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The Battles of Auldearn and Alford

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, Scotland, War on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about the Battles of Auldearn and Alford originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1046 published on 27 March 1982.

Auldearn and Alford, picture, image, illustration

The Gordon foot soldiers concentrated on killing Baillie’s men with their long swords; inset, the Marquess of Montrose, with a plan of the Battle of Auldearn (left, with Royalists shown in black) and the Battle of Alford. Pictures by Andrew Howat

The Civil War in England was a long, hard fight, with Parliament gradually wearing down King Charles I in a series of savage battles. In Scotland, things at first seemed to be different. England and Scotland were still separate, independent countries, although they shared the same king. But in both nations there were many men who wanted reform. South of the border it was mainly political issues and parliamentary rights that lay at the centre of the fight against King Charles. North of the border, religious bigotry and the ultra-puritanical Covenanters were the Crown’s greatest foes.

In 1644 it looked as if these extreme protestants had rapidly won the day. They were certainly confident of their power, so confident that they could send a large Scottish army into England to help Parliament win its great victory at Marston Moor.

Nevertheless, there were many warriors among the Highland clans who were still prepared to fight for their Stuart king. Their leader was the Marquess of Montrose. He and his small band of men arrived just too late to help the Royalists at Marston Moor, and immediately after this defeat Prince Rupert took over control of Montrose’s troops.

This was a bitter blow for the Marquess, but even without his army he did not despair. Instead the Marquess of Montrose hid a silken Royalist banner in his saddlebag and rode north to invade Scotland with only two companions. Somehow they revived the morale of the Scottish Royalists and gathered a small army.

Most of these were Highlanders and Scottish emigrants of the Macdonald clan, now living in Ireland. With these men Montrose carried on an extraordinarily successful guerrilla war against the Covenanters whose troops garrisoned Scotland.

This Royalist army was almost always outnumbered and at best it never had more than 250 cavalry. Even so, Montrose defeated four leading Covenanter generals before turning on Colonel Hurry, the Covenanter commander of northern Scotland. This colonel had, strangely enough, fought for the king at Marston Moor. Now Hurry decided to lure Montrose into Covenanter territory where he would find no allies.

Retreating step by step from Elgin towards Nairn with the Royalists close behind, Hurry passed the tiny hamlet of Auldearn. Then quite suddenly, on 9th May, 1645, the colonel turned on his pursuers, hoping to surprise them after a rapid night’s march.

Unfortunately for Hurry, some of his musketeers loosed off their guns before they reached the enemy. This they did to clear their barrels of any damp gunpowder, but they were close enough to the Royalists for the enemy’s sentries to hear the gunfire.

Montrose had little time to spare, but he hurriedly sent Alistair Macdonald and the Scots-Irishmen, plus the Royalist flag, to a small hill north of Auldearn village. Then he placed some of his musketeers among the cottages of the village with orders to keep up a brisk fire against the advancing foe. Finally Montrose hid the bulk of his small army on the far side of a ridge to the south of Auldearn.

The Marquess’s plan worked almost perfectly. Hurry saw Macdonald and the flag and thought that this was the Royalists’ main position. As the Covenanters waded through a marshy stream to get at their foes, Macdonald’s excitable warriors could not restrain themselves.

Contrary to orders, they charged downhill, but they were terribly outnumbered and soon had to retreat again. As Macdonald’s men struggled to regain their hill, Montrose sent the Gordons, who provided his only cavalry, charging into the flank of the Covenanters. Montrose and the rest of the infantry soon followed, while the Macdonalds also returned to the attack.

The Royalist victory was complete and, perhaps more importantly, the Marquess of Montrose captured much ammunition, money and stores.

There were still other Covenanter armies to beat and Montrose was too weak to tackle them all at once. In the summer of’ 1645, however, Montrose drew up his army on some hills south of the river Don. Facing him was the enemy under General William Baillie. This Covenanter commander saw the Royalists’ strong position and was unwilling to attack. But his orders from the dictatorial Committee of the Estates, the Covenanters’ government, left him no choice.

So, on 2nd July, Baillie’s troops crossed the Don near the modern Bridge of Alford. Their cavalry on the left wing was immediately attacked by a group of Royalist horsemen and a savage swordfight developed. These Royalists were mostly Gordons and for a while they were seriously outnumbered until their fellow clansmen, the Gordon foot soldiers, came storming down the hill.

Instead of firing into the confused mass of cavalry, these infantrymen concentrated on crippling Baillie’s horses with their long swords. This was soon too much for the Covenanter cavalry and they fled the field.

The rest of Montrose’s horsemen charged down from the left flank to encircle the enemy’s right. They were soon followed by the centre of the Royalist army, so that Baillie’s force was now trapped with its back against the River Don. When Lord Archibald Napier and the reserve of Montrose’s army finally appeared from behind the hills, the Covenanters’ defeat turned into a rout.

The Covenanters suffered terrible casualties in the battles of Auldearn and Alford, while the Royalists lost far fewer men. During the pursuit after this second battle, however, a Covenanter’s bullet struck down Lord Gordon, one of Montrose’s best, bravest and most reliable allies. This was a loss that the Royalists of Scotland could ill afford.

One more savage battle had to be fought at Kilsyth, a month later, before Covenanter power seemed to be broken and Montrose could claim to hold Scotland for the king.

Unfortunately Charles I had already been decisively defeated at Naseby in England. Everything now seemed to go wrong for the Marquess of Montrose. First he was betrayed and defeated in battle in September, 1645.

Then, in the following spring, came the bitterest blow of all. His weak-willed master, King Charles I, fled from England to Covenanter Scotland. The first thing that these stern Scottish Puritans demanded in return for the king’s safety was that he disband Montrose’s army and order the Marquess to leave the country. The Royalist cause was now effectively broken both north and south of the border.

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