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Clan Forbes and the Covenanter War

The 1567 abdication of Catholic Queen Mary and the succession of her son Protestant James VI did little to quell the religious and political tension in Scotland. By 1638, this erupted into full-blown war, involving many Forbeses.

John Knox (1514 - 1572), National Library of Wales

The conflict had its origins when the Church of Scotland broke with the Catholic Church and adopted a Calvinist confession of faith in 1560. Scottish minister John Knox reformed the Church of Scotland, or “Kirk” into a structure that allowed leaders known as “presbyters” to select their bishops. This was the foundation of the Presbyterianism within the Kirk.

After the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, King James VI and I focused most of his attention on England. As head of the church, he strove to bring the Kirk more in line with the episcopalian policies of the Church of England. This was met with stiff opposition by the strong presbyterian movement.

When his son King Charles I assumed the throne in 1626, many Scottish nobles were concerned with his marriage to Catholic Henrietta Maria of France and his increasing control over the church. In 1637, as titular head of the Church of Scotland and Church of England, 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.

Example of a Covenanter Flag

As a result, many Scottish lords signed the “National Covenant” in 1638 to oppose the King’s changes in the Church of Scotland. “Covenanters,” who had signed the Covenant, took control of the government: seven members of the Scottish Privy Council backed the Covenant, including Archibald Campbell, Marquess of Argyll, 8th Earl of Argyll. He was the de facto leader of the Scottish government through the “Committee of the Estates.” He appointed a Scottish veteran of the Swedish Army, Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven, to be Lord General in command of the “Army of the Solemn League and Covenant.” Leven appointed another Swedish veteran, Major-General William Baillie, to command one of his detachments of soldiers.

James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose (1612-1650)

James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, had signed the National Covenant and originally fought against the Royalists in the Bishops’ Wars. However, when Argyll took control of the Scottish government, Montrose changed allegiances, pledged his support for the King and offered armed forces from several Scottish nobles. In 1644, the King appointed Montrose as Captain-General of his “Royalist” army in Scotland.

Many Forbeses rallied to the cause of the Covenanters. James Forbes of Rires supported the signers of the 1643 “Solemn League and Covenant,” an agreement between the Scottish Covenanters and the leaders of the English Parliamentarians who opposed the rule of Charles I. He joined the Covenanter army under John Wemyss, Lord Elcho. Lord Elcho fought Montrose at the Battle of Tippermuir on September 1, 1644.

Montrose routed the Covenanter army and the soldiers fled. “Betwixt the battle-field and the town of Perth, to which the flight was chiefly directed, it is stated by the most credible authorities that that nearly four hundred persons were killed, including the young Laird of Reires in Fife, Patrick Oliphant younger of Bachilton, George Haliburton of Keilor in Angus, David Grant, captain for the burgh of Perth, and many other persons of local consequence.” (Chambers, Robert. 1828. History of the Rebellions in Scotland, Under The marquis of Montrose, and Others, from 1638 till 1660. Edinburgh: Constable and Co.)

Montrose went on to capture a large cache of weapons and marched toward Aberdeen. The Scottish government ordered all Mearns, Aberdeenshire, and Banffshire militia to assemble at Aberdeen. Lord George Gordon, the Covenanter son of Royalist George Gordon, 2nd Marquess of Huntly, was initially appointed as lieutenant-general of the district. However, the friends and followers of Sir William Forbes of Craigievar, 1st Baronet, declared that they would “follow no man bot the lord Forbes.” (Spalding, John. 1663, reprinted 1828. The History of the Troubles and Memorable Transactions in Scotland and England. Edinburgh: Bannantyne Club.) His troops included clansmen Sir William Forbes of Tolquhon; Thomas Forbes of Waterton; Sir William Forbes of Monymusk, 2nd Baronet; John Forbes of Leslie; Captain Arthur Forbes of Echt;  Robert Forbes of Echt; John Forbes of Corsindae; and John Forbes of Lairgy. Lord Gordon himself “cam not to this randevous, alledging he had gottin wrong be the Committee at Abirdene throw chuseing the lord Forbes to be colonel…” (Ibid.)

1644 Battle of Aberdeen, The Battlefields Trust

By September 10, only the local Aberdeenshire contingents had arrived at the city of Aberdeen. Robert Balfour, 2nd Lord Balfour of Burleigh, lead his own regiments of regular soldiers and a regiment raised by Sir William Forbes. Captain Alexander Keith, Lord Lewis Gordon (nephew of the Earl of Argyll), and Sir William Forbes, each commanded troops of regular cavalry. Sir William’s second in command was John Forbes of Boyndlie, second son of Alexander, 2nd Laird of Boyndlie.

On the morning of September 13, 1644, the Covenanter force marched out of the town and established a defensive position on a steep ridge at Justice Mills, near Crab’s Stone (or Craibstane.) Montrose sent a messenger and drummer under a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the city. The ultimatum was rejected. On the way back to camp, a soldier from the Fife regiment killed the drummer. Montrose was supposedly so angered by this that he ordered an immediate attack. During the battles, Sir William’s cavalry troop then advanced downhill towards the Irish regiment, which parted and fired at their backs. “Emulous of the caracoling Gordons, Sir William Forbes of Craigievar launched his troop with a will against the main body of the Irish musketeers.”  (Ibid.) However, it was soon over for the “fiery Forbeses” since the troops “seemed to be swallowed up by the swarming, overlapping musketeers, as if it had charged down the crater of a volcano.” (Ibid.) Sir William’s horse was killed under him and John Forbes of Lairgy were captured and later ransomed.

Montrose’s Royalist forces routed the Covenanters troops, the remainder of which fled into Aberdeen. However, Montrose retreated when he learned of the approach of the Covenanter army of Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquis of Argyll, from Brechin. In October, Montrose marched on the home of Sir William Forbes of Monymusk with the intent of plundering  and destroying the house. However, Sir William's wife, Jean Burnett of Leys, interceded: “the Marquis dynit at Monymusk with the lady, the laird being absent, and upone fair conditiones, he spairit him at this time.” (Ibid.)

Argyll caught up with Montrose at Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire, on October 28. After several days of inconclusive skirmishes, Argyll withdrew and Montrose escaped to Blair Atholl.

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. “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, 1645, Montrose captured Druminnor Castle, drove out the family of William, Master of Forbes, son of Alexander, 10th Lord Forbes. “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)

On July 1, 1645, Montrose occupied high ground near the village of Alford, probably at Gallows Hill. One of few Forbeses who supported Charles was William Forbes, 2nd laird of Skellater. He was a “strong gentleman” who joined the Royalist cause “to get the lord Gordoun's favour.” (Ibid.) Montrose gave him command of the 200 MacDonald soldiers. (Spalding, John; The History of the Troubles and Memorable Transactions in Scotland and England from 1624 to 1645, first published 1792, reprinted 1828)

Opposing Montrose was Major-General Baillie’s 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 Craigievar, 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.

The first to attack Balcarres's calvary was the horse of Lord George Gordon. Nathaniel Gordon then ordered the Irish foot “to fling down their muskets, draw their swords, and stab and hough Balcarres's horse.” (Ibid.)  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.” (Ibid.) The casualties are estimated 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). “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.” (Buchan, John; Montrose - A History, 1928.)

Even after Montrose was defeated at Philliphaugh on September 13, 1645, the war between the Scottish Covenanters and Royalists continued. One of the casualties in a skirmish at Aberdeen, July 28th, 1646, was Colonel William Forbes, son of James Forbes of Tolmads, a “natural” (illegitimate) son of John, 8th Lord Forbes.(Tayler, Alistair and Henrietta. 1937. House of Forbes. Edinburgh: Third Spalding Club.) William, Master of Forbes, was appointed Sheriff of Aberdeenshire, and he finally regained control of Druminnor Castle in 1647.

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