The Battle of Kilsyth, 1645
When Alasdair MacColla rejoined the Marquis of Montrose with 1,400 clansmen recruited from the western Highlands and 200 Athollmen led by Patrick Graham of Inchbrackie, Montrose was able to field the largest army he had yet commanded. With the addition of the Highlanders, the Royalist infantry comprised around 3,000 men, including the Strathbogie regiment, the regiments of James Farquharson of Inverey, William Gordon of Moneymore, MacColla's lifeguard and the surviving Irishmen that had accompanied MacColla to Scotland the previous year. Montrose also commanded around 500 horse, with regiments led by Lord Aboyne, Colonel Nathaniel Gordon and Lord Airlie, and two companies of dragoons. After raiding for supplies in the north-east, the Royalist army advanced southwards towards Perth and established a base at Dunkeld.
The Scottish Parliament — driven from Edinburgh by a virulent outbreak of plague to Stirling and then to Perth — resolved to concentrate all available forces against Montrose. New levies were raised in Fife, the borders and south-western Scotland. The home army soon outnumbered Montrose's forces, but the levies were untrained and poorly disciplined. Early in August 1645, Montrose marched from Dunkeld to cross the River Forth and into the hills south of Stirling.
With the Royalists now threatening the Lowlands, the Covenanter committee ordered an immediate pursuit. The main Covenanter army was commanded by Lieutenant-General William Baillie, pending the arrival of Major-General Monro from Ireland, who was due to replace him. Baillie had four regular infantry regiments (the Marquis of Argyll's, Lord Crawford-Lindsey's, Robert Home's and the Earl of Lauderdale's) and a composite regiment under Colonel Kennedy made up of surviving veterans from various regiments that had fought at Auldearn and Alford. A further three regiments of inexperienced levies from Fife brought the total number of Covenanter infantry up to 3,500 men. Baillie's two cavalry regiments were commanded by Lord Balcarres and Colonel Barclay.
Montrose knew that the Earl of Lanark was mustering Covenanter reinforcements around Glasgow and the south-west, so he turned to challenge Baillie before the two armies could join forces. The Royalists halted near the village of Kilsyth between Glasgow and Stirling and drew up on a high meadow overlooking the Glasgow road. Montrose intended to ambush the Covenanter army but Baillie turned his forces off the road. Concealed by a reverse slope, the Covenanters struck northwards across the hills towards the high ground of the Auchinrivoch ridges above Montrose's position. Baillie's line of march outflanked the Royalists, but the rough terrain prevented him from exploiting his advantage with an immediate attack.
Baillie ordered Major Haldane to hurry ahead of the main column with a battalion of musketeers to secure the high ground before the Royalists could dispute it. However, Haldane's detachment became involved in a skirmish with a company of Maclean Highlanders occupying some farm buildings and enclosures. The skirmish escalated when Alasdair MacColla moved up to support the Macleans with a contingent of MacDonald Highlanders, pinning down the Covenanter detachment. Although Baillie ordered Colonel Home's regiment to advance on the original objective, Home apparently felt compelled to go to Haldane's assistance instead. Baillie struggled to re-deploy his forces in battle order as forces from both sides were drawn piecemeal into the fight around the farm buildings.
Meanwhile, Lord Balcarres led his cavalry regiment north in an attempt to gain the high ground and outflank the Royalist right wing. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Captain-Adjutant Gordon led his troop of horse in a gallant charge that briefly stalled Balcarres' advance. A fierce fight developed but weight of numbers soon began to tell, and Gordon's troop was in danger of becoming surrounded and overwhelmed. Lord Aboyne saw Gordon's danger from the opposite end of the Royalist line and charged with his lifeguard the full length of the battlefield under fire from Covenanter musketeers to reinforce him. However, Balcarres' troopers held firm and forced Aboyne back. The Covenanter advance was finally halted when Montrose ordered Nathaniel Gordon and Lord Airlie to counter-attack with the main body of the Royalist horse. Exhausted and outnumbered, Balcarres' cavalry were thrown back down from the high ground they had gained.
The routing of Balcarres' cavalry exposed the right flank of the Covenanter infantry to attack by the victorious Royalist horse and encouraged MacColla's Highlanders to renew their frontal assault. Under extreme pressure, the regular Covenanter regiments began to retreat. The inexperienced Fifeshire levies, which had been left in reserve, fled in panic as the Covenanter line collapsed. Baillie's efforts to rally his men were in vain and he finally retreated with his officers to Stirling. Most of the Covenanter regulars escaped the battlefield in good order, but the panic-stricken levies were pursued for miles by the Highlanders and hundreds were ruthlessly slaughtered.
After the defeat of the Covenanters at Kilsyth, the Committee of Estates fled across the border to Berwick. The Earl of Lanark abandoned his newly-raised levies and joined them there. Lieutenant-General Baillie was unable to rally the survivors of the battle. With no Covenanter army left to oppose him, Montrose was the master of Scotland. He marched in triumph into Glasgow on 18 August 1645. Unable to advance to Edinburgh because of plague in the city, he issued a proclamation at Glasgow to summon a new Parliament in the King's name.
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. ii (London 1889)
Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)
Stuart Reid, Auldearn 1645: the Marquis of Montrose's Scottish campaign (Osprey 2003)
William Seymour, Battles in Britain 1066-1746 (Ware 1997)
David Stevenson, Revolution & Counter-Revolution in Scotland 1644-51 (Newton Abbott 1977)
Trevor Royle: Civil War: the wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-60 (London 2004)
Kilsyth UK Battlefields Resource Centre