Saturday 29 September 2018

Highland Warrior

In spite of all the wargaming, and the reasonable amount of painting and basing which I have undertaken, I have still been reading books. The case in point here is this tome:

Stevenson, D., Highland Warrior: Alasdair MacColla and the Civil Wars (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2014).

Now, as someone who started ‘serious’ wargaming with the English Civil War, and, perhaps to his credit quite quickly realised that there was more to it than England, this is a work of interest and so, one summer afternoon while waiting for the paint to dry, I started it. I confess I found it a bit difficult to get into to start off with. The opening chapter is a discussion of the Highlands in the early seventeenth century, which, to an outsider, is a confusing mix of names and places. It deals, largely, with the rivalries of the clans in the Southern Highlands, and the key to understanding this is the rise of Clan Campbell. In a sense, this, and the reactions to it during the seventeenth century are the theme of the book.

The links with Ireland are also emphasised. The MacDonnells of Antrim and the MacDonalds were related, and there was a fair bit of to-ing and froing between them. Most Highland Lords had navies, galleys and sailing ships, and the traffic between Scotland and Ireland, both political and commercial, was extensive. This had the effect of enmeshing Scotland in the rebellion of the Irish in the early 1640’s. In fact, the only really effective army in Ireland in the early 1640’s was Scottish, and a factor in the arrival of the Irish troops in Scotland in 1644 was an attempt to make the Scottish Covenanter government in Edinburgh withdraw it to counter the Irish – Highlander alliance.

Alasdair MacColla was a MacDonald and spent a fair bit of time in Antrim. His father was a key fighter against Campbell expansion in the early seventeenth century; his family spent time in Ireland to avoid the Campbells, for example, and there were various activities, more or less violent or farcical, in the southern islands. Things became a lot more serious with the rebellion, of course, and Alasdair was a commander in the rebel army, defected to the Scots and then returned to the Irish, alongside leading raids and arguably inventing the ‘Highland Charge’ in Ireland.

With the arrival of MacColla and his troops in Scotland, the narrative turns to more familiar grounds, at least for me. Most of us who have looked at any account of the Civil Wars will be aware of Montrose’s campaigns in and around the Highlands and various attempted invasions of the Lowlands and promises to lead huge armies into England in support of the King. Historiography has moved on from the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth century view of Montrose as a hideously romantic hero, a genius general and a man who could have saved the Royalist cause had it not been for his subordinates (including MacColla), English Royalist cowardice and disorganisation and dour Scottish Presbyterianism which refused to acknowledge when it was beaten.  The reality is, of course, a lot more complex.

I am sure I have remarked before that more recent views regard Montrose as a rather average general, one who, on a number of important occasions, failed to scout properly and was surprised on a number of occasions when he should have known better. Stevenson, in fact, entirely re-writes Gardiner’s account of the battle of Auldearn, arguing that instead of an inspired misdirection of the Covenanter army to expose itself to a flank attack, Montrose was surprised and MacColla’s men had to fight a lengthy delaying action while Montrose gathered up the rest of the army and came to relieve them. Had the Covenanters not been worried about damp powder in their muskets, and discharged them before their approach to the battle, Montrose and the Royalists might well have been utterly surprised and routed. Of course, that assumes that those muskets would have fired….

Another important point Stevenson makes is that the Royalist cause in Scotland was always an alliance of disparate forces with different aims. MacColla’s aim was to destroy Clan Campbell and reclaim his own clan’s lands. As Argyll, the chief of the Campbells was also the chief player in the Covenanter government, this worked until it appeared that that government was defeated. Ravaging Campbell lands and defeating them at Inverlochy might not have been Montrose's ideal strategy for the beginning of 1645, but it did fit in. Doing it again after Kilsyth did not, as Montrose needed to present himself as able to form a Royalist government based on Glasgow and had summoned a parliament. MacColla was less interested in this and wanted another go at destroying the Campbells.

Stevenson makes some interesting comments about the historiography surrounding MacColla. If a historian regards Montrose as a hero general, then MacColla must be a subordinate. His activities at Auldearn must, therefore, be of someone who was a good fighter but a bit thick, starting the combat too early and having to be rescued by the genius’ plan and own activity. Similarly, his move into Campbell lands after Kilsyth is represented as that of someone who had not understood Montrose’s grand plan. Again, a good fighter but not very bright. This is augmented by Gaelic poetry, which focusses on his abilities as a warrior, not as a leader or general. We all like heroes as heroes.

Furthermore, I have seen MacColla’s death described as being in a skirmish in Ireland. Now it is true that he was killed in Ireland in 1647, but Stevenson observes that the battle where he died (in apparently dubious circumstances), Knocknanuss, was larger than any of Montrose’s battle, possibly excepting Kilsyth. Yet it gets largely ignored, maybe because it was in Ireland, or perhaps it simply does not fit in with our historiography of the period. After all, only Drogheda and Wexford really count in defeating the Irish rebellion.

There is a lot in the book, and it is recommended, even though it is a re-issue of a 1980 work. I doubt if historiography has moved on very much since it was first published, although I do know that an awful lot has been argued over about the ‘Highland’ charge, its origins, effectiveness and impact. But that will have to wait for another day.


  1. It is ..... interesting to reflect on how quickly and thoroughly our society forgot that in the days before steel rails and macadamized roads, the sea was the highway, the easiest way to travel, and a link rather than a barrier.

    1. Now we see water as a barrier rather than as a facilitator. And I, at least, tend to ignore the possibilities of sea travel; I think we can include lots of land based wargamers in that :).

  2. Hello David, yes, this is an interesting book, though maybe a bit dated now, but he does bring out the fact that Montrose and MacColla's objectives occasionally harmonised, and sometimes they didn't. And when they didn't MacColla didn't subordinate his aims to Montrose's. With hindsight, Montrose was never going to establish a Royalist government in Scotland, so who should have supported whom?

    1. As with most allies, their aims harmonized until they started winning. Then the differences emerged.

      Montrose in government in Scotland? It would never work; it would be like having the UK run by Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn. It'll never happen....