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Carbisdale and the Aftermath

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The Battle of Carbisdale

It could be argued that the act which was responsible for igniting the last campaign came on a cold January morning in 1649 when the anointed sovereign King Charles 1st was led from his cell in St James Palace by his captors, who then proceeded to chop off his head.

This was an act which sent shock waves round Europe and alarmed the incumbents of most of the European Royal Houses.

When Montrose heard the news he is said to have collapsed in a dead faint. Wishart, Montrose’s biographer, records that he fell into a swoon and upon recovering locked himself in his room, admitting no-one.

On the third day Wishart was admitted to Montrose’s room. On a piece of paper on the table he found the following words:-


To Montrose, as well as to other Royalists, the execution of Charles 1st represented a chasm which divided two worlds. Regicide was a crime beyond forgiveness. His Covenanting enemies agreed, but in Montrose’s eyes they shared the guilt.

The man who emerged from that room had a changed countenance, and his actions following the execution of Charles clearly show the determination and single mindedness, some may even say desperation, of a man who had decided at whatever cost to rid Scotland of the oppressive Covenanting regime and restore the Stuarts to the throne.

Since his banishment from Scotland in 1646 Montrose had worked tirelessly, criss-crossing Europe from one Royal court to another trying to stir up support for the cause of his rightful sovereign Charles 1st. Although he was well received, indeed honoured, by many of those whom he met, offers of genuine support were not forthcoming.

During this time Europe in general was a hotbed of intrigue and corruption and every court had its government spies who were closely monitoring every move the Royalists made and quickly relaying information back to the parliament in England.

The Scottish Covenanters too had strong representation in Europe particularly at the court of the young King Charles 2nd and his mother Queen Henrietta Maria. Like her husband before her she continued to play a dangerous double game which continually undermined the attempts of Montrose to launch a military campaign to restore the monarchy.

Charles 2nd was looking for a compromise which was unattainable. As his determination to find one hardened, Montrose’s position among the King’s councillors became increasingly isolated.

The word in Europe was that Scotland, burdened for several years now under the yolk of the Covenanting regime, was ready for revolt, but the failed rising of MacKenzie of Pluscardine in 1649 was premature and served only to subdue many who had at that time been ready to rise.

One other major factor which undermined the efforts of Montrose was that Charles 2nd was in negotiation with the Covenanting representatives who were prepared to offer him the crown of Scotland; but at a high price, which included the imposition of Presbyterianism not only in Scotland but also in England.

The Campaign Begins

It was against this backdrop that Montrose decided the cause could wait no longer and he prepared to gather what little force he could for a final and desperate attempt to win Scotland back for Charles 2nd.

Montrose had decided to launch his assault on Scotland through Orkney and there are two main reasons for this. Firstly Orkney was held by Lord Morton, a known Royalist who could be relied upon to give his support and secondly, an assault through the north would draw support from the powerful Clan Mackenzie, whose chief Seaforth was with the royal court.

Seaforth had ingratiated himself with the queen, who referred to him as ‘Her Brave Highlander’. As Seaforth actually fought for the Covenant during the troubles of 1645 it is hard to understand how he was so readily accepted by the Queen. The Mackenzies were a powerful clan in the north and Seaforth could call on 5000 broadswords, so it is an even greater mystery why, when Montrose travelled to Orkney to take command of the campaign, the ‘Brave Highlander’ stayed with the Queen.

It was a costly error, because not one Mackenzie was to rally to the banner of Montrose.

On arrival in Orkney Montrose was over taken by the King’s emissary who brought him the Order of the Garter and two letters. One was for public display; the other was for Montrose alone. In the private letter the King implored Montrose not to pay heed to rumours that he was about to agree a treaty with the Covenanters.

Montrose must have puzzled over this because it took him 3 days to compose an answer. When he did, his promise to ‘Abandon still my life and search my death for the interest of your Majesty’s honour and service’ betrayed the inner thoughts of a man who had probably given up all hope of surviving the campaign ahead.

With the King’s order to proceed, Montrose crossed the Pentland Firth and marched south via Thurso to Dunbeath. He had under his command about 1600 men. His cavalry, made up largely of officers, consisted of about 50 men. The infantry consisted of 1000 or so reluctant Orcadians and 500 or so German and Dutch mercenaries.

After taking Dunbeath they continued south and two days later were at Dunrobin Castle. With his untrained and unenthusiastic army, and an artillery train of 10 pieces, progress was slow.

Montrose desperately needed recruits. With the absence of Seaforth, and the failed Pluscardine rising the year before, the main influence in the north was now the Covenanting Earl of Sutherland. Sutherland’s favour now offered more than the promises of a distant King in a foreign land. Few recruits came to the Royal banner.

One or two lairds who felt threatened by the rise of the Earl of Sutherland did come to Montrose and one of these was Robert Monro of Achness and his three sons. Being familiar with the local terrain Montrose appointed them as the army scouts.

At this point the army turned west up Strathfleet, as far as Loch Shin. Montrose delayed here close to the road junction of Lairg, desperately waiting for news from the Mackenzies, but none came.

Being unable to wait any longer he continued south and, on 25th April, approached Carbisdale.

A panoramic view of Carbisdale looking north-east. The modern hamlet of Culrain can be seen in the left middle of the picture. It was on the open plain in the middle ground where Montrose’s force was surprised and routed. The Kyle of Sutherland flows just beyond the battlefield (visible at the right of the picture) and many hundreds of Orcadians died in their flight trying to swim across.

The word of the invasion had by now spread and, as David Leslie hastily mustered his Covenanting forces at Brechin, a small northern force under the command of Major Archibald Strachan prepared to oppose Montrose. Strachan’s force totalled no more than 300 men, but this included 5 troops of experienced horse and a number of Musketeers of Lawer’s regiment.

In what was to prove a turn of cruel luck for Montrose, Strachan was met at Tain by Col. John Monro of Lemlair and David Ross of Balnagowan, with about 400 of their levies. These men had fought against Strachan in the failed rising a year before and it is thought that they were now on their way to join Montrose. With the uncertainty of Montrose’s campaign, and having been discovered in arms by Strachan, they now fell in behind Strachan’s force.

Montrose was now camped at Culrain and on 27 April Strachan was only 4 miles away at Kincardine. Montrose was in a strong position having formed entrenchments, with the Kyle on his left flank and the hill of Creag Choineachan protecting his rear.

Battle Commences

Strachan had a reputation as a Covenanting zealot and a bit of a hothead and he saw this as an un-missable opportunity to strike a crushing blow for the Covenant, and advance his career at the same time. He decided to engage Montrose’s forces without delay. As he moved forward to make contact, the 400 Munro’s and Ross’s slipped away and occupied some high ground overlooking Carbisdale to wait to see what transpired.

Strachan had one advantage over Montrose in that he knew his dispositions and the size and quality of the force which opposed him. This information most probably came from Monro of Lemlair. Montrose had been informed by his scout Monro of Achness that there was only one troop of horse in all of Ross-shire and historians have for years speculated whether or not Monro of Achness played any part in luring Montrose into a trap by giving him false information.

Strachan, by this time advancing westwards along the south bank of the Kyle, proceeded to show one troop of horse to Montrose, carefully keeping the remainder of his force concealed in the broom. Montrose fell for the ruse and, as Major Lisle led the small group of Royalist horse forward to face the threat, Strachan sprang his trap.

One hundred troopers rushed forward from the broom and within seconds the surprised Royalist cavalry had been cut to pieces. Lisle was killed in the first rush and the remnants of the cavalry fell back on their own foot soldiers who by this time had advanced from their entrenchments and were exposed on the plain of Carbisdale.

The reluctant Orcadians were in no position to mount any meaningful defence and they quickly broke and fled. Many of them headed for the nearby Kyle and 200 drowned trying to cross it.

Strachan brought in the remainder of his force and the Munros and Rosses, discovering a new loyalty to the covenant, hurried down from the high ground to join in the slaughter.

This was no battle, it was simply a rout. Montrose had been lured into a trap which, he would have been the first to admit, his experience should have told him was there. Strachan lost only a few men in the conflict but the Royalists lost over 400.

Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

Montrose led his army in a south east direction from the slopes of Creag Choineachanacross the plain towards Balinoe. When the army was exposed on the open ground Strachan sprang his trap and rushed forward from the surrounding broom which had been concealing his forces. The rout was over quickly and Montrose was forced to flee from the field northwards in the direction of Strath Oykell.

Montrose Escapes

Montrose himself was wounded and had his horse killed under him. To his eternal credit Lord Frendraught implored Montrose to take his own horse and preserve the cause by saving himself. Frendraught was a nephew of Sutherland and was confident that his life would be spared Light was fading when Montrose fled the field with a small group of officers and also the scout Munro of Achness. They crossed the Kyle on horseback but soon after this they abandoned their mounts and proceeded on foot. Montrose’s Garter Star and belt were found later hidden under a nearby tree.

The group continued in a North West direction and separated at Oykell Bridge. Montrose was now in the company of Major Edward Sinclair from Orkney and Archibald Sinclair of Brims from Caithness. The plan was to make for the friendly Reay country in Strathnaver. Brims must have broken away and headed North at some point because Montrose and Edward Sinclair were left to carry on up the desolate Strath Oykell.

As they struggled on through the bogs and corries of Strath Oykell they must have been acutely aware that their pursuers were close behind. The two were exhausted and famished. Montrose was forced to chew his gloves and it may have been their need for food that caused the two to part company.

At lonely Glaschyle Montrose stumbled upon a shepherd’s cottage and here he was given bread and water by the kindly shepherd and his wife. In an anxious moment he was forced to hide under a nearby trough when a search party arrived. Apologising to the shepherd afterwards he said “he was determined never to do the like again to avoid death, of which, he thanked God, he was not afraid”.

Montrose hurried on his way and soon after entered the land of Neil Macleod of Assynt. He was approached on the road by a stranger who offered to take him to the castle of Assynt. There is a strong tradition that Neil Macleod had served with Montrose at the siege of Inverness in 1645 and Montrose would have gone there willingly thinking that he was finally reaching somewhere where he would be given refuge. After a few miles the pair reached Ardvreck Castle on the shore of Loch Assynt.

The bleak ruin which stands there now gives little hint of the fine structure which once occupied this site. When Montrose reached here Neil MacLeod was away elsewhere and he was met instead by MacLeod’s wife Christian, a daughter of Monro of Lemlair who had just a few days before sided with Strachan at the Battle of Carbisdale.

Betrayal and Capture

Montrose was conducted, supposedly for his own security, to the vaulted cellars in the basement of the castle, where he was confined.

By this time the whole north was aware that the campaign had been lost and everyone was beginning to shift for themselves. Following the battle, Christian’s brother Andrew Monro had sent word to Neil MacLeod urging him to look for fugitives, but ‘Chiefly James Graham’. MacLeod’s wife would have been aware of the situation.

Shortly after this Major Sinclair, having been found wandering in the hills, was brought to join Montrose at Ardvreck. Having made them secure Christian then sent word to her husband and also David Leslie at Tain.

The matter of whether MacLeod betrayed Montrose is one which generates controversy even today. As Sheriff-Depute of Assynt MacLeod’s supporters argue that he was only doing his duty. He certainly took credit for the act at the time but in later years, when the tide had turned in favour of the Royalists, MacLeod was vilified by all decent men and he was actually tried not once but twice for the betrayal.

He did receive part of the reward for Montrose’s capture in cash and he also received a quantity of Oatmeal but, as the Keppoch Bard Ian Lom McDonald took pleasure in reminding us, MacLeod sold Montrose ‘For the meal of Leith – and two thirds of it sour’!

The fact remains however that it was actually MacLeod’s wife who secured Montrose’s person and it is likely that it was her who handed him over to the Covenanters who arrived at the castle on 4th May. His captors would waste no time in conveying their charge to Edinburgh to face the justice of the Covenant.

Montrose’s procession made its way south over the next few days. His captors, having mounted him on a pony and tying his legs under the animal’s belly, took every opportunity to humiliate him and expose him to public scorn. A herald walked before him proclaiming, ‘Here comes James Graham, a traitor to his country’. In the main however Montrose was well received by most of those who came to see him on his journey south. The procession deliberately wound through Fife, where the Government hoped that the widows and mother’s of the thousands of Fifeshire levies who had lost their lives in the campaign would ridicule and abuse him. Even here though Montrose, with a countenance which even his opponents admired, was treated respectfully by the local people.


Finally Montrose was landed at the Water Gate of Edinburgh where he was met by the City Magistrates. Mounted on a cart, with his hands tied so as to be unable to protect himself, the people were urged to pelt him with stones and rubbish. Thankfully this did not happen and so sweet was his carriage that even the women who had been paid to stone and abuse him were moved to tears upon observing his unfortunate predicament. The next day these same women were roundly rebuked from the pulpits for not taking the opportunity to revile and abuse Montrose.

As the cart made its way up the Royal Mile it was stopped adjacent to Argyll’s lodging of Moray House where the wedding of Lord Lorne and Lady Jean Gordon was in progress. As the party stood on the balcony and made ready to mock him, Montrose sensed what was afoot and defiantly turned his face towards them. Argyll stood at the back of the group shielded by a curtain, when it was wryly observed that even then he was unable to stand and look Montrose directly in the eye. Lady Gordon was heard to laugh aloud at Montrose whereupon an English gentleman in the crowd shouted to her that it should be she who should be in the cart for her adulteries.

Moving on up the High Street Montrose was incarcerated in the Tollbooth, which at that time stood next to St. Giles Cathedral. His gaolers took delight in making his stay uncomfortable and in blowing tobacco smoke in his face, which they knew he detested.

Montrose had been a thorn in the side of the leaders of the Covenant for years now and they were not going to miss the opportunity of ridding themselves of their arched enemy. Charles the 2nd had by now come to agreement with the Covenanters and had signed the treaty of Breda, completing the total undermining of Montrose’s campaign. Montrose presence was now an embarrassment to both sides.

Following a hurriedly staged sham trial, Montrose was condemned to be hanged at the Merket Cross, the death not of a Scottish nobleman but that of a common felon. His body was to be dismembered and his torso thrown into a common burial pit. His head was to be displayed above the tollbooth in Edinburgh and his limbs distributed at Glasgow, Aberdeen, Perth and Stirling.

On 21st May 1650 Montrose was led from the tollbooth the short walk down the high street to the 30ft high gibbet which had been hurriedly erected. The Edinburgh trained bands had been called out to line the route and make sure that there was to be no attempt at rescue. It appears that, even in this sorry state, the Covenanters were still afraid of Montrose.

Even in his last moments he was denied the right to speak to the crowd. Instead he was allowed to dictate his speech to a young boy. The young scribe’s surname was Gordon and, as the fortunes of Montrose’s campaign had largely risen and fallen on the whim of the Clan Gordon, Montrose would have considered it a strange irony that one was to be with him at the end to record his last words.

During this whole episode Montrose was observed to maintain a noble carriage and with his dying words he declared his loyalty to both the original Covenant which he signed and to his sovereign Charles 2nd of whom he said ‘Never any people, I believe, might be more happy in a King’.

Montrose displayed astonishing bravery right up to the end. An Englishman close to the scaffold observed his last moments…….

‘It is absolutely believed that he hath overcome more now by his death in Scotland, than he would have done if he had lived. For I never saw more sweeter carriage in a man in all my life. I would write more largely if I had time, but he is just now a turning off from the ladder; but his countenance changes not’.

The Aftermath

The part Charles played in this sorry affair left very much to be desired and even his most enthusiastic apologists have struggled over the years to try to allow Charles to emerge from this episode with any credit whatsoever. Even up until the final days of Montrose Charles was proclaiming that he had not authorised a military campaign to recover his throne in Scotland. Montrose was simply a pawn in a game of very high stakes and he was undoubtedly sacrificed for the cause of the Monarchy.

Following the Restoration of Charles to the British throne in 1660 the political situation had gone full circle and the crown was once again in the ascendancy.

Argyll lay in the tollbooth and would shortly be executed. Montrose’s remains were gathered from the corners of the realm and, amidst much pomp and ceremony, placed with great reverence in St Giles by some of those who had only 11 years before voted in favour of his execution.

Such is politics, but Montrose never professed to be a politician, he was simply a soldier; a soldier who stood up to be counted and to fight for a cause in which he solemnly believed until his dying breath.

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