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 Gallacher 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
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).
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).
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.).
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.
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).
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.
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
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28th May 2021
The original series of Scottish historical debates in Emancipation & Liberation can be seen at:-
also see other articles by Johnnie Gallacher:-