Cromwell in Scotland, 1650-1

Following the Scottish defeat at the battle of Dunbar, General David Leslie regrouped the remnants of the Covenanter army at Stirling, determined to remain on the defensive until he could build up his forces again. Charles Stuart was undismayed by the defeat, believing that the Scots would now be inclined to turn away from the godly Kirk Party and look to the Royalists to drive Cromwell out of Scotland. Charles' chief military adviser, John Middleton, began recruiting a Royalist army in the Highlands.

A few days after Dunbar, Oliver Cromwell occupied the city of Edinburgh. Sir Walter Dundas refused to surrender Edinburgh Castle until December 1650, but his defence was a symbolic gesture rather than a serious military threat to the English invaders. During the autumn of 1650, Cromwell tried by peaceable means to persuade the Covenanters of the righteousness of the Commonwealth cause.

The Worcester Campaign: Cromwell in Scotland 1651
Cromwell in Scotland 1650-1

The Western Association

A fundamentalist covenanting group known as the Remonstrants hoped to induce Cromwell to leave Scotland by undertaking to drive out Charles and the Royalists themselves. However, Charles consolidated his position with the Scottish government by gaining influence over the Committee of Estates despite doubts regarding his religious sincerity. The fundamentalist officers Colonel Ker and Colonel Strachan refused to serve under the Royalists and took command of the dormant Western Association army, which had originally been formed by the Covenanters for the defence of south-western Scotland during the Engager crisis of 1648. Cromwell regarded the Western Association as a potential threat and marched against Ker with Major-General Lambert and eight regiments of cavalry in late November 1650.

In the early hours of 1 December, Ker attacked what he thought was a small English force occupying the burgh of Hamilton. In a confused night battle in the streets of the burgh, Lambert ambushed and routed the Scots. Ker himself was wounded and taken prisoner. After the defeat at Hamilton, the Western Association collapsed and its surviving forces were disbanded.


Cromwell controlled the south of Scotland, but he was unable to dislodge or seriously threaten David Leslie in his stronghold at Stirling, which commanded the lowest crossing of the River Forth and the landward route into Fife and north-eastern Scotland, where the Covenanters and Royalists were steadily building up their strength. The English were also harassed by bands of marauders known as Moss Troopers, or Mossers, formed by fugitives from Dunbar who had not rejoined Leslie's army. Initially, small groups of Mossers were involved in highway robbery and the killing of English stragglers or unescorted messengers but they gradually formed larger bands. Their most famous exploit occurred on 13 December when Captain Augustine led 120 men into Edinburgh. After gaining entrance through the Cannongate Port, the Mossers galloped straight up the High Street into Edinburgh Castle to drop off supplies of food and gunpowder carried in saddle-bags. Half-an-hour later, they burst out again and made their getaway.

On 1 January 1651, Charles II was crowned King of Scots by the Marquis of Argyll at Scone. Following his coronation, Charles took nominal command of the Scottish army, though David Leslie retained operational control. John Middleton was appointed Lieutenant-General of Horse and Edward Massie was appointed commander of the English Royalist contingent.

Cromwell fell seriously ill with fever during February 1651 and suffered recurring bouts of sickness through into the summer, leaving Major-General Lambert effectively in command of the Commonwealth army. Leslie was content to build up the strength of his army at Stirling. During February and March, however, Cromwell's subordinates Monck and Deane secured the English hold on the south bank of the Firth of Forth by storming and capturing Scottish strongholds at Tantallon and Blackness.

The Battle of Inverkeithing, 20 July 1651

During June and early July 1651, Cromwell advanced towards Stirling but General Leslie remained unwilling to risk a pitched battle and would not be drawn from his impregnable defensive position. Cromwell decided to break the deadlock by mounting an amphibious invasion of Fife across the Firth of Forth. Flat-bottomed boats were specially constructed to convey the English troops and on 17 July 1651, Colonel Overton led the first wave across the Forth at Queensferry, the estuary's narrowest point. Robert Overton's brigade of 1,600 men established a bridgehead on the narrow peninsula of North Queensferry on the northern bank of the Forth. During the following two days, a further 2,500 troops crossed over under the command of Major-General Lambert.

With the English threatening Scottish supply lines from Fife, Leslie sent Major-General Holbourne and Sir John Browne with a force of 4,000 regular troops and Maclean Highlanders to seal off the English bridgehead. On 20 July, Holbourne deployed his forces on high ground around Casteland Hill to the west of the town of Inverkeithing. Lambert and Overton were entrenched in the Ferry Hills to the south, where they had constructed earthworks and mounted a gun battery. In the face of the strong English position, Holbourne decided to withdraw his forces, using an attack by Browne's cavalry to screen the manoeuvre. The Scottish cavalry advanced to attack the flanks of the English position. After some initial success, they were routed when Lambert ordered up his cavalry reserve.

With the Scottish cavalry driven from the field, Overton's infantry advanced to attack the Covenanter foot around Casteland Hill. After a brief fight, the Scots regulars broke and fled, leaving the Maclean Highlanders to fight alone. The Highlanders made several charges but were unable to break the English lines. When they attempted to withdraw, the Highlanders found themselves surrounded. They made a celebrated last stand in defence of their chieftain Sir Hector Maclean of Duart, who was finally killed by a musket shot. The English cavalry pursued the fleeing Covenanters for several miles. Around 2,000 Scots were killed in the battle and rout at Inverkeithing and a further 1,400 captured. The English lost less than 200 men. Cromwell's forces had seized the initiative and secured a vital foothold on the north bank of the Forth.

With Leslie effectively pinned down at Stirling, and the English fleet having undisputed command of the sea, Cromwell was able to ferry the bulk of his army across the Forth, leaving eight regiments to guard Edinburgh. While Lieutenant-General Monck stormed Scottish strongholds at Burntisland and Inchgarvie to consolidate the English position, Cromwell took his main force northwards through Fife towards Perth, which surrendered to him on 2 August.

Cromwell was aware that his advance north left the road to England open. He calculated that, in the event of an invasion, the Scots-Royalist army would receive little support in England and could be more decisively defeated there than in Scotland. Having secured Perth, Cromwell left Monck with 6,000 troops and most of the artillery train to attack Stirling and Dundee while he took the main English force southwards.


Maurice Ashley, Cromwell's Generals (London 1954)

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

Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)

Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)

Trevor Royle, Civil War: Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-60 (London 2004)

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