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General History of the Highlands
Earl of Huntly Attainted


For the sake of continuity, we have deferred noticing those transactions in the north in which George Gordon, Earl of Huntly, was more immediately concerned, and which led to several bloody conflicts.

The earl, who was a favourite at court, and personally liked by James VI., finding himself in danger from the prevailing faction, retired to his possessions in the north, for the purpose of improving his estates and enjoying domestic quiet. One of his first measures was to erect a castle at Rutliven, in Badenoch, in the neighbourhood of his hunting forests. This gave great offence to Macintosh, the chief of the clan Chattan, and his people, as they considered that the object of its erection was to overawe the clan. Being the earl’s vassals and tenants, they were bound to certain services, among which the furnishing of materials for the building formed a chief part; hut, instead of assisting the earl’s people, they at first indirectly and in an underhand manner endeavoured to prevent the workmen from going on with their operations, and afterwards positively refused to furnish the necessaries required for the building. This act of disobedience was the cause of much trouble, which was increased by a quarrel in the year 1590, between the Gordons and the Grants, the occasion of which was as follows. John Grant, the tutor of Ballendalloch, having withheld the rents due to the widow, and endeavoured otherwise to injure her, James Gordon, her nephew, eldest son of Alexander Gordon of Lismore, along with some of his friends, went to Ballendalloch to obtain justice for her. On their arrival, differences were accommodated so far that the tutor paid up all arrears due to the lady, except a trifle, which he insisted, on some ground or other, on retaining. This led to some altercation, in which the servants of both parties took a share, and latterly came to blows; but they were separated, and James Gordon returned home. Judging from what had taken place, that his aunt’s interests would in future be better attended to if under the protection of a husband, he persuaded the brother of Sir Thomas Gordon of Cluny to marry her, which he did. This act so incensed the tutor of Ballendalloch, that he at once showed his displeasure by killing, at the instigation of the Laird of Grant, one of John Gordon’s servants. For this the tutor, and such of the Grants as should harbour or assist him, were declared outlaws and rebels, and a commission was granted to the Earl of Huntly to apprehend and bring them to justice, in virtue of which, he besieged the house of Ballendalloch, said took it by force, on the 2d November, 1590; but the tutor effected his escape. Sir John Campbell of Cadell, a despicable tool of the Chancellor Maitland, who had plotted the destruction of the earl and the laird of Grant, now joined in the conspiracy against him, and stirred up the clan Chattan, and Macintosh their chief, to aid the Grants. They also persuaded the Earls of Athol and Murray to assist them against the Earl of Huntly.

As soon as Huntly ascertained that the Grants and clan Chattan, who were his own vassais, had put themselves under the command of these earls, he assembled his followers, and, entering Badenoch, summoned his vassals to appear before him, and deliver up the tutor and his abettors, but none of them came. He then proclaimed and denounced them rebels, and obtained a royal commission to invade and apprehend them. To consult on the best means of defending themselves, the Earls of Murray and Athole, the Dunbars, the clan Chattan, the Grants, and the laird of Cadell, and others of their party met at Forres. In the midst of their deliberations Huntly, who had received early intelligence of the meeting, and had, in consequence, assembled his forces, unexpectedly made his appearance in the neighbourhood of Forres. This sudden advance of Huntly struck terror into the minds of the persons assembled, and the meeting instantly broke up in great confusion. The whole party, with the exception of the Earl of Murray, left the town in great haste, and fled to Tarnoway; the Earl of Huntly, not aware that Murray had remained behind, marching directly to Tarnoway in pursuit of the fugitives. On arriving within sight of the castle into which the flying party had thrown themselves, the Earl sent John Gordon, brother of Sir Thomas Gordon of Cluny, with a small body of men to reconnoitre; but approaching too near without due caution, he was shot by one of the Earl of Murray’s servants. As Huntly found the castle well fortified, and as the rebels evacuated it and fled to the mountains, leaving a sufficient force to protect it, he disbanded his men on November 24, 1590, and returned home, whence he proceeded to Edinburgh.

Shortly after his arrival the Earl of Bothwell, who had a design upon the life of Chancellor Maitland, made an attack upon the palace of Holyroodhouse under cloud of night, with the view of seizing Maitland; but, having failed in his object, he was forced to flee to the north to avoid the vengeance of the king. The Earl of Huntly, who had been lately reconciled to Maitland, and the Duke of Lennox, were sent in pursuit of Bothwell, but he escaped. Understanding afterwards that he was harboured by the Earl of Murray at Donnibristle, the chancellor, having procured a commission against him from the king in favour of Huntly, again sent him, accompanied by forty gentlemen, to attack the Earl of Murray. When the party had arrived near Donnibristle, the Earl of Huntly sent Captain John Gordon, of Buckie, brother of Gordon of Gight, with a summons to the Earl of Murray, requiring him to surrender himself prisoner; but instead of complying, one of the earl’s servants levelled a piece at the bearer of the despatch, and wounded him mortally. Huntly, therefore, after giving orders to take the Earl of Murray alive if possible, forcibly entered the house; but Sir Thomas Gordon, recollecting the fate of his brother at Tarnoway, and Gordon of Giglit, who saw his brother dying mortally wounded before his eyes, entirely disregarded the injunction; and following the earl, who had fled among the rocks on the adjoining sea-shore, slew him. It was this Earl of Murray who was known as the "bonny" earl, and, according to some historians, had impressed the heart of Anne of Denmark, and excited the jealousy of her royal spouse. This at least was the popular notion of his time

He was a braw gallant,
And he played at the gluve;
And the bonny Earl of Murray,
Oh! he was the queen’s love

According to one account the house was set on fire, and Murray was discovered, when endeavouring to escape, by a spark which fell on his helmet, and slain by Gordon of Buckie, saying to the latter, who had wounded him in the face, "You have spilt a better face than your awin."

The Earl of Huntly immediately despatched John Gordon of Buckie to Edinburgh, to lay a statement of the affair before the king and the chancellor. The death of the Earl of Murray would have passed quietly over, as an event of ordinary occurrence in those troublesome times; but, as he was one of the heads of the Protestant party, the Presbyterian ministers gave the matter a religious turn by denouncing the Catholic Earl of Huntly as a murderer, who wished to advance the interests of his church by imbruing his hands in the blood of his Protestant countrymen. The effect of the ministers’ denunciations was a tumult among the people in Edinburgh and other parts of the kingdom, which obliged the king to cancel the commission he had granted to the Earl of Huntly. The spirit of discontent became so violent that Captain John Gordon, who had been left at Inverkeithing for the recovery of his wounds, but who had been afterwards taken prisoner by the Earl of Murray’s friends and carried to Edinburgh, was tried before a jury, and, contrary to law and justice, condemned and executed for having assisted the Earl of Huntly acting under a royal commission. The recklessness and severity of this act were still more atrocious, as Captain Gordon’s wounds were incurable, and he was fast hastening to his grave. John Gordon of Buckie, who was master of the king’s household, was obliged to flee from Edinburgh, and made a narrow escape with his life.

As for the Earl of Huntly, he was summoned, at the instance of the Lord of St. Colme, brother of the deceased Earl of Murray, to stand trial. He accordingly appeared at Edinburgh, and offered to abide the result of a trial by his peers, and in the meantime was committed a prisoner to the castle of Blackness on the 12th of March, 1591, till the peers should assemble to try him. On giving sufficient surety, however, that he would appear and stand trial on receiving six days’ notice to that effect, he was released by the king on the 20th day of the same month.

The clan Chattan, who had never submitted without reluctance to the Earl of Huntly, considered the present aspect of affairs as peculiarly favourable to the design they entertained of shaking off the yoke altogether, and being countenanced and assisted by the Grants, and other friends of the Earl of Murray, made no secret of their intentions. At first the earl sent Allan Macdonald-Dubh, the chief of the clan Cameron, with his tribe, to attack the clan Chattan in Badenoch, and to keep them in due order and subjection. The Camerons, though warmly opposed, succeeded in defeating the clan Chattan, who lost 50 of their men after a sharp skirmish. The earl next despatched Macdonald, with some of the Lochaber men, against the Grants in Strathspey, whom he attacked, killed 18 of them, and laid waste the lands of Ballendalloch. After the clan Chattan had recovered from their defeat, they invaded Strathdee and Glenmuck in November 1592. To punish this aggression, the Earl of Huntly collected his forces and entered Pettie, then in possession of the clan Chattan as a fief from the Earls of Murray, and laid waste all the lands of the clan Chattan there, killed many of them, and carried off a large quantity of cattle, which he divided among his army. But in returning from Pettie after disbanding his army, he received the unwelcome intelligence that William Macintosh, son of Lauchlan Macintosh, the chief, with 800 of the clan Chattan, had invaded the lands of Auchindun and Cabberogh. The earl, after desiring the small party which remained with him to follow him as speedily as possible, immediately set off at full speed, accompanied by Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindim and 36 horsemen, in quest of Macintosh and his party. Overtaking them before they had left the bounds of Cabberogh, upon the top of a hill called Stapliegate, he attacked them with his small party, and, after a warm skirmish, defeated them, killing about 60 of their men, and wounding William Macintosh and others.

The Earl of Huntly, after thus subduing his enemies in the north, now found himself placed under ban by the government on account of an alleged conspiracy between him and the Earls of Angus and Errol and the crown of Spain, to overturn the State and the Church. The king and his counciliors seemed to be satisfied of the innocence of the earls; but the ministers, who considered the reformed religion in Scotland in danger while these Catholic peers were protected and favoured, importuned his majesty to punish them. The king, yielding to necessity and to the intrigues of Queen Elizabeth, forfeited their titles, intending to restore them when a proper opportunity occurred; and, to silence the clamours of the ministers, convoked a parliament, which was held in the end of May, 1594. As few of the peers attended, the ministers, having the commissioners of the burghs on their side, carried everything their own way, and the consequence was, that the three earls were attainted without trial, and their arms were torn in presence of the parliament, according to the custom in such cases.

Having so far succeeded, the ministers, instigated by the Queen of England, now entreated the king to send the Earl of Argyle, a youth of nineteen years of age, in the pay of Queen Elizabeth, with an army against the Catholic earls. The king, still yielding to necessity, complied, and Argyle, having collected a force of about 12,000 men, entered Badenoch and laid siege to the castle of Ruthyen, on the 27th of September, 1594. He was accompanied in this expedition by the Earl of Athole, Sir Lauchlan Maclean with some of his islanders, the chief of the Macintoshes, the Laird of Grant, the clan Gregor, Macneil of Barra, with all their friends and dependents, together with the whole of the Campbells, and a variety of others animated by a thirst for plunder or malice towards the Gordons. The castle of Ruthven was so well defended by the clan Pherson, who were the Earl of Huntly’s vassals, that Argyle was obliged to give up the siege. He then marched through Strathspey, and encamped at Drummin, upon the river Avon, on the 2d of October, whence he issued orders to lord Forbes, the Frasers, the Dunbars, the clan Kenzie, the Irvings, the Ogilvies, the Leslies, and other tribes and clans in the north, to join his standard with all convenient speed.

The earls, against whom this expedition was directed, were by no means dismayed. They knew that although the king was constrained by popular clamour to levy war upon them, he was in secret friendly to them; and they were, moreover, aware that the army of Argyle, who was a youth of no military experience, was a raw and undisciplined militia, and composed, in a great measure, of Catholics, who could not be expected to feel very warmly for the Protestant interest, to support which the expedition was professedly undertaken. The seeds of disaffection, besides, had been already sown in Argyle’s camp by the corruption of the Grants and Campbell of Lochnell.

On hearing of Argyle’s approach, the Earl of Errol immediately collected a select body of about 100 horsemen, being gentlemen, on whose courage and fidelity he could rely, and with these he joined the Earl of Huntly at Strathbogie. The forces of Huntly, after this junction, amounted, it is said, to nearly 1,500 men, almost altogether horsemen, and with this body he advanced to Carnborrow, where the two earls and their chief followers made a solemn vow to conquer or die. Marching from thence, Huntly’s army arrived at Auchindun on the same day that Argyle’s army reached Drummin. At Auchindun, Huntly received intelligence that Argyle was on the eve of descending from the mountains to the lowlands, which induced him, on the following day, to send Captain Thomas Carr and a party of horsemen to reconnoitre the enemy, while he himself advanced with his main army. The reconnoitring party soon fell in, accidentally, with Argyle’s scouts, whom they chased, and some of whom they killed. This occurrence, which was looked upon as a prognostic of victory, so encouraged Huntly and his men, that he resolved to attack the army of Argyle before he should be joined by Lord Forbes, and the forces which were waiting for his appearance in the lowlands. Argyle had now passed Glenlivet, and had reached the banks of a small brook named Altchonlachan.

On the other hand, the Earl of Argyle had no idea that the Earls of Huntly and Errol would attack him with such an inferior force; and he was, therefore, astonished at seeing them approach so near him as they did. Apprehensive that his numerical superiority in foot would be counterbalanced by Huntly’s cavalry, he held a council of war, which advised Argyle to wait till the king, who had promised to appear with a force, should arrive, or, at all events, till he should be joined by the Frasers and Mackenzies from the north, and the Irvings, Forbeses, and Leslies from the lowlands with their horse. This opinion, which was considered judicious by the most experienced of Argyle’s army, was however disregarded by him, and he determined to wait the attack of the enemy; and to encourage his men he pointed out to them the small number of those they had to combat with, and the spoils they might expect after victory, He disposed his army on the declivity of a hill, betwixt Glenlivet and Glenrinnes, in two parallel divisions. The right wing, consisting of the Macleans and Macintoshes, was commanded by Sir Lauchlan Maclean and Macintosh—the left, composed of the Grants, Macneills, and Macgregors, by Grant of Gartinbeg; and the centre, consisting of the Campbells, &c., was commanded by Campbell of Auchinbreck. This vanguard consisted of 4,000 men, one-half of whom carried muskets. The rear of the army, consisting of about 6,000 men, was commanded by Argyle himself. The Earl of Huntly’s vanguard was composed of 300 gentlemen, led by the Earl of Errol, Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindun, the laird of Gight, the laird of Bonnitoun, and Captain, afterwards Sir Thomas Carr. The earl himself followed with the remainder of his forces, having the laird of Climy upon his right hand and the laird of Abergeldy upon his left. Three pieces of field ordnance under the direction of Captain Andrew Gray, afterwards colonel of the English and Scots who served in Bohemia, were placed in front of the vanguard. Before advancing, the Earl of Huntly harangued his little army to encourage them to fight manfully; he told them that they had no alternative before them but victory or death—that they were now to combat, not for their own lives only, but also for the very existence of their families, which would be utterly extinguished if they fell a prey to their enemies.

The position which Argyle occupied on the declivity of the hill gave him a decided advantage over his assailants, who, from the nature of their force, were greatly hampered by the mossy nature of the ground at the foot of the hill, interspersed by pits from which turf had been dug. But, notwithstanding these obstacles, Huntly advanced up the hill with a slow and steady pace. It had been arranged between him and Campbell of Lochnell, who had promised to go over to Huntly as soon as the battle had commenced, that, before charging Argyle with his cavalry, Huntly should fire his artillery at the yellow standard. Campbell bore a mortal enmity at Argyle, and as he was Argyle’s nearest heir, he probably had directed the firing at the yellow standard in the hope of cutting off the earl. Unfortunately for himself, however, Campbell was shot dead at the first fire of the cannon, and upon his fall all his men fled from the field. Macneil of Barra was also slain at the same time.

The Highlanders, who had never before seen field pieces, were thrown into disorder by the cannonade, which being perceived by Huntly, he charged the enemy, and rushing in among them with his horsemen, increased the confusion. The Earl of Errol was directed to attack the right wing of Argyle’s army, commanded by Maclean, but as it occupied a very steep part of the hill, and as Errol was greatly annoyed by thick volleys of shot from above, he was compelled to make a detour, leaving the enemy on his left. But Gordon of Auchindun, disdaining such a prudent course, galloped up the hill with a party of his own followers, and charged Maclean with great impetuosity; but Auchindun’s rashness cost him his life. The fall of Auchindun so exasperated his followers that they set no bounds to their fury; but Maclean received their repeated assaults with firmness, and manouvred his troops so well as to succeed in cutting off the Earl of Errol, and placing him between his own body and that of Argyle, by whose joint forces he was completely surrounded. At this important crisis, when no hopes of retreat remained, and when Errol and his men were in danger of being cut to pieces, the Earl of Huntly, very fortunately, came up to his assistance and relieved him from his embarrassment. The battle was now renewed and continued for two hours, during which both parties fought with great bravery, "the one," says Sir Robert Gordon, "for glorie, the other for necessitie." In the heat of the action the Earl of Huntly had a horse shot under him, and was in imminent danger of his life; but another horse was immediately procured for him. After a hard contest the main body of Argyle’s army began to give way, and retreated towards the rivulet of Altchonlachan; but Maclean still kept the field, and continued to support the falling fortune of the day. At length, finding the contest hopeless, and after losing many of his men, he retired in good order with the small company that still remained about him. Huntly pursued the retiring foe beyond the water of Altchonlachan, when he was prevented from following them farther by the steepness of the hills, so unfavourable to the operations of cavalry. The success of Huntly was mainly owing to the treachery of Lochnell, and of John Grant of Gartinbeg, one of Huntly’s vassals, who, in terms of a concerted plan, retreated with his men as soon as the action began, by which act the centre and the left wing of Argyle’s army were completely broken. On the side of Argyle 500 men were killed besides Macneill of Barra, and Lochnell and Auchinbreck, the two cousins of Argyle. The Earl of Huntly’s loss was comparatively trifling. About 14 gentlemen were slain, including Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindun, and the Laird of Gight; and the Earl of Errol and a considerable number of persons were wounded. At the conclusion of the battle the conquerors returned thanks to God on the field for the victory they had achieved. This battle is called by some writers the battle of Glenlivet, and by others the battle of Altchonlachan. Among the trophies found on the field was the ensign belonging to the Earl of Argyle, which was carried with other spoils to Strathbogie, and placed upon the top of the great tower. So certain had Argyle been of success in his enterprise, that he had made out a paper apportioning the lands of the Gordons, the Hays, and all who were suspected to favour them, among the chief officers of his army. This document was found among the baggage which he left behind him on the field of battle.

Although Argyle certainly calculated upon being joined by the king, it seems doubtful if James ever entertained such an intention, for he stopped at Dundee, from which he did not stir till he heard of the result of the battle of Glenlivet. Instigated by the ministers and other enemies of the Earl of Huntly, who became now more exasperated than ever at the unexpected failure of Argyle’s expedition, the king proceeded north to Strathbogie, and in his route he permitted, most unwillingly, the house of Craig in Angus, belonging to Sir John Ogilvie, son of Lord Ogilvie, that of Bagaes in Angus, the property of Sir Walter Lindsay, the house of Culsalmond in Garioch, appertaining to the Laird of Newton-Gordon, the house of Slaines in Buchan, belonging to the Earl of Errol, and the castle of Strathbogie, to be razed to the ground, under the pretext that priests and Jesuits had been harboured in them. in the meantime the Earl of Huntly and his friends retired into Sutherland, where they remained six weeks with Earl Alexander; and on the king’s departure to Strathbogie, Himtly returned, leaving his eldest son George, Lord Gordon, in Sutherland with his aunt, till the return of more peaceable times.

The king left the Duke of Lennox to act as his lieutenant in the north, with whom the two earls held a meeting at Aberdeen, and as their temporary absence from the kingdom might allay the spirit of violence and discontent, which was particularly annoying to his majesty, they agreed to leave the kingdom during the king’s pleasure. After spending sixteen months in travelling through Germany and Flanders, Huntly was recalled, and on his return he, as well as the Earls of Angus and Errol, were restored to their former honours and estates by the parliament, held at Edinburgh in November 1597, and in testimony of his regard for Huntly, the king, two years thereafter, created him a marquis. This signal mark of the royal favour had such an influence upon the clan Chattan, the clan Kenzie, the Grants, Forbeses, Leslies, and other hostile clans and tribes, that they at once submitted themselves to the marquis.


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