Close Menu


The Battle of Auldearn


Much has been written over the years about the major civil war conflicts in England, such as the battles of Marston Moor and Naseby, but even today many people are unaware that during 1644 and 1645 there was fought a series of significant battles in Scotland between the Royalist and Covenanter forces involving many thousands of combatants.

Following the catastrophic defeat of the forces of Charles 1 st at Marston Moor in July 1644, James Graham, the 1 st Marquis of Montrose, broke away from the Royalist forces and hurried home to Scotland. His reason for this was simple; the Scots army of the Covenant under Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven, was engaged in the conflict on the side of the English government and indeed had played an important part in the Marston Moor victory. Montrose’s strategy was to open a new front, in Scotland, in an attempt to draw the Scots army back to the north and in this way he would be helping to relieve Charles’s seriously overstretched forces in England.

During the summer of 1644 the Earl of Antrim had sent a force of Irish under the command of the legendary Alasdair MacColla of Colonsay, to invade Scotland in support of the Royalist cause. This had not been well received by the Scots and, after initial success at Ardnamurchan, the Irish force traversed the Scottish mainland seeking support and becoming more desperate by the day. Little support was forthcoming and at the time Montrose crossed the border on his way north the Irish had entered Atholl and found themselves faced by the local clans who had gathered to protect their land.

In a scene which would have done justice to a Hollywood epic Montrose arrived on foot on the Braes of Atholl just in time to prevent a pitched battle between the Irish and the local clans, predominantly Robertsons and Stewarts. When Montrose intervened, to the relief of all concerned, the two sides joined forces and put themselves under his command.

Montrose now found himself at the head of a force of around 2000 men and, having raised the Royal standard at the Truidh, Blair Atholl, he advanced on Perth and won, at Tippermuir, the first in a series of six stunning victories in Scotland.

In the other victories which were to follow Tippermuir during ‘the year of miracles’, in most of them Montrose’s second in command MacColla, since written into legend by the Gaelic Bard Ian Lom MacDonald, played a major role.

MacColla was quite simply one of the best leaders of men, in the heat of conflict, ever to set foot upon the Scottish historical stage. He was a man of immense physical stature, strength and courage. His skill in arms was legendary and he was equally adept at wielding a broadsword in either hand, as indeed was his father Colla Ciotach, Colkitto, with whom he is often confused (Ciotach meaning left-handed).

Montrose and MacColla made a formidable pair and there are those who would have us believe that MacColla deserves more credit for the Royalist victories than Montrose. Although I refute this view strongly I never the less acknowledge that MacColla’s contribution to some of these victories (he was not present at them all) was immense, and Montrose would probably not have achieved as much as he did without him.

Of the six Royalist victories won during 1644/45, Tippermuir, Aberdeen, Inverlochy, Auldearn, Alford and Kilsyth, none perhaps sparks the imagination more than Auldearn, fought on 9 th May 1645, where history tells us that Montrose and MacColla, although heavily outnumbered, sprang a famous flank attack from a concealed position to win the battle.

Conflicting Views

During a recent reading of the book “Highland Warrior” by David Stevenson (an account of the life of Alasdair MacColla of Colonsay) I was fascinated by the author’s account of the battle of Auldearn, in Moray, in which he offers a completely different view of the battle to those which have been given, and generally accepted, by most other historical authors.

The author devotes a whole chapter to the subject and he completely dismantles the view that the victory was won by the famous flank attack by Montrose and the Gordon cavalry.

The Truidh at Blair Atholl, where Montrose raised the standard of Charles 1 st

The Traditional View

Stevenson claims that most modern writers have followed the script of the renowned historian S. R. Gardiner which was first published in 1868. In this, Gardiner acknowledges that the Covenanters, under General Hurry, concentrated their attack on MacColla who was positioned on the southern slopes of Castle Hill (or Doocot Hill). Montrose had taken the deliberate decision to display the Royal standard behind MacColla in an attempt to draw the full force of the Covenanters. This ruse worked almost too well as MacColla, supported at the time by only about 400 infantry, was sorely pressed to withstand the attack of over 10 times that number.

Meanwhile Montrose was waiting in a hollow to the south east of Auldearn with around 1400 foot and predominantly Gordon cavalry and, at a critical point in the battle, unleashed this force on the flank of the unsuspecting Covenanters. This attack was decisive and the Covenanters were routed with great slaughter. It must be said that many of the Covenanting regulars fought with great bravery and determination and both Campbell of Lawer’s and Lothian’s regiments were almost wiped out to a man.

The attack which Montrose launched was from a concealed hollow, known to this day as Montrose’s Hollow, which lies to the east of the minor road leading south from Auldearn to Brightmony (now known as Lethen Road). Montrose has always been credited with laying this trap for Hurry and for the ploy to draw the Covenanters on to his standard only for them to be destroyed by his flank attack. This account has been accepted by most prominent historians over the years, not only by Gardiner, but also by others such as Buchan, Williams and Hastings.

Contemporary Accounts

There are two main contemporary accounts of the battle, those of the Rev. George Wishart (Montrose’s biographer) and Patrick Gordon of Ruthven. These two accounts of the battle vary somewhat and Stevenson is critical of Gardiner for apparently basing his account of the battle on Wishart and virtually ignoring Patrick Gordon.

Patrick Gordon’s account tells of surprise and confusion in the Royalist camp and Stevenson, having already unfairly described Wishart as “a hypnotised hero worshipper” (of Montrose) naturally wishes to accept Gordon’s account over Wishart’s.

The Revisionist View

Stevenson dismisses Gardiner’s generally accepted account of the battle on four counts. Firstly, he criticises Gardiner for adhering principally to Wishart’s account as opposed to that of Patrick Gordon.

Secondly, he claims that Montrose was surprised by the sudden appearance of the Covenanters and he claims therefore that Montrose would not have had time to prepare either his battle plan or his surprise attack from the hollow.

Thirdly, Stevenson suggests, with minimal supporting evidence, that the Covenanters approached Auldearn from the south west and not the west. To do so he claims would have exposed Montrose’s Hollow to their view and therefore Montrose could not have launched a surprise attack from that position.

Finally, in considering Montrose’s own brief account of the battle in which no mention of the flank attack is made, Stevenson claims that Montrose, “being so arrogant and self important”, would not have failed to have taken credit for the flank attack if it had taken place.

Stevenson’s Account Assessed

Stevenson’s rejections of the generally accepted account of the battle naturally demand closer scrutiny and, to better consider the points which he makes, I recently returned to Auldearn to have a closer look at the battle site.

Gardiner’s Reputation

The 19th century historian S. R. Gardiner has long been considered an authority on battles and battle tactics and to so readily disown his theories on the events which surrounded the battle of Auldearn naturally calls into doubt not only his skill but also his integrity. Whilst this does not mean that Gardiner’s conclusions should never be challenged, one should remember that Gardiner, presumably upon consideration of all the available evidence, considered that Wishart’s account was the more reliable. For Gardiner to do so without good reason was to put his own reputation at stake, something I am sure he would not have readily done.

Montrose Surprised?

Whilst Stevenson makes much of Montrose being ‘surprised’ by Hurry on the morning of the 9th May this is unlikely as it is known that Montrose arrived at Auldearn the day before the battle and he chose to stand and fight there. That Montrose was perhaps taken aback by the fact that Hurry had marched all night to arrive at Auldearn early in the morning may be conceded, but that does not mean that Montrose was not ready to meet him in battle.

It is known that prior to the battle, during a night of torrential rain, Hurry had halted his force and ordered them to fire their matchlocks in order to ensure that they had not become water logged. This would not have been attempted within 5 miles or so of the Royalist position, so that puts Hurry still at some considerable distance from the battlefield.

The discharge of the weapons was heard by the Royalist scouts who then hurried back to the camp to raise the alarm. As the scouts would most likely have been in between the two forces when the discharge was heard they would therefore have had a head start when they raced back to the Royalist camp. That coupled to the fact that the scouts would have been able to move much more quickly than the large Covenanting force, the likelihood is that the scouts arrived back into the Royalist camp to raise the alarm well in advance of the advancing Covenanters.

The Royalist force was less than 2000 strong and they would undoubtedly have been billeted fairly close together. To rouse this small number of men could, I would suggest, have been achieved in minutes and not in the considerable length of time suggested by Stevenson. These actions never the less may still understandably have led to the comments of “surprise and confusion” made by Patrick Gordon.

It is interesting to note that George Bain, in his book ‘The History of Nairnshire’ (1928) claims that the conflict started about noon. If this was the case the Royalists would have been in an even greater state of readiness. On the basis that Montrose arrived at Auldearn the day before the battle who can say that he had not had sufficient time to lay the plan to draw the Covenanters on to MacColla and to the Royal standard situated on the slopes of Castle Hill, and then to launch his flank attack on them?

The fact that Montrose gave MacColla the Royal standard to display prior to the battle would appear to show clear evidence of a pre-conceived plan to deceive Hurry. The flank attack was presumably part of the deception and, again, was most probably considered well in advance of the conflict. If, as Stevenson implies, Montrose was taken by surprise before he had time to form a battle plan surely then, in giving the Royal standard to MacColla, Montrose deserves even greater credit for displaying such military acumen in the heat of battle.

Advance from the South-West?

It has always been accepted that the Covenanters advanced on Auldearn from due west, having crossed the River Nairn at Nairn. Stevenson rightly states that the main road to Auldearn used to approach the town from the south west, along the line of the current B9101 road, and not from the west along the line of the current B9111 from Nairn. He then uses this information however to claim that Montrose’s Hollow can be clearly seen from the B9101 and therefore Montrose could not have been lying there in concealment.

Even accepting that in 1645 the main road did approach Auldearn from the south west and not from the west there would without doubt have been a thoroughfare of sorts running west to east between Nairn and Auldearn because that was by far the shortest route between the two places. Would Hurry really have chosen to launch a surprise attack on the Royalists by marching towards them down the main road? Even accepting Stevenson’s claim that he did, the question remains, can Montrose’s Hollow be seen when approaching Auldearn from the south west?

Montrose’s Hollow Unconcealed?

Montrose’s Hollow lies to the south east of the village of Auldearn and, although there has been some housing development here in recent years, most of the hollow can still be clearly seen. The hollow is now well concealed from the south west by a narrow belt of mature trees known as ‘Policy Belt’, and this feature is shown on the OS plan of 1871. The ground now occupied by the trees of Policy Belt is clearly raised above the surrounding ground and at the time of the battle this area may have contained a few buildings and enclosures which would have offered even more cover to any force concealed in Montrose’s Hollow.

Montrose’s Hollow is now, and has been for many years, on cultivated agricultural ground. The natural process of cultivation tends to reduce features of the land and it is perfectly reasonable to assume that at the time of the battle the hollow would have been deeper, and the ground round about the hollow would have been higher, thus increasing its degree of concealment.

The B9101 approaches Auldearn from a south westerly direction before, about 300m from the centre of Auldearn, turning north towards the direction of Castle Hill. This was not the route of the road in 1645 however as at that time it came into Auldearn from the south west almost in a straight line (joining with the road from Brightmony, now known as Lethen Road). To have stood on the Lethen Road within 150m of the village centre in 1645 one could certainly have seen into the hollow, but the fact is that the Covenanters would have been nowhere near this point. Even Stevenson’s ‘reconstructed’ battle plan shows the Covenanters leaving the Auldearn approach road some 400m from the village (along the line of the present B9101) to attack MacColla at the base of Castle Hill. At that distance from Auldearn Montrose’s Hollow is well concealed from the line of the B9101.

Once Montrose’s concealed force had joined the battle the outcome was very quickly beyond doubt. Records show that upwards of 2000 Covenanters perished. Although most undoubtedly died on the field some groups did manage to break through the Royalist line, but their freedom was short lived. In recent years the discovery of skeletons at Kinsteary and Brightmony, to the south east of Auldearn, as well as Kinnudie to the west, bore testament to the last stand of fleeing groups of defeated militia.

The battle of Auldearn took place over 350 years ago and it is indeed unfortunate that there exists no clear and unambiguous account of what happened there. The famous flank attack which Montrose was credited with helped to establish his reputation as a brilliant and daring commander; but did the flank attack ever happen?

No Flank Attack from Montrose?

That Montrose’s account of the battle was brief and made no mention of the flank attack is hardly proof that it did not take place. Montrose would well have known that, despite the fact that MacColla had disobeyed Montrose’s order to stay within the protection of the enclosures around Castle Hill, MacColla’s contribution to the victory was immense. Perhaps Montrose did not wish to expand on the flank attack because it may have implied that he had had to advance quickly in order to save MacColla from destruction. Such an implication would naturally have been offensive to MacColla (and unjustified in view of the latter’s major contribution to the victory) and Montrose may therefore have sensibly decided not to mention the flank attack at all. There are many reasons why Montrose may have chosen not to dwell on the flank attack, but none of them are evidence that it did not take place.

Stevenson has gone to great lengths to refute that it did, and he accuses Wishart of deliberately fabricating his account of the battle to cover up for Montrose’s supposed blunder of being caught on the hop by the Covenanters at Auldearn. In addition Stevenson claims that Montrose’s Hollow did not provide sufficient cover from the south west (the direction that he considers the Covenanters advanced from), and I consider this to be incorrect.

Stevenson accuses Wishart of a ‘hero worshipping’ bias, yet his own account of the events at this time fails to disguise his own bias against Montrose. He conveniently creates a friction between Montrose and MacColla to support his view that Montrose and Wishart deliberately conspired to portray MacColla as a brainless thickhead who needed Montrose to save him from certain annihilation.

I would suggest that this view is clearly biased and the only criticism Wishart had of MacColla’s performance on the day of the battle was that he advanced against the enemy contrary to orders which had been given to him by Montrose to stay secure behind the protective enclosures at the foot of Castle Hill. In making these comments Wishart also acknowledges the remarkable achievement of MacColla and his men in managing to fight their way back into the enclosures. Such praise would hardly be expected from one so apparently committed to denying MacColla credit.

Castle or Doocot Hill and Boath Doocot from the west. MacColla was hard pressed to withstand the fierce onslaught of the Covenanters in the enclosures around the base of Doocot Hill.

Concluding Thoughts

In my own analysis of the events of that day in 1645 I have tried to consider, with an open and unbiased mind, what may and may not have happened before and during the conflict. Although I have argued against some of the views of David Stevenson that does not necessarily mean that I consider all his views to be flawed. Whilst he has argued that the flank attack could not have taken place at all, I have tried to counter his views by arguing not that it did take place, but that it certainly could have taken place.

Some time in the future, evidence may be found which may shed more light on the events which occurred on that fateful day and to perhaps prove whether or not Montrose and the Gordon horse did spring from the cover of Montrose’s Hollow to seal the fate of General Hurry and the Covenanters.

That certainly is the version of events accepted by countless creditable historical writers over the centuries and for this now to be proved false a considerable weight of clear evidence would require to be forthcoming from a neutral source.

Having read, and enjoyed, David Stevenson’s well researched book on MacColla I never the less must conclude that the general weight of evidence still strongly supports the view that the victory at Auldearn was achieved by the bravery and cunning of Montrose and MacColla, and the timely intervention of the Gordon Horse from the concealed position known to this day as Montrose’s Hollow.

Looking west from Montrose’s Hollow towards the trees of Policy Belt.
The ground falls away sharply beyond the trees and the rising ground in the foreground of this picture clearly confirms that this area would have been concealed from the view of anyone approaching from the south west.

‘More information can be found at the UK battlefields resource centre here.

This site uses cookies.
ConfigureHide Options
Read our privacy policy

This site uses cookies for marketing, personalisation, and analysis purposes. You can opt out of this at any time or view our full privacy policy for more information.