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Kilsyth, A Parish History
Chapter VIII


The Covenanters' Graves—The Battle of Kilsyth—Scottish Army in England — Montrose — Famine— Pestilence— The Story of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray—Montrose's Victories—A Hot Day—Strength of the Armies—The Decoy—The Snare— Charge of Covenanting Dragoons—Onset of M'Leans and M‘Donalds—General Engagement—Fearful Carnage—A Romance of the Battle—Gordon's Gravestone.

Scattered throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, by the side of busy roads and streets where the strong tide of our modern life is ever ebbing and flowing, in the midst of waste moors where there is nothing but moss and heather and the scream of the lapwing and the curlew, in lonely and rocky mountain glens where the bleating of sheep and the roar of the river are the only sounds that invade the silence, among the islands that stud our coasts, and close to shores ever lashed by the surge of the Atlantic and Northern Oceans, are to be found sometimes a grey boulder, sometimes a rude cairn, sometimes a simple slab, and sometimes a costly monument, marking the resting-place of some of our Covenanting forefathers who fought and bled and died, that their sons might participate in that religious freedom they now so richly enjoy.

Amongst all the places consecrated in the memory of the devout and pious Scotsman, there is none filled with such a mournful interest as the battle-field of Kilsyth. The reason of this is easily understood, for if the numbers that perished in the “killing time” of our history be estimated at 18,000, then not less than one-third of that number perished in the battle of Kilsyth ! Not the Bass Rock—that Patmos of Scottish history—not Dunnottar Castle, not Airds Moss nor St. Andrews, cluster memories more strongly suggestive of the sufferings of our ancestors in that troublous time.

To understand the battle aright, it is absolutely necessary to grasp intelligently the political situation, and realise the social conditions of the people. It is to be noted, in the first place, that the Covenanting troops, of which General Baillie was the nominal, but Argyll the real, head, cannot be taken as fairly representing the martial ardour or fighting capability of the national army. At that time the Scottish army, to the number of 20,000 men, had been sent to England to prosecute the war against the King, and in defence of the religion so dear to Scotland. On various occasions the English Government thanked this army for their discipline, their gallantry, and heroic achievements. At that juncture the Royalist cause in Scotland seemed entirely crushed. Montrose, however, taking cognisance of the defenceless state of the country, suddenly appeared in the Highlands, and rallying to his standard a very considerable force, rushed down on the Lowlands, carrying everything before him with the impetuosity of a mountain torrent. The question remains, could Montrose, with all his dash, have won a single victory if the Scottish army had been at home to meet him? The field of Philiphaugh, where David Leslie fell upon him like an avalanche, is a perfectly sufficient reply.

Her army in England, and anticipating no internal disturbance, such was the unprotected state of Scotland at this crisis in her chequered history. We must observe, however, in the second place, that at this period the land was groaning under the double Providential visitation of famine and pestilence. The potato and turnip were yet unknown, artificial grasses were not to be introduced for many years yet to come. Slight patches of wheat were grown in one or two fertile straths. Bere and oats were the chief cereals. The year before, the crops had proved a total failure, and in the Annals of Sir James Balfour, Lord Lyon King-at-Arms, there are repeatedly chronicled the petitions addressed to Parliament by the starving people, praying for bread. They came from such far-separated places as Leith, Argyll, and Inverness. The people eked out a wretched subsistence by feeding on slugs and snails. The famine was sore in the land, but there was a greater ill The plague everywhere was following hard on its footsteps. The pestilence walked at noon-day, and neither gentle nor simple, soldier nor civilian, was free from its foul touch. Parliament ordered the dead to be buried away from the abodes of the living in barren moors and solitary spots. The fumigation of garments and furniture was resorted to, and an order of men—“smeekers”— appointed for the purpose. When a member of a family was seized, all communication between him and other members ceased. Society was driven, in self-defence, to exercise this most fearful act of excommunication. The patients had to stay in their homes, and no person was permitted to visit them. Parliament thus thought to stamp out the disease, but it was only very partially successful. On the very month when the battle of Kilsyth was fought, the plague had reached its greatest height.

A more pathetic illustration of the severity and remorselessness of the pestilence there could not be than the romantic story of “Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.” The daughters of two neighbouring lairds near the city of Perth, they were young in years, and all the country round rang with their beauty. The plague having entered the town and neighbourhood, to free themselves from the chance of contamination they retired to a lonely and romantic spot not far from the banks of the Almond, and built themselves a rude bower, where, in seclusion and secrecy, they resolved to stay till the Providential visitation was overpast. Nor can we wonder at their action. They were young and admired, life was sweet to them, and it was but natural they should wish to live. A young gentleman of Perth city was the only one who shared their counsels. He brought food to their hut, and was perplexed which he could regard the more, so highly did he esteem them both. The curious pestilence found the secret bower, and Bessie Bell and Mary Gray perished in their pride. The Parliament, which was then sitting in Perth, refused them sepulture in the public bury-grounds, and so they had to be buried where they died. In Scottish literature I know not a more touching story than theirs, nor a more pathetic ballad than that which celebrates it:—

“O, Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses;
They biggit a bower on yon burn brae
And theekit it ower wi’ rashes.

“They theekit it ower wi' tho rashes green—
They theekit it ower wi' heather;
But the pest cam* frae the borough’s town
And slew them baith thegither.

“They thocht to lie in Methven Kirkyard,
Amang their noble kin;
But they maun lie in Dronoch Haugh,
And beek foment the sun.

“And Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses,
They biggit a bower on yon burn brae,
And theekit it ower wi* rashes.”

We can well understand the feelings of men called to battle from the midst of such gloomy scenes. There must have been throughout the whole army a diffused sense of oppression, and the spirits of the soldiers must have been possessed as by some dismal foreboding, or close-pressing calamity. The battle of Kilsyth is a favourite theme for partisan writers, but a temperate and impartial mind will attribute the overthrow of the Covenanters neither wholly to the military genius of Montrose nor the incompetency of the Field Committee of Baillie’s army, but to other and deeper causes. These men of the Covenant, drawn from scenes of starvation and misery, were no men at this juncture to encounter the clansmen of Athole and Badenoch, of Rannoch and Aberfeldy, who, in the enjoyment of florid health, impiously jeered at the plague-stricken inhabitants of the Lowland towns they had passed in their march.

When Montrose appeared at Kilsyth he had a series, if not of brilliant, at least dashing and spirited, victories on his banners. Having chosen his time well, he won battle after battle. In the September of 1644 he defeated the Covenanters at Tibbermuir. A fortnight later he was equally successful at the Bridge of Dee. Crossing the Argyll mountains, when they were clad with winter snow, he crushed the Campbells at Inver-lochy. Afterwards he captured Elgin and ravaged Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire. On the 3rd May 1645, he won the victory of Auldearn, and a month later he added to it the victory of Alford. Let him now crush Baillie, whose army is encamped against him at Holland Bush, in the parish of Denny, and Scotland is at his feet.

The day on which the battle of Kilsyth was fought was the 15th August, 1645. The autumn had been dry and fine. On the eventful morning of the battle there was no change. The sun rose in unclouded splendour. When he reached meridian, the hills and hamlet, the knolls and streams, the fields and cottages were swooning in the heat. The crops were rapidly ripening. The frugal husbandman was calculating that in a few days more they would be ready for the sickle. Owing to the dryness of the season the straw was short, but, notwithstanding, the fields gave promise that the time of famine had now come to an end.

Montrose planted his standard a little to the east above Colzium House. The actual spot was known to the curious at the beginning of this century, but cannot now be identified with accuracy. His munitions and transports were gathered on the Baggage Knowe in the same immediate locality. His numbers were four thousand infantry and five hundred cavalry. The latter were not of much account as a genuine arm of the service. Montrose's strength lay in his foot. At Holland Bush Baillie had under command over six thousand men and a thousand horse. Baillie was strong where Montrose was weak, and weak where he was strong. Baillie’s power lay in his splendidly mounted mail-clad cavalry. His foot were raw levies, untried in battle for the most part. The arms of Montrose’s Highlanders were the basket-hilted claymore, a target with a pike in its orb borne on the left arm, a pair of steel pistols, a dirk and a skean-dhu in the right garter. A considerable number of trusted veterans were armed with the long-barrelled inusket. The army of the Covenant contained three regiments from Fife, one regiment of Argyllshire Highlanders, and besides Argyll and Baillie had for subordinate commanders Tullibardine, Balcarris, Burleigh ,and Elcho —every one of whom Montrose had beaten. The battle will be best understood by dividing it into the four prominent sections into which, upon a close scrutiny, it readily devolves.

I The Decoy.

Ever since the Covenanting army had crossed the Carron, Montrose's scouts had been watching its every movement. Montrose clearly saw the strength of the enemy’s cavalry, a strength which struck his army with consternation. He took an ingenious method of breaking this strength. He chose as the place whereon he would try conclusions with his antagonist as hillocky and hammocky a piece of ground as could anywhere be found. The loch which now fills one of the hollows was not yet in existence. The “Slaughter Howe,” where a fierce struggle took place, lies between the "Baggage Knowe” and Upper Banton. It is the hollow through which flows the Drum Burn. Looking down on the field from the heights above Colzium it seems the most unlikely place in the world for a battle to be fought, and the difficulty of using horsemen with effect is at once apparent. To this place Montrose stuck tenaciously— like the war-leech he was—and into some cottages—the Hougomont of the battle—he threw some picked marksmen. Having made his cage, the difficulty was to get the big bird into it. He sent forward to Auchencloach a company of his army to deploy before the enemy, and gave out he was retreating. Baillie, the scholar of Gustavus Adolphus, was too wary a bird to be caught. He determined to stick to the flat fields about Holland Bush. But his fussy Committee crowded about him* overruled his verdict, and determined him to march forward on the retreating foe and capture him before he eluded their grasp. They were confident in their superior strength, and were eager to wipe out past defeats* Baillie was both irritated and exasperated. The decoy succeeded. They marched forward, and Montrose felt sure the big bird had fallen prey to the fowler when he saw the blue-bonneted regiments, their pikes glancing in the rays of the sun, their matches lighted, their drums beating, and their colours flying, pouring forward to the very place he wanted them to occupy.

II. The Charge of the Covenanting Dragoons on the Cottages.

The moment Baillie got into his new position he at once planted a few pieces of artillery to command the little glen or “Slaughter Howe.” Again he was interfered with by his ignorant and meddlesome Committee. They were of opinion they should occupy a position more to the right. The general considered the new ground objectionable, and angrily warned them against making any move in that direction. He was supported by Lord Balcarris and Alexander Lyndsay, the General of the Horse. The Committee were inexorable, and so the line was stretched out, the right wing touching the hill and the left Dullatur Bog, then a much more extensive swamp than now, for the Forth and Clyde Canal was not then made nor the Kelvin cut. It seemed to Montrose as if he was to be surrounded, but he hailed with pleasure the new and most disorderly development, as he saw that it meant fatal weakness in his enemy's centre. Gathering his clansmen close together under his own command, with one portion facing the east and the other inclined to the south, he determined to concentrate his strength on the enemy's weakest part and strike him there a staggering blow. Baillie kept his 3000 Fife men in reserve, but he bit his lip with rage, believing that through the new movement the battle was lost before it was begun.

The hearts of the clansmen quailed when they saw the splendidly accoutred horsemen of the Covenant wheeling into position, their steel breast-plates, helmets, and greaves glancing in the rays of the sun. Montrose was equal to the occasion. He exhorted them that their officers could not get these men, whom they had beaten at Auldearn and Tibbermuir, to come before them without encasing them in mail. Let them show their contempt for them by fighting them in their shirts. Then he threw off his cuirass and richly laced buff doublet and rode along the line, sword in hand, waving his plumed beaver. His enthusiasm ran along the lines like wildfire, and his warriors, nothing loath, in the burning heat, unbuckled their baldricks, and, standing in their shirts, gave their dashing commander a lusty cheer. Still, though his clansmen were growing irrepressible, he would not budge an inch from his chosen ground. Seeing they could not, however, be long restrained, he sent forth a trumpeter to blow as near to Baillie’s ranks as he was able, an insulting and taunting challenge. The blast was answered by a roar of rage and hatred. Stung by the gibe, but without their general's orders, a regiment of cavalry charged down on the thatch-roofed cottages—Hougomont—where the Highland marksmen were concealed. The windows, sheds, walls, the impromptu trenches and defences, spat fire. Every.bullet found its billet. Saddles were emptied in scores as the cavalry surged up to the enclosures.

The place could not be taken by horse, and there was nothing for them but to wheel back again to the body of the army. It was a mad charge, and a bad beginning for the army of the Covenant.

III. The Onset of the M'Leans and M'Donalds.

A similar piece of folly was perpetrated on the side of Montrose, and was like to have cost him dear. As the cavalry fell back, Baillie pushed forward three regiments of infantry, flanked by two troops of horse and one of lancers. Seeing the movement, the M‘Leans of the Isles and the M'Donalds of Clan Ranald, who had been disputing as to precedence, and as to which should have the honour of first closing with the enemy, rushed forward from the ranks without Montrose's command. They passed through the enclosures, and with heads bent down behind their targets, their claymores drawn and their warpipes shrilling wildly, they swept through the haugh, having their ranks torn by Baillie’s cannon. Sir Lachlan of Duairt and John of Moidart, two noted clansmen, fell. Having found their foemen, in their wild rage, they attacked the horse and foot of the Covenanters indiscriminately. In a very brief space every man of them would have been overpowered and cut to pieces. Montrose, however, determined he would do what he could to rescue them from the fatal results of their own rashness. He commanded that aged veteran, the Earl of Airlie, to march out with all speed and arrest the horsemen, who were preparing a flank movement to surround and engulf the hapless clansmen. Airlie got his men— the Ogilvies—in the very nick of time into action. He arrested the onset of the horse, who were threatening the rear of the M‘Leans and M'Donalds. He next charged the infantry, but was repulsed by a withering fire. Bravety and well did the old officer execute his commission. He rescued the clansmen before they had ever become aware of the deadly peril of their position.

IV The General Engagement

After these desperate sallies and charges the engagement became general. When Montrose saw that Airlie had saved the impetuous clansmen, a load was lifted from his heart, and he now struck at his foe with all the strength he could command. For a time the air was filled with the clangour of the weapons and the shouts of the warriors. The Campbells stood firm, and fell where they fought. The Lowland spearmen made a good defence, but were at length borne back. The horsemen also lost ground before the nimble, shirt-clad Highlanders. At this juncture Baillie rode to the rear to bring up the reserves. The Fife men, instead of answering their general's call, when they saw those in front of them recoiling, deemed the day lost. The fainthearted cowards broke and fled without ever firing a shot Then began a scene of unparalleled and hideous carnage. The cavalier horse, still fresh,, under Sir Nathaniel Gordon, charged forward in a mass. That August afternoon the claymore, the dirk, the clubbed musket, and the Lochaber axe did a fearful and bloody work. The Highlanders were as strong as lions, and in their shirts they were as fleet as deer. Very few foot soldiers escaped. They were butchered in the fields; they were smothered in the bog. In the heat of the victory fearful acts were committed. A poor Covenanter clung to the stirrup of the venerable Earl of Airlie begging for mercy, but a passing trooper clove him down. Many peasantry perished. A farmer and his four sons were hacked to pieces. In Kirkcaldy 200 women were made widows. It was a terrible sight on which that August sun set, for over 6000 dead lay strewn on the battlefield.

The only chance of escape lay with the well-mounted horsemen. Even they, however, were not always fortunate. We may be well assured that wherever men are toiling and suffering there will be found many a romantic story of broken hearts and lacerated affections. And the battle of Kilsyth is no exception to the rule. Amongst the thousand horsemen of Baillie there was not one more finely equipped than young Francis Gordon, a cadet of a noble Covenanting family. His burnished armour, his richly-caparisoned steed, awakened the rapacity of one of Montrose’s troopers. Singling him out he gave chase, and lay hard on his track. The pursuit was hot; but, coming up with the young Covenanter near the Bonny-Water, the clansman slew his foeman and appropriated his armour and trappings. The body was buried in the field where he fell, and the year following a slab was placed over his grave. His death was all the sadder that he was about to be married to a young lady of uncommon personal attractions and his equal in station. This lady was unconsolable, and never ceased to bewail her lover’s untimely fate. The people of the district cherish the careful tradition, how there came to the locality a young lady, who, during the longest days was to be seen keeping her vigil by the graveside. The long years went by, the bloom faded from her cheek, the form became bowed, her hair became white as snow, she leant on a staff the very picture of tottering decrepitude, but still the peasants saw her keeping her holy watch and intruded not upon her. Then when she had attained an unusually long age, one day she disappeared as quietly as she had come; and no one was ever able to tell who she was, or where she came from, or what had befallen her.

The stone which the young lady erected to the memory of Francis Gordon is now placed within the grounds of Kilsyth Parish Church.


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