The Battle of Glenlivet was fought on the 3rd of October, 1594.
The Battle of Glenlivet, which took place near Allanreid and Morinsh, is one of those battles to which several alternative names have been appended. It's been called the Battle of Balrinnes, from Beinn Rinnes, the mountain that formed a splendid backdrop to the engagement and would recollect it still, if asked. The battle is also known as the Battle of Strathaven or the Battle of Allt a' Choileachain (pronounced hullachan), from the wee burn that runs alongside the battlefield. It's probably significant that Historic Scotland's inventory process seems to have settled on Glenlivet.
The battle, like many since AD 32, had religious connotations, but
politics and power struggles were also at work and that would make it disingenuous to blame it entirely on religion. The Argyll-led Protestant forces at the battle represented Scotland's King James VI (the future James I of England), who was officially a Protestant monarch. The Catholic side was led by Huntly, who was a good mate of the king or at least, he had been – and would be again. It was a kind of love-hate relationship, but you'd have to ask the Cock o' the North for the intimate details.
Two years before Glenlivet, Huntly's relationship with the King had been on a good footing, when he received a commission to apprehend James Stewart, the 'bonny' Earl of Moray, and bring him to trial. However, Huntly was responsible for Moray's death at Donibristle, in Fife, slashing him across the face with his sword and eliciting, allegedly, these last words from Moray; “Ye hae spoilt a better face than yer ain.” Interestingly, the king didn't punish Huntly. Some folks say Jamie Saxt was complicit in the murder and there are claims that Moray was the Queen's lover. It would make a good costume drama.
Two years later, in 1594, Huntly was a 'Catholic rebel'. The perceived danger to Scotland was the distinct possibility of foreign support for the disenfranchised Catholics, through the intervention of Philip II of Spain, an upholder of the faith if ever one there was. For much of the 1580s and '90s, there had been that potential for an invasion from the continent, to restore Catholicism. The decree of the 12th of November, 1593, by which Catholics were ordered to give up their faith or leave the country, contributed to significant unrest and Huntly, believing himself cocksure in the north, refused to comply.
In response to the non-compliance of George Gordon, the 1st of Marquess of Huntly, and Francis Hay, the 9th of Earl of Erroll, the King dispatched to the north young Archibald Campbell, the 7th Earl of Argyll, with a large army. With superior numbers, Argyll could be forgiven for not following advice to wait for reinforcements. With ten thousand men marched to the top of a hill, Argyll quite happily resolved to risk battle against his adversaries' two thousand. Huntly, not about to be assailed in his own castle, had combined his relatively meagre forces with those of Errol, to meet the 'heretics'.
The entire Catholic army prepared for battle by invoking Divine assistance through confession and holy communion. A Mass was said at Auchindoun, by a Father Gordon, S.J., and two or three other Jesuit Priests, before Huntly and Errol marched off through Glenrinnes. Their weapons had been sprinkled with holy water, and a white cross was placed on their armour, symbolising their resistance in defence of the Cross of Christ. You can imagine they might have felt invincible.
The two armies met at Balrinnes in Glenlivet, where the Campbell's Highlanders were already posted on the steep mountainside. Notwithstanding their numerical disadvantage, Huntly and Errol had two pluses Argyll didn't, several artillery pieces and a one hundred strong troop of mail-clad cavalry with pointy lances. So despite the superior enemy numbers and disposition, the Catholic Lords were determined to attempt an assault and Errol, supported by Sir Patrick Gordon's cavalry, led the Hays up the hill “in the very face of the foe.” While that vanguard advanced, a Captain Kerr brought his artillery to bear on Argyll's front. That impolite greeting wasn't very welcome at all and caused some of the Protestant force to leave. Some left permanently and other ran off without as much as a by your leave.
Enough of the Campbell's force did stay to face the Gordon's horsemen, which found the steepness of the slope more problematic than he had imagined. The echelon was forced to wheel and expose its flank, and it suffered a fair bit of damage from volleys of bullets and arrows, losing around twenty killed and about forty to fifty wounded. By then, Huntly had engaged with the centre and soon overran his adversary's banner, while the cavalry, recovering somewhat, had reached more even ground, higher up, where their horses were less encumbered. The king's forces were unable to withstand the cavalry lances and were driven off the hill. During that panic-stricken retreat, they are said to have thrown their weapons into a small lochan, which became known as 'The Loch of the Swords'.
It was an “utter rout” at the end and serves to show how ill matched the armies really were, despite the discrepancy in numbers. Agryll and his Highland infantry were no match for the Gordon's mail-clad knights and express delivery cannonballs. The Highlanders on the Catholic side were delighted to chase their fleeing counterparts. The Macleans alone stood firm, goaded by their heroic chief to repel the assault of the horse. But even the Maclean Chief couldn't stand forever and he was dragged off the field by his clansmen. Argyll fled, tears of rage running almost as fast as his horse.
The Protestants lost several hundred men, including Campbell of Lochinzell. Of the noteworthy on the Catholic side, the saddest loss was that of Sir Patrick Gordon, Huntley's uncle, who had his head hacked off by Argyll's men. Another loss was Gordon of Auchindoun, the brother of Father Gordon. Incidentally, it was observed by one Jesuit, somewhat partially, that none of those who bore the mark of the cross lost their lives.
The Ballad of Balrinnes, in which appear the following lines, commemorates the battle:
“I saw three lords in battle fight
right furiously awhile,
Huntlie and Errol, as they might,
were both against Argyle.”
A later verse confirms the differential in numbers:
“And yet Argyle, his thousands ten
were they that took the race,
although they were as nine to ane,
they caused them tak' the chace.”
In the aftermath, the king intervened in person, with his own army, and after Slains Castle was destroyed, the 9th Earl of Errol was forced into exile for a while. Argyll lost the Royal Favour and Huntly hunkered down in his lair, while the Spanish troops never ever materialised.