Auldearn offers a twist on the classic encounter battle. Although often claimed as Montrose’s greatest victory, its result changed little in the course of the campaign and was a closer run affair than most texts would lead you to believe. When we started out, many years ago, to recreate this battle, little did we know that many of our assumptions would be challenged, as we dug deeper into the literature around the battle and the War of the Three Kingdoms in general.
This article aims to describe the battle as we understand it. From this we describe the order of battle and potential mechanisms to allow a game to be played in which both sides have the potential for victory.
The principal road through Auldearn ran north-south through the village. Hurry had travelled along this route from Inverness but significantly had decided to leave the road and strike off across country to allow his army to descend on Auldearn from the open country in the west. However, as his troops approached, they cleared their weapons of damp powder in preparation for the coming battle.
“…for want of which intelligence, if God had not prevented it beyond all expectation, all ther throats had bein cut.” Ruthven
As Hurry closed in, Montrose’s force was widely dispersed, most likely billeted in local crofts or foraging in the surrounding area. In Auldearn, only MacCollas veteran lifeguard and Gordon of Monymores untested highland regulars were to hand. The shots from the advancing Covenanters must have come as a shock to Montrose (who throughout his campaign, was repeatedly caught off-guard). Hurry’s advance through the open country may have bypassed the scouts on the Inverness road, but it is also possible that Montrose neglected to deploy an effective picket line.
“….the major; who, for all his diligence, could hardly get two regiments drawn wpe, on of the Irishes, and on of Huntlie, when the enemie were com in sight….” Ruthven.
Hurrys force advanced from the west, across the broad whaleback ridge of Garlic Hill. MacColla and Monymore deployed across their path, amongst turf walled farm encloses, fighting a delaying action to buy Montrose precious time to muster his ill-prepared forces. The heavily outnumbered Royalists were forced back but the government forces were unable to bring their superior numbers to bear. The marshy areas on either side of Garlic Hill appear to have forced the fighting into a narrow frontage and only Hurry’s leading elements were able to engage the Royalists.
“The enemie, coming up two regiments in a full body, flanked with horsemen, did charge the major in that difficult place…” Ruthven.
Campbell of Lawers veteran infantry regiment engaged in a brutal firefight with MacCollas Lifeguard, repeatedly slayed the ensigns holding aloft MacCollas yellow banner. As the hard-pressed Royalists withdrew off Garlic Hill, Hurry held his men in check, preventing a pursuit into Auldearn. Hurry’s reluctance to press home the advantage suggests he realized that he was not facing all of Montrose’s force. By keeping the majority of his force on the hard won high-ground, Hurry may have been uncertain of where and when Montrose would commit his reserves, as well as the need to re-order his force prior to an assault on the village. Hurry’s caution may reflect a professional respect for Montrose as an adversary, and coupled with a lack of good intelligence, led him to misjudge the Royalists somewhat desperate situation.
“So, efter a brave and long maintained resistance, (MacColla) is forced a reteir to som yeards of the town, and from thence to keipe them of with counteinuall shot, which a little quealed ther force…” Ruthven.
In the Balance
MacColla took up a defensive position within Auldearn and its surrounding enclosures. As Lawers committed his men forward, the marshy ground separating Garlic Hill from Auldearn slowed their advance. Within the village MacColla and Monymore were reinforced by the arrival of fresh elements of the Irish regiments. As the leading covenanter regiments prepared to advance on the village, with Lawers again on the front line, Monymores took up position on the crest of Castle Hill. The Covenanter advance stalled as they negotiated the boggy ground to emerge on the steep slopes and enclosures of Auldearn. Here they encountered a galling fire from the Irish in the village and Gordons on their flank.
Seizing the initiative, MacColla counter-attacked with the Irish but soon became bogged down in the same marshy ground that had slowed the covenanter advance. In fact, the ground beneath Castle Hill was so broken that Monymore could not advance at all. After more fierce fighting, the Irish regained a foothold amongst the turf enclosures on Garlic Hill. Lawers, forced to retire, reformed and supported by the Loudon’s Regiment, advanced once more on the Royalists. The two regiments, flanked by supporting horse, and supported by indirect bow-fire from Seaforths Highlanders, once more succeeded in forcing MacColla back into the village, but this time were able to pursue the Irish into the lanes of Auldearn.
“…and altho (MacColla) was forced to quyt his ground, yet this brave and valorous gentleman keipt his second retreat still in a pouster of defence.” Ruthven.
Vicious hand to hand fighting raged in the houses and back-courts, whilst musket fire undoubtedly played along the flanks of the engagement. Highland tradition vividly describes the desperate struggle within the confines of the village as the two forces became intermingled. Unable to bring his cavalry to bear, Hurry pushed forward additional infantry to support the battle, perhaps hoping to finally break Monymores obstinate defense on Castle Hill, and allowing his superior numbers to swamp MacColla and the Irish. However, the terrain once again prevented Hurry to capitalize his numerical advantage.
With the battle now grinding towards a Covenanter victory, Hurry became fixated on the force to his front and neglected the danger posed on his lengthy exposed flanks. Perhaps, given the fighting had gone on all morning and into the early afternoon, Hurry believed that all Royalist forces were now engaged. As Hurry’s leading regiment was engaged in house- to-house fighting in the village, the majority of his force sat idle on the slopes of Garlic Hill. In the meantime, Montrose had been gathering the rest of his forces to the east of Auldearn, screened from Hurry by the hill upon which Auldearn Auldearn was built. Rather than feed them into the confused fighting within the village, Montrose directed his reserves to the north and south, to fall upon the flanks of the Covenanter army on Garlic Hill.
First contact came from the south where Aboyne’s Horse attacked the Covenanter’s right flank. Screened by the smoke of battle, Aboyne’s troopers surprised Drummond’s Horse placed on the right by Hurry to support his infantry. Whether through treachery, miscommunication or just incompetence, Drummond reacted by wheeling his troop into the flank of Seaforths Highlanders. In the ensuing disorder, Aboyne drove the two regiments back into their supports with much slaughter.
“Wherefor (Aboyne) fales in vpon the right wing, and they receive his charge with such a conteinuall giving of fyre, as he semed, by the thick smok throw which he went, to asalt a terrible cloud of thunder and lightening. “ Ruthven.
As panic spreads, the veteran Covenanter regiments in the village disengaged and withrew back to Garlic Hill as Hurry tried to restore order. However, Lord Gordon’s horse now emerged from behind Castle Hill and moving at the charge, made short shrift of the flanking Covenanter cavalry and fell upon Lawers retiring infantry.
“My Lord Gordon by this time charges the left winge, and that with a new for a fight, for he discharges with all shooting of pistols and carrabines, only with ther swords to charge quyt throwgh ther enemies, who wer so many in Number…” Ruthven.
With their leading regiments now hard-pressed, the Covenanters watched in horror as Strathbogie’s fresh regiment of foot emerged from the southern end of Auldearn, and the remains of MacColla’s command debouched from Auldearn. Hurry tried to stem this advance with the Lord Chancellors and Lothians Foote. However, these veterans of Ireland, perhaps singled out for their history of campaigning in Ulster, died hard around their standards, there retreat cut off by the marauding royalist cavalry to their rear.
“Lovdonis regiment, the Lavthean regiment, Laeris regiment, and Bucannanis regiment ar for the most pairt cut af, fighting to the death most vaiantlie.” Spalding.
With his best regiments fighting on despite being surrounded, Hurry realized the battle was lost and , fled southwards intending to retire on Inverness. However, the road was covered by royalist troopers (who in the confusion had actually set about one another) who offered little quarter to the fleeing Covenanters. Seeing this danger, Hurry turned to the west, retreating across the River Nairn at Howford.
“Thair wes reknet to be slayne heir at this bloodie battle aboue 2000 men to Hurry.” Spalding.
To all intents and purpose Hurry’s army was destroyed. His less experienced regiments had scattered and his veterans were savaged. However, the toll was high on the royalist side with over 200 slain, including 24 officers and likely a greater number of wounded. The following day Montrose retired rather than pursuing Hurry, marching the remains of his army towards the Gordon fiefdoms in the east. Along the way, Montrose’s men harried the lands of the local Earls who had raised the regiments in support of Hurry.
“It is to be considderit, that Montrose, his capitans, and soldiouris, wan this victorie with gryt gloir of armis”. Spalding.
There are many appropriate rule systems for the War of the Three Kingdoms. We have chosen to use Warlord’s Black Powder, as described in the “Pike & Shotte” supplement. At first Auldearn seemed like a reasonable proposition for a wargame. However, looking at other descriptions of tabletop refights, it became apparent that three factors are often overlooked; the influence of terrain, the timing of action and finally the quality of the troops. In games the table is often too open, the troop quality is skewed with royalist supermen, and the cavalry always come to the rescue. This raises the question of how to build a balanced game where both sides are capable of gaining something from the conflict. In reality, the outcome of this battle was not a foregone conclusion and for a critical period in the village, shortly after noon, the Royalists were effectively beaten.
The terrain in this part of Nairnshire is a series of sandy, rolling hills, which decrease in elevation from the Grampian Plateau in the south, to the coast in the north. The battle field is dominated by ridge of Garlic Hill, which points east towards the heart of Auldearn. The village sits on high ground with two prominent heights; the western most being the old motte of Erin’s castle (Auld-Erin), the second being crowned by the kirk. The 17th century town did not extend to the south and east as far as it does today but the ground had enough elevation to block line-of-sight for any great distance to the east, even from the summit of Garlic Hill. Thus the topography was generally T-shaped, with Garlic Hill forming the trunk beneath the cross-bar of the Auldearn dominated ridge. With regards table lay-out: at its simplest the terrain should have two large hills arranged in a T, with Garlic Hill forming the trunk and separated from the Auldearn ridge by a narrow, boggy valley. Auldearn village should be set up towards the northern part of the T’s cross.
Garlic Hill was not as open in the 17th century as it is today. Much of it was covered by small enclosures, utilized by the royalists to mount their defense. Other parts of the hill we undeveloped with patches of thick gorse.
These days the terrain is well-drained, yet in the 17th century, the local streams were poorly confined and associated with broad areas of boggy marsh. Two streams flowed around Garlic Hill, coming together at the base of Castle Hill. As such, Garlic Hill was almost completely surrounded marsh ground. The narrow area of boggy ground and steep slopes of Auldearn, combined to provide MacCollas Thermopylae, is was likely a critical factor in the covenanters being unable to maximize their strength in numbers. As well as the marsh areas, the streams themselves must have locally provided significant obstacles. The present day Covenanters Inn is partially constructed from the old water mill, indicating that the stream here must have been deep and fast enough to drive this.
Auldearn village was characterized by multiple small enclosures (“yeards”), so numerous fence lines should also be added. The two high points of Auldearn hill should be crowned by the Doocoot and Kirk respectively. In the case of the former, enough open space should be provided to allow for (Monymores) shotte units to deploy.
Multiple tracks can be modelled, but the only known main road was the one from Inverness, which skirted around the south of Garlic Hill, entering Auldearn from the South. The current road from Nairn cuts through the northern marsh area and was probably not a major artery before drainage. Outside of the village, on well-drained ground, small copses of trees can be added but the hills were generally open with the exception of occasional patches of gorse and local, turf-walled, enclosures.
Under Pike and Shotte, terrain is thus classified as follows; streams, fences and turf-walled enclosures are linear obstacles, marsh and gorse patches are rough-ground; tracks and fords through streams/marsh are open with no movement penalties to troops deployed in column formation. Hills, buildings and woods will all obscure line-of-sight.
The game begins with MacColla’s Lifeguard and Monymores Regiment on Garlic Hill, facing the might of the advancing Covenanter army arriving on the western board edge. Unless engaged in melee, the royalist can retire towards Auldearn whenever they choose, using the Fall-Back rule.
In the early stages of the battle the Covenanters will be better placed to bring their numbers to bear on the central section of Garlic Hill, with only low turf-dykes providing defensive positions for the hard pressed Royalists. As the battle progressed, and MacColla retreated, the available deployment width on Garlic Hill, into Auldearn will be reduced to a narrow frontage, such that only a single regiment can directly assault the Village. This reflects the fact that onlyLawers Regiment could enter Auldearn and their support was from the Seaforths firing arrows indirectly.
Montrose was able assemble his scattered regiments behind Auldearn and then choose when and where he was going to deploy them. If Hurry had cleared the village Montrose would not have had this critical advantage. All troop deployment behind the Auldearn ridge should be hidden.
Scattered Royalist units joining the fighting from outlying billets will be treated as reserves. Royalist reserves arrive from the start of turn 4, in the following order at approximately one regiment per-turn;
Turn 4. The Irish Regiments
Turn 6. Aboynes Horse
Turn 7. Gordon Horse
Turn 8. The Strathbogie Regiment
However, to reflect Montrose’s tactical counter stroke, the regiments need not be deployed until they are ready to advance, reflecting Montrose nursing his reserves for his counter stroke. Additionally, if the regiment is “held” for at least one turn, the royalist player can deploy them on either flank.
To prevent the Covenanter player being overly prepared for their arrival, the closest two units to the flanking reserves must take an immediate break test. This should only occur once per flank, encouraging the royalist to commit his reserve at a time of maximum disruption in the government lines. Flanking units are deployed at the start of the move and can participate in the turn.
If the Covenanters, seize the high-ground in Auldearn village, or clear the village itself, all Royalist reserves must arrive on the eastern table edge and cannot move that turn.
By most accounts Auldearn lasted all day. The distinct phases of the battle, described above, were separated by pauses, as both sides took stock and redressed their formations. For the majority of the day, only a small percentage of Hurry’s force was engaged. Additionally, it was only late in the day that Montrose had assembled all his force for his counterstroke.
If Hurry had captured Auldearn, Montrose could never have launched his surprise attack. If MacColla had held up Hurry longer on Garlic Hill, or Montrose assembled his troops earlier, the battle may have occurred on the hill.
To reflect the protracted nature of the struggle, and the hiatuses between the various episodes of the battle, each side is allowed to call a tactical pause for one turn. During this pause, no shooting or melee is allowed, rallying can be resolved and movement/redeployment can occur. This will encourage Hurry to push forward but give Montrose some respite from the overwhelming odds.
Order of Battle for Auldearn
Given the relatively small numbers involved at Auldearn it is possible to achieve a roughly 1:10 ratio for figures, which can work well for 28mm figures on a 6’ x 8’ table. Unit size is an important parameter in Pike & Shotte, where units are classified as tiny, small, standard or large. This not only reflects the physical size (frontage and number of models) but also the fighting ability with size modifying the basic unit stat line.
In terms of troop quality and unit stat line it is relatively easy to construct the forces at Auldearn from the list included in the book. However, as with many rule systems, Montrose’s forces are represented as Gaelic supermen, whilst those of the government are relatively bland.
For the Royalist army, the Irish regiments and MacColla’s Lifeguard can be used as listed in the Pike & Shotte rule book. Here they have a strong stat-line which makes them more than a match for any single standard Covenanter unit. The regiments of Strathbogie and Monymore are regular highland regiments and can be fielded as basic Scots infantry. As Monymore’s regiment was newly raised it should be given the Freshly Raised special rule.
The Covenanter regiments were a little more diverse in quality than the lists provided in Pike & Shotte. Hurry’s experienced regiments (Lawers, Lothians & the Lord Chancellors) gave a good account of themselves on the day and should be rated accordingly. Therefore, rating them as veterans, and giving them the Valiant, Stubborn and Elite 4+ special rules should give them some staying power. Conversely, Hurry additionally had some untested regiments (Seaforths, Sutherlands and the Northern Levies) which should be given the Freshly Raised special rule.
Scottish Horse, in most rules of for the period, commonly gets unfairly downgraded, as these were not commoner’s mounted on ponies. Neither is their evidence to distinguish the Royalist Horse from their Covenanter counterparts. At Auldearn and Kilsyth, the Royalists benefitted from surprise and terrain whilst at Alford, in an open fight, they performed no better or worse. We suggest that the basic Covenanter Horse stat-line be applied to both forces cavalry, but that the Royalist Horse is given the Marauders special rule, allowing them more tactical independence. Numeric superiority and surprise should see the Royalist Cavalry perform well on the table. Drummond’s blunder may have been the catalyst for the Covenanter collapse and as such this unit can be burdened with a -1 on all motivational tests, reflecting the incompetence, cowardice or collusion of its commander.
Brigade commanders, at a minimum, should consist of Montrose and MacColla for the Royalists and Hurry and Mackenzie for the Covenanters. One additional brigade commander may be added to free Hurry and Montrose for a broader battlefield role as general, if felt appropriate. Both Montrose and MacColla need little introduction and should be rated 10 and 9 respectively. Hurry was an experienced mercenary soldier of dubious loyalty but should be rated 9 as he showed unwavering loyalty to his paymasters at Auldearn. George Mackenzie, Earl of Seaforth, was a fair-weather supporter of the Covenant and of uncertain loyalty. A rating of 6 should ensure that he has a dragging effect on the Government force, perhaps creating a few “blunders” along the way.