James Graham, 1st Marquis (Marquess) of Montrose, 5th Earl of Montrose, Earl of Kincardine, poet, statesman, soldier, Covenanter, Royalist hero and enigma, was executed in Edinburgh, on the 21st of May, 1650.
Montrose is one of Scotland’s greatest martial heroes. Montrose is also the tragic hero who, after winning a series of spectacular victories in Scotland for Charles I, was sold out by Charles II and betrayed by a countryman. There are echoes of William Wallace there; in the manner of Montrose’s death – summarily sentenced and brutally executed. He was a man of principle, but Montrose came to that the hard way and his conscience suffered until he settled on his Royalist course. Beginning as a rebellious signatory to the National Covenant and early military success, Montrose ‘changed sides’ and became the foremost champion of the Crown against the Committee of Estates. Despite his ‘year of miracles’ as Lieutenant-General in Scotland, Montrose never lost his Covenanting belief – what he lost was faith in his erstwhile fraternity, in men such as the Earl of Argyll, whose prime motivation was self aggrandisement and whose modus operandi was double dealing. Montrose chose to be loyal to his King, despite a fundamental disagreement with Charles I on religious matters. Montrose was not a usurper; the real transgressors were the ones who put him to death. Their rationale was treason, but their motivation was to rid themselves of one whose continued existence simply put them and all their ilk to shame.
James Graham was brought up at Kincardine Castle and succeeded his father as 5th Earl of Montrose, on the 14th of November, 1626, when he was fourteen years of age. He was educated in Glasgow and at St. Andrews University, where he studied classics such as Caesar and Seneca, and became inspired by tales of military glory. He went to France and Italy to complete his education, which included a period at the French military academy at Angers. With that background, his future military exploits are not unsurprising. Montrose returned to Scotland, in 1637, and became active in the revolt against Archbishop Laud’s prayer book, signing the National Covenant, in February, 1638. Contrary to popular opinion, Montrose was not the first to sign, but he did play a part in its construction. Then, in November, he attended the Glasgow Assembly, which defied the King by abolishing episcopacy and establishing Presbyterian Church governance.
Montrose gained his first military experience leading Covenanter troops in the north of Scotland. First blood was shed in a small engagement known as the ‘Trot of Turriff’. More important, however, was the Battle of the Brig o’ Dee, in 1639, when Montrose drove the Marquis of Huntly out of Aberdeen. That was the First Bishops’ War, which ended when Charles I gave in and signed ‘The Pacification of Berwick’. Here then, was the future Royalist hero being decidedly disloyal to his King, albeit on religious grounds – so what happened to cause him to ‘turn’?
What happened was that Montrose became aware that the National Covenant was being used by the likes of Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Argyll, to usurp the King’s power in Scotland, for his own ends. Montrose saw this and other extremist Presbyterian activities as a clear and outright abuse of the Covenant. In secret, and against Argyll’s treachery, Montrose drew up the Cumbernauld Bond. However, at that point he was still committed to the cause and led the Covenanters’ across the Tweed in the Second Bishops’ War. When that war was over, Montrose’s criticisms of the by now Marquis of Argyll, and the interception of Montrose’s correspondence with the King, led to his arrest on charges of conspiracy against the ruling Committee of Estates. He was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, in June, 1641, but released on bail in the November.
The following year, Civil War broke out in England and, in 1643, the Scots and English signed ‘The Solemn League and Covenant’. This was a very different document to the National Covenant; it bought a Scottish army. If the English Puritans adopted Presbyterianism, then the Scots army would fight for the Parliamentarians against the King. Montrose saw that as a disgraceful and contemptible piece of double dealing, and for him, it was the final straw. He joined King Charles at Oxford, in 1643, and his loyalty to the King and the Royalist cause was passionate and unwavering throughout the rest of his career, despite retaining purist Covenanting sympathies.
Throughout the next two years, at the head of a small force, including Alasdair MacColla and his Irish Confederates, Montrose, appointed Lieutenant-General in Scotland, conducted a series of brilliant campaigns in the Highlands. With skill and leadership, he won victory after victory over forces sometimes three times greater than his own. That became known as Montrose’s ‘year of miracles’ in which he proved himself to be a remarkable tactician. In the twelve months between September 1644 and August 1645, during which he was created Marquis, Montrose won six successive battles: Tippermuir; Aberdeen; Inverlochy; Auldearn; Alford; and, his greatest victory, Kilsyth, where he defeated Baillie and the Covenanter Committee of War headed by Argyll. For that, the Covenanters put a price on his head – dead or alive.
Montrose’s downfall began when, left with less than 1,000 men, he was surprised and his troops cut to pieces by a superior force under David Leslie, at Philiphaugh, on the 13th of September, 1645. In July, 1646, Charles I surrendered to the Covenanters and ordered Montrose to cease hostilities. After the King’s execution, Montrose swore vengeance and transferred his loyalty to Charles II, who was proclaimed King of Scots, in February, 1649. Charles II appointed Montrose his Captain-General in Scotland, but to Montrose’s dismay, the King also entered into negotiations with the Covenanters. Charles used the threat of military invasion as a negotiating ploy. While Montrose was landing in Scotland, from Orkney, Charles was agreeing with the Covenanters that he would disband his forces.
The King’s letter never reached Montrose and he marched to defeat at the Battle of Carbisdale, in April, 1650. A few days later, Charles disavowed Montrose under the terms of the Treaty of Breda. Montrose fled to Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt, where he was betrayed to the Covenanters by the Laird, Neil MacLeod, for the princely sum of £25,000. Montrose was taken to Edinburgh and, on the 20th of May, already under sentence of death for his earlier campaigns, he was sentenced to be hanged and dismembered as a traitor. He was led through the streets, in a cart driven by the hangman, to where the capital sentence was carried out in the Grassmarket, on the 21st of May, 1650. The execution was carried out pretty much as described by William Topaz McGonagall:
“And on the noble patriot raising his hands, the executioner began to cry,
Then quickly he pulled the rope down from the gibbet on high,
And around Montrose’s neck he fixed the rope very gently,
And in an instant the great Montrose was launched into eternity.”
Montrose’s head was fixed on a spike at the Tolbooth in Edinburgh, and his legs and arms were fixed to the gates of Stirling, Glasgow, Perth and Aberdeen. Finally, after the Restoration, his remains were buried at the High Kirk of St Giles, on the 11th of May, 1661, in an elaborate ceremony with fourteen noblemen bearing the coffin. If you want to know more, check out Nigel Tranter’s excellent brace of novels entitled, ‘The Young Montrose’ and ‘Montrose, the Captain General’.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.