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Wine and warfare part 16: Highland Spirit

“I saw three lords in battle fight…”

The battlefield today


Whisky lovers will of course now be dreaming of the distillery of the same name, nestled on the edge of what is now the Cairngorms National Park, as well as perhaps sipping 15 year old while contemplating the wonderful roll of the Scottish hills (through the mizzle no doubt).

But few may know that just three short miles east of the distillery is the site of an old battle between highland clans and an interesting one at that.

The feuds and quarrels of the clans may not give Hollywood scriptwriters or SNP politicians the chance to further push the Walter Scott-esque vision of Highland romanticism (they’re killing each other not dastardly English overlords after all), but leaving the political tub-thumping aside there is a great deal of Scottish military history which is largely forgotten, wholly fascinating and which took place near some of the most famous whisky distilleries in the world.

Consider now therefore, with pleasure or sadness, an independent Scotland, not one administered by Alex Salmond however, rather the Kingdom of Scotland in the 16th century ruled over by James VI – soon to become King of England too.

It’s the 1590s and Scotland is as riven with religious and political rivalry as England. Scotland had a torrid time in the 16th century, with military defeats, struggles for the crown, rebellion, religious turmoil, murder, sex and intrigue as dark as anything in Macbeth.

Beginning with the death of James IV and the flower of Scottish chivalry on Flodden Field in 1513, it meanders to the Marian Civil War of 1568-1572 between Mary Queen of Scots and her half-brother, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, who was acting as regent for Mary’s infant son, the future James VI.

Although there was a religious element to the fighting, Catholic lords and clans siding with Mary, Protestants with Moray, it was not always so clear-cut – the Protestant chieftan Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll being just one notable Presbyterian who fought for Mary. What was really going on was settling of old scores.

Border Reivers rather than highlanders, but the armour and weaponry is very similar to that which would have been used in the battle by both sides.

From the 14th century onwards, with Scotland’s independence from England assured following Bannockburn, clan warfare became an endemic problem in the highlands, driven by territorial disputes or one clan rustling the others cattle.

Feuds sometimes lasted hundreds of years and would flare up occasionally and last for a while before dying down again, the embers of hatred and resentment glowing just enough to be quickly fanned again and making the joining of clans together for a common purpose a frustrating business.

The rift in Christianity between Catholicism and Protestantism only served to heighten the divisions particularly as some of the clans with the greatest hatred for each other now found themselves on opposing sides of the ecclesiastical chasm.

The Marian Civil War was just one episode when clans could take sides to have a pop at their neighbour. With the war finished by 1571, an uneasy peace returned again only to erupt once more in 1594.

James was now a young man and had ruled his kingdom since 1578 upon coming of age. Although still a Catholic, George Gordon, 1st Marquess of Huntly and chief of Clan Gordon, was a loyal bondsman.

Loyal enough that James had even given him the job of arresting the second Earl of Moray (son of the first, Mary’s half-brother), who was plotting rebellion.

That Huntly killed Moray during the arrest and was not prosecuted for a blatant act of murder is further proof that he was a favourite of James (and the job had been an assassination mission from the start according to many).

However, with Philip II of Spain the favourite Catholic bogeyman of Protestant rulers everywhere, many were nervous of what they saw as a Catholic “fifth column”.

In 1592 a “Spanish Plot” was uncovered which implicated Huntly and Francis Hay, 9th Earl of Erroll and chief of Clan Hay among others.

The plot involved letters written by Jesuits apparently meant for Spain as well as blank documents signed by prominent nobles leading to it being known as the “Spanish Blanks Plot”.

Huntly and Hay were arrested but released soon afterwards by James on the condition that they renounce their faith and join the Kirk (Church) of Scotland.

Once free however, Huntly and his co-religionist, Hay, refused (which James should have seen coming). They gathered their clans as well as those of clans Comyn and Cameron and settled down to see what James would do next.

James sent Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll (son of the aforementioned Campbell of the same name) with 10,000 men to confront the “Catholic rebels”.

Among the 10 or so clans who contributed to this punitive expedition were Clans Forbes and Mackintosh, deadly enemies of the Gordons and Camerons respectively.

The Gordons and Forbes had been fighting each other on and off since the beginning of the century, while the Camerons and Mackintoshes had been enemies since 1337.

With both sets of enemies having clashed just 20 years before during the Marian Civil War, blood and passions were still hot between them.

Despite having just 2,000 men to Argyll’s 10,000, Gordon immediately led his men out to attack, having three things Argyll did not; six cannons, lots of cavalry and, of course, God on his side.

A modern map of the area with the position of both armies marked out

The sides met at Ben Rinnes on 3 October 1594 (some say 1595) and Huntly used the landscape to his advantage, preventing Argyll from deploying his superior numbers.

The battle was a long one, lasting from the clash of the vanguards at 11am to the final act towards 5pm.

Marching up opposite sides of the hill, Argyll’s vanguard mostly comprised of archers and arquebusiers met Huntly’s cavalry and were driven back in disorder.

Huntly’s cannons were also quick to come into action which, given the cumbersome nature of 16th century artillery, suggests they may have been partially deployed and that the battle was more of a trap than a chance encounter.

With cannon balls bouncing through their ranks and cavalry nipping at their flanks quite a few of Argyll’s men decided a this point that discretion was the better part of valour and duly scarpered.

Enough archers and arquebusiers were left though and they poured a few volleys into the circling cavalry driving them back.

Soon afterwards, the Catholic highlanders, displaying all the tactical subtlety of a brick through a window but in true Gordon style, slammed into Argyll’s front line flailing their claymores and the Camerons’ preferred Lochaber axes.

With Argyll’s banner being overrun, the Protestant forces were still reeling from the attack when the cavalry, who had trotted up the hill a little way, turned and charged again; the downward slope giving them more momentum.

Argyll’s men broke and ran with the Catholics hot on their heels. Clan Maclean stood firm for a while until the clansmen dragged their chieftain away when the situation became hopeless.

Argyll was led from the field, apparently weeping tears of rage and shame his army having lost as many as 500 men in the battle and subsequent rout, while Huntly’s lost around 70, including his uncle.

Being Celts, the feat was immediately put to verse – a longer version can be found here.

“I saw three lords in battle fight
right furiously awhile,
Huntlie and Errol, as they might,
were both against Argyle.”

“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.” 

Despite this stunning victory, the end of the rebellion was never in doubt. James marched north with an army, levelled Erroll’s castle at Slaines and sent him into exile.

Gordon threw himself on the king’s mercy and was also briefly exiled. Argyll fell very quickly from favour.

The site of the battle is being considered by Historic Scotland for further preservation and a full account along with maps and descriptions of positions on the hill where the battle took place can be found here.

Not only is it important with regards the history of religious conflict in Scotland between Catholicism and Presbyterianism, it is also thought to be the highest battlefield in the UK and also the first where cannon were deployed in Scotland.

So next time you drop by the Glenlivet, think about making a short trip to the battlefield as well. There may not be much evidence of the fight today but you might at least enjoy the view, with a dram to hand.

Previously: Marlborough s’en va t’en guerre, how Marlborough got its name

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