Carbisdale: Montrose's Last Campaign

When Royalist hopes of uniting Ireland behind Charles II ended with Cromwell's Irish campaign in 1649, Charles turned his attention to Scotland. Earlier negotiations with the Covenanters for military support against the Commonwealth had broken down but by the end of 1649 Charles was left with no option but to seek another treaty. At the same time, he appointed the Marquis of Montrose his captain-general and commissioned him to raise forces for an invasion of Scotland. Montrose was passionately loyal to the Royalist cause and had been an avowed enemy of the Covenanters since his spectacular campaign against them for Charles I in 1644-5. Charles II planned to use the threat of another campaign by Montrose to coerce the Covenanters.

During the spring of 1649, Montrose travelled through Scandinavia, the German states and Poland attempting to raise troops, supplies and money for the Royalist cause, but with little success. Negotiations between Charles and the Covenanter leaders broke down in May 1649 and Montrose was authorised to take military action against them with whatever forces he could raise. In September 1649, he sent 200 Danish mercenaries under the command of the elderly Earl of Kinnoul as an advance guard to occupy Kirkwall, the main town on Orkney, while he tried to raise further support in Germany.

On 23 March 1650, Montrose himself landed at Kirkwall with around 250 German mercenaries and a small supply of weapons. Montrose's lieutenant-general Lord Eythin remained on the continent with orders to recruit a second wave of mercenaries. Montrose was accompanied by his former adversary Sir John Hurry whom he had defeated at the battle of Auldearn in 1645 but who had now changed sides and become Montrose's major-general. Around 1,000 local Orcadians had been recruited to the cause, though the sudden death of the Earl of Kinnoul meant that they had received little training. Upon his arrival on Orkney, Montrose received a letter from Charles informing him that he was to be rewarded with the Order of the Garter, and also that Charles intended to begin a further round of negotiations with the Covenanters at Breda. Montrose was expected to raise the Highland clans and threaten the Covenanters in Scotland while Charles negotiated with them in the Netherlands.

Campaign map: Carbisdale 1650
Carbisdale: Montroses's last campaign

On 9 April 1650, Montrose sent Major-General Hurry across the Pentland Firth with an advance party to secure a route south. Montrose followed with his main force on 12 April and occupied Thurso where he declared for King Charles II. On 17 April, Montrose summoned Dunbeath Castle in Caithness, which surrendered four days later. Leaving a small garrison at Dunbeath, Montrose marched through Sutherland towards Dunrobin Castle, seat of the earls of Sutherland, which was too strong to assault. However, Montrose left garrisons at all the strongpoints he had taken and maintained a line of communications back to his original base at Kirkwall. In contrast to his campaigns of 1644-5, Montrose's intention was apparently to hold territory for the Crown in order to strengthen the King's hand in negotiations and to avoid alienating potential supporters with indiscriminate guerilla attacks. But despite his more cautious approach, Montrose found little support for the Royalist cause. His expectation that the northern clans would rise for the King was unrealistic since many of the levies that his own forces had defeated and massacred in 1645 had come from these regions.

From Dunrobin, Montrose marched inland to Lairg, then turned south to Carbisdale where he set up camp on the southern side of the Kyle of Sutherland, intending to gather more forces before advancing any further. The site of the camp was well chosen on a long flat stretch of ground between the deep waters of the kyle and the wooded hill of Creag a' Choineachan. The ground narrowed to a defile at the southern end of the camp where Montrose's mercenaries raised earthworks to form a strong defensive position.

Meanwhile, the Committee of Estates in Edinburgh ordered Lieutenant-General David Leslie to march against Montrose with the main Covenanter army. Leslie mustered his forces at Brechin and sent Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Strachan with an advance guard of five troops of horse to Inverness ahead of the main body. At Inverness, Strachan's cavalry were reinforced with a company of musketeers detached from Campbell of Lawers' regiment, then advanced north towards Tain to rendezvous with the Earl of Sutherland. On the road to Tain, the Covenanters were unexpectedly joined by 400 Highland levies under David Ross of Balnagowan and John Monro of Lemlair. These were clansmen that Montrose had hoped to recruit: according to legend, they were marching to join Montrose when they accidentally fell in with Strachan's regulars and prudently changed sides.

On the morning of 27 April 1650, Lieutenant-Colonel Strachan held a council-of-war at Tain at which it was decided that the Earl of Sutherland and his forces would be shipped across the Dornoch Firth to block the coast road and prevent reinforcements reaching Montrose from the north, while Strachan marched on the Royalist encampment at Carbisdale.

Strachan's 230 horse, 40 musketeers and 400 Highlanders were heavily outnumbered by Montrose's force, which comprised around 200 German and Danish mercenaries, 1,000 Orcadian levies and a troop of 40 horse. Most of Montrose's foot were raw recruits, but Strachan did not attempt a direct assault on the well-defended encampment. Instead he set up a stratagem to draw the Royalists out onto open ground. With the kyle on their right flank, four troops of Covenanter horse concealed themselves in thick patches of broom to the south of the camp, screened by the musketeers from Campbell of Lawers' regiment. The Ross and Monro Highlanders were sent on a wide flanking march over the hills to cover the Covenanter left flank. Strachan then led his troop of horse forward towards the Royalist position. Assuming that this was all he had to face, Montrose moved forward to give battle. As soon as the Royalists had left the protection of the encampment, Strachan sprang his ambush.

The small Royalist advance guard of cavalry was quickly overwhelmed by Strachan's five troops of horse and musketeers. The Royalist cavalry commander Major Lisle was among those killed. The surviving Royalist cavalry were thrown back into the Orcadian levies, who panicked, threw down their weapons and fled. Hundreds are said to have drowned as they tried to escape by swimming across the Kyle of Sutherland. The Danish and German mercenaries fell back to the protection of a nearby birch wood and fought off an attack by Strachan's troopers. When the Highlanders came over the hill to join the attack, however, the mercenaries surrendered and Montrose's expedition came to an ignominious end.

Sir John Hurry was taken prisoner; Montrose himself escaped from the battlefield but was betrayed to the Covenanters a few days later. Both Hurry and Montrose were executed as traitors in Edinburgh the following month.

Charles had written to Montrose ordering him to abandon the invasion and disarm his troops because formal negotiations with the Covenanters had begun. The order was sent too late. The King subsequently disavowed Montrose under the terms of the Treaty of Breda, signed on 1 May 1650, in order to secure an alliance with the Covenanters.


S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. i (London 1903)

Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)

Stuart Reid, Dunbar 1650: Cromwell's most famous victory (Osprey 2004)

David Stevenson, Revolution & Counter-Revolution in Scotland 1644-51 (Newton Abbott 1977)