Updated: Sep 13, 2020
The Fecht (fight) of Aberdeen in 1644 was one of many battles fought in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639 – 1653) among Scotland, England, and Ireland. This battle pitched supporters of Charles I under James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose, along with an Irish army against supporters of the Scottish Parliament that included Robert Balfour, 2nd Lord Balfour of Burleigh; Lewis Gordon, 3rd Marquess of Huntly; and Sir William Forbes of Craigievar, 1st Baronet.
Scotland at the time was locked in a religious and political power struggle. In the mid-16th century, John Knox and other converts from the Catholic Church founded a reformed Church of Scotland, or kirk. This kirk was Presbyterian in structure and based its doctrine on the theology of John Calvin (1509 –1564). In 1603, the English and Scottish monarchies were united under James VI of Scotland of the House of Stuart, then also designated James I of England, Scotland and Ireland. His son, Charles I, succeeded in 1625 and strove to assert what he felt was his divine right to rule as he saw fit. The English Parliament opposed his levying of taxes without parliamentary consent and the Scottish Parliament resisted his attempts to force the Church of Scotland to adopt high Anglican practices.
These autocratic actions, coupled with his marriage to Roman Catholic Henrietta Maria of France, created distrust from Reformed religious groups such as the English Puritans and members of the Church of Scotland. In 1638 in the Greyfriars churchyard in Edinburgh, thousands of Scots signed the National Covenant, pledging to resist the King’s efforts to conform to English liturgical practice and church governance. This led to the Bishops’ Wars in 1939 and 1940. “Royalists” supported the rule of bishops appointed by the King. Most Scots supported a Presbyterian kirk ruled by presbyters, elected by local congregations. After military victories during the Bishops’ Wars, Covenanters took control of Scotland – and King Charles was distracted by a Civil War with the English Parliament.
James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, signed the National Covenant and originally fought against the Royalists in the Bishops’ Wars. He believed that the clergy should confine themselves to their spiritual duties, and the King should uphold law and order. However, he was opposed by Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll, leader of the Presbyterian and national party. Montrose changed allegiances, pledged his support for the King, and offered armed forces from several Scottish nobles. In 1644, the King appointed Montrose as Lord Lieutenant of Scotland.
After defeating the Covenanters at the Battle of Tippermuir on September 1, 1644, Montrose captured a large cache of weapons and marched toward Aberdeen. His forces included an Irish brigade under the command of Alasdair Mac Colla; regiments led by Thomas Laghtnan, Manus O'Cahan, James MacDonell, and Clan MacDonald of Keppoch; and cavalries led by Sir Nathaniel Gordon and Sir Thomas Ogilvie.
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, according to John Spalding (The History of the Troubles and Memorable Transactions in Scotland and England, circa 1663), the friends and followers of Sir William Forbes of Craigievar, 1st Baronet; Andrew Fraser, 2nd Lord Fraser; and William Crichton, 3rd Lord Crichton, declared that they would “follow no man bot the lord Forbes.” In order not to offend Sir William, the Aberdeen council chose him as their “crouner” (crowner) or leader in the engagement. His troops included Sir William Forbes of Tolquhon, Thomas Forbes of Waterton, Sir William Forbes of Monymusk, John Forbes of Leslie, Captain Arthur Forbes of Echt, Robert Forbes of Echt, John Forbes of Corsindae, and John Forbes of Lairgy. According to Spalding, 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…”
By September 10, only the local Aberdeenshire contingents had arrived at the city of Aberdeen. Lord Balfour of Burleigh lead his own regiments of regular soldiers and a regiment newly-raised by Sir William Forbes. Captain Alexander Keith, Lord Lewis Gordon (son the absent George Gordon and 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. Montrose wrote:
Loveing freindes Being heir, for the maintenance of Religion and liberty and his Maiesties just authority and service thes ar, in his Maiesties name to requyre you that immediately, upon the sight heirof you, rander and give up your towne In the behalf of his Maiestie Otherwayes that all old persons women and children doe come out and reteire themselfs, and that those who stayes expect no quarter I am as you deserve.
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. In the ensuing confusion, Sir William and John Forbes of Boyndlie were both taken prisoner and eventually successfully ransomed.
Montrose’s Royalist forces routed the Covenanters troops, the remainder of which fled into Aberdeen. Spalding reports (in modern English) that Montrose “had promised to them the plundering of the town for their good service. Always the Lieutenant stayed not, but returned back from Aberdeen to the camp this same Friday at night, leaving the Irish killing, robbing and plundering of this town at their pleasure. And nothing heard but pitiful howling, crying, weeping mourning, through all the streets. Thus, their Irish continued Friday, Saturday, Sunday Monday.” (John Spalding, History of the Troubles and Memorable Transactions in Scotland and England)
Montrose retreated when he learned of the approach of the Covenanter army of Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquis of Argyll, from Brechin. 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. For the next year, Montrose won more victories before finally meeting defeat at the Battle of Philiphaugh on September 13, 1645 – a year to the day of the Fecht of Aberdeen. The King was convicted of treason and executed in 1649. Montrose was beheaded at Mercat Cross in Edinburgh in 1650.