “a hypnotised hero worshipper” is unjustified as it is inaccurate.

My overall view of this book however is, despite the attitude of the author towards Montrose, that there is enough in it to make it of interest to all those who enjoy exploring the civil war troubles in 17th century Scotland.

BRIAN ROBERTSON.

Book Title: “HIGHLAND WARRIOR” by David Stevenson.
ISBN number 0859765636