The Battle of Kilsyth was fought on the 15th of August, 1645.
The Battle of Kilsyth was an engagement that took place during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. It was fought in the Scottish Kingdom of Charles I and involved his subjects on both sides, albeit one set was more loyal than the other, which refused to be subjected. In Scotland at any rate, these Wars were pursued with the objective of ending sovereign interference in Kirk matters, whereas the English and Irish had different grievances, more to do with trade and taxes. Charles had only himself to blame, but the ire of most Scots was focussed more on his (un)holy ‘Armenian Nastiness’, Archbishop Laud, the man who had sought to introduce the Episcopal ‘Book Of Common Prayer’ in Scotland, than on the King. On the other hand, many Covenanting (ig)nobles, including the Marquess of Argyll, saw the unrest as an opportunity for personal gain – was it ever otherwise.
An Anglo-Scottish pact known as the Solemn League and Covenant meant the Covenanters were in league [sic] with the English Parliamentarians, whose Oliver Cromwell was beginning to make his mark against Charlie’s English Royalists. Poor Charlie wisnae enjoying the best of fortunes at the time, but news of a victory for his loyal Scottish Royalists at the Battle of Kilsyth must’ve cheered him up a wee bit. The King’s most loyal subject in Scotland was his Captain-General, James Graham, the Marquess of Montrose, and he it was who won yet another odds against encounter with superior Covenanting forces. In fact, it could be argued that Montrose’s defeat of Major-General William Baillie of Letham was his greatest victory and, for a time at any case, it left him master of Scotland.
You could argue over the degree of greatness of Montrose’s victory, because Baillie effectively lost the battle before it started. Nevertheless, that wisnae because Baillie was an incompetent soldier; nah, nah, that’d be too straightforward for Scottish history to swally. Before battle commenced, Baillie had the numerical advantage and, in addition, he even had the advantage of higher ground of the Auchinrivoch ridges around the eastern rim of the hollow occupied by Montrose’s infantry. Fair enough, Ballie had a healthy respect for his adversary, having been defeated by him back in the June, at Alford, but his advance towards Kilsyth and his occupation of the height couldnae be faulted by any military tactician. The trouble for Baillie, General that he was, was that he wisnae in charge. As the Wars were religious in nature, the Kirk was in charge, or more particularly, the ‘Elect of God’ as they saw themselves, properly known as the Committee of the Estates.
Despite that motley crew of the ‘Estates’ containing some men of military repute, such as the Marquess of Argyll and Lord Elcho, the remainder were, largely speaking, a bunch of fervently religious, Calvinistic bigots, with “God on their side” and damn the bit common sense between them. Baillie’s orders were subject to ‘Committee’ approval and as everyone knows, committees never make good decisions. The clergymen thought they kent better when they got the idea that Montrose might escape to fight another day and so they ordered Baillie to give up his positional advantage and redeploy in a crazy flanking manoeuvre.
Montrose had arrived at a high meadow near Colzium in the vicinity of the village of Kilsyth after a series of momentous victories in a whirlwind military campaign of which even Alexander (the Great), von Clausewitz or Crazy Horse would’ve been proud. Montrose had defeated Lord Elcho at Tippermuir in September, 1644, then captured and sacked Aberdeen. Early in 1645, Montrose, with Alasdair MacColla’s Irishmen and Highlanders as the nucleus of his army, had mounted a guerrilla campaign against the Campbells and their Chief, the Marquess of Argyle. That resulted in an ignominious defeat for Argyll at the Battle of Inverlochy in February. After plundering Dundee in April, Montrose was pursued back into the Highlands by Major-General Baillie, however, he outwitted the Covenanters twice more. He defeated Colonel Hurry at Auldearn in May and Baillie at Alford in June.
Montrose had been intent on ambushing the Earl of Lanark, who was on route with Covenanter reinforcements from Glasgow and the south-west. Baillie had marched out to intercept Montrose and give aid to Lanark. When all is said and done, Montrose’s seasoned campaigners were probably the best troops in Britain at the time – and that notwithstanding Cromwell’s Ironsides. Nevertheless, prior to the intervention of the Kirk, Baillie, from his vantage point, had several good options. If Lanark appeared, he had Montrose in a trap; if Montrose attacked Lanark, then Baillie could attack him from the rear; similarly, if Montrose attacked him, Lanark could close in behind – neat.
Sadly for Baillie, when he protested vigorously against the redeployment ordered by the ‘Estates’, he was overruled ‘by God’s command’, told to reassemble his army in column of march and move to engage. Not even the scriptwriters for ‘Carry on Covenanting’ could’ve come up with such slapstick chaos, which proved fatal for Baillie’s command. Strung out in line of march, cavalry to the fore, Baillie’s army circumnavigated the Banton Burn and then followed the line of the Drum Burn. Montrose couldn’t believe his luck. His first attack, simultaneously against both ends of the column, stopped its advance and his second broke its back. The Highlanders surged up the slopes and the Covenanting army disintegrated in retreat and disarray.
The battle became a rout and a terrible slaughter was inflicted upon the fleeing Covenanters, three-quarters of whom – thousands of fellow Scots – perished that day under flailing Highland broadswords. Baillie managed to flee south with a cavalry escort and, despite being caught in the notorious Dullatur Bog, he managed to win through to Castle Cary and on to the safety of Stirling Castle. Lanark’s forces scattered and the Earl scarpered across the Border to England. Montrose was now master of Scotland, but not for long. In September, 1645, at Philliphaugh, his depleted army was decisively defeated by a superior Covenanter force under Major-General David Leslie.