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.

Saturday 22 September 2018


Colonel Cranium looked around the table at his captains. They were all tough, hardened mercenaries. To a man, they were afraid of nothing and no-one. Used to the realities and scarcities of battle and campaign. All of them are veterans of a thousand sieges and skirmishes.

Captain Amnesia was reading a paper. Cranium stared at him. This was unusual. His command notes were often returned, unread by his subordinates.

‘What is it, Amnesia?’

‘It is a letter from a Polish captain.’ There was a stir around the table. ‘No, my friends, it is not treason. He writes to tell me that he is enjoying my Burgundy.’

‘Your what?’ Cranium was surprised. Amnesia was definitely a beer man, in his book.

‘My Burgundy. I was having some shipped in especially for my birthday.’

‘On the convoy?’

‘Of course. I have not resorted to clandestine activities.’ Cranium glanced around. A number of captains were looking innocent, a sure sign that some of them were importing delicacies illicitly.

‘All right, now listen. The Poles captured the convoy, and we have to live with that.’

‘We have heard them partying from the walls.’

‘Well, I suppose Amnesia’s Burgundy was a decent vintage.’

A chuckle went around the table. ‘I was planning to share it with my band of brothers, of course,’ Amnesia said.

‘I doubt it was the only decent drink that was captured that day.’ Cranium frowned. ‘Brothers in arms,’ he said, ‘we do have a problem as the result of the failure of the convoy to get here.’

‘We are not starving, colonel.’

‘True and we are not going to. But unless we do something then all we are going to have left to drink for Christmas is vodka.’

‘Polish or Russian vodka?’

‘Polish, made by Russians.’

‘That stuff gives you a terrible hangover.’

‘We must do something!’ A murmur of agreement circulated.

‘I have done some thinking and a little planning, and I think we can launch an attack on the Polish main camp. At least we could recapture our supplies. At best we might drive the Poles off.’

‘What is the plan, Colonel?’

‘Well, as you know we have four gates – Omsk, Tomsk, Tobermory and Great Uncle Bulgaria. The Polish camp is opposite the latter. If we can form up on the flat land under the walls from midnight, then we can fall on at first light and catch the Poles when they are in their cups.’

‘In our cups, you mean.’

‘They will have guards.’

‘Of course. But the cavalry will exit by Tobermory and Tomsk and come around the flanks, while the infantry goes directly via Bulgaria. That should drive the guards in and cause enough chaos for us to push the Poles back.’

‘Chaos for whom, colonel? Us or them?’

‘I do understand the risks, Migraine, but we are not attacking at night.’

‘But it is a bit risky.’ Migraine was always the one searching for problems.

‘Of course, but warfare is like that. And consider the opportunities. We only have to recapture our drink. Plus, and I know this will go no further: our current employers will pay a bounty to us if we drive the Poles off. If not, and we put on a good show, then there are possibilities of negotiating a new contract with a different employer.’

‘The Poles?’

‘I am afraid that the information is subject to the usual confidentiality clauses. The raid will occur in two days; please be ready to move your troops into place from midnight. I will circulate the details later today.’ Cranium paused. ‘Do I have your agreement?’

‘We only have two squadrons of cavalry, colonel. Will the garrison Boyars be involved? I mean, I think they quite like their own vodka.’

‘I think that most of them will be happy to join in. Firstly, they had their own supplies on the convoy. Secondly, I believe that at least one secret recipe for flavoured vodka was on the convoy, and so there are commercial secrets at risk as well.’

‘Flavoured vodka? I thought most of its charm was that it was pretty flavourless.’

‘Well, you will have heard of the flavoured gin bars springing up around the world. I suppose it was too much to expect that vodka wouldn’t follow.’

‘Disgusting stuff flavoured gin.’

‘Do you prefer unflavoured gin, Captain Trepan?’

‘Give me a decent glass of wine any day.’

‘If we recapture my Burgundy, I’ll give you a bottle.’

‘Generous of you, Amnesia.’

‘Gentlemen.’ Cranium held his hand up. ‘We are in danger of drifting from the point. The Boyars will supply two squadrons of cavalry; they will exit from Tomsk. Ours will leave via Omsk. The infantry will go out through Great Uncle Bulgaria. There will be four companies of shot, four of pike. The outer earthworks will have two more shot companies to provide cover for any retreat, but they will not move forward, so don’t treat them as your reserve.’ Cranium paused. ‘Any questions?’

‘How do we get the men to bring the booze back here and not drink it there?’

Cranium grinned. ‘Tell them that the Hussars will get them if they pause.’

There was general laughter. ‘They were too stoned to move last time out,’ Amnesia chuckled. ‘Even though the convoy was wide open.’

‘It can be hard sitting on a horse with a hangover,’ Captain Poise put in.

‘Maybe it was the horses that had overindulged.’

Cranium joined in the laughter. ‘Nevertheless,’ he added, when a degree of order had been restored, ‘we cannot assume that they won’t intervene this time.’

‘If I had known we had to do this, I would have added a case of flavoured Hock to my order.’

‘Hock? Why?’

‘It would be vile and disable any Pole that drank it!’

‘Why bother with flavoured Hock? Just give them bottles of Liebfraumilch.’

‘Well, maybe, but it would need to be alcoholic, you know.’

‘Not necessarily. I mean food poisoning can disable the best men. I’m sure drink poisoning would do the same.’

Cranium decided it was time to wrap up. ‘Until the day after tomorrow, gentlemen.’ He bowed and left the room. He needed a drink.

Saturday 15 September 2018

Don’t Bother With This Post Either…

‘We’re going to land up in the Tower, you know.’

‘It wasn’t our fault. The wind was against us. And it didn’t help that Plonker here ran into Redoubtable.’

Captain Plonker stirred. ‘Not my fault someone ran out of sea room, and that someone didn’t understand the rules of sailing.’ He glared out of the page at the author.

‘Falling out about it isn’t going to help.’ Anderson sighed and pushed his hair up. ‘How are Reliant and Reprobate?’

‘Well, if you’d been boarded and some dago had chucked a grenade in your powder hold, you might be feeling a little, um, charred.’


‘Hard to say. Out of action for the foreseeable. We’ve got them into Scarborough and the guns off them.’

‘So, three burnt and two damaged. That was nearly half our strength so we can put that in the report.’

‘As long as you don’t say that the two damaged ran into each other.’

‘I think I might omit that bit. What else can I say?

‘We did damage some of their ships, and quite badly too. That galleass will be in port for a bit, I reckon.’

‘The point is, though, as in the Channel, we can engage them but not really hurt them. If they board us then, well, they have all the soldiers on board. But we’ve got to close to do any damage, and that runs the risk of being boarded.’

‘Well, we had our orders, and they had theirs. They were not going to stop before getting to port, and we couldn’t stop them. They could have taken and kept Reliant and Reprobate, but chose to try to burn them.’


I confess to having some difficulty with this battle, namely that I had no suitable rules. Still, necessity is the mother of invention and I invented some, although I did have to revise them rapidly (and restart the game) when it became apparent that the English fleet would never get into range of the Spanish as it was.

The scenario was very simple. The Spanish had to sail intact to Whitby. For each ship that made it, Don Pedro receives a base of reinforcements. The aim of the English is to stop them. As noted before, and above, as the English did not manage to stop the Armada sailing up the Channel in formation, the odds are fairly against them doing much damage to the Spanish.

I am not claiming that the rules are particularly accurate or comprehensive, but they seemed to work for a simple play through. The English passed one squadron to the front of the Spanish, inflicting some damage as they went. The bulk of the English passed the other side (on the opposite tack) and the near most squadron had a go. The Spanish sailed on and the English had to turn about and give chase. This is the point at which I messed up the distances and two English ships hit each other.

The chase continued.

 The Spanish are in the top left of the photograph, heading for the port which is out of the picture to the further left. The rest of the English are in the foreground and scattered to the right, except for one unfortunate galleon which was in line with the galleass, hit by gunfire and boarded. The Spanish decided against taking a prize and set it alight. In the top right are the entangled English ships.

The English did catch the Spanish again, but the exchanges were indecisive until the galleass and a Spanish great ship managed to close with a squadron bravely sailing into the midst of the remains of the Spanish formation. This did not end well again, with two more English ships boarded and aflame, while the Spanish sailed on (or limped on, in the case of the galleass and great ship). The English, not realizing how badly damaged they were, and having five ships hors de combat themselves, decided to quit and face the Queen’s wrath.

The picture shows the end of the action, with two more English ships alight and really only two English ships able and in the right place to fight further. The action was an interesting afternoon or so. The English manoeuvring was terrible; Spanish tactics, to keep in formation and sail for the port were simpler and easier. It is actually very hard, even with my simple-minded rules, to aim at a moving target – you tend to miss.  I suppose I had better write the rules up sometime.


‘Don Carlo, my lord’

Don Pedro scrambled to his feet. ‘Carlo! Well met my friend!’

‘Pedro. We came as soon as we could. We landed only yesterday.’

‘Your men are ashore already?’

‘No, my friend. They are landing as we speak, I trust. I came to consult with you, and share a glass of this.’ Don Carlo brandished a bottle. ‘Rioja. Only the best for my friend the Generalissimo.’

'At last, a decent drink. You can only get stuff that they call "beer" here. It is disgusting. Particularly the next morning.'

As they drank, Don Pedro filled Carlo in on the situation. ‘So, we have got to this point where the road goes north and south. The hills are too steep for the army, and York is south, so that is the aim.’


‘It is the administrative centre for the north of the country. If we take it the English may be forced to negotiate. Anyway, we’ve heard that the Scots are on their way, about to cross the border, so we need to hold this bridge on the road north.’

‘Are there no others?’

‘That is the first bridge over the river; there’s another one further up; we have to hope the Scots don’t know that.’

‘Is that likely?’

‘Well, it is sufficiently far away that any force blocking the bridge here should be able to turn and prevent them marching south.’

‘And that is what you want me to do?’

‘With the help of God, yes. March your men straight there. I will supply guides.’

Don Carlos stared at the sketch. ‘Very well. But if you get to York I am coming south to share in the glory!’

‘Let us drink to that time, my friend.’

Saturday 8 September 2018

Coldingham Combat

King James sat and stared into the tankard that had just been reverently placed before him. Divine Right of Kings was one thing, he thought. Drinking this might enable him to meet his maker sooner rather than later. He was sure that something had moved down there.

Nevertheless, he raised the cup to his lips and sipped. He caught the proprietor’s eye and smiled. She relaxed and more tankards of the stuff were produced for the courtiers, captains and general hangers on.

It had, overall, been a good day. If you have to fight, James mused, it is as well to fight and win. The lancers had done well. The Borderers had done badly. He must look into the background of the captains. On the other hand, the rebel’s Border horse had also run away. Perhaps they had colluded. It would not be without precedent.

Without thinking about it he took a swig of beer. Actually, for a provincial tavern, it was not too bad. And anyway, he was still alive. Someone, now residing at his pleasure in Edinburgh Castle, had pointed out to him that both his grandfather and great-grandfather had died as a result of fighting the English. Maybe that bit of family history was over. Mind you, he had been fighting his own people rather than the English, here, and he was going to help his cousin’s forces.

Another resident of Edinburgh Castle had also inquired whether the price for his intervention was going to be the freedom of his mother. James was not entirely sure that Mary would still be alive. If it were him on the throne of England, she would have died years ago. Elizabeth, he knew, was a lot less sanguine than he was about killing monarchs. Perhaps that was the English way; few enough Scottish kings had died in their beds in recent centuries.

‘Sire, my Lord Maxwell craves a meeting.’

‘Maxwell? Is he alive?’

‘We found him in the stream, my lord. He is a bit wounded and very muddy.’

‘Throw a couple of buckets of cold water over him and bring him in.’

A few minutes later there was a commotion at the door, and Lord Maxwell, sometime rebel and defeated general was hauled in, dripping mud and water on the floor.

‘I protest! I am a Lord of the Realm. You cannot treat me like this!’

James sighed. ‘Maxwell, I can treat you however I like. You need to come up with a very good reason for your behaviour today.’

‘I am trying to save the realm! We are sunk in iniquity and have turned away from God and his church! I would stop you from making the greatest mistake, aiding the heretic against the armies of God! Repent of your sins and the sins of the nation. Return to the true faith. Aid the Spanish and their crusade to root out this heresy.’

‘Maxwell, you sound like a Protestant preacher, not a Catholic rebel. Be quiet, or I shall silence you myself.’

‘What shall we do with the rebel, sire?’

‘I suppose we shall have to do something. Chain him up and send him to the Castle. I will decide later.’

‘Do you have orders for the army, sire?’

‘Yes. They are to camp on the other side of the stream this evening. We continue our march south tomorrow. And send as much beer out to them as the burgh has.’

As you can probably surmise, the royalists won the day at Coldingham. To refresh your memory (it is a while since the scenario was posted; I had to paint 12 bases of Scottish infantry before playing it), the battlefield is below.

The rebels enter from the right, the King’s forces from nearest the camera, the north, and aim to exit on the road to the south. The key point is Coldingham Burgh, of course, with the old priory (taken over as the parish church) to the left.

While aware of each other’s presence, the two armies are not deployed. The rebels had the slightly shorter march to Coldingham and so arrived first. The initial contact looked like this.

 Both sides put their cavalry first, and the initial clash went the rebel’s way, but the King’s heavier cavalry put paid to their opponents, including the rebel general (who survived two goes at him, but succumbed when his Border horse base fled).

General-less the rest of the rebel army struggled to deploy and only the musketeers managed to enter Coldingham, while the highlanders guarded the stream. James deployed his men  in a relatively leisurely manner, and heavy musket fire broke out in the village, while the lancers entered it from the east. The rebel infantry was very stubborn, yielding only slowly to musket fire and charges from the lancers. The highlanders attempted to storm the stream but, after initial success (highlanders do not rate well in these rules, and attacking across a stream is bad news anyway) were defeated. This broke the morale of the rebel army.

The picture shows the final positions. The King’s cavalry and musketeers are in control of the village, and one of the highlander bases is routing (by the measuring stick). One rebel musketeer base is still extant, having retreated across the stream. The rebel pikes have not managed to deploy. The rebel dice throwing was interesting, to say the least, and they rarely had any tempo points left over to do anything, like deploy.

Overall, it was a good and interesting game. I thought it was all over after the initial cavalry clash, but the Scottish musketeers did prove very stubborn, benefiting from the cover of the burgh and holding out for a good number of turns, even if they were not deployed (and so could not shoot back).

Anyway, King James continues his march south. Now I have to invent some suitable naval rules and see if Don Pedro obtains any reinforcements.

Saturday 1 September 2018

Don’t Bother to Read This Post….

…as it is about naval wargaming. And most people are not interested in naval wargames.

However, because I have a digital camera and it was charged up and in the same room as the wargame, I took some pictures. As a matter of record for my narrative ancients campaign, if not for anyone else’s edification, I am going to talk about it here.

You might recall the scenario. Young Alexander IV is set on invading Carthage, and then working his way around the Western Mediterranean via the rest of North Africa, Spain, Southern France and Italy, doing for that region what his father did for the East. First of all he has to gain a foothold in Africa itself. Curtius reports Alexander III as ordering ships to be built for the invasion. I suppose going overland was not that attractive and, even if it were, it would require a fleet to support the army.

Anyway, the Carthaginians were not going to take being invaded lying down and, in this narrative, have a navy. In terms of the scenario, the Macedonians have 25 merchant ships and 25 quinquiremes. Each merchant ship which beaches at the far end of the table means the land army has a base. Every two quinquiremes that beach also add a base, so there is a possible 37 base land army in the offing.

The Carthaginians have 25 triremes and 5 penteconters. The idea of the penteconters was to scout and disrupt the Macedonian fleet and be the last line of beach defence. Well, we can dream, can’t we?

Anyway, the initial moves looked like this:

The Macedonians are heading to the beach. The Carthaginian penteconters are deploying at the far end. The first of the Carthaginian squadrons have entered right and the merchants (with the sails) have moved left away from them. The Carthaginian squadrons, incidentally, entered on a roll of 6 on 1D6 and appeared in one of the six squared along the right-hand edge of the table.

I realised at this point that I was to have around 80 ships on the table at a time and that there was no way I was going to be able to keep track of all the individual seamanship ratings and orders for all of them, let along control anything when the fighting got messy. Some quick averaging of seamanship rolls meant that everyone landed up with a three. Given the nature of the combat (everyone started off in line ahead), I decided that the initiative of the individual captains would be more important, and abandoned command points.

Well, things did get messy. Very messy indeed. There were ships all over the place; at the end one-third of the remaining Macedonian merchant ships were sailing full speed away from the beach, attempting to get away from Carthaginian triremes. The endpoint is below:

As I said, chaos had more or less ensued. I did find a few interesting tactical issues, however. The blank bases indicate sinkings – there were a few more than what is shown, actually, because I ran out of counters. One issue was the use of sunk ships as cover to avoid being attacked. Both sides made use of this rather well. Several merchant ships, in particular, managed to survive because there was a sunk ship between them and the enemy.

The other issue was the difficulty of triremes taking on quinquiremes. The initial combat between two squadrons, one from each side, went overwhelmingly to the bigger ships. To some extent, this justifies the increased size of vessels during the Hellenistic period. On the other hand, they became less manoeuvrable and I suspect, less seaworthy. Navies were prestige items (and to some extent, still are).

Still, the Macedonians managed to land 16 merchant ships and had 17 quinquiremes left at the end of the battle. This means that Alexander’s army now consists of 24 elements with which to take on Carthage and her allies.