Commemoration of the Battle of Auldearn.

On 14th May 1966, the Earl of Antrim unveiled a plaque marking the site of Montrose’s famous victory over General Hurry’s Covenanting forces. A splendidly graphic account of the battle written by Brigadier John Sym DSO, is preserved under cover at the dovecote, and by courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland we reproduce this account below.

The Earl of Antrim undertook this duty by spending much time in plane and train. He was met in Inverness by Colonel Cameron Taylor, driven to Boath by Lord Doune to lunch with Brigadier J. Muirhead, the donor of the dovecote and castle-hill to the Trust. At the ceremony Brigadier Sym described the battle and Pipe-Major Riach played the pibroch, “The Battle of Auldearn”.

We are greatly indebted to Colonel Cameron Taylor, Historian to the Trust, for the material here presented, including the map and the text from the plaque and the two photos.

Clan Donald was represented by A.V.M. Macdonald of Tormore, our President, Donald J. Macdonald, Yr. of Castleton, and his wife, and by Lord Antrim himself, as he is one of our five chiefs. He is also Chairman of the National Trust of England.


At Auldearn, 14th May 1966. Left Photo: Left to right, Brigadier J. Sym DSO; John Calder, Convener of Nairn County and the Earl of Antrim. Photos courtesy Stevenson & Co. 33 Fettes Row, Edinburgh.


Montrose’s Victory at Auldearn.

In the Great Civil War (1642-46) between the English Parliamentary troops and the Royalist forces of Charles I, the Scots Parliament decided to intervene against the King and signed the Solemn League and Covenant with the English Parliament in 1643. making the price of their aid the establishment of Presbyterianism in England and Ireland. A Scottish “Covenant” Army crossed the Border early in 1644 and fought with Cromwell’s “Ironsides” in his victory at Marston Moor.

James Graham, the first Marquis of Montrose, who had been a supporter of the National Covenant since signing it in Edinburgh in 1638, later rejected the more extreme Covenanting policy which led to the “Solemn League” with the English Parliament and he resolved to strike a blow for the King. He was a man of outstanding character, ability and courage. Too tolerant for that age of bigotry and religious hatred, his philosophy and his ideas of statesmanship would have marked him out even in later centuries. He was, and remains, simply, “The Great Montrose.”

In 1644 he became the King’s Lieutenant in Scotland, as a Lieut.- General, and the campaign he fought in a vain endeavour to hold his country for Charles reached its climax in 1645. Auldearn was the scene of one of his most remarkable victories and his tactics in this classic encounter have been the object of study and admiration by soldiers and historians ever since.

For the Covenanters, Major-General Sir John Hurry (or Urrey), with four regular Scottish regiments of the Estates’ Army, had moved north to recruit. The Covenant Army in Scotland was operating at this time in two halves in order to spread its influence the wider. He succeeded in raising about 1,600 men from the borders of the Moray Firth, including the Earls of Seaforth, Sutherland and Findlater, with their clansmen, Lovat’s Frasers, and also the Forbeses, Roses, Brodies and Inneses.

Montrose, who, after his great victory at Inverlochy on 2nd February 1645, over the Marquis of Argyll, the Covenanting leader, had narrowly escaped being caught between the two Covenant armies at Dundee in April and had then marched up to the Gordon country where he might expect support. Here some 1,000 Foot and 200 Horse joined him and he soon followed Hurry north. He reached Auldearn on the evening of the 8th May, a moonless night with drenching rain, and made Boath his headquarters. His little army, in addition to the Gordons, was largely composed of Ulster MacDonalds and their kinsmen of Clanranald, under his celebrated Captain-General, Alexander MacDonald (Alasdair MacCholla Chiotach – Alexander, the son of Coll the ambidextrous).

Hurry, reckoning that he had now drawn Montrose far enough into unfriendly (anti-Gordon) country, then advanced from Inverness hoping to make a surprise attack on the Royalists. However, warning of his approach was given by some of Hurry’s men firing off their damp powder to clear their muskets, believing themselves far enough away, but nevertheless the sound was heard by Alasdair’s sentinels and Montrose hurriedly drew up his line of battle in the wet misty dawn. His use of ground and his dispositions against a known superior force, can scarce be faulted.

The village, at that time, ran north and south on the general line of the Boath road, with enclosures running down westward towards the line of the burn. Montrose entrusted the defence of this area and the high ground of Castle Hill (where the Doo’cot now stands), to MacDonald, who had 300 Strathbogie Gordons under his command as well as two to three hundred Clan Donald men. The Royal Standard marked the centre of this position to draw attention to it, and some small cannon or culverin were mounted on the hill to protect the right or northern flank. The main strength of Montrose’s force was stationed on the left wing, out of sight of an advance from the west, with the Gordon infantry about 700 strong and 100 Ulster MacDonalds under his personal command behind the ridge at Kinsteary Park His small cavalry force of some 200, under the Lords Aboyne and Lewis Gordon, was further to his left towards Newmill. He had no reserve and so the total Royal Army amounted to about 1,500 men.

The Covenant Army approached from behind Kinnudie and, shortly before noon, advanced towards the village. Lawers’ Regiment was in the van, supported by Loudoun’s. Lothian’s and Buchanan’s Regiments with the Moray Horse under Major Drummond on their right flank. The Northern levies formed Hurry’s second Division, with Seaforth’s men advancing across the high ground towards the Mill and Lovat’s and Sutherland’s further south in the broken boggy ground. The main body of Hurry’s cavalry was kept in reserve under his personal command. In all the Covenanters had about 4,000 men in the field at Auldearn against the King.

General Hurry’s forces experienced great difficulty in crossing the boggy ground in front of MacDonald’s men, who had strengthened their position behind the banks and dykes of the enclosures on the higher ground of the village. Shots were exchanged and the Covenanters taunted the Royalists with cowardice for fighting behind cover. This induced the impetuous Alasdair to sally forth at the head of his men and a desperate encounter developed, watched by Montrose from the vicinity of Auldearn Kirk. Weight of numbers forced MacDonald’s men to fall back but they bitterly contested every yard. MacDonald himself was attacked by Hay of Kinnudie, a tall powerful man, whom he cut down, and when later his sword was shattered, his brother-in-law, Davidson of Ardnacross, handed over his own at the cost of his life. Alasdair eventually regained the protection of the enclosures, covered by one of his men, Ranald MacKinnon of Mull who, though weaponless, wounded in the chest and shot through both cheeks by an arrow, kept the pikemen at bay with only his targe to defend himself. Yet he lived to tell the tale.

Montrose now saw that his right wing could not hold out much longer and rode over to the left wing south of the village, to launch his main attack on the flank of the enemy. In order to hearten the Gordons, who so far had only heard the confused noises of battle below them, he called to Lord Gordon. “MacDonald drives all before him. Is he to have all the honours of the day and leave no laurels for the house of Huntly? Charge!”

By this time, the Covenant Army had closed with the Royalists along the line of the village and Major Drummond was ordered to charge the position with his cavalry. For some unexplained reason, the horsemen wheeled left instead of right and broke through the ranks of their supporting infantry, throwing them into confusion. The Gordon Horse, charging from the slope, fell upon this disorganised flank and swept through them like a whirlwind and the Gordon infantry, following hard on their heels, completed the rout. The brunt of this attack fell on the regular regiments and also the Sutherland and Fraser men. They stood their ground as well as they could but were mown down like grass. The Seaforth men on the higher ground and the cavalry reserve, seeing the fate of their right wing, fled the field in confusion. There were, however, some notable exceptions, such as Rory Maclennan, the Kintail bannerman who led the picked bowmen of the Macraes and also Captain Bernard Mackenzie, with a company of his men from Chanonry in Ross, who fought desperately to protect the MacKenzie standard implanted in the ground, until all were cut down on the spot where they stood. Hurry himself was one of the last to quit the field.

MacDonald rallied his men for a final effort and attacked Hurry’s reeling centre, despite the loss already of seventeen of his best officers. The pursuit continued for 14 miles with no quarter given. Sixteen colours and banners, all the baggage, ammunition and money fell into the hands of the victors.

Hurry’s casualties have been put as high as 2,000 killed though about half this number seems more probable but they included Sir Mungo Campbell of Lawers, Sir John and Gideon Murray and two Gledstanes of Whitelaw. The bodies of those who fell to Montrose’s attack from the south were buried in wasteland, now known as Dead Man’s Wood, and those killed before MacDonald’s position, in a hollow below the north-west corner of the kirkyard, which still contains memorials to Covenanting officers. The remnant of the Covenant Army escaped to Inverness, where Major Drummond was court-martialled and shot for his mishandling of the Moray Horse.

Montrose subsequently defeated the other half of the Covenant Army under General Baillie at Alford in Aberdeenshire on the 2nd July and scored another notable victory at Kilsyth in August, but thereafter his fortunes ebbed and his anno mirabilis flickered out after the disaster at Philiphaugh against General Sir David Leslie, who had been recalled by the Estates from England with his army, to meet the Royalist threat. After fleeing to the Continent he planned a new expedition on behalf of King Charles II but his second and last campaign ended briefly in defeat at Carbisdale on 27th April 1650. Although he escaped after the battle, he was later betrayed, captured and executed in Edinburgh on 21st May. But Montrose died, as he had lived, a Presbyterian and adhering to the National Covenant. Ironically, Hurry, who changed sides after Auldearn and became a Royalist, suffered the same fate with him.

“He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That dares not put it to the touch,
To win or lose it all.”

Compiled by the History Department, The National Trust for Scotland, from notes and sketch map supplied by Brigadier John Sym DSO.