Wars of the Three Kingdoms: Did the Gaels have a distinct form of warfare?
The concept of a distinctive Celtic form of warfare is a contested issue James Hill sees continuity in Celtic warfare from ancient times to the ‘45 and beyond. His thesis centres upon the supposed primitivism of Celtic warfare relying on ‘unbounded fury, strength, and dexterity to overcome a lack of military sophistication’. This essay, though not originally intended as such, is essentially a critique of Hill’s thesis. Given the questions’ injunction to use ‘particular reference to the MacColla-Montrose Campaign’ this essay is focused toward Scotland to the neglect of Ireland due to constraints of space, the Irish are largely covered in as much as they are an important element of the Scottish war.
The essential basis for Hills thesis is that an emphasis on individual prowess resulted in a different form of warfare. The Gaels are regularly praised for their individual valour and skill at arms, Alaisdair MacColla for example is recorded as having broken two swords and done the ‘wnpossible’ at the battle of Auldearn.[[Patrick Gordon, A Short Abridgement of Britane’s Distemper, from the yeare of God 1636 to 1649 (The Spalding Club, Aberdeen, 1844) p124]] MacColla became a Gaelic hero notorious even before Auldearn.
Hill is correct that individual prowess was important to the Gaels and it to a certain extent influenced their warfare.
However though heroism comes up again and again in accounts to equate it with a system of warfare is a romanticising of warfare. It is equally absurd to suggest that the system of British warfare from 1856 was built on individual valour because Victoria Crosses received disproportionate coverage in the media. While individual valour was perhaps more important in gaeldom, where it was built up by a particularly strong oral culture, this cannot be considered to be the deciding factor in warfare. The importance of individual valour in particular sprung out of the normal condition of Gaelic warfare the cattle raid as explained later. The needs of war outweigh that of literature. At Poitiers the English were as steeped in chivalric tradition as the French but dismounted and fought defensively with archers.[[Jean Froissart, Chronicles Geoffrey Brereton (Trans. And ed.) (Penguin Books, London, 1978) pp128-142]] Ultimately the French too sacrificed individual valour on the altar of military necessity. It seems therefore that the very basis of Hill’s argument is flawed.
To Hill one of the enduring elements of Celtic warfare is the charge, either in its raw state or the more sophisticated highland charge. The Gaels would ‘attack against all reason, against all odds’. He states ‘The charge was a success because of the emphasis that the Celts placed on individual prowess’.[[Hill Celtic Warfare pp1-2, p48]]
It is contended by David Stevenson that Alasdair MacColla had used the Highland Charge two years prior to Montrose’s first use of it, at the battle of Laney in Ireland in 1642.[[David Stevenson Highland Warrior: Alasdair MacColla and the Civil Wars (The Saltire Society, Edinburgh, 1994) pp82-4]]
The Highland charge is unusual but not unique in giving the offensive role to infantry. It closely follows the Swedish method introduced into western warfare for cavalry attacks. The cavalry would fire their pistols before charging home and be given fire support by groups of musketeers amongst the cavalry to blast holes in the opposing pike walls. Something similar, though not quite on the same lines, was also used by Swedish infantry too. They would fire a full salvo as opposed to the old rolling volleys as a prelude to attack by the pikes.[[Michael Roberts Gustavus Adolphus and the Rise of Sweden (The English Universities Press Ltd. London, 1973) pp109-111]] A Swedish attack at the Battle of Breitenfeld, Gustav Adolf’s greatest victory is described as follows;
This is echoed by Munro’s mention of charging with ‘a salve of muskets’ at the same battle.[[Robertt Monro, Monro, His Expedition with the worthy Scots regiment called MacKey’s William S. Brockington, Jr. (ed.) (Praegar, Westport, 1999) p193]] The former quote itself is actually describing a Scots regiment, leading not unnaturally to speculation that it is this that was indeed the prototype for the Highland charge.[[Alexia Grosjean ‘Scotland: Sweden’s closest ally?’ pp143-171 Steve Murdoch (ed.) Scotland and the Thirty Years War 1618-1648 (Brill, Leiden, 2001) p158]] The tactics, though used by Scots, where definitely Swedish. They continued to evolve adding another layer of complexity.
Charles XII, in the Great Northern War 1700-21, used the final form very successfully. It dictated the use of the Infantry as an essentially offensive weapon. They retained the pike after it was phased out in other western armies. The infantry would advance, at 40 meters the first two ranks would dive to the ground, the rear two would fire a salvo, the advance continued until point blank range when the first two ranks fired they all then attacked with the sword. It is interesting to note the use of the sword over the bayonet, which was by then in widespread use, this was probably because the bayonet of the 1680’s being the plug variety precluded firing.[[Alf Åberg, ‘The Swedish Army from Lützen to Narva’ pp265-287 Michael Roberts (ed.) Sweden’s Age of Greatness 1632-1718 (The Macmillan Press, Basingstoke, 1973) pp281-2]] Charles XII’s method of warfare fits Hill’s ‘attack against all reason, against all odds’ the Swedes took the offensive consistently in their battles, and yet this was one of the most advanced and disciplined armies of Europe. The point is that the Swedish charge needed order and cohesion to be at its most devastating.[[Robert I. Frost, The Northern Wars; War, State and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558-1721 (Harlow, 2000) p275 (the quote for purpose of comparison is Hill Celtic warfare p1)]] The Highland charge cannot be seen as a uniquely Gaelic institution nor solely as a symptom of indiscipline playing to individual prowess.
Undisciplined and primitive
It is contended by Hill that one of the things that makes Celtic warfare is the enduring primitivism that withstood sustained contact with those with more civilised systems and failed to adapt.[[Hill Celtic Warfare pp3-4]]
However even Spalding who is hostile to the highlanders said of MacColla’s force that they were ‘1500 Irishis, brocht wp in Wast Flanderis, expert soldiouris’.[[Spalding, Memorialls p385]] Ballie also makes the assertion that they came ‘from the continent’.[[Robert Baillie, Letters, and journals: containing an impartial account of public transactions, civil, ecclesiastical, and military, in England and Scotland, from the beginning of the civil wars, in 1637, to the year 1662: Vol. 2. (Edinburgh, 1775.) 2 vols. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale Group. p64]] Stevenson says that this is a false assumption but their performance certainly justified the mistake.[[Stevenson, Highland Warrior pp106-7]] This brings up the important point that large numbers of Highland and Irish soldiers gained experience in the Thirty years war then still raging in Europe. Gordon mentions that ‘The commons of the north are fund by experience (as our commanderes in Holland doeth testifie) to be more courageous and martial than those of the south’.[[Gordon, Britane’s Distemper p138]] The Dutch ‘mingle and blend the Scottish among them, which are like Beans and Peas among chaff. These are sure men, hardy and resolute, and their example holds up the Dutch.’[[Anon. English Eyewitness quoted in James Ferguson (ed.) Papers Illustrating the History of the Scots Brigade in the Service of the United Netherlands, 1572-1782 (Scotish History Society, Edinburgh, 1899) Vol.I 1572-1697, p309]] The Irish or Highlanders fighting for continental armies fought in the same manner as the troops of other nations whom they fought alongside. Regardless of whether they first had to give up their own style of fighting they came back with a considerable knowledge of the continental methods of warfare.
The most well known example is MacKay’s regiment whose history was written by Robert Monro. Munro himself came from Cromarty on the Black Isle and can therefore be considered a Highlander himself; the Munros were in the army of the covenant at Auldearn.[[Fraser, Chronicles of the Frasers p294]] He nonetheless considered himself well enough versed in the Art of War to allow his travelogue to double as a military manual.[[Monro, His Expedition ppxv-xvi ; William S. Brockington ‘Robert Monro: Professional Soldier, Military Historian and Scotsman’ pp215-241 Steve Murdoch (ed.) Scotland and the Thirty Years War 1618-1648 (Brill, Leiden, 2001) p219]] The German press commented upon the exotic nature of the Highlanders or Irish and they might be compared to other oddities like Laplanders. However prolonged exposure to the German wars brought about a change in perception in Germany as Gaels became indistinguishable from every other soldier.[[Hartmut Ruffer and Katherin Zickerman ‘German Reactions to the Scots in the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years War’ pp271-292 Steve Murdoch (ed.) Scotland and the Thirty Years War 1618-1648 (Brill, Leiden, 2001) p278, pp289-90]] The Influence of returnees from the wars of the continent upon the armies of the covenant is well documented. Monro became a leading general. It would be ridiculous to suggest that the same did not affect Gaelic warfare, the Irish served extensively in the armies of Spain. In the face of Irish and Gaels fighting on the continent in fine continental style Hill’s contention of Celtic resistance to influence seems hardly credible.
Lack of standardisd equipment
The highlanders had little uniformity of equipment; they were ‘weell armed with habershones, muriones, and targates; for offensive armes, they had gunes, bowes, swords, and aixes, called of some Lochaber aixes’.[[Gordon, Britane’s Distemper p94]] MacColla’s Irish on the other hand are repeatedly reported as ‘Irish Musquetiers’[[Anon. The copie of a letter, showing the true relation, of the late and happie victorie, [Aberdeen? : J. Brown, 1645] C6158A p6]] one source even said that ‘Generall Major Mackdonald, marched with Pikes’ although this is presumably an English writer failing to account for any differences, assuming all fought exactly alike.[[Anon. A true relation of the happy success of His Maiesties forces in Scotland [Oxford : By L. Lichfield], Printed in the yeare 1644. [i.e. 1645] E.269 p7]]
Both the Highlanders and Irish used bows, though MacColla’s Irish clearly used muskets. Fraser reports both they and the Highlanders had bows at the battle of Alford.[[Fraser, Chronicles of the Frasers p299]] It is entirely plausible, German prints show Irish or Highlanders with both. This failure to adopt the more up to date equipment of the time of blocks of pikes defending blocks of muskets shows the difference in Gaelic warfare because a regiment cant cooperate effectively together when the men within the regiment are not equipped in a standard way. This in turn forces the gaels to adopt a different style of warfare that is more close combat and shock orientated so that all the members of the regiment can use their weapons.
Equipping men with sword, targe and bow might seem archaic in the world of Pike, pistol and musket but that does not make them ineffective. The sword and buckler was an excellent combination against the pike. In the Great Italian wars the Spanish used them to great effect, most notably in the battle of Ravenna 1512 where they reportedly cut down twelve hundred Landsknecht pikes.[[Sir Charles Oman A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century (Greenhill Books, London, 1999 orig. 1937) p56, p144]] Machiavelli reports how ‘the Spaniards, making good use of their bucklers, with great agility thrust their way between and under the German pikes, and attacked with impunity while the Germans were defenceless’.[[Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince George Bull (trans.) (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1968) p137]] The continuing validity of the century old tactic is demonstrated by MacColla at Auldearn; ‘Pike-Men with many a blow stuck their spearheads into his target, which he cut off by three or four at once with his sword.’[[Wishart, A Complete History p59]] David Stevenson asserts that it is far more likely that the use of the combination came from Ireland, however this is somewhat irrelevant, permutations of sword and shield of varying types are ubiquitous all over Europe indeed most of the world and age old.
There was probably a good deal of Spanish influence on the Irish use of the targe even if it was piece of equipment of long standing, given the good deal of military connections between the two nations. The Irish military writer Gerat Barry recommends use of sword and targe to the Irish ‘for being more inclined to this sorte of weapõ more then any other Nation, and besides that of all Nations none are more fitt for the same’.[[Barry, Gerat. A discourse of military discipline (At Bruxells : By the vvidovve of Jhon Mommart, 1634) p9]] Though aimed at the Irish the recommendation is not exclusive to them and as Barry was a Spanish officer whose military career was largely on the continent and mentioned specifically their use in siege warfare he was probably thinking as much of the Spanish use.[[Pádraig Lenihan, ‘Barry, Gerat (d. 1646)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1559, accessed 26 Nov 2006]]] However when resisting a sally at the siege of Breda the Irish brigade that Barry was with used muskets and pike.[[Herman Hugo, The seige of Breda by the armes of Phillip the Fourt vnder the gouernment of Isabella atchiued by the conduct of Ambr. Spinola (Louanii : Ex officina Hastenii, M.DC.XXVII. ) pp33-5]]
Similarly there were advantages to bows as Sir John Smyth contended in the debate in Elizabethan England of the 1590’s over the decline of the weapon; ‘Archers are able to discharge foure or fiue arrowes apeece, before the Harquebuziers shall bee readie to discharge one bullet’.[[Sir John Smythe, Certain discourses, vvritten by Sir Iohn Smythe, Knight: concerning the formes and effects of diuers sorts of weapons, and other verie important matters militarie, greatlie mistaken by diuers of our men of warre in these daies; and chiefly, of the mosquet, the caliuer and the long-bow; as also, of the great sufficiencie, excellencie, and wonderful effects of archers: with many notable examples and other particularities, (1590) p20]] In addition ‘they doo direct their arrowes […] with a great deale more certaintie, being within eight, nine, tenne, or eleuen scores, than anie Harquebuziers or Mosquettiers (how good soeuer they bee) can doo in a much neerer distance’.[[Ibid p27]] Both these points are however, hotly contested by Humfrey Barwick.[[Humfrey Barwick, A breefe discourse, concerning the force and effect of all manuall weapons of fire and the disability of the long bowe or archery, in respect of others of greater force now in vse. With sundrye probable reasons for the verrifying therof: the which I haue doone of dutye towards my soueraigne and country, and for the better satisfaction of all such as are doubtfull of the same. (1592)]]
Equally Stevenson asserts the transition from bow to musket and the latter’s use in the highland charge is from Ireland too. The bow and musket are however fundamentally different. The musket is a direct fire weapon only, the bow can fire indirectly as well, i.e over the head of the person in front and this is how highlanders used it. The Musket is far more a weapon of shock effect, its use in the highland charge was less to kill more to disorder and provide a smokescreen. The Gaels failure to adopt the normal equipment of western warfare had less to do with Hill’s contention of resistance to outside influence than practicality. The pike let alone the cannon were not suitable for the terrain and irregular warfare preferred. Both bow and Sword were effective so there was no reason to switch. The musket was of most utility of the modern weapons and therefore the one adopted.
Gaelic warfare thesis should not be based upon pitched battles
It might be said that it would not be in set piece battles that a ‘Celtic’ mode of warfare is to be found. In eleven years of warfare there where only seven set piece battles in Ireland.[[Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘The Civil Wars in Ireland’ John Kenyon and Jane Ohlmeyer (eds.) The Civil Wars, A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland 1638-1660 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998) p84]] The ravaging of Argyll seems more characteristic. Montrose and MacColla ‘burnis and slayis throw his haill countries, and left no houss nor hold, except impregnabill strenthis, on brynt, thair cornes, gudis and geir; and left not ane four footed beist’.[[Spalding, Memorialls p442-3]] This action was based primarily on clan feuds as ‘all the clane Donald, had such a mynd to reuenge the injuries and tyranus oppression wherewith Ardgyll…had insulted ower them’.[[Gordon, Britane’s Distemper p94]] However though it may have been motivated by feud it also served other purposes, MacColla overstated the case when he argued for bringing down Argyll because ‘on him alon the Couenant relyed’.[[Ibid p96]] It was also calculated ‘that all the Highlanders being either frightened with the example of Argyll or freed from fear of him, should be ready to assist the King’s most righteous cause’.[[Wishart, A Complete History p44]]
The ravaging of Argyll was exceptional in its fury but Highland warfare was built on raiding. For example Fraser mentions a failed attack of spring 1645 ‘ill natured M‘kenzies instigat Seaforth to set an ambush for him [Lord Lovat], such was the gum and superstitious temper of neighbours at the time’.[[Fraser, Chronicles of the Frasers pp288-9]] It might be noted that Seaforth and Lovat were both covenanters, the former only reluctantly. If as noted earlier there was a particular romanticism in Celtic warfare, and as Hill contends, an emphasis on individual prowess it originated not in battle but rather in raids. The cattle raid was a central element to Celtic warfare; it was a not very destructive because of the mobility of cattle.[[ Stevenson, Highland Warrior p18]] Given this was by far the most common form of warfare it is not surprising it influenced the weaponry used and even an offensive attitude might be fostered because of the comparatively little damage done so less need to be defensive. It makes far more sense that the practicality of particular circumstances was the deciding influence rather than a hardheaded resistance to change.
It should be remembered that the pitched battle was not the norm in warfare. In the English civil war half of those who died in combat died in small actions involving less than 250 men.[[Charles Carlton, ‘Civilians’ John Kenyon and Jane Ohlmeyer (eds.) The Civil Wars, A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland 1638-1660 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998) p273]] The use of terror, raids, and pillaging need not spring from feud, all armies devastated surrounding areas in warfare to a certain extent. Destruction might also be a tool of state policy, the most notorious example being the devastation of the Palatinate in 1688-9 by Louis XIV in the hope of persuading German princes to switch sides, as Montrose hoped other clans would.[[John A. Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV: 1667-1714 (Longman, Harlow, 1999) p193-199]]
Not just an offensive weapon
The emphasis on the Gael’s individual valour and martial ardour as well as his offensive use of the Highland charge as the key tactic in nearly all situations tends to lead to the conclusion that Highland warriors were only capable of a one shot offensive action. The question over whether they were undisciplined and utterly incapable of defensive warfare to hold ground can best be answered by looking at the confused accounts of the Battle of Auldearn of 1645. It was a great victory all agree, but whose and how it was arrived at are matters in contention. Montrose’s confused letter describing the battle says he deliberately divided his forces in order to make Baillie and Hurry do likewise[[ Peter Heylyn, (editor.) Mercvrivs avlicvs, (Oxford : Printed by Henry Hall for William Webb,) May 25th to June 8th 1645 p1611(of all the vols of the newspaper) (p9 of this issue)]] and from that he chose the ground and to ‘bide them at the defence’ what actually occurred is hard to glean from his letter it is however the basis for Wishart’s more detailed account.[[ibid p1612 (10)]]
Gordon says that Montrose was surprised. MacColla ‘for all his diligence, could [only] get two regiments drawen wpe’ he then quickly chose ‘stronge ground… wher it fell to him to receive the first charge’. Gordon continues saying ‘efter a brave and long maintained resistance, he is forced a reteir to som yeards of the town, and from thence to keipe them off with conteinuall shot.’ Such continuous fire was only possible with great discipline and the use of the countermarch. Despite being ‘opprest with multitude, and charge wpon charge’ he managed to ‘reteir his people in good order, or keipe them from confuised fleight.’[[Gordon, Britane’s Distemper pp123-124]] Withdrawal under pressure in good order is the most difficult thing to do successfully in battle this MacColla achieves admirably.
Although Spalding and Montrose both maintain that he was ready and not surprised that is not really an issue. More important is Gordons’ assertion that MacColla fought a successful and extremely prolonged defence. Spalding makes no mention of a period on the defensive but the phrase ‘at last’ before the charge implies a considerable time lapse presumably fought defensively.[[Spalding, Memorialls p473]] Montrose mentions that the covenanters ‘being confident both of their men and of their number fell hotly on’. Montrose then has the attack faltering giving him time to have ‘devided my selfe in two wings, and marched upon them most unexpectedly’.[[Heylyn, (ed.) Mercvrivs avlicvs, May 25th to June 8th 1645 p1612 (10)]] This course of action would, given his numerical inferiority, require practically a complete disengagement or one wing to have been not engaged in the first place. The latter would support Gordon’s analysis, either course of action allows for MacColla’s Irish to have a period of effective defensive fighting.
If one example of Irish discipline is insufficient Gordon gives another example at the battle of Aberdeen in 1644. When charged by a single troop of horsemen ‘the Irishes throw whom he charged, being so well trained men as the world could afford no better, oppins their rankes recieueing, and closes againe immediately by commande of there worthie M‘Donald, and then from all quarters guies fyre vpon.’[[Gordon, Britane’s Distemper p82]] By a combination of their use of countermarch and orderly withdrawal, and the defeat of the cavalry at Aberdeen Gordon gives an impression of Irish discipline and order totally at odds with Hill’s view. It is one source from three but it is sustainable as it explains defects in the others narratives. Equally importantly it does away with any need to try to explain Celtic indiscipline in stereotyped terms of primitivism.
Wishart and Spalding’s accounts however ignore the defensive. Gordon’s account is completely different from them. From Spalding the battle seems a very brief affair, ‘Hurrie cums marching forduard touardis Olderne, quhair Montriss wes byding him in good postur. At last Montroiss gives Hurry ane hot charge vpon all quarteris, both with foot and horss’. The covenanters however lost because of a Major Drummond ‘who wheillit about vnskillfullie throw his owne foot and brak thair rankis’.[[John Spalding, Memorialls of the Trubles in Scotland and in England A.D.1624-A.D.1645 vol.2 of 2 (The Spalding Club, Aberdeen, 1851) p473]] This does not seem to square with the 2000 dead he records for Hurry. Fraser elaborates slightly upon the same template, after Drummond causes the disorder ‘Allexander M‘kdonnell in a furry, with his Irishes and Highlanders, run throw them, killing and goaring underfoot.’[[Fraser, Chronicles of the Frasers p295]] Where Spalding would give the honour to Montrose Fraser gives it to MacColla but it is a victory of the same Highland charge style as Tippermuir or Inverlochy.
Wishart gives a different and fuller account of the battle.
That at least was the plan as Wishart outlines it, though how MacColla can form both the reserve and suffer the brunt of the attack seems contradictory. However the Indiscipline of the Irish and Highlanders ruin it;
Such a picture of indiscipline and an inability to fight on the defensive plays to the stereotype of the Celtic warrior, one Wishart repeats later at Kilsyth.[[Ibid p76]]
The same occured elsewhere in Europe
Having outlined similarities and differences to western norms of Celtic warfare I wish to look further a field briefly for another instructive comparison. Interestingly the stereotype of the polish mode of fighting of the late seventeenth century turns out to be very similar to that of Celtic warfare. They are said to possess ‘a Method of War peculiar to their own Nation’. ‘That the Valor of the Poles is not so much a Noble and Generous Courage, as a Natural Insensibility of temper’[[M. Dalairac, Polish manuscripts, or, The secret history of the reign of John Sobieski the III, of that name, K. of Poland (London : Printed for H. Rhodes, T. Bennet, A. Bell, T. Leigh and D. Midwinter, 1700.) p2]] they however ‘resist all Inconveniences, Nakedness, Hunger and Blows with an Heroic constancy’. ‘they neither make Sieges nor Attacks [on fortresses] but do all in the field’ when in the field they compulsively attack even when inappropriate.[[ibid pp. 12, 3, 17]] Polish troops pillage remorselessly. Moreover ‘They have added firearms’ but retain bows and ‘use them in Skirmishes instead of Fire-Arms’ like the Turks and Tartars.[[ibid pp.10-11 pp.28-31.]] Remove the mention of Poles and Tartars and this could describe the Gael. Needless to say the stereotype of the Poles warfare is as far from the truth as that of the Gaels.
The comparison cannot be stretched too far as Polish warfare is primarily based on cavalry. However there was a strong element of raiding and skirmish in eastern warfare. Additionally as with the Highland charge the Poles combined firepower and offensive warfare into a potent cocktail, and used it to ‘attack against all reason, against all odds’ a mentality that strongly influenced the aforementioned Swedes.[[Frost, The Northern Wars p53, p63 (the quote again from Hill p1)]] Equally the Poles had a good knowledge of western methods, their infantry fought in western style if occasion demanded but preferred a musket and sword combination, as with the highlanders, but could also put up a skilled defence.[[ibid p48, p107]] The point of the digression is that polish and Gaelic warfare in their similarities have a similar root or starting point to build on, a dependence and emphasis upon raiding. That results in a difference in weapons used, the bow is a better skirmishing weapon than the musket and the pike is well nigh useless when not in regimented orderly bodies so neither used it. This in turn has it effects on the battlefield, the pike though usable on the offensive is far more a defensive weapon, this consideration results in a relatively more offensive view of the battlefield.
What do you think?