The Battle of Carbisdale took place on the 27th of April, 1650.
The Battle of Carbisdale, which is also known as the Battle of Invercarron, was Montrose’s Waterloo. Excepting the fact that, compared to the epic battle in Belgium over a century and a half later, Carbisdale, in itself, was a minor affair, with no great numbers fighting on either side. Montrose was effectively abandoned to his fate by the King he strove to serve, Charles II, son of the unfortunate Charles I, whom Montrose had previously championed in a style that Napoleon would’ve been proud of. Ultimately, Montrose suffered a fate similar to Charles the former. Montrose had his heid chopped off, but unlike Charles I, only after he was deid; he was first hanged.
After the death of his father, Charles I, the Covenanter Parliament of Scotland proclaimed Charles II as King of Scots, in 1649. However, it refused to allow him to enter Scotland unless he accepted Presbyterianism throughout the British Isles. Earlier talks with the Covenanters about providing military support against Cromwell’s fanatical, puritanical Commonwealth had broken down and, by the end of 1649, Charles II was left with no option, but to negotiate another treaty. At the same time, Charlie Stuart appointed James Graham, the 1st Marquess of Montrose, as his Captain-General and commissioned him to raise forces for an invasion of Scotland. Charles II planned to use the threat of another campaign by Montrose to coerce the Covenanters.
Montrose was a seeming contradiction. Apart from a wee bit dithering at the onset of hostilities, he had been a loyal Royalist and had been a foe of the rebel Covenanters since his spectacular campaign against them for Charles I, in 1644-5. Nevertheless, Montrose had been a signatory of the National Covenant and he maintained throughout that he was a ‘true’ Covenanter. Montrose’s view of affairs was perhaps a wee bit naïve. He wanted to get rid of the Bishops, but to ensure that the remaining clergy confined themselves to religious matters and left law and order to the King’s authority. Of course, the fanatical element amongst the ‘real’ Covenanters refused to countenance any threat to their God’s authority. The Covenanters interfered in anything and everything to the detriment of almost everyone. Yon was a time for fanatics, not for honest men like Montrose.
During the spring of 1649, Montrose travelled through Scandinavia, the German states and Poland, attempting to raise troops, supplies and money for the Royalist cause. He met with little success, however, and as negotiations between Charles II and the Covenanters stalled, Montrose was authorised to take military action against them with whatever forces he could muster. In September 1649, Montrose sent two hundred Danish mercenaries, under the command of the elderly Earl of Kinnoul, as an advance guard to occupy Kirkwall, in Orkney, while he tried to raise further support in Germany. Then, in March 1650, Montrose himself landed at Kirkwall, with around two hundred and fifty German mercenaries and a small supply of weapons, to join around one thousand local Scots, who had been recruited to the cause.
When he arrived in Orkney, Montrose received a letter from Charles informing him that he was to be awarded the Order of the Garter and also that Charles intended to begin a further round of negotiations with the Covenanters at Breda. Montrose was expected just to threaten an invasion. Charles later wrote to Montrose, ordering him to abandon the campaign and disarm his troops, because negotiations were going well. However, the letter arrived too late and, in any case, Montrose had his own views about an alliance between the King and the Covenanters, seeing that as a disastrous policy. Determined to emulate the campaign he had led in 1644, Montrose set out to raise Scotland for the King. The King subsequently disavowed Montrose, under the terms of the Treaty of Breda, in order to secure an alliance with the Covenanters. The letter he had eventually written to Montrose, despite the fact that he didn’t seem to have been in any hurry to put pen to paper, undoubtedly salved his kingly conscience.
Early in April, Montrose sent Major General Hurry across the Pentland Firth with an advance party to secure a route south. Montrose then followed with his main force and occupied Thurso, before marching through Sutherland, where it soon became clear that there was little local support for the Royalist cause. Meanwhile, Lieutenant-General Leslie mustered his forces at Brechin and prepared to march against Montrose. Meanwhile, Montrose marched along the valley of the River Fleet, to Lairg, before turning south to Carbisdale. Behind him, the covenanting Earl of Sutherland advanced to cut off his escape route back to the north, while Lieutenant Colonel Strachan swiftly led Leslie’s advance guard of cavalry up from the south.
Battle was joined on the 27th of April, 1650, when Montrose’s force of one thousand two hundred foot and a mere forty cavalry troops took up a strong position, protected by earthworks, on the lower slopes of Carbisdale, close to the village of Culrain. Strachan was heavily outnumbered, having only two hundred horse, a few musketeers and four hundred Ross and Monro Highlanders. In the hope of luring the Royalists down from their strong position, Strachan concealed most of his forces in a deep gully, allowing only one company of horse to be seen by Montrose. Assuming that this was all he had to face, Montrose moved forward to give battle. As soon as the Royalists left the protection of the hill, Strachan attacked with the full force of his hidden cavalry. Montrose’s unblooded Orcadian Scots fled, without offering any resistance. His Danish and German mercenaries fell back to the hillside, where they were attacked and routed by the Highlanders. At the last, Montrose’s small force of cavalry fought bravely, but was soon overwhelmed and General Hurry taken prisoner.
Montrose himself escaped from the battlefield, however, a few days later, he was betrayed to the Covenanters. Both Hurry and Montrose were executed the following month, in Edinburgh, in seemingly undue haste. To call Montrose a traitor, as the Covenanters did in justifying his execution, was extreme, being as he was, loyal to Charles II, the legitimately declared, albeit yet to be crowned, King of Scots. But the Covenanters were not in the slightest bit concerned over how history would perceive them, believing themselves to be just and right and having God on their side.
Nigel Tranter wrote an excellent brace of novels about Montrose entitled, ‘The Young Montrose’ and ‘Montrose, the Captain General’, in which James Graham, poet, statesman and soldier is portrayed as an heroic yet ultimately tragic figure.