“Revenge, Revenge tomorrow for mourning today for revenge!”
Battles in the Scottish Highlands
The history of the Scottish Gael can be told as an arc of gradual cultural estrangement to the South followed by increasingly hostile and bitter conflicts aimed at resisting the domination of the Scottish Crown. In a strange quirk an ever decreasing number of clans pinned their fortunes to the then British House of Stuart which formed the cultural background for the last century or so before Culloden. Why the Clans of the West would follow the house of Stuart to destruction is a puzzle given the outright, genocidal hatred the Stuart crown had shown to the Gael. It must I suppose be remembered that the clans looked to their own fortunes rather than the national interest and that other enmities, religious or feud based (the
allied to both the anti-Stuart covenanters and Hanoverians) were uppermost in
the minds of chieftains and senior clan retainers. Campbells
Rarely did the Scottish Gael fight conventional forces before the mid 17th Century save in
Scottish Gaels fought alongside their Irish cousins. There are few descriptions
of how Scottish Gaels fought by outsiders before this point though later
accounts match very closely with what was said of combat in Ireland . Irish
sources do not note any differences between Irish and Scottish forces excepting
that “redshanks” were much harder to beat. It would seem safe to describe
Scottish tactics as being the same or similar to those of the Irish. That is an
elite of heavy infantry armoured in mail and carrying large axes or similar
weapons supported by lightly armoured caterans though there is more evidence
that the bow was far more widely carried in Ireland and that the heavy
infantry featured far more in Irish warfare. Scotland
In Ireland the Gael was reckoned a “flying enemy” “do what we can we shall never fight with them unless they have a will to fight us” as Fynes Morryson said “(they) fight upon bogs and passes of skirts of woods where the foot being very nimble come off and on at pleasure….exceeding swift and terrible executioners”. Even Lord Mountjoy reckoned that the Irish were the better at hand to hand combat. To press their own advantage and attempt to negate the English advantage in missile weapons, the Irish would use the land, rivers, woods, fords and man-made obstacles (“where to the natural strength of the place is added the art of interlacing the low bowes, and casting the bodies of trees acrosse the way” to create situations to their advantage but upon resolution of the enemy would not press the matter “their common souldiers are too hard for our new men, yet are they not able to stand before such gallant men as will charge them”
I will be looking at how history describes bows in use during the battles fought by highlanders through the early modern to medieval period. I will only be looking at battles where bows were used and will be using these notes to develop my powers of narrative and description. The list is not exhaustive by any stretch though I have selected battles that I believe are representative. All (or at least most) clan conflicts before the mid 17th Century featured bows though not all the histories make mention of archers or how they were employed.
Let’s start at the end………
This was not really a battle but represents the last time archers were used in strength in highland warfare. The long simmering feud between the Clans of Cameron and Macintosh came to a head in June 1665. The Scottish Privy Council ordered the clans to settle the disputed lands around Arkaig. There was much bad blood between these clans and the negotiated settlement was to no one’s taste. Soon enough Cameron scouts reported that 1500 men of the Clan Chattan confederation, headed by Macintosh were on the move through Lochaber.
Ewan Cameron chief of the clan Cameron sent round the fiery cross and was aided by his allies among the MacDonalds and MacGregors. Outnumbered they gave ground to the Macintosh confederation and withdrew to hold the only ford over the river Arkaig. For two days the armies sullenly watched each other over the waters. Confident of victory and frustrated that the fords were held; Macintosh moved his forces along to the loch to look for another crossing place.
Ewan Cameron was a wily and highly experienced warrior. Seeing his enemies movement he ordered a trench dug at the ford, leaving 50 picked men at the trench he moved his main force to oppose Macintosh. He also secretly dispatched Cameron of Erracht with a strong body of men across the river in boats. Lochiel’s plan was to move through forced marches and offset his opponent’s numerical superiority with surprise attacks from two directions. The main body would be moving 18 miles and presumably this would be done at night to prevent Macintosh re-acting to the move.
Lochiel had much experience moving bodies of men in this fashion and his troops were more than adequate to the task, baring poor luck it is safe to assume that Cameron would have made a good fight of it, however warriors from the Campbells of Argyll managed to use the threat of intervention to bring the warring parties to a peaceful settlement.
So the last use of archers in the highlands ends in nary a shot being loosed, no mention is made of how the forces were disposed but 50 “doughty” men with bows in an entrenched position over a ford would be a very difficult proposition.
|The battle site today|
The conflict between Alexander Lord of the Isles and James I reached a head when James I both humiliated and imprisoned Alexander during their long running dispute over the sovereignty of the Isles.
Humiliating a proud and powerful Gaelic chieftain proved to be a major mistake. Alexander’s followers converged from all over the Islands of Scotland landing their birlinns (a ship derived from the Norse Longship) in the great glen. Full of furious indignation they swiftly moved up to engage the Royal army. The Royal army of James I was commanded by the inept Earl of Mar who on being told of the advancing host laughed it off and returned to playing cards. With such inspiring leadership it is no wonder that a warrior named Alasdair Carrach managed to infiltrate a force of 220 archers onto a hill flanking the Royal position.
Mar’s decision caused a rift between the royal leaders the Lord of Huntly responded to Mar’s recklessly casual attitude “I know full well the doings of the big-bellied carles of the Isles” by drawing his men off to spectate rather than fight.
Unprepared with a divided and careless leadership the Royal army was thrown into chaos as Carrach advanced down the hill, his men shooting volleys as they came. Stung by the impact of volleys of arrows and taking heavy casualties the royal army fled when the bulk of Alexander’s men crashed into their front.
The resulting slaughter cost the royal army 900 dead. Mar was grievously wounded with an arrow in the thigh; The Earl of Caithness was also killed along with over 900 of his army. The MacDonalds it is said lost no more than thirty men.
While on one level this battle was the result of clan rivalries the main instigator, as was the case through much of 16th century, was the Scottish Crown. John of Moidart along with many clan chiefs was abducted under trust. A puppet leader, Ranald Gallda, was installed by the Frasers of Lovat. Ranald better known as Raonuill nan cearc or Ranald of the hens due to his parsimony was a deeply unpopular figure for the three years of his leadership. Ranald was deposed and slunk back to Lovat as soon as John returned in 1543.
Fraser of Lovat prepared to assert his right but was cut of by the fierce John of Moidart. True to the ways of his fathers John led a great harrying east into the lands of the Frasers and the Grants. His fierce nature and the possibility of booty inspired not only other septs of the MacDonalds but also the Clan Cameron.
Taken as provocation by the government the coalition of the Frasers and feudal levies of the Grants advanced on John’s forces. A cunning warrior John of Moidart retreated into rough and broken country around his home territories. Crown forces increasingly worried about being isolated in hostile mountainous territory called off their pursuit. As they withdrew John shadowed them keeping his forces well hidden patiently waiting for the right moment to strike. The Crown forces split into two factions, Huntly and Clan Fraser, as they headed for home. This was the moment John had been waiting for, his forces now raced to intercept the smaller force of Frasers. Alerted to John’s pursuit and seeing he had no choice but to fight Fraser arranged his men to face Moidart. Perhaps due to caution or lack of confidence Fraser sent a small group of clansmen to secure a pass and thus a means of escape. The battle began with a ferocious exchange of arrows mingled with insults. The exchange of missiles lasted for quite along time, until the archers had exhausted their stocks. Then as the “opening ceremony” closed the warriors moved up to engage with each other “THE ancient way of fighting was by set battles; and for arms some had broad two-handed swords and head pieces, and others bows and arrows. When all their arrows were spent they attacked one another with sword in hand.”. As both sides closed, archers continued shooting using spent arrows at extremely close range before resorting to swords and axes. Fought in the heat of July this “battle of the shirts” resulted in a pitiless slaughter leaving only a handful of men alive on either side.
However……..it is the Fraser tradition that the Macdonalds also took heavy casualties. Battles fought with hand weapons traditionally resulted in a much higher casualty rate for the losers than the winners, most casualties being inflicted on defenseless, fleeing troops. Effectively backed into a corner the Frasers may well have fought to the last man but heroic last stands were not a part of Gaelic tradition and in fact flight in the face of defeat was common place. Moreover in the guerilla style combat that typifies the Gaelic tradition frequently resulted in very one-sided battles with battle not being risked unless a decisive advantage was perceived. It would seem strange for John of Moidart to so effectively arrange things to his advantage only to then discard that advantage. Considered a major victory by the Macdonalds I suspect that they did not in fact take particularly high casualties and that this is a fabrication by the Frasers to protect a wounded pride. Certainly the men commanded by John of Moidart were able to use the victory to successfully mount raids into the lands of the Frasers.
One of the later battles to feature archery (but by no means the last) was fought between The Earl of Glencairn and The occupying army of Cromwell’s
In bitter spring weather Ewan Cameron of Lochiel was charged with holding a
pass against the English General Lilburn. Lochiel’s force was one half formed
of archers and he positioned them among rocks and broken ground against the
English cavalry. Using their superior knowledge of their own country the
highlanders held off the cavalry for many hours “galling them severely” with
arrows. The cavalry could not make their way over the snowy, rocky landscape in
the teeth of the arrows. Eventually after having suffered many casualties the
English called off their attack frustrated at being unable to make contact with
Lochiel’s forces. Being under an aggressive and enterprising commander
Lochiel’s archers shadowed them the whole way back keeping up a demoralizing
and harassing rain of arrows as they made their way over bitter mountain paths. England
Ewan Cameron was astute at using the rough country of the highlands and the particular abilities of his clansmen, especially archers, to effect victories against larger, or more well equipped foes. In the dying days of the 16th Century a youthful Lochiel found himself at odds with the Laird of Ardkinglass. Ardkinglass commanded 800 men and had retired them into a secure position for a night’s rest. Undaunted by the number Lochiel went to harass the foe with a handful of men. Using both the cover of land and the night he maneuvered his forces around the enemy army. Spaced so as to accentuate their number, they “fired” from concealment then lying flat moved to a new position to shoot again. The forces of Ardkinglass were naturally discomfited by this and were thrown into some confusion. Expecting attack from any quarter and greatly unnerved they left for their own lands at daybreak taking their few casualties with them. While Lochiels’ memoirs don’t mention whether the “fire“ was from muskets or bows, both were in use in the highlands at this time, with bows being more common. In addition the handful of men with Lochilel are described as servants and so are unlikely to have been armed with muskets.
While the noise and fire of muskets would have been horribly amplified by fear and the night, the dark whizzing of arrows would effectively conceal the paltry number Lochiel had with him and present a far more insidious and unnerving threat.
These two battles though separated by 100 years show cunning use of missile troops by Gaelic armies. In both cases missiles were use to full advantage to destroy an experienced enemy with major advantages in size or equipment.
Alexander Lord of the isles pushed a large force of Islemens, Macdonalds and allies such as the Camerons hard into Mackenzie country. They raided so comprehensively that they needed to send parties back to their home territories as they becoming weighed down with spoil. This force committed severe atrocities in one instance burning a congregation alive in a church. (This is known from other instances in highland history, it is to be wondered with such ideal country for hiding and with good local knowledge anyone would chose to hide up in a church and count on their enemies mercy, or respect for sanctuary).
Stung by this outrage Coinneach of Kintail mustered the Mackenzie warriors and sped across country to surprise the host of the Lord of the Isles. Coinneach, on seeing the size of the host yet thirsting for revenge chose to exercise guile. He split off a force of archers and maneuvered them into the open, wild moorland. They remained concealed in ambush overlooking a marsh, as Coinneach led his warriors forward hoping to lure Alexander forward into bow range.
Alexander was only too happy to oblige despite his brother, Gilespic’s wise advice that so small a force as faced them was suspicious. Calling his brother a coward, Alexander ordered a charge. His vanguard crashed into Coinneach’s small force and engaged in a stiff fight before driving the Mackenzies back. Their blood up the Islesmen pursued them hard, but Coinneach had performed a very difficult maneuver, the feigned retreat.
Alexander’s Islemen came under a withering crossfire from Coinneach’s archers stung by hundreds of shafts which sliced into their flank as they became bogged down in the marsh the “fleeing” Mackenzies had led them into. A seeming easy victory was turned instantly into defeat as Coinneach spun his forces round and charged the wavering, confused and stumbling flank of Alexander’s army.
Gillespic sought payment for his wounded pride by seeking out Mackenzie. He got his wish but was killed in the following single combat thus he paid the price for his brothers’ hot-headedness. Those Macdonald’s not killed in the battle or in the rout were slaughtered by the Mackenzies and the people of the country as they were caught up on the steep banks of the river Conan.
Horror at chaos that led to this battle and the destruction Coinneach himself wrought as he punished the MacDonald’s was instrumental in setting in motion the movement to break the Lordship of the Isles.
The battle of Curlew pass was fought in the west of
Ireland during the
long drawn out conflict between the English state and the Gaelic chiefdoms of . This
“9 years war” ended well for the English but featured many serious reverses and
defeats for their cause. Robert
Devereaux the Earl of Essex returned to Ireland after negotiating a
controversial truce with Hugh O’Neill. England Essex
maintained he was poorly supported and indeed there is good evidence that he
was being undermined by the powerful Cecil family in his absence from the English Court. However
this seasoned soldier fought a poorly executed campaign which featured many
defeats. His replacement brought the war to a successful conclusion at Kinsale
aided by the uncanny Gaelic ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The 9 years war ended with the Flight of the Earls, the plantation of Ulster and set the political and cultural map of
which continues to the present day. Ireland
The English force at Curlew was commanded by the experienced Connyers Clifford who was ordered by
again outmaneuvered by O’Neill, to re-take Collooney castle. Clifford marched
close to 2000 men over the hills while the smaller Irish force under Red Hugh
O’Donnell set an ambush on their line of advance as had been done to great
success at the Yellow ford the year before.
One of the differences between Gaelic forces in
Scotland and is that the Irish made
extensive use of prepared positions. The Irish in general fought against
conventionally armed and equipped English armies. While in Ireland the Crown
sanctioned other clans or less well financed lowland armies to enforce its
will. The superiority of the English in missiles and often in number meant that
the Irish had long restricted themselves to ambushing and raiding, while in
Scotland Gaels could try to fight more or less on equal terms, especially as
lowland armies do not appear to have used archers or musketeers in such
overwhelming numbers as the English. Scotland
The Irish would dig entrenchments used felled logs or “plash” together living trees in order to funnel English armies into prepared killing grounds. Without an advantage or if the English didn’t take the bait the Irish would not offer battle. Unsurprisingly given that English armies were mostly filled with conscripts with often little to no training in personal combat the English usually came off second best as soon as close combat was joined.
The Curlew is interesting as it is a battle where the Irish made sophisticated but a-typical use of the bow. Irish kern and even Galloglas are depicted with bows (which match the type used by Highlanders) yet the bow does not appear to have been used extensively in Irish combat. Given the large numbers of “new scots” mercenaries many of whom were archers in
for the 9 years war I am inclined to believe that O’Donnell was using Gaelic
Scots as archers for this engagement though I will admit this is a supposition.
Connyers Clifford and his army made their way through the hills on the way to
much aware that they were in enemy country. This was an army on its way to war
against an elusive enemy that specialized in lightning fast raids and ambush tension
must have been very high. This poorly supplied force marched through hot August
weather the 45 miles (over two hard days) to Boyle. At Boyle Clifford offered
his men a good beef supper if they postponed their rest until they had passed
through the Curlew hills. He had suspected the passes in these hills to be
defended but had received information that they were clear. By the time his men
reached the first barricade and found out that their commander had been tricked
they must have been exhausted, famished and dispirited. It is very hard not to
feel a great deal of sympathy for the soldiers of ’s conscript armies. Elizabeth
Under gunfire, javelin and heavy arrow shot, the English had to dismantle barricades, rock screens and plashed trees as they struggled up the hill. Stumbling and exhausted unnerved by the screams of the men around them and possibly with memories of the disaster at the Yellow ford in their minds, soldiers began to flee.
The English had to force Irish missile troops out of the thin woods beyond the barricades before the vanguard was able to engage the Irish main force in the bog at the top of the pass. Fatigued and fraught after their battle up the hill and fighting on ground the Irish had chosen, the battle went against the vanguard. After their commander was killed and on Irish reinforcements arriving were finally thrown back into their own troops causing total mayhem. Despite heroic (and occasionally murderous) attempts to rally the troops the defeat was total. Connyers Clifford was killed attempting a counter attack and only the cavalry saved the English from a widespread rout. After finally rallying their broken formations they retired to Athalone leaving hundreds of their dead.
This defeat led in Part to Essex’s notorious truce with O’Neill, his illegal return to
, rebellion and death. England
This was a battle immortalized and no doubt “improved” By Sir Walter Scott. The origins of the battle lie in the dreech dispiriting mist of accusation and counter accusation. The Colquhouns occupied the rich fertile valleys which mark the transition to the lowlands and indeed maybe regarded as a lowland family, while the MacGregors had been marginalized by the powerful
clan and occupied the barren valleys to the North. Surrounded by powerful and
ruthless neighbours the MacGregors were slowly squeezed into near oblivion,
rather than submit meekly they fought back and as such bore the full wrath of
power denied its privilege. Campbell
Generously we can say that both clans were providing for themselves and their hungry children as best they could in difficult circumstances, at worse we could say that both sides were locked in a bitter, hate-fueled tit for tat conflict using economic hardship as a pretext for indulging in near senseless violence which exacerbated difficulties for both communities.
The battle may be regarded as a clan battle, or as a battle between two cultures the Gael and the Gall. The 17th century marked the escalation of the deepening enmity between the cultures that resulted in the massacre of Glencoe in 1692. The Colquhouns raised a strong body of cavalry for this conflict and while the highlander were described in the usual terms; “"halberschois, powaixes, twa-handit swordies, bowis and arrowis, andwith hagbutia and pistoletis." The Colquhouns may likely have been armed in a more conventional 17th century manner, swords muskets pikes and so forth, bows were certainly seen as “odd” only a few decades later by lowlanders.
The story goes that two young MacGregors denied hospitality killed and ate a sheep in the land of the Colquhouns. They were caught and hung for this (sheep stealing unlike cattle was considered a capital offence, highlanders mostly ate sheep). Naturally aggrieved at such summary justice the MacGregors responded and in the winter of 1603 both sides met to parley and agree compensation. Alistair Ruadh the chief of the Glenstrae MacGregors took 200 men but in accordance with agreement left 100 about three miles away from the meeting point by a stream called Allt a Chlèith.
In this Alastair was wise, as the leader of the Colquhouns; Sir Humphrey had set 300 of his men in ambush. The parley went well but forewarned or just paranoid Alastair made his way back to his home territory via a different route, foiling the ambush.
Sir Humphrey ordered his men to give chase and the MacGregors ran the three miles back to Allt a chlèith. The river itself could be forded only in a few places as it was wild and pitted with deep holes. The MacGregors managed to hold the Colquhouns off for a while until the men they had left in reserve, who were mostly archers arrived and started shooting down on the Colquhouns who were hemmed in by the banks of the stream in deep and freezing water.
A number of Colquhouns died including several minor nobles, the rest took to their heels hotly pursued by the clan MacGregor. They rallied by a small hill but again broke after more of their number were killed. The jubilant MacGregors pursued them into the ordered conventional lines of soldiers that Sir Humphrey was dressing to meet them. The ensuing chaos as the differing bands collided resulted in a total defeat for clan Colquhoun while the MacGregors lost only a few men though the brother of Alastair Ruadh was among them. A MacGregor was also killed by an arrow by Eas Fhionnglais so at least some Colquhouns had bows.
This victory did not actually do the clan any favours defeated in the field the Colquhouns took to the state for support. Using the powerful emotional prop of the “bluidy sarks” of the slain and a (possibly true) tale of murdered civilians the Crown acted with remarkable ruthlessness. James VI despite (or because of)his famous squeamishness was certainly no stranger to genocidal plans and the MacGregors were dealt with in a speedy and brutal manner “that unhappie and detestable race be extirpat and ruttit out” men were hunted down, bloodhounds being used on occasions. The clan name was forbidden and all became outlaws, their heads even fetching a reward.
Alastair was finally apprehended and executed, even suffering the humiliation of being quartered. Many other MacGregors who fought were also captured and killed. The idiom “Winning the battle but loosing the war” has rarely been more apposite.
The battle though rather hasty does reveal certain traits. The speed and maneuverability of Gaelic armies is well demonstrated as is the desire to fight from ambush. The MacGregors made skillful use of the land and quickly took the initiative and kept it, the consistently fought from the best position and had the initiative and maneuverability to fully utilize the environment, archers were skillfully used and were positioned in a concealed ambush position for most effect. Bows were one of the weapons proscribed by James VI and it is interesting that the archers were held back from the negotiations being concealed in case things got heated. It is possible that forces of archers were considered too aggressive, more overtly hostile than a protective or personal weapon.
These battles awful, spectacular glorious and sordid demonstrate how archers were used by Gaelic armies in the medieval through to early modern periods. Gaelic armies specialized in fast moving guerilla like combat. Unencumbered by large supply trains and inured to the hard conditions of their native territories they were able to run rings round conventional armies and very rarely fought on ground that wasn’t of their choosing.
Traditionally an archery barrage signaled the start of the larger pitched battles however companies of archers were frequently detached to provide cross or flanking “fires”. Shooting from concealed ambush was also a favoured tactic. Bows do appear to have been considered a tool of war rather than a personal weapon unlike a sword for example which could be worn with more or less impunity and would not excite interest let alone suspicion. Ambushes could be hurried or executed with considerable planning, as was the case elsewhere the bow itself was never enough and could only really be used to deter or weaken an enemy before hand to hand combat finished the affair. While most warriors would be wearing armour strong enough to stop arrows “not withstanding that they are sent forth weakly” armour was not Cap a pie as it was elsewhere in contemporary Europe and the general mustering of the clan would have been very lightly armoured indeed. Interestingly senior figures were killed by archers on a fairly routine basis.
Gaelic war leaders made effective and intelligent use of the forces available to them, they well understood the potential of the bow and utilized it in ways to optimize its potential providing history with some tactically fascinating and skillful use of archery forces.
“You can’t take the glamour out of war” so said Tim Page the war photographer when asked to do just that. Through imagination one can build a rounded picture of the personalities involved in these conflicts. From a modern perspective they can appear lacking and indeed it is tempting to “psycho-analyse” them based on their actions and purported intent. In our mind’s eye we can replace the beautiful lines of the bow and the glamour of the sword with the soulless and tawdry aspect of the assault rifle. To do so immediately strips these men of the romance and thrusts them into the harsh glare of the modern world, where they immediately become little more than Afghan hill men or mafia gangsters.
I often find that be staring too hard at men from the past I become appalled by them. In awareness of the outcome it can all seem futile, sons and fathers bones stretched out in the mud for nothing more than the vanity of “nobles” or distant governments.
This is of course my modern view, these men were not psychopaths, they just lived in psychopathic times (which we still do we have just outsourced our neurosis) they knew the consequences and importantly bore them themselves. For Gaelic armies conflict meant an opportunity for enrichment, obligation to community and standing in the world. An expression of masculinity that the modern world simply can’t provide, and which I believe adds to the sense of purposelessness and emptiness felt by many men today.
Historians and especially military historians are often too easy to gloss over the acts of past commanders, battles and wars are treated as little more than a rough game or an exciting “man ennobling” pursuit. It is hard not to fall into this trap especially when trying to introduce colour and drama to dry facts. I have tried to be dramatic but not enthusiastic. I have to admit for all my modernity the rain filled wind pulling at the plaid, the naked blade and the quite lilt of spoken Gaelic are hugely powerful images to me; it is hard not to be carried away with them.
For the English soldier taken under threat of force from his community or family given a gun or pike and sent to the rain soaked fields of Ireland it is hard to feel anything but a deep sense of pity and incredulity that they fought as well as they did.
 A quote attributed to GlenGarry at the battle of Sherrifmuir 1715 The Jacobite Rising of 1715 by John Baynes
 John Zouche 1580
 Fynes Morrison 1617
 Martin martin
 Memoirs of Ewan Cameron
 Glencoe John Prebble penguin 1973
 Clan Cameron History
 Stevenson David Highland warrior Alasdair MacColla and the Civil wars John Donald 2003
 Dewar manuscripts but also see tne clan Cameron history and this website; http://www.glendiscovery.com/battleofglenfruin.htm
 Donald Gregory