The Battle of Alford took place on the 2nd of July, 1645.
When Civil War broke out in England in 1643, the Scots and English signed ‘The Solemn League and Covenant’. That was a very different document to another famous Scottish ‘Covenant’, the National Covenant of Scotland. It was the price the English Puritans had to pay for the Scottish army to join forces and fight for the Parliamentarians against the King. The price was the adoption of Presbyterianism; a cheap concession for the likes of the puritanical English Parliament. The Marquess (Marquis) of Montrose, who had been a Covenanter and led a Scottish Army into England in the Second Bishop’s War, saw this as a disgraceful and contemptible piece of double-dealing. For him, it was the final straw.
Montrose had become 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 an absolute abuse of the Covenant. After drawing up the Cumbernauld Bond, he was arrested on charges of conspiracy against the ruling Committee of Estates and imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. He was released on bail in November, 1641, and joined King Charles I at Oxford, in 1643.
Montrose’s loyalty to the King and the Royalist cause was passionate and unwavering throughout the rest of his career, despite retaining purist Covenanting sympathies. In response to the involvement of the Scottish Covenanters in the English Civil War and the Royalist’s defeat at Marston Moor in July, 1644, Charles I appointed the Marquis of Montrose as his military commander in Scotland. Montrose raised the royal standard on the 28th of August, 1644, and with little more than two thousand troops, fought a stirring campaign in the Highlands.
The Covenanters learned that what Montrose’s militia lacked in numbers was more than compensated for by its commitment to the cause and the astute tactics of its commander. Montrose’s army, which comprised Irishmen under Alasdair MacColla and various Highlanders that had rallied to the Stuart cause, led a bandit-like existence. Heavily outnumbered, Montrose effectively exploited the terrain to outmanoeuvre his enemy. His guerilla campaign rampaged through the Highlands, spreading fear and loathing throughout Covenanter strongholds in the north-east. Montrose won a spectacular series of victories at Tippermuir, Aberdeen, Fyvie, Inverlochy, and a major action at Auldearn.
However, there were still significant Government forces opposing Montrose, under the experienced commander, General Baillie. He played a game of cat and mouse with Montrose in the weeks after Auldearn, traipsing across Moray and Aberdeenshire. Finally, at the end of June, finding Montrose’s army as depleted as his own, Baillie considered he could face the Royalists in open battle. Baillie’s actions were heavily constrained by the presence of members of the Committee of Estates. These muppets represented the ruling body of the Covenant and constantly interfered with his decisions. Not only did they interfere in tactical matters, they transferred one thousand of his best troops to Lindsay’s army, compromising Baillie’s ability to deal with Montrose.
On the 1st of July, Montrose crossed the river Don and camped at Asloun, in preparation for the coming battle. He chose very strong ground on which to fight and, on the morning of the 2nd of July, Montrose deployed his army on the hillside in a classical formation, with massed ranks of infantry flanked on either side by cavalry. He waited for Baillie to cross the River Don by the Boat of Forbes, near Alford. Initially, Baillie did not want to risk crossing the river, believing his troops would be vulnerable to an attack as they forded. However, the ‘Committee’, urged on by Balcarres, his impetuous cavalry commander, persuaded him that Montrose looked like he was retreating. That was an illusion as part of Montrose’s force was concealed by the summit.
Baillie crossed the river and was allowed to oppose Montrose in kind, with two cavalry wings and his infantry in the centre, before Montrose’s right wing of cavalry, under Lord Gordon, opened the engagement. The Covenanter horse on the left was forced off the field, whilst ultimately the cavalry on Baillie’s right fared no better. The Irish and Highland infantry were then introduced, and together with Montrose’s cavalry having returned to the fray, forced Baillie’s infantry back to the river.
The ill trained Covenanter levies and reservists that Baillie was left with were no match for the famed Highland charge commanded by Colonel O’Kean. Montrose also had more depth in attack as Baillie’s front line was only three deep, compared to Montrose’s six ranks, albeit in a charge they would have strung out somewhat. That was Baillie’s tactic to avoid being ‘overwinged’, but with his cavalry on either flank being driven off, the infantry were left exposed. Montrose’s horse was able to hit the infantry in the rear and it was soon routed. The Covenanters suffered heavy casualties as the Royalist horse pursued them in what became a bloody execution. While the main action probably lasted no more than an hour or so, the pursuit and slaughter of the defeated Covenanters continued into the early evening. However, victory was not won without cost as Montrose lost the very able Lord Gordon in the cavalry attack on the infantry.
The Covenanter’s Army took the field with around eighteen hundred to two thousand infantry and about six to eight hundred cavalry. Montrose had about an equal number of foot and slightly less horsemen, probably in the region of two hundred and fifty to three hundred, although some reports suggest he had as many as five hundred. This may be correct as he was reinforced by Lord Gordon’s men before the battle. The Battle of Alford was a bloody affair in which hundreds of Royalists perished and up to fifteen hundred Covenanters died in the fighting. The only relic that has since been discovered on the field was a broadsword, which is now in the Marischal Museum, in Aberdeen.