We are pleased to be able to re-open the historical debate which began in Emancipation & Liberation and which involved a number of socialists (see later links). Johnnie Gallagher of the Republican Socialist Platform takes us back to the period of the Covenanters and the clans. And the illustrations are so much better this time round!

The contradiction of Gaelic involvement in the 1644-45 Royalist rebellion

Figure 1: Le Songe d’Ossian by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1813).
Figure 2: Apothéose des héros français by Anne-Louis Girodet Trioson (1802).


The early modern civil wars in Britain and Ireland comprised a formative period for institutions and society in these islands (Appendix 1). Not least in Scotland, where this historical period and its associated cultural strands comprise the underexamined underbelly of the national psyche. As suggested in Figures 1 and 2, like a patient of psychotherapy, Scotia must remember and come to terms with her past.

There is a clear onus on historians to demystify the early modern period of Scotland, whilst also overcoming simplistic outlooks. On one hand, countless tomes are filled with an inaccessible, dizzying array of details, dates, factions, and facts, often presented in arcane religious language. Yet at the same time, this history is often over-condensed into partisan folk songs, ditties, and sectarian slurs.

As a contribution to this effort, two distinct cultural-historical strands of the Scottish/Irish collective unconscious have been identified. Namely, the Gaelic clans and the Covenanters. Both traditions merit promotion from their current position of obscurity into a more meaningful, accessible narrative. Hence, they are detailed below with a focus on the Gaelic contribution to the Royalist rebellion of 1644-45, its context, greater meaning and legacy.

Scotland and the Stuarts, 1371-1644

In 1320, the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath asserted Scottish independence and expressed a proto-republican sentiment of conditional support for Robert the Bruce (National Record Scotland 2020). Robert the Bruce’s grandson, Robert II, coronated 1371, was the first Stuart king of Scotland (Lotha 2019). As will be shown with reference to the 17th century Stuart monarchs, in the early modern period those medieval seeds of republicanism had still failed to grow in the royal courts. Furthermore, contrary to common perception, the Stuarts did much to undermine Gaelic society.

In 1493, the Scottish state overthrew of the MacDonald-dominated Lordship of the Isles. This destabilisation created a power vacuum which was filled not by the state, but rather by numerous smaller clans, frequently in fierce competition with each other (Hunter 2000, 166-75; Crawford 2016, 10-16; Stevenson 1980,4). For this reason, Gaelic tradition remembers the 16th century as ‘linn nan creach’ (time of raids).

Figure 3: 16th century Gaelic warriors, depicted by Albrecht Durrer (1521). Except for the exaggerated size of the swords, the material culture depicted here is deemed archaeologically accurate (Cannan 2010, 40).

Clanship and Gaeldom were held in disdain by the Lowland Scots ruling class, who aspired to emulate the major European powers (Spain, France, and England) and who believed that achieving this would require a common linguistic, religious and institutional homogenisation (Hunter 2000, 176; Davidson 2003, 53-72; Kidd 2004, chapter 6).

During the 1560s, the Presbyterian faith spread widely throughout the Lowlands, but generally remained unpopular in the Highlands and Islands, where it was used as a tool of Lowland colonisation (Hunter 2000, 176-78). This reached Orkney and Shetland in the 1560s; Lewis and Kintyre from 1603 (ibid.; Dalglish & Tarlow 2012); as well as the previously MacDonald-controlled north of Ireland from 1609, following on from earlier Tudor/English-led persecution of the Irish (Bardon 2013, chapters 7-8; Stevenson 1981, 4).

In 1603, James of Scotland (1567-1625) fortuitously inherited the crown of England and Ireland (1603-1625); the crowns of Scotland and England were amalgamated. James’s ‘widened power base’ enabled him to advance his predecessors’ colonialist campaign against the Gàidhealtachd (Armstrong 1994, 26). In 1608, James ordered the imprisonment of Hebridean clan chieftains who were later forced to sign up for an assimilation programme; the Statutes of Iona (ibid.; MacGregor 2006; Hunter 2000, 178-79). This was perhaps inspired by the earlier English-led persecution of the Gaels in Ireland, particularly the 1607 Flight of the Earls (Bardon 2013, chapters 5-6).

Figure 4: Flight of the Earls commemorative mural in Belfast bearing a message of cross-community peace. https://www.ephotozine.com/photo/the-flight-of-the-earls-12331428

James also imposed his will on Lowland Scotland, albeit in a somewhat less forceful fashion. Following the 1603 union, he relocated from Edinburgh to rule Scotland from the comforts of London (Royle 2004, 48-49). He permitted ‘[Lowland] Scotland to retain provisions for the law, religion and civil administration’ (ibid.). Although he tried to Anglicise the Scots Presbyterian Kirk in 1618, he backed down when faced with backlash.

James’s son and successor, Charles I, as an ardent believer in the theory of the divine right of kings, was much less agreeable. His interferences with the Scots legal system angered and ‘alienated a class of people’ who would otherwise have been ‘natural supporter[s] of his rule’ (ibid., 53, 48). For example, he expropriated property given/sold to Lowland nobles by his father James V and grandmother Mary Queen of Scots (ibid., 52; Reid 2003, 7). Unlike his father, he refused to back down over his attempted Anglicisation of the Kirk; even when confronted by the government-backed mass movement of Presbyterians known as the Covenanters’ (ibid.).

Figure 5: Portrait of the cavalier Charles I, by Anthony van Dyck (1633).
Figure 6: An Ayrshire mural depicting a clandestine Covenanter conventicle https://auloudon.wordpress.com/genealogy/lanarkshire-history/the-covenanters/
Figure 7: The 1638 National Covenant petition, held in the National Museum of Scotland.

Scotland’s circumstances led to the opening of first theatre of the 1639-51 War of Three Kingdoms. The Scottish Covenanter government asserted its independence by swiftly defeating Royalist forces in the short-lived ‘Bishops’ Wars’, 1639/1640 (Reid 2003, 7). In 1643, the triumphant Covenanters allied with English parliamentarians, which ended an impasse in the First English Civil War, giving a major boost to the anti-Royalist campaign south of the border (Reid 2003, 7; 1999, 10). This provoked a Royalist rebellion in Scotland, 1644-45, which was largely manned by Gaels, despite the centuries of Stuart persecution against them outlined above (Reid 2003, 7; cf. Stevenson 2016, 5-7, 16). This contradiction of Gaelic Royalism is subjected to an extended and fruitful analysis below.

Figure 8: As shown in this 1651 cartoon, the Covenanters were proto-republicans who forced the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy (Reid 2004, 19).

Clansfolk versus Covenanters, 1644-45

Some scholars (e.g., Lind 2017) note the similar worldviews of Charles I (absolute monarchy) and the Gaelic clan chieftains ‘equally in thrall to the notion of personal dominion’ and suggest that there may have been ‘a natural affinity’ between them (Hunter 2000, 180). However, the clan contribution to the Royalist rebellion was truly a marriage of convenience between strange bedfellows which occurred in the context of inter-clan feuding, encouraged by the Stuarts’ long-established divide-and-conquer strategy. Given his extreme unpopularity as a monarch, Charles ‘sought support wherever it was to be got’ (Hunter 2000, 180)

As outlined above, throughout the 16th century an anti-Gaelic Lowland ruling-class had sought to destabilise and assimilate the MacDonald-dominated Gàidhealtachd. Clan Campbell, as rivals to the MacDonalds, collaborated with these Lowlanders (Hunter 2000, 180-81; Cairns 2005; Armstrong 1994, 25-26; Lind 2017; Stevenson 1981, chapter 1, 172-77). By the outbreak of the War of Three Kingdoms in 1639, the interests of the government and of the Campbells were intimately intertwined. The Campbell leaders most effectively ‘rode two horses’; they were prominent not only in Gaeldom, but also in Lowland officialdom. As early converts to Lowland Presbyterianism, when the Covenanter movement emerged in 1638, the Campbells were among its signatories and active participants. The emergence of a Covenant/King conflict opened a space in which other clans’ anti-Campbell grievances could be and were acted upon.

Alasdair MacColla of clan Donald led the Gaels’ anti-Campbell campaign; a pro-Stuart campaign by proxy (Hunter 2000; 181-83; Reid 2003, 10; Stevenson 1981, 172). He was brought up in Campbell-controlled, traditionally MacDonald lands. Following the Campbell’s imprisonment of his father and brothers, MacColla fled to MacDonnell territory in Ireland, becoming involved in the Irish Confederate War (Plant 2006; Reid 2003, 10; McNally 2009). The Covenanters and the Campbells were mobilised into that conflict from Scotland to defend Ulster Scots from indigenous Irish. A doubly Gaelic retaliation began in 1644. MacColla led a ‘counterstrike against Scotland… [an] expeditionary force consisting partly of Irishmen and partly of émigré Highlanders like himself’ (Hunter 2000, 183).

This c.1500 strong contingent met the Marquis of Montrose at Blair Atholl (Pollard & Banks 2010, 425). Montrose was an early signatory of the Covenant, who abandoned that movement when it began to take a more plebian, emancipatory direction, and who went onto become a Royalist General (Armstrong 2003, 4.ii; Montrose Society, n.d.). When MacColla met Montrose, the latter was on the run following defeat at the hands of the Covenanters at Fyvie (Pollard & Banks 2010, 425). The Gaels thus offered new hope to the hitherto lacklustre Royalist campaign, which went on to achieve a string of victories (ibid., 425-27; Reid 2003, 17-18). Indeed, MacColla is sometimes remembered as an innovator of warfare (ibid., 13-14; Hunter 2000, 183-84).

The importance of agility in battle grew in sync with the development of firearms (ibid.). Thus, MacColla’s forces shed the heavier armour and oversized weapons which previous generations of Gaels had donned (ibid.; Cannan 2009, 81-87). Less encumbered, the ‘Highland Charge’ could be mastered. From the high ground, MacColla’s clansmen would advance at speed towards their opponents, shouting their sluagh-ghairmean (slogans/battle cries). These tactics trumped guns’ slow firing rate and would be used to escalate prolonged firefights (Reid 2003, 13-14).

igure 9: ‘A splendidly anachronistic but evocative study of a Highland swordsman’ (Reid 2003, 90).

Despite this support, Montrose ‘suffered from the irregular [clan] character of his army’ (Pollard & Banks 2010, 426; Reid 2003, 13). The Gaels were largely ‘unwilling to fight for ‘King and Country’… and instead wanted to pursue their own more limited [anti-Campbell] aims’ (Armstrong 2003, 3.ii). Upon sacking the Campbell lands in Argyll, ‘many Highlanders simply went home with the loot’ deserting Montrose and the Stuart cause (Pollard & Banks 2010, 426).

MacColla himself abandoned Montrose in the summer of 1645, pursuing his perceived destiny of ‘independent warlord’ status by attempting to reclaim Campbell lands for clan Donald (Reid 2003, 10; Hunter 2000, 185; Plant 2006). In 1647, the unsuccessful MacColla again fled to Ireland, where he was again involved in the Irish Confederate War, finally falling in November that year at the hands of English Parliamentarian forces.


Partly due to the diminution of Gaelic involvement, in September 1645 the Royalist rebellion was ultimately defeated by the Covenanters at the Battle of Philiphaugh (Reid 2003, 12, 85-8; Pollard & Banks 2010, 427). In May 1646, Charles I surrendered himself to Covenanter soldiers stationed in England (Gaunt 2003, 46), and called for the Royalist rebellion in Scotland to cease (Reid 2003, 91). Montrose took refuge in Scandinavia but returned to lead a second Royalist rebellion in 1650 (ibid.; Murdoch 2003, 140). When it failed, he was executed in Edinburgh. The brutality of the Royalist forces only served to further harden Lowlanders’ hearts against the Gaels (Hunter 2000, 185; Davidson 2003, 66). Over the following century, the violent forces unleashed in the War of the Three Kingdoms repeatedly flared up. A troublesome and traumatic formative period for the nations of these islands.

Figure 11: Montrose’s execution,1650. Dressed in Highland garb, the unkempt Lowland aristocrat and ex-Covenanter is regarded as a foreigner by the citizens of Edinburgh. By James Drummond (1859).


To the modern perspective, it seems paradoxical to learn of the roles played by these two cultural-historical strands; the Lowland/Ulster Scots Covenanter tradition and the Gaelic clans (cf. Kelleher 1991). The Covenanters’ proto-republican Scottish Revolution battled against the Stuarts’ tyrannical absolutism (Reid 2003, i; 1999, 4). Meanwhile, the Gaels were in the Royalist ranks. As a Highlander, it was initially surprising and disheartening to learn of the prospect of Gaelic Royalism during such a crucial historical juncture in Scotland’s societal development.

However, upon further investigation, it became clear that Royalism was not the ideology per se of the Gaels, who possessed an independence of character and whose military engagements could be ascribed proxy war status. The Stuarts, for their part, latched onto and channelled existing Highland grievances, which they had themselves in large part created through colonialism and assimilation attempts (Cairns 2005). The Gaels’ difficult circumstances offered them an avenue of dignified resistance, which should not be sneered at retrospectively (ibid.; Douglass 2004; contra Davidson 2003; 2000).

The clear culture-historical narrative presented above is a far cry from the passionate intensity, commonly heard around Glasgow and Belfast, which expresses Covenanter nostalgia as a mere masked expression of racism and anti-Catholicism. In truth, the Covenanters’ anti-Catholicism was an expression of righteous disgust at the abuses of power of a Catholic/Anglican ruling-class. The powerless Gaels, Catholic or otherwise, were mere pawns.

Contemplating the contradictions of history, one feels that retelling the past could move Scots, including the Ulster Scots diaspora, away from a rigid, blind loyalism and onwards in a more progressive direction (cf. Kelleher 1991). Moreover, only by reflecting on the past can the national psyche overcome the traumatic experiences of her formative period. Whilst these two strands are indeed very distinct and different, they need not conflict any longer. Both traditions encouraged passive subjects to become active citizens, and so both identities should be recognised as equals and then fully embraced.

28th May 2021

Appendix 1.

Figure 12: Souvenir from the People’s History Museum (Manchester) which shows three centuries of historical continuity of political/cultural strands which originated in the English Civil War (aka the War of the Three Kingdoms). Although England has perhaps come to terms with its domestic past better


Armstrong, A. 1994. Doing Porridge: Unlocking Our View of the Scottish Clans. The Media Education Journal, 17, 17-27.

Armstrong, A. 2003. Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets. Emancipation & Liberation, Issue 5&6. URL: Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets (Accessed 9th April 2021).

Bardon, J. 2013. The Plantation of Ulster: British Colonisation of the North of Ireland. Dublin, Gill & Macmillan.

Cairns, G. 2005. Caught Between the Covenant and the Clans. Emancipation & Liberation, Issue 10. URL: Caught Between the Covenant and the Clans (Accessed 9th April 2021).

Cannan, F. 2009. Scottish Arms and Armour. Oxford, Shire Publications.

Cannan, F. 2010. Galloglass, 1250-1600: Gaelic Mercenary Warrior. [Warrior, 143]. Oxford, Osprey Publishing.

Crawford, R. M. 2016. Warfare in the West Highlands and Isles of Scotland, c. 1544-1615. [PhD thesis]. University of Glasgow.

Dalglish, C. & Tarlow, S. 2012. Case Study: Archaeologies of Plantation – the Early Modern Irish/Scottish border. [ScARF National Framework] URL: Case Study: Archaeologies of Plantation – the Early Modern Irish/Scottish border (Accessed 9th April 2021).

Davidson, N. 2000. The Origins of Scottish Nationhood. London, Pluto Press.

Davidson, N. 2003. Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746. London, Pluto Press.

Douglass, D. 2004. The debate continues: The Jacobites strike back. Emancipation & Liberation, Issue 7. URL: The debate continues: The Jacobites strike back (Accessed 9th April 2021).

Gaunt, P. 2003. The English Civil Wars 1642-1651. [Essential Histories]. Oxford, Osprey Publishing.

Hunter, J. 2000. Last of the Free: A Millennial History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Edinburgh, Mainstream Publishing.

Kelleher, D. 1991. An Open Letter to Ian Paisley: Demythologising History. Greystones, Justice Books.

Kidd, C. 2004. British Identities before Nationalism. Cambridge University Press.

Lind, A. 2017. Gaelic Civil War? – Iain Lom and the Civil War in the Highlands and Islands. Venture Faire, 22, 3-7. URL: Academic Papers (Accessed 9th April 2021).

Lotha, G. 2019. House of Stuart: Scottish and English royal family. Encyclopaedia Britannica. URL: House of Stuart (Accessed 9th April 2021).

MacGregor, M.D. 2006. The statutes of Iona: text and context. Innes Review, 57 (2), 111-181.

McNally, M. 2009. Ireland 1649-52: Cromwell’s Protestant Crusade. [Campaigns, 213]. Oxford, Osprey Publishing.

Montrose Society (The 1st Marquis of Montrose Society). Undated. Montrose and the Covenant. URL: Montrose and the Covenant (Accessed 9th April 2021).

Murdoch, S. 2003. Britain, Denmark-Norway and the House of Stuart, 1603-1660. East Linton, Tuckwell Press.

National Records Scotland. 2020. Transcription and Translation of the Declaration of Arbroath, 6 April 1320. [SP13/7].URL: https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/Declaration (Accessed 9th April 2021).

Plant, D. 2006. Biography of Alasdair MacColla. BCW Project. URL: Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquis of Argyll (Accessed 9th April 2021).

Pollard, T. & Banks, I. 2010. Now the wars are over: the past, present and future of Scottish battlefields. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 14, 414-41.

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Reid, S. 2003. Auldearn 1645: The Marquis of Montrose’s Scottish Campaign. [Campaign]. Oxford, Osprey Publishing.

Reid, D. 2004. Dunbar 1650: Cromwell’s most famous victory. [Campaign]. Oxford, Osprey Publishing.

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Stevenson, D. 2016. [2004]. The Hunt for Rob Roy: The Man and the Myths. Edinburgh, Birlinn.

28th May 2021

The original series of Scottish historical debates in Emancipation & Liberation can be seen at:-

1. Beyond broadswords and bayonets – Bob Goupillot

2. Beyond broadswords and bayonets – Allan Armstrong

3. The debate – the Jacobites strike back – Dave Douglass

4. A good if one-sided account – Gerard Cairns

5. Unionism progress and the socialist tradition in Scottish history – Neil Davidson

6. Highlandism and the politics of geography – Alistair Livingston

7. Discovering the Scottish revolution,1692-1746, a critique – Gordon Morgan

8. A few thoughts on literary matters – John Manson

also see other articles by Johnnie Gallacher:-

1. Republican Symbolism

2. What is the Crown and what is republicanism?


  • Much food for thought here. Again with Johnnie G I love the mix of good clean prose, stunning visuals and helpful references.

    TBH this period involves a lot of work to get a sense of the confusing currents and cross currents in a religious world so fundamentally different from our secular world we live in today.

    Edinburgh is replete with visual reminders of the period mentioned. The Marquis of Montrose’s burial site so next to Argyle is really evocative for me.

  • This is an excellent contribution from Johnnie. Like his talk to the Scottish Labour History Society on Red Clydeside (which I viewed on You Tube), it is a very cultured piece and the visuals certainly enhance the work. The image of Montrose being taken through Edinburgh is one of my favourite paintings and Johnnie captures the contradictions within it really well.
    I share Johnnie’s passion for the Gaelic language and it is heartening and refreshing to see it used for its own sake as a living language.
    There won’t be a definitive meeting of minds on this. I too would like to see the Gaelic clans and the rebel Covenanters etched on the banner of the Scottish Republic to be. The clans are dispersed and the language is on its knees and they are, for many, guilty by association with Jacobitism while, to be fair, the “proto-republican Covenanters” did not spawn many republicans. There is no doubt that Johnnie’s contribution should be valued as a bang, up to date starting point for us as Scottish republicans and he deserves immense praise for it. Moladh dhutsa, Maighstear Gallacher!