Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Scottish forces clashed on July 2, 1645, in Alford in Aberdeenshire, on lands Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, granted in 1423 to Alexander, 1st Lord Forbes. The Battle of Alford was a victory of the Royalist army over the Scottish Covenanters in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The Covenanter army included calvary companies led by Sir William Forbes of Craigievar, 1st Baronet (1609 - 1648); John Forbes of Leslie (1562 -1646), son of William Forbes of Monymusk and Margaret Douglas; and William, Master of Forbes and later the 11th Lord Forbes (1620 - 1697). However, their cousin William Forbes of Skellater (1615 – c. 1695) fought against them in the Royalist army.
The Wars of the Three Kingdoms were a series of conflicts from 1639 to 1653 between and within England, Scotland and Ireland – each of which recognized Charles I as its ruling monarch. Preacher John Knox encouraged reforming the Church of Scotland by allowing leaders known as “presbyters” to select their bishops. As titular head of the Church of Scotland, King Charles I insisted on appointing his own bishops, who were seated in the Parliament of Scotland as part of the “first estate” along with the nobility (second estate) and Burgh Commissioners (third estate.) He also wanted to re-possess the former estates of the Catholic Church which had been sold to Scottish landowners.
Many Scottish lords signed the “National Covenant” in 1638 to oppose the King’s control and organized widespread protests across Scotland. Since anti-Catholic members of the English Parliament refused to raise military funds, Charles raised an army of Irish Catholics from Ulster to put down the rebellion in Scotland. In reaction, members of both the Scottish and English Parliaments proposed to invade Ireland to thwart the royalist Irish Catholic army from attacking England or Scotland.
As a preventive measure, a small group of powerful Irish Catholics mobilized the “Irish Rebellion” which demanded more self-governance and opposed the English and Scottish Protestant “plantations” over the past forty years. Pro-Catholic King Charles had dissolved the Parliament of England and ruled without them for eleven years. Due to financial disasters from the Bishops’ Wars from 1639 to 1640, Charles was forced to recall Parliament and they engaged in a power struggle over the ability to levy taxes and raise armies. King Charles also attempted to prevent the Scottish Parliament from meeting but “Covenanters” established the “Committee of Estates” in its place to govern Scotland and raise any army.
Consequently, King Charles appointed James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose and chief of Clan Graham, (1612 – 1650) as his Captain-General of his “Royalist” army in Scotland. A Scottish veteran of the Swedish Army, Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven, (1580 – 1661) was appointed Lord General in command of the “Army of the Solemn League and Covenant.” He granted command of a Covenanter regiment to General William Baillie (c. 1595–1653), another Scottish veteran of the Swedish army.
Bolstered by 2,000 troops from Confederate Ireland, Montrose defeated Covenanter forces at Tippermuir and Aberdeen in September 1644. His soldiers went on to plunder the western Highlands that winter. In February 1645, he defeated the Covenanter forces of Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll, (1607 – 1661) at Inverlochy Castle.
By this time, Montrose’s force was over 2,000 foot and about 250 horse. (Mowbray, Walter; Montrose, 1892.) Meanwhile, Sir John Urry (also known as Hurry) was recruiting soldiers for the Army of the Covenant. Mowbray relates that “The Covenanters of Moray and Elgin had risen at his call. Seaforth had recanted his lately professed loyalty and brought the Mackenzies to his side. Sutherland was hastening to his support with his clansmen, Lovat rallied the glens of Beauly, and Findlater was bringing the men of Easter Ross. The local gentry, who hated the Gordon name, Frasers, Forbeses, Roses, Inneses, Crichtons carried their swords to his standard.” (Mowbray, Walter; Montrose, 1892.)
In June, Montrose captured Druminnor Castle, ancestral seat of Clan Forbes. As noted by Rev. George Wishart, “Thence he turned off to the Castle of Druminnor, belonging to Lord Forbes, where he halted two days. Here at last he was informed that the enemy had quitted their pass and were marching to Strathbogie; so at daybreak he proceeded towards the village of Alford.” (Wishart, George; Memoirs of the Marquis of Montrose 1639—1650, Translated with Introduction, Notes, Appendices, and the Original Latin by the Rev. Alexander D. Murdoch and H. F. Morland Simpson, 1893)
Unfortunately, the Committee of Estates removed about 1,200 of Baillie's most experienced soldiers in order to form a second army to be commanded by John Lindsay, Earl of Crawford and Earl of Lindsay (1596–1678). Baillie attempted to bolster his army with about 1,000 inexperienced local militia.
On July 1, 1645, Montrose occupied high ground near the village of Alford, probably at Gallows Hill. His army included Colonel Manus O'Cahan’s Irish Brigade of 600 men with Thomas Laghtnan's Regiment and James McDonnell's Regiment; the Strathbogie Regiment of 500; Colonel William Gordon of Monymore's Regiment of 200; Colonel James Farquharson of Inverey's Regiment of 300; soldiers of Clan MacDonell of Glengarry (a branch of the larger Clan Donald) numbering 200; Lord Gordon's Regiment of Horse of 200; and Viscount Aboyne's Regiment of Horse of 300. The MacDonald clansmen were commanded by William Forbes of Skellater.
In his journals, George Wishart noted that William Forbes, 2nd of Skellater, (1615 – c. 1695) was a “strong gentleman” who joined the Royalist cause “to get the lord Gordoun's favour.” Montrose gave him command of the 200 MacDonald clansmen: “at his command past in to McDonald with 200 soldiouris.” (Spalding, John; The History of the Troubles and Memorable Transactions in Scotland and England from 1624 to 1645, first published 1792, reprinted 1828)
According to John Buchan, Montrose was strategic in his placement of his troops: “The horse were placed on each wing and strengthened by Irish musketeers. On the right Lord Gordon commanded, with Nathaniel Gordon in charge of the foot. Aboyne had the cavalry on the left, with a small Irish contingent under O'Cahan. The centre, drawn up in files of six deep, was composed of Badenoch Highlanders, the Farquharsons, and some of Huntly's lowland tenants, and was under the charge of Drummond of Balloch and Angus Macdonald of Glengarry. The reserve of foot, concealed behind the ridge of the Gallows Hill, was commanded by the Master of Napier.” (Buchan, John; Montrose - A History, 1928)
At that time, Major-General Baillie’s forces were Infantry of 2,400 that included regiments of Lord Elcho, Earl of Cassilis, Earl of Callendar, Earl of Glencairn, and Earl of Lanark; and 380 cavalry that included the horse of Earl of Balcarres, Sir James Halkett, Sir William Forbes of Craigevar, John Forbes of Leslie, and William, Master of Forbes and later 11th Lord Forbes. On the morning of July 2, Baillie crossed the River Don at the Boat of Forbes. Even though Baillie was hesitant to attack the Royalist forces, the Earl of Balcarres, representing the Committee of Estates, ordered him “as soon as the Don was crossed, to charge the enemy's position.” (Buchan, John; Montrose - A History, 1928.) Buchan reports: “When Baillie saw Montrose's change of front he halted irresolutely in the bog. He would probably have declined battle had he not been overruled by his precious committee, and by Balcarres, his master of horse, who trusted to the superiority of his cavalry.”
The first to attack Balcarres's calvary was the horse of Lord George Gordon (1616-1645). Nathaniel Gordon then ordered the Irish foot “to fling down their muskets, draw their swords, and stab and hough <hamstring> Balcarres's horse.” (Buchan, John; Montrose - A History, 1928.) Buchan further reported that “The two Royalist wings closed in on the Covenant centre, and against it also Glengarry led the Gordon foot. The turn of the battle had arrived. Baillie's famous infantry were enclosed and cut down in files.” The casualties are estimaed at 700 Covenanters and under 100 Royalists. (Marren, Peter; Grampian Battlefields: the historic battles of North East Scotland from AD84 to 1745, 1990.)
The most consequential Royalist death was that of Lord George Gordon, eldest son and heir of George Gordon, 2nd Marquess of Huntly (1592 – 1649). Buchan relates, “His aim was to capture Baillie, and he was actually seizing that general by the sword-belt when he was shot dead from behind by a musketeer concealed among the cattlepens.”
In July 1990, the Donside Community Council and Gordon District Council commemorated his death at the Battle of Alford with a plaque on the “Gordon Stone” that noted: “Montrose Won a Convincing Victory but Lost One of His Best Commanders During the Fighting.”
Buchan, John; Montrose - A History, 1928
Marren, Peter; Grampian Battlefields: the historic battles of North East Scotland from AD84 to 1745, 1990.
Mowbray, Walter; Montrose, 1892
Spalding, John; The History of the Troubles and Memorable Transactions in Scotland and England from 1624 to 1645, first published 1792, reprinted 1828
Wishart, George; Memoirs of the Marquis of Montrose 1639—1650, Translated with Introduction, Notes, Appendices, and the Original Latin by the Rev. Alexander D. Murdoch and H. F. Morland Simpson, 1893