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The Battle of Aberdeen

Montrose’s presence in Scotland was known about but his stunning victory at Tippermuir surprised the Covenant Army and its supporters who had ridden out from Perth to watch what was expected to be an overwhelming victory on their part. Montrose occupied Perth and exacted taxes and expenses and began to establish the rule of the King.

Whilst at Perth his son and heir Lord John Graham joined him. Having replenished his army, Montrose moved on probably on the 4th or 5th September towards Aberdeenshire, which had always been a much more promising recruiting ground for Royalists. He believed that if he could recruit amongst the royalist families in Aberdeenshire, particularly the Gordons he could build a significant army. However, Montrose was to experience for the first but not the last time, the phenomena of the ‘highland melt’ when most of his clan contingents departed for their homes with as much plunder as they could carry.

Although plunder in the town had been forbidden cattle and other livestock were fair game. It is important to remember that these clan contingents fought not for King, commander, cause or pay but for clan and chief. It must also be remembered that the survival of their families depend on a successful harvest which was yet to be gathered in.

Shortly after the battle Lord Kilpont was stabbed to death in an argument with one of his officers, James Stewart of Ardvoirlich. The reason for this argument have never been properly established but the result was that the Stewarts who had joined with Ardvoirlich departed with their renegade leader and the remainder of Lord Kilpont’s regiment also departed to bury their commanding officer at his home in Menteith. By this time Montrose’s army had been reduced to little more than the core of the Irish brigade of regular troops. Montrose considered taking on Dundee but realised that he had no hope of reducing such a well-fortified town.

However, as he march north, Montrose’s hope of reinforcements was realised by the attachment of a mounted detachment of forty Ogilvies led by their redoubtable chief the Earl of Airlie who brought with him his two sons, Sir Thomas and Sir David Ogilvy. Lord Airlie, who by this time was over sixty and probably too old for such campaigning, was a professional soldier with experience of war on the continent and his troops were a very valuable addition. Major Nathaniel Gordon also joined Montrose with thirty troopers who were mostly brigands looking for a cause to support. Nathaniel Gordon was an excellent officer again with professional experience as an officer in the continental wars and would give excellent service to the royalists throughout the campaign.

The royalist victory at Tippermuir had alarmed and alerted Argyll who set off from Stirling with an army arriving at Perth on 11th September. As news of Montrose’s victory filtered north no doubt carried by some of the Fife levies who were to fight at Aberdeen, the Covenanting committee in Aberdeen called up the local Fencible regiments to muster at Aberdeen by 10th September. Montrose was aware of a covenant army under Lord Burleigh coming together at Aberdeen and he soon became aware that Argyll was following him with a much larger and more capable army. He knew that he could not allow them to combine and he determined to take on Burleigh first and secure Aberdeen.

At Forfar Montrose made a proclamation calling for recruits but none came. He then set off through Brechin and Fettercairn north over the Cairn O’ Mount down onto Deeside. He passed briefly at Crathes Castle and then pressed on the following day towards Aberdeen. By crossing the Dee at Crathes, Montrose had effectively outflanked whatever forces the Covenanters had located at the Brig O’Dee. On 12th September he had halted at Two Mile Cross slightly to the west of the bridge and warned his army to prepare for battle on the following day. On 13th September Burleigh marched out of Aberdeen and took up a position on a ridge over looking the Hardgate and adjacent to the Justice Mills. Montrose advanced and deployed at the foot of the Hardgate just over the How Burn.

Battle is Joined

As he had done at Tippermuir, Montrose sent an envoy accompanied by a drummer under a flag of truce to the city burgesses urging them to surrender the town to His Majesty’s authority. His note added that it would be wise for “the old persons, women and children to come out and retire, and that those who remain may expect no quarter.” The response hurriedly written at 11.00 am indicated that they had no intention of surrendering their town so lightly. On returning to the Royalist position the envoy and the drummer were fired upon despite being under a flag of truce, probably by a levy from the Fife regiment and the drummer was killed. This flagrant abuse of the rules of war infuriated the Irish and in his anger Montrose swore that Alastair and the Irish could have the sack of Aberdeen.

At this moment, Montrose ordered the Royalists forward and Alastair’s men removed Burleigh’s forward pickets from a group of cottages which they had occupied at the foot of the slope. Montrose then advanced his line until they were engaged by Covenant cannon. The Covenanters had the advantage of heavier calibre and plunging fire. Montrose’s lighter cannon firing uphill had little effect. At this point Burleigh had an army of 2,500 foot drawn up in three divisions with the Aberdeen musketeers on the right of the line.

Burleigh’s 500 cavalry were divided into two groups on either flank. Burleigh was not an experienced commander and his army comprised of various elements each commanded by officers of independent ideas and the whole lacked a cohesive command. An example of which was Lord Lewis Gordon the youngest son of the Marquis of Huntly, who was commanding a troop of 18 Gordon troopers located on the left flank of the Covenanters. The Royalist army consisted of approximately 1500 infantry, almost entirely Irish although there were men from Lochaber and Atholl. The infantry were divided into the three Irish regiments with the highlanders in reserve with MacDonald. The 80 horse had been divided between the two wings of the army with Nathaniel Gordon commanding the Horse on the left wing and Sir William Rollo commanding the right wing. Lord Airlie positioned himself with Montrose in the centre and on this occasion Montrose was himself mounted. Because his army had reclothed themselves in Perth there was little to differentiate them from the enemy so Montrose ordered them to wear sprigs of ripening corn from a nearby field to improve recognition.

Following the opening cannonade, Lord Lewis Gordon without orders, it is suspected, led an attack on Montrose’s left wing with a charge discharging their pistols short of the enemy and retiring “in caracole” to reload and charge again. Their fire was inaccurate and their charge ineffective leaving Rollo’s men in position. There was then a second ineffective action led by Lords Fraser and Crichton whose 200 lancers failed to press home their charge. These wasteful manoeuvres illustrated the inadequacies of the Covenanting command system and the poor quality of leadership displayed by their general, Lord Balfour of Burleigh.

The main bulk of the Covenanting infantry had remained static in the centre but at this point a force of 100 horse and 400 foot were given orders to move round to the right of the Covenant line by means of the service road towards the Upper Justice Mills and to position themselves for a flank attack into left wing of the Royalists. They managed to move unseen into a position just to the left and rear of the Royalists line. They were spotted by Nathaniel Gordon who was commanding the left wing as they crested a small mound where they hesitated. The few musketeers, under Colonel Mortimer, who were supporting Gordon’s horse, formed to the left to face this threat and Gordon appealed urgently to Montrose for assistance. Montrose had no reserve but he promptly ordered all his right wing but principally the horse to move across to the left. Once reinforced, Gordon and Mortimer charged the hillock dislodging the outflanking force. The Covenant horse fell back in confusion but Gordon’s horse were able to cut the foot to pieces.

Once the horse from the right wing were committed on the left Sir William Forbes of Craigievar felt that the Irish regiment which now formed the right wing was vulnerable to a charge from his own troop at full gallop. This should have achieved some success as musketeers unprotected by pikemen or horse can offer little resistance. However, the Irish met this charge with a remarkable tactic by opening their ranks, once the horse were committed, and the horses took the line of least resistance and passed through the Royalist. The foot then turned about and fired into the unarmoured backs of the Covenant horse emptying many saddles. Forbes of Craigievar was dragged from his saddle and made prisoner.

Some two hours had passed since the battle commenced and the Irish foot in the centre had endured a cannonade and were frustrated at not being committed to action. With both the wings of his line out of place and probably exhausted Montrose had no option but to attack both up hill and against superior odds. The Irish charged uttering their blood curdling war cries and splintered and fragmented the Covenant line. As they broke up the Covenanters began to run and was soon in full flight. They ran in various directions but most back into the town to where they were pursued. The battle was over resulting in a victory for the Royalists. It would be encouraging to say that Montrose won the battle but in fact the Covenanters with all the advantages of superior numbers and higher ground lost the battle. Burleigh failed to exercise effective command, permitting a series of unco-ordinated independent attacks which dissapated his forces. The Irish on the right showed extraordinary courage in facing a cavalry charge at full gallop in such a calm manner.

The Sack of Aberdeen

The aftermath of the battle however was a different matter. Montrose’s promise before the battle in the heat of anger at the shooting of the drummer could not be easily rescinded. The battle continued to the gates of Aberdeen and beyond and the killing of fleeing combatants soon extended to non-combatants as Aberdeen was plundered. Whether Montrose could have put a stop to it is open to question. The fact is that he did not and indeed he did not enter Aberdeen until the following day and was appalled by what he saw. The Covenant casualties were put at 1000 killed both in the battle and the pursuit. Many of the townspeople were stripped of their clothes before they were put to death so that their clothes should not be spoiled.

Some accounts estimate that seven or eight score (approximately 150) were killed. There are references to both women and children and old and young being killed and other reports that just the men were killed. It is likely that both were true. The ironic thing was that Aberdeen was the most likely city to harbour Royalist sympathies and Montrose had come north not to punish the Aberdonians but to seek their support. His promise of the sack of Aberdeen had been a mistake and one that he was not to repeat. The Sack of Aberdeen stands as a stain on Montrose’s reputation but it is the only one.

A map of the battle site.

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