Glencairn's Uprising, 1653-4

After the defeat of Charles II and his Scottish allies at the battle of Worcester (September 1651), the English Parliament made plans to incorporate Scotland into the Commonwealth with England. Having conquered the Lowlands and received token submissions from most of the Highland chieftains by the end of 1651, the Commonwealth government believed that the settlement of Scotland was almost complete. However, there was resentment at the occupation of the country by an English army, and at the implementation of new laws and taxes dictated by the government in London. Many Scots distrusted the republican Commonwealth, particularly in the Highlands where loyal clans awaited an opportunity to rise up in support of the exiled King.

Early in 1653, William Cunningham, 8th Earl of Glencairn, proposed to organise the Highlanders and to lead a rebellion against the Commonwealth. Charles II granted him a commission as commander of Royalist forces in Scotland until Major-General Middleton could be sent from the Netherlands to take over. Glencairn gained enough support from the fractious clan leaders to initiate a guerrilla campaign in the Highlands and begin recruiting an army. Lords Huntly, MacDonald of Glengarry and Seaforth were among the Scottish nobles who joined Glencairn. The Marquis of Argyll remained neutral, but his son and heir Lord Lorne defied Argyll to join the rebellion.

Commonwealth forces in Scotland had been left under the command of Colonel Robert Lilburne following the departure of Major-General Deane at the end of 1652, but Lilburne's authority was compromised because he had not been promoted from colonel. Furthermore, the Council of State was preoccupied with the war against the Dutch, so Lilburne's requests for money and reinforcements were largely ignored. Lilburne deployed what troops he had to patrol the Highlands and successfully contained the uprising during the winter of 1653-4.

In February 1654, Major-General John Middleton arrived at Dornoch in Sutherland with the King's commission to take over command of the Royalist forces. Although the Highland nobles were contemptuous of Middleton's inferior social status, Glencairn had no option but to surrender command of the army, which now numbered around 3,500 foot and 1,500 horse, but Glencairn became deeply resentful when he learned that Sir George Monro was to be Middleton's second-in-command rather than himself. A bad-tempered confrontation between Glencairn and Monro resulted in a duel being fought in which Monro was wounded and Glencairn had to be restrained from killing him. Monro's continuing provocative behaviour led to Glencairn withdrawing from Middleton's army, leaving the Royalist forces hopelessly divided.

Meanwhile in April 1654, General George Monck returned to Scotland to take over command from Lilburne. With the Dutch war now over, Monck was granted the additional resources of men and supplies that Lilburne had been denied. Monck was also given legislative powers to punish the families of those who joined the rebellion and to offer rewards for the capture of Royalist leaders. He continued Lilburne's policy of aggressive patrolling to seal off the Highlands and protect the Lowlands. In June 1654, he marched into the mountains to seek out the insurgents. Monck deployed his troops in separate columns to penetrate the mountain passes, with enough supplies to keep them in the field for weeks at a time. Garrisons were established at strategic points and Monck's troops ruthlessly laid waste the lands of suspected Royalists to deny support to Middleton's forces.

In collaboration with his second-in-command, Colonel Thomas Morgan, Monck manoeuvred to trap Middleton's army between two Commonwealth columns. On the evening of 19 July 1654, Morgan surprised Middleton at Dalnaspidal near Loch Garry. The Royalist horse had become separated from the foot. When Morgan's superior forces advanced towards them, most of Middleton's cavalry fled, leaving the infantry unprotected. As Morgan's cavalry continued to advance, the Royalist infantry also turned and ran.

The fight at Dalnaspidal broke the Royalist insurrection in the Highlands. Although wounded, Middleton managed to escape into the mountains, but he was never able to gather a substantial force again. Monck wanted all the leaders of the uprising put to death, but the Protector and Council promised a pardon to all those who submitted. Glencairn himself surrendered to Monck in September 1654. Middleton escaped back to the Continent and rejoined Charles II at Cologne early in 1655.


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

Ronald Hutton, The British Republic 1649-60 (Basingstoke 2000)

David Stevenson, William Cunningham, eighth earl of Glencairn, Oxford DNB 2004