by Sandy Cheyne
‘There was a troop o Irish dragoons
Came marchin doon through Fyvie-o’
The only Irish regiment known to have marched through the North-east was that led by the Marquis of Montrose. But dragoons? Surely Montrose’s Irish troops were all infantry or foot soldiers?
His army at that time consisted of an Irish brigade raised by the Earl of Antrim together with some Scottish Highlanders led by Alasdair Mac Cholla of Colonsay, and a small cavalry force under the Earl of Airlie and Nathaniel Gordon.
Fresh from their victories at Inveraray and Inverlochy, 1645, they were marching north to occupy the town of Elgin, and on 17 February they were joined by the Marquis of Huntly’s eldest son, Lord George Gordon, his brother Lewis and a troop of 200 horsemen. Like Montrose, Lord George and Lewis had previously fought on the Covenanters’ side, but now, possibly for the same reason, they had decided to join the Royalists, preferring King Charles to King Campbell.
The full might of the Gordon clan, however, remained aloof, Huntly having neither forgotten nor forgiven Montrose’s earlier treachery when the latter fought on the Convenanting side.
Elgin fell, and on 4 March the Royalist army marched eastward towards Banff, plundering and extorting money from the local Covenanters before making camp at Turriff. Here, reinforced by a further 500 Gordon footmen and some horsemen, they were poised to descent on Aberdeen. This bad news reached the town on 7 March and the Covenanting garrison promptly fled south.
Some six months previously, Montrose had attacked Aberdeen, defeated a citizens’ army at the battle of Justice Mills and allowed the city to be sacked by his ‘wild Irishes’, this term including the Scottish Highlanders who spoke the Irish tongue, nowadays known as Gaelic.
A three-day orgy of pillage, rape and murder followed in which many defenceless citizens were stripped naked before being butchered in order to prevent bloodstains from spoiling their fine clothes.
Now a very worried delegation hurried north to Turriff to beg the Marquis to keep his Irish troops from entering the city.
By now, Montrose must have realized that he’d made a serious tactical error in allowing his men to sack Aberdeen, so for a small consideration – the sum of £10,000 is mentioned – he agreed to prohibit his Irish infantry from coming nearer than eight miles from the town.
Instead he sent Captain Nathaniel Gordon with a few horsemen to act as a garrison, and this dashing cavalier entered Aberdeen on 9 March mounted on the Marquis of Huntly’s best horse, kindly lent to him by Lord George.
But Montrose was having second thoughts about the rash promise he’d made to the Aberdonians. General Sir John Hurry and the Covenanting army were in the neighbourhood, and if they were to hear that Aberdeen was held by a small garrison, they would be sure to attack.
In those days there were basically two types of fighting men, the foot and the horse. The former were infantry who marched and fought on foot; the latter, cavalry who fought on horseback. There was, however, a third category, called dragoons. These rode to war on horseback, but on reaching the battlefield they dismounted and fought on foot. A mounted infantry, if you like.
Suddenly the crafty Montrose saw a solution to his problem. He had promised to keep his Irish infantry, or foot soldiers, from entering Aberdeen, but no mention had been made of horsemen, so he mounted about a hundred of them on horseback and called them dragoons.
This, then was the troop of Irish dragoon which came ‘marchin doon through Fyvie-o’, arriving in Aberdeen on 10 March. The ballad, therefore, can be dated with reasonable accuracy as having occurred on 9 March 1645. After this, Montrose did retain a small dragoon unit under Captain John Mortimer of Colonel Manus O’Cahan’s regiment until their defeat at Philiphaugh six months later.
Ballads being what they are, the incident which gave rise to it probably didn’t occur exactly as described in the song. On the way southwards from Turriff, the horsemen almost certainly would have made their first stop at Fyvie. They were, we must remember, unaccustomed to riding on horseback, and the distance between Turriff and Aberdeen, 35 miles, was a long day’s march for beginners. The most likely place for an overnight stop would have been the the Royalist-held Fyvie Castle where they would have been sure of a welcome. The 27 miles from there to Aberdeen would be a comfortable day’s march for a troop of horse.
While in Fyvie, it is likely that a local beauty caught the eye of an Irish officer. Normally a refusal wouldn’t worry a soldier too much; he would carry her off, kicking and screaming, and enjoy her favours at the next stopping place.
On this occasion Montrose, mindful of his previous visit to Aberdeen, had given the commanding officer strict orders to make sure his men behaved like gentlemen and refrained from molesting civilians. Indeed, when in Aberdeen they are said to have behaved in a disciplined manner, so the Irishman would have been refused permission to carry off his prize.
It is unlikely, though, that one of Montrose’s ‘wild Irishes’ would pine to death for love. Let us suppose that a young Irish officer did ask a local maid to marry him, was refused, and died before reaching Aberdeen.
It may have happened like this: Fyvie Castle had been occupied by Montrose the previous year and successfully defended against an attack by Argyll’s Covenanters on 28 October 1644.
Perhaps on this occasion the bonnie lass first caught the eye of the Irish captain. The castle was still held for King Charles and the officers of the regiment would be dining at the castle. A golden-haired beauty makes her appearance, perhaps serving food and drink to the visitors. A young captain takes a fancy to her, asks her to marry him and is turned down. Her father approves of the match and urges her to accept, but she digs in her heels.
The Irish regiment’s recent behaviour in Aberdeen would be known for miles around. Fearful lest she be forcefully abducted, our heroine manages to slip a little something into the officer’s drink. The commanding colonel, mindful of Montrose’s instructions, orders the young man to leave without his beloved. On the way to Aberdeen he starts to feel a bit funny…
Certain it is that Fyvie’s bonnie lass had a lucky escape. Six months later, at the battle of Philiphaugh, Montrose’s army was defeated and his Irish troops were slaughtered.
Over 100 captives, mostly women and camp followers, were taken to nearby Newark Castle and butchered by the muskets of General Leslie’s forces, egged on by the extremist Covenanting clergy who accompanied the army.
One officer, sickened by the murderous zeal of the churchmen, is known to have turned on one of them angrily. “Have you not one gotten your fill of blood?” he cried.
On 12 March, Montrose and his army moved south and camped at Kintore. His officers, flushed with the success of their victories, were in a mood for celebration, and some 80 of them, led by Captains Donald Farquharson and John Mortimer, headed south. At Kintore they were joined by Captain Nat Gordon who persuaded them to join him in Aberdeen on a wild binge. General Hurry, camped some way to the south, got to hear of their carousing and led a raiding party northwards.
After dark on 15 March the raiders burst into town and a very tipsy Farquharson,“ane of the noblest captains amongis all the hielanderis of Scotland,” (Spalding) on hearing the clatter of horses’ hooves, came staggering out to investigate. The raiders demanded his name, which he foolishly gave and was instantly shot. Captain Nat, a notorious womaniser, headed for cover, but many shared Farquharson’s fate or were taken captive. In spite of 100 Irish dragoons to support them, Montrose’s officers got badly mauled. Hurry withdrew with his prisoners and a good many horses, including Huntly’s best mount, and the remaining officers fled back to Kintore, many on foot, to break the news to their leader.
Montrose sent his second in command, the fearsome Islesman Alasdair Mac Cholla, to the burgh with some 700 Irish infantry, but remembering Montrose’s solemn promise, he stopped outside the town and entered with 100 horsemen. Here he remained for two nights, royally entertained by the citizens who were eager to satisfy every whim of this barbarian.
On 17 March he buried Captain Farquharson and others who were slain. The next day, on hearing that Montrose was engaged in putting the Fraser strongholds of Castle Fraser and Durris to the torch, he hurried to join him, not wishing to miss out on the fun. According to Spalding, he took a booty of some £10,000 Scots worth of cloth, lace and other goods.
At the burning of Durris Montrose lost his 500 Gordon footmen who decided they’d had enough and marched north. The wife of the Fraser laird of Durris had previously laid a curse on Montrose, and in a fit of guilt and remorse, drowned herself in a nearby burn. She is thought to be the ‘green lady’ who haunts the castle still.
Fyvie, too, has its green lady, reputed to be the wife of Fyvie’s laird Alexander Seton, who died under suspicious circumstances at his house in Fife in 1601. Only months later he married again, and the late Lady Seton came and carved her name, Lilias Drummond, on the stone windowsill of the newlyweds’ bedchamber, where it can still be seen.
Sandy Cheyne, artist and rolling stone, plays banjo and rides motor bikes. Last known living in Berlin, but hopes to come back to Scotland.Tweet
This is an article from the September 2002 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.