The battle of Auldearn, 1645

After his victory over the Marquis of Argyll and the Campbell clan at Inverlochy, the Marquis of Montrose marched into north-eastern Scotland to rally support for the King. By the end of March 1645, he was able to field an army of over 3,000 men. He was joined not only by Highlanders but also by Lowlanders, notably the Strathbogie regiment recruited from the Marquis of Huntly's lands in Aberdeenshire. The Irish companies brought to Scotland by Alasdair MacColla that were the nucleus of Montrose's army now formed less than a third of his total force. He also had a substantial force of cavalry after the defection of Lord Gordon and his regiment of horse from the Covenanters.

In response to the threat posed by Montrose, a Covenanter force under the command of Lieutenant-General Baillie was detached from Lord Leven's army in England and sent back into Scotland. During March 1645, Baillie and Montrose manoeuvred in the foothills of the Grampian Mountains, each trying to gain an advantage over the other before committing to battle.

On 4 April, Montrose swept down on Dundee. The Royalists entered through a breach in the crumbling town walls, routed the local militia and set about pillaging the burgh. Alerted to the Royalist raid, however, Baillie marched up from Perth. According to legend, the Royalists were forced to beat a hasty retreat through Dundee's eastern gate as the Covenanters marched in from the west. Montrose skilfully manoeuvred to escape his pursuers and retreated into the Highlands.

Campaign map: Battles of Auldearn
The Auldearn campaign, 1645

Covering the routes south to prevent Montrose from threatening Edinburgh, Baillie sent his second-in-command Major-General Hurry into the north-east with two regiments of foot and a cavalry detachment to ravage the lands of the Royalist Gordons. When Montrose gathered his forces and marched northwards to support the Gordons, Hurry withdrew towards Inverness, luring Montrose into hostile territory and gaining reinforcements from local levies recruited by Covenanter lairds. Meanwhile, Baillie was marching up from the south, burning and plundering Royalist territory as he went, intending to catch Montrose between the two Covenanter armies.

On 8 May 1645, Montrose's army was camped around the village of Auldearn near Nairn. Auldearn itself was occupied by some Irishmen, the Highlanders of Alasdair MacColla's lifeguard and William Gordon of Moneymore's newly-raised regiment. The rest of the Royalist army was scattered over a wide area to the east, seeking shelter from heavy rain in cottages and barns.

Major-General Hurry made a rapid night march intending to catch Montrose in a surprise dawn attack on 9 May. By this time, Hurry's force comprised around 3,000 foot and 300 horse. His two regular infantry regiments (Lothian's and the Lord Chancellor's) had been joined by the Earl of Findlater's regiment and two more from the Inverness garrison: Campbell of Lawers' and the Laird of Buchanan's. The Earls of Seaforth and Sutherland had each raised a regiment of Highland levies, which were joined by several hastily-assembled local companies.

It was fortunate for the Royalists that Hurry's soldiers fired their muskets to clear damp powder as they approached Auldearn along the Inverness road, thus alerting the sentries to their approach. Alasdair MacColla quickly mustered every man he could find in Auldearn and advanced to occupy Garlic Hill, a low hill about half-a-mile south-west of the village, from where he could see the Covenanter army as it deployed. Although heavily outnumbered, MacColla prepared to hold off the Covenanter advance while Montrose assembled the rest of the scattered Royalist army.

In the opening stage of the battle, MacColla's position on Garlic Hill was attacked by the veteran foot regiment of Sir Mungo Campbell of Lawers, which had recently been recalled from service in Ireland, with two troops of horse in support. An intense firefight developed, during which MacColla's men were steadily driven from the hill and back into Auldearn village, where they took up new defensive positions among the buildings and cottages. The Covenanters re-grouped and Lawers pressed his attack, only to become bogged down in marshy ground at the foot of the sloping approach to the village. Meanwhile, Moneymore's regiment took up a strong defensive position on Castle Hill at the north end of the village and maintained a deadly enfilading fire into the left flank of the advancing Covenanters. As the momentum of the Covenanter attack broke down, MacColla led a counter-attack from the village. This has traditionally been represented as a wild Highland charge that failed because it was premature and disorganised, but it is more likely to have been a disciplined tactical advance that initially forced Lawers' regiment to retreat to Garlic Hill. However, Lawers regrouped once again and led a second attack with two infantry regiments supported by horse and by bowmen of Lord Seaforth's Highlanders. Unable to sustain his advance, MacColla fell back into the village. The Covenanters pressed their attack and succeeded in forcing their way into Auldearn, where fierce hand-to-hand fighting broke out among the cottages as MacColla's men struggled to hold the position.

Meanwhile, Montrose and his officers had mustered most of the main Royalist force behind the village, apparently unobserved by Major-General Hurry, whose attention was focused on the struggle for Auldearn itself. Montrose divided his cavalry into two separate wings and sent one wing around the north end of the village and the other around the south. Lord Aboyne led the first charge from the south against the right flank of the Covenanters advancing towards the village. A troop of Covenanter horse had been stationed to cover the flank but, startled by Aboyne's surprise attack, their commander Major Drummond ordered his men to wheel in the wrong direction, which caused them to collide with the Covenanter infantry. As Aboyne's troopers ploughed through the disordered ranks, Lawers broke off the attack on Auldearn and began to fall back to Garlic Hill. As he did so, Lord Gordon's cavalry appeared to the north behind Castle Hill and charged into the Covenanters' left wing to complete the rout of Lawers' brigade.

With the attack on Auldearn broken by the Gordon horse, the final stage of the battle was a fierce fight on Garlic Hill as the Royalist infantry surged forward in a general advance. The remaining regular Covenanter units were steadily overwhelmed in heavy hand-to-hand fighting. By late afternoon, they were in full retreat. Major-General Hurry and the remnants of his army eventually crossed the River Nairn and escaped to the safety of Inverness.


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)


Auldearn UK Battlefields Resource Centre