Battle of Kilsyth
In the middle of the 17th Century King Charles I was not enjoying the best of fortunes, and his future was looking increasingly grim. The Wars Of The Three Kingdoms pursued the end of sovereign intervention in matters of the church, and with the Solemn League And Covenant bringing the Scottish Covenanters onside with the English Parliamentarians, the king was finding support hard to come by.
Poor King Charles. But he did bring it upon himself; if it were not for his hubristic meddling north of the border, introducing the Anglicised liturgy via the Book Of Common Prayer, the Scots may not have been so enthusiastic to join England’s civil war . It was incredibly misguided of a monarch who was no more than a stranger to the political zeitgeist. Scotland’s governmental weight behind the revolution was winning the war for the Parliamentarians. The Royalists were faltering badly.
With heavy defeats at Naseby and Langport, the Royalists had all but conceded England, their cause as good as buried. The Royalists’ campaign in Scotland – led by James Graham, Earl Of Montrose – fared a little better; their remarkable pattern of victories, including Aberdeen , Auldearn and Alford , surely could not last. Even so, Montrose’s exploits would have afforded the king a modicum of cheer. His army of Highlanders and Irish Guards were only 2,000 strong at best, but were hard enough to give larger armies under men like John Hurry, Lord Balfour and William Baillie a damn good thrashing.
It was the latter that would face Montrose at Kilsyth . They had fought before – Montrose had already defeated Baillie at Alford. Montrose was moving south towards Glasgow , hoping for a repeat of his Aberdeenshire and Highlands successes. It was imperative that the Royalists made an impact in the lowlands, and on this occasion, Montrose had over 4,000 infantry at his disposal. Baillie would be in close pursuit, accompanied by men under the charge of the Duke of Argyll . Further Covenanter support was forthcoming from the south, as the Earl Of Lanark mustered 1,000 foot soldiers and 500 cavalry from his brother’s estate.
The Royalists – and indeed the Covenanters – were well aware that strength in number was counting for nothing in this battle. Montrose seemed to be charmed in the face of larger armies, and upon learning of the extra Covenanter deployments moving in, he sought to engage them before they could unite. The Royalists managed to avoid Baillie’s men on route to Kilsyth, but there, Baillie’s charges would catch them up. Unfor-tunately for the Covenanters, their mighty effort in marching overnight to Hollinbush, just a few miles from Montrose’s position, would leave them weary. Baillie was an able general and a worthy adversary for Montrose, but he was answerable to that most dreaded of bodies; the committee.
The Committee Of The Estates was a council of clergy and noblemen, and included amongst others: the Earls Of Argyll, Balfour Of Burleigh, assorted Calvinists and Lord Elcho. They may have boasted a certain adroitness about their policy making in peace time, but as a council of war they lacked the military guile that gnarled old veterans like Baillie and Montrose would have in spades. Baillie’s orders were overruled, and proving almost at one stroke how committee leadership can end in slapstick chaos, the committee ordered Baillie’s troops to flank the Royalists.
This would prove fatal; it merely opened up a front for Montrose’s Highlanders to charge at. His cavalry, provided by his most trusted Clan Gordon, would halt the Covenanters in their tracks, while his infantry prepared another fleet-footed attack, broadswords opening great chasms in Baillie’s troops. Reinforcements from Lanark’s men never materialised; they would later learn of the defeat, and make their own strategic retreat. For those fighting under the Covenanter cause, there was no escape. Covenanter dragoons would drown in Dullatur Bog – they would later be discovered, still on their mount, as the Firth And Clyde Canal was being built – and Baillie himself was fortunate to escape the heavy ground, eventually reaching the relative safety of Stirling Castle .
It was Montrose’s finest hour, the pinnacle of his efforts in Scotland. Again, a heavily outnumbered motley crew of Highlanders routed government forces, keeping the Royalist cause alive in Scotland. But spilling the blood of a few thousand Covenanters did nothing to reverse the relentless tide that carried King Charles I further out to sea. The end was nigh for the king.
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