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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XII. Battle of Kilsyth (1645)


In 1645, when the affairs of Charles I. were much on the decline in England, a vigorous effort was made for him in Scotland by the Earl of Montrose. The services of this nobleman were no sooner offered than accepted; his plan of operations as quickly adopted as revealed. He was created Marquis of Montrose, and appointed commander-in-chief in Scotland. On his arrival here, he was instantly joined by several of the northern clans. A small army was raised. A supply of 1500 foot came from the west coast, under the command of Alexander MacDonald, son of a chieftain of Kintyre, to augment the patriotic band. There were John Muidartach, with a company of brave young men of his own country and kin, and Donald, his son, along with them; the clan MacLean from Mull, the clan Gregor, and the Stewarts of Appin. Montrose, putting himself at the head of this force, began his operations in the north; and his success from the first was so rapid, that, in the space of twelve months, he gained six victories, and over-ran the greater part of Scotland. The first three conquests – those at Tibormor, Aberdeen, and Inverlochy, were gained over tumultuary armies, collected in haste, and headed by generals of no renown. His progress, however, alarmed the Scottish Council; and they began to think of a more regular plan of defence against an enemy whom they had affected to despise. Indeed, Montrose’s name was now to the covenanters a word of fear and exasperation; and a feeling became general over the country that he must, if possible, be extinguished. In many parts, the old covenanting spirit had not only been rekindled, but burned vehemently; and armies were gathering fast in north and west, to successfully secure his suppression. Montrose, alive to what was thus brewing among the Whigs, resolved to strike a decided blow at the existing army before it was further strengthened. Baillie and Urrey, commanders of reputation, were sent forth by the committee of Estates to crush him. Dividing their forces, they marched separately in quest of his quarters. He had the dexterity, however, to turn their separation to his advantage. Having totally routed Urrey at Aldern, he did the same to Baillie at Alford, and marching towards the Forth, encamped at Tullibody.

Next day, passing by Stirling, not only to avoid the castle, occupied by the covenanters, but a more dreadful foe, the pestilence, then raging in the town, he crossed the Forth, eight miles above, at the ford of Frew. After shortly halting to refresh his men, at his estate of Dundaff, he encamped on the fields of Kilsyth; and kept within the range of the Campsie Hills, where he could at any time secure himself.

Baillie followed with such speed, that he had encamped at Tullibody on the same evening his antagonist did at Kilsyth. In return for certain outrages committed by Montrose’s troops in the parishes of Dollar and Muckart, Argyll ordered the house of Menstrie belonging to the Earl of Stirling, the king’s secretary, and the house of Airthrey, the property of Graham of Braco, to be burned. He sent a message to the Earl of Mar, threatening Alloa Castle with the same calamity for the hospitality he had shown Montrose there recently.

The following day, Baillie, crossing the Forth at Stirling, made a short halt at Cambusbarron, for some regiments from Fife, who were a few miles behind. These, on their arrival, refused to proceed; alleging that they had entered into the service only on condition of not passing the limits of their own county. At last, however, they were persuaded. The army proceeded to Denny, and hence to Hollandbush, three miles east of Kilsyth.

Argyll, with a small body of troops, had tarried that night at Stirling; but taking his route over the hills, and crossing the Carron near Buckie-burn, at a ford still bearing his name, soon joined the main body.

Although General Baillie was an officer of known valour and experience, yet, in this expedition nothing was left to his judgment. A committee of noblemen had been appointed, by the general committee of Estates, constantly to attend him. The principal members were, the Marquis of Argyll, the Earls of Crawford and Tullibardin, the Lords of Elcho, Burleigh, and Balcarras, with some others. Not much renowned for military talents, they had powers to direct and control the general, in the route of the army, choice of ground, and even arrangement of the troops in the hour of battle.

The committee, in the morning of the 15th of August, determined to attack Montrose that day. Baillie was averse to engage so soon; both because the troops, after so hasty a march, stood in need of refreshment; and as he was desirous first to hear of the Earl of Lanark, who had raised a considerable force in the western counties against Montrose. Finding himself obliged, however, to yield to their dictates, he put the army in motion; and, marching westward, through corn-fields, and much irregular ground, soon came in sight of the enemy, who, having got timeous intelligence, stood in battle array, and rejoiced in the prospect of fighting, on ground selected by themselves, and before the western levies could have arrived.

Baillie began to form in a situation the most advantageous that the place afforded, near Auchincloigh two miles east of Kilsyth; but the committee, dissatisfied, forced him to quit his station, and take a hill more to the right. This motion gave a great advantage to the royal army, by introducing unavoidable disorder among the troops. Baillie’s limited powers could not execute any regular plan; and his orders were so far from being strictly obeyed, that some regiments took stations other than those assigned them.

Montrose’s army consisted of only 4,000 foot, with 500 horse, while that of his antagonist amounted to 6,000 foot, and 1,000 horse. But he had the choice and advantage of the ground; and, being invested with the supreme command, had arranged his troops in the best manner possible. In the warm summer morning, Montrose ordered his men to strip to their shirts, that the broadsword might have unencumbered play, and that they might not fail in the expected pursuit. This gave rise to a tradition still current, that the army of Montrose fought naked at Kilsyth. According to the Red Book of Clanronald, written by a soldier in Montrose’s army, the cavalry had white shirts above their garments; while the infantry were bare-footed, with their shirts tied between their legs.

The battle at last began, in the valley behind the town of Kilsyth, where Montrose waited for his enemy. The field is now a small lake, or reservoir, for supplying water to works adjoining; but sufficient of it is seen to show that it was most suitable ground for Highland warfare. Two or three of Baillie’s regiments commenced, by attempting to dislodge a party from the cottages and gardens; but meeting with a very warm reception, were forced to retire. A general engagement now took place, in a manner altogether tumultuary. A thousand Highlanders in Montrose’s army, without waiting for orders, marched up the hill to the charge. Though displeased with their rashness, he dispatched a strong detachment for their support, under the Earl of Airly; whose arrival not only preserved this resolute corps from being overpowered by a superior force, but obliged the covenanters to retreat. Accustomed to conquer, and placing absolute confidence in their leader, the clans vied with each other in the headlong impetuosity of their charge. All Montrose’s men had now advanced, and, making a general assault, threw Baillie’s army into such confusion, that he found it impossible to rally any part of them. After having, during the action, exerted himself with all the activity which his fettered situation allowed, he rode, full speed, to bring up the reserve; but found that it had also fled.

A total rout ensued; and few of the foot escaped either slaughter or capture. This was the most complete victory Montrose had ever gained, and with the loss of only seven or eight of his men. Three of these were Ogilvies, relations of the family of Airly. This account appears incredible, from the different rencounters in the field, and the brisk fire for a short while maintained by five of Baillie’s regiments. Near the field of battle, on the south, lay a large morass, called Dullater Bog, through the midst of which the Forth and Clyde Canal now stretches. Several of Baillie’s cavalry, in the hurry of flight, ran unawares into it, and perished. Both men and horses have been dug up there, in the memory of people yet alive. As moss is endowed with antiseptic qualities, the corpses were not greatly consumed. One was found on horseback, with all his military accoutrements, in the very posture in which he had sunk.

Montrose was now master of all the country. Edinburgh, Glasgow, other towns, and several counties, compounded with him for large sums.

Argyll, and the rest of the covenanting nobility, fled to different places. Baillie, with such of his cavalry as he could collect, repaired to Stirling. He was afterwards, by the committee of Estates, called to account for the loss of the battle. He vindicated himself; and was publicly declared to have acted conformably to the direction of "the Field Committee." Argyll, a bad soldier, appears to have dictated in name of this body. "My lord marquis," writes Baillie, "asked me what next was to be done. I answered, the direction should come from his lordship and those of the committee. My lord demanded what reason was for that. I replied I found myself so slighted in everything belonging to ane commander-in-chief, that for the short time I was to stay with them I should absolutely submit to their direction and follow it."

Baillie, though smarting with defeat, seems, as a soldier, to have been struck with the splendid courage and picturesque fierceness of the swift-footed mountaineers, as they came on full speed, targets aloft, heads and shoulders bent low, in the literal attitude of the tiger when he springs.

Clanronald’s bard, an actor, gives the following account of the battle: - "Coming nigh to Kilsyth, after a night march, they (the royal troops) encamped near the adjacent hills; but, upon the morning of next day, they perceived the great host of the enemy in pursuit of them. The royal army had no choice, but either to break up their camp, and fly without bread and flesh, or fight this great army. Upon which they immediately called a council of war of all the officers and gentry, to consult whether they were to retreat, or fight the enemy; but Montrose requested to have the opinion of the soldiers of the whole army. The soldiers gave it as their opinion that it would be much better for them to fight, though attended with danger, than to be constantly retreating day and night. Upon which, Montrose sent a trumpeter to the enemy, to acquaint them that he was ready to give them battle. They set 3,000 pike and musket men in the front, in three divisions, and 11,000 in battalions behind these. It may be easily supposed what a hardship it was, for a small army to encounter them; for the royal army were only 4,000 foot and 500 horse, barefooted, with their shirt-tails tied between their legs; the cavalry had white shirts above their garments. This brave heroic band marched to the attack, in face of the enemy’s cannon and muskets, with great courage and caution. The attack was begun by an excellent Irish and Scotch regiment of Gaels. Major MacLauchlan went before, directed by Alexander MacDonald. Other two regiments were ordered to their relief, the MacLeans, and that of Donald son of Muidartach; but the MacLeans were nearer the enemy, and were sooner in order than Clanronald. There fell out some differences between Donald son of John Muidartach, and Donald son of young Hector MacLean, about precedency; but the Clanronald made their way through the MacLeans to the attack. Donald’s men, and Patrick Caoch MacGregor’s men, made but one regiment. They gained the trenches. Donald was the first man that leaped over them, and his men followed; and by the rushing forward of the rest of the army, who followed him close, the great army of the Covenanters was routed. They continued, a great part of the day, killing and pursuing the enemy." "What induced me," says the bard, "to write this much is, that those who have written upon the wars have taken little or no notice of the Gael, who were the principal people concerned in it, and did all that was done on the king’s side."


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