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Montrose & the Civil War

Marquess of Montrose & the Civil War

His name may not be as well known as that of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace - but James Graham, Earl of Montrose, was one of the greatest heroes Scotland has ever produced.

Like the Bruce and Wallace, Montrose was a brilliant strategist and fearless fighter who had the gift of being able to inspire his men on to dazzling victories.

The greatest difference was that while Scotland's two great medieval warriors were patriots who fought exclusively for their country, Montrose fought for his king and the royalist cause of the Stewart monarchs.

James Graham's campaigns on behalf of Charles I were so remarkable that they gave heart to Royalists right across Britain who were fighting the parliamentarian forces in the Civil War.

In Scotland, Montrose's enemies were the Covenantors - the Scots who had signed the National Covenant of 1638 in an attempt to protect the Reformed Calvinist faith against King Charles's attempts to impose an English and Anglican form of worship on Scotland.

In theory, Montrose should have been beaten at virtually every turn. Instead, he fought so cleverly and with such determination that he routed his enemies and claimed slices of Scotland for the king time after time.

By the time the Civil War started in England, Montrose has been made a marquis and officially appointed as the King's Lieutenant in Scotland. As well as his own cunning, he also had a major advantage in that he had the support of the brilliant Alastair MacDonald of Colonsay, who came originally from Ireland and was also known as Coll Keitach. In 1644, with only 2200 men, the pair captured Dumfries from the Covenantors and then went on to seize the Northumberland town of Morpeth.

Montrose won an even more spectacular victory later that year when he routed the Covenanting army at Tibbermore near Perth. He still had less than 3000 men, while his enemy had more than twice that number.

Most of Montrose's troops came from the Highlands, and they went home after helping to win the battle at Tibbermore. Montrose, however, pressed on and moved north. By the time he reached Aberdeen, he had just 1500 men.

This, however, did not put him off a further fight. Once again, he took on a vastly superior Covenanting army and once again he won. He took Aberdeen, where he was able to obtain reinforcements and prepare himself for further battle.

By now, Montrose felt confident enough to try and strike at the very heart of the enemy. He decided to take on Archibald Campbell, the fiercely Calvinist Earl of Argyll, on his own territory in the mountainous stronghold of Inveraray.

His tactics appeared little short of lunatic. Winter was setting in, and the Campbell position at Inveraray, with sea on three sides and the mountains on the fourth, looked virtually impregnable. But when Argyll heard that Montrose was on his way, he panicked and fled down Loch Fyne, leaving hundreds of his troops as easy pickings for Montrose's men.

The following February, Montrose launched another attack on Campbell. He staged a daring dawn guerrilla raid, with Coll Keitach's MacDonalds racing down the slopes of Ben Nevis at Inverlochy. Once again, Argyll himself escaped and once again, his men were put to the sword. The final body count was 1500 Covenanting dead, while only 10 royalists perished.

Victory after victory followed. Montrose continued to use his talents of charismatic leadership, speed of attack and surprise in battle to rout the enemy. He captured Dundee and won a series of other skirmishes until the Highlands were effectively his.

Having disarmed Campbell, Montrose turned his attention to the lowlands. He marched into Glasgow, though at this point Coll Keitach left him to return to the Highlands and eventually to Ireland. Montrose's Highland troops, too, deserted. Even now, however, he was able to take Edinburgh, though the Covenantors retained control of the castle.

With Campbell at a safe distance in Berwick, Montrose began to form a Scottish government in the name of King Charles. However, his glory was to be short lived. The Covenantors' best general, David Leslie, had come back to Scotland with a force of 4000 men, and his army blocked Montrose's attempts to link up with Charles in England.

The two sides met at Philiphaugh, near Selkirk. This time it was the covenanting army, under Leslie, which sprang the surprise. The fight which followed turned into a bloodbath and as it became clear he had lost the day, Montrose had to be persuaded to flee the battlefield for his own safety.

With their greatest Scottish enemy neutered, the Covenanting forces came into the ascendancy. Under the terms of the Solemn League and Covenant they had signed with the anti-royalist parliamentarian forces in England, they were already fighting Charles I south of the border. When he surrendered at Southwell near Newark in 1646, it was to a Scottish army.

After trying unsuccessfully to persuade the king to sign the Covenant, The Scots finally handed him over to the English in return for their battle expenses. However, there was still a way out for the defeated king. One of the principal architects of the Solemn League and Covenant, the Earl of Lauderdale, travelled to see him and offered Charles the support of the Scottish military if he would convert England to Presbyterianism for a trial period of three years.

The king, with nothing left to lose, agreed. But the move, known as The Engagement, split Scots Presbyterians and finally petered out when a Scots army led by the Duke of Hamilton and fighting for this deal was defeated by the parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell at Preston in Lancashire.

For Charles, it was the end. He was tried by the English parliament, found guilty and beheaded outside Whitehall in January 1649. Montrose, who by now was in exile in Brussels, vowed that he would work to avenge his death.

The king had left an 18-year-old son, also Charles, who was proclaimed King of Scots in Edinburgh on his father's execution. However, he could not actually take the throne until he had signed the document his father had turned away from - the Solemn League and Covenant.

Montrose warned Charles II against signing the document, saying that he would win him the throne by military means instead. The king secretly continued to talk with Argyll about signing the covenant, but agreed that Montrose could embark on a campaign to restore his monarchy.

Montrose began his new military expedition by landing on Orkney with a force of about 500 mercenaries recruited from Germany and Denmark. He then gathered local recruits before heading for the mainland. But his venture was a disaster.

When he fought the Scots forces at Carbisdale, his army was destroyed. Montrose fled the battlefield and hid in the wilderness of Sutherland, but he was captured only two days later.

After being taken to Edinburgh, preparations were made for his execution. There was no need for a trial - conveniently, the Covenantors had declared him a traitor back in 1644. He was to be hung, drawn and quartered at the Mercat Cross.

As was always the case with executions, a mob gathered, but this time they were crying instead of jeering. After being hung, his head was placed on a spike in Edinburgh's Tolbooth, while other pieces of his body were sent to Aberdeen, Glasgow, Stirling and Perth.

What Montrose did not learn before his death was that the unsavoury Charles II had double crossed him. He had struck a deal with Argyll and finally signed both the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant.

For Charles, it was a hollow victory. He was forced to accept the rule of the Presbyterians, who distrusted him, and unable to rule effectively. And there was another problem. In England, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector and victor in the Civil War, had his designs on Scotland too?.


  • 1642 Isaac Newton - mathematician and natural philosopher - is born
  • 1644 The Dutch settle on the island of Mauritius
  • 1645 Work begins on the Dalai Lama's residence in Lhasa, Tibet
  • 1645 John Milton, the English poet, writes, "L'allegro" and "Il Penseroso"
  • 1645 The University of Palermo is founded
  • 1646 Athanasius Kircher, a German mathematiian, constructs the firs projection lantern
  • 1646 The English occupy the Bahamas
  • 1648 The Peace of Westphalia ends the Thirty Years War
  • 1648 George Fox founds the Society of Friends, often called Quakers
  • 1648 Mirrors and chandeliers are manufactured in Murano near Venice

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