The Battle of Aberdeen 1644 and Donald Cargill

In 1637, when he was ten, Donald Cargill left his family home in Rattray parish to continue his education at Aberdeen Grammar School. His time there would be far from peaceful…

Aberdeen was one of the largest and most important burghs in Scotland with extensive trade links to northern Europe. It was also a town with two universities. The grammar school which Cargill attended was located on School Hill.

While he was there, he apparently lodged with the family of a cousin on his mother’s side, Patrick Blair, who was a merchant in the burgh. (Grant, No King But Christ, 15.)

Cargill’s time at the grammar school coincided with the political convulsions caused by the outbreak of the Covenanting struggle. Initially. The burgh’s elite and local ministers politely, but firmly, declined the “offer” that they should subscribe the Covenant and prepared to resist the Covenanters’ advance. However, after being deserted by Royalist Marquis of Huntly the burgh fell without resistance to a Covenanter force led by the Marquis of Montrose on 30 March, 1639. In May, the burgh briefly fell back into the hands of the Royalists for five days, when Sir George Ogilvy plundered the houses of prominent Covenanters in the burgh. What the young Donald made of those events is not known, but given the Covenanting sympathies of his family and Patrick Blair, it is likely that the return of Montrose and 4,000 men on 25 May to secure the town for the Covenanting was a cause for celebration.

After he finished his schooling, Cargill attended the newly created Caroline University at Aberdeen in 1643. As part of the Covenanting regime’s purging of the burgh of ‘malignant’ Royalist influences, the new university had been formed out of the merger of King’s College and Marischal College in 1641. His stay at the university would be brief, as war once again visited Aberdeen.

On 28 August, 1644, Montrose, who had now deserted the Covenanters, raised the Royalist standard in support of King Charles I at Blair Atholl. Soon after, he and his army, mainly made of Irishmen under Alasdair Mac Colla, defeated the Covenanters at Tippermuir (i.e., Tibbermore) outside of Perth and swept into the North East. After failing to take Dundee, Montrose’s army arrived before Aberdeen.

On 13 September, 1644, with his army outside of the burgh, Montrose wrote to its inhabitants in no uncertain terms:

‘Loveing freindes
Being heir, for the maintenance of Religion and liberty and his Maiesties just authority and service thes ar, in his Maiesties name to requyre you that immediately, upon the sight heirof you, rander and give up your towne In the behalf of his Maiestie Otherwayes that all old persons women and children doe come out and reteire themselfs, and that those who stayes expect no quarter
I am as you deserve
Montrose’ (Letter from the Marquis of Montrose to the Burgh of  Aberdeen, 13 September, 1644.)

The letter was sent with Montrose’s commissioner and a drummer to a parley with the provost and baillies of Aberdeen. However, as Montrose’s delegation was plied with drink the drummer was shot with a pistol and slain. When word reached Montrose of the Covenanters’ behaviour, he was outraged at such a flagrant breach of the rules of war. He ordered that no quarter should be given.

The Covenanters under Robert, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, had made hasty preparations to defend the burgh with a force of about 2,000 men. Although the government force was larger than that of Montrose it was largely inexperienced, as about half of it was composed local levies of whom many were reluctant defenders. At the time of the battle, Cargill was around sixteen or seventeen years-old. It is possible that he was among the local levies sent out to defend Aberdeen. If he was, this would have been his first taste of battle.

The battle took place at Justice Mills, which lay within a couple of miles of Cargill’s school. A combination of inexperience and poor leadership quickly led to the disintegration and rout of the Covenanters. Montrose’s men quickly pursued the fleeing levies into the burgh. What followed may have further coloured Cargill’s views on Royalists:

‘There was little slaughter in the fight; but horrible was the slaughter in the flight fleeing back to the town, which was our townsmen’s destruction; whereas if they had fled, and not come near the town, they might have been in better security, …The lieutenant [i.e., Montrose] follows the chace into Aberdeen, his men hewing and cutting all manner of men they could overtake within the town, upon the streets, or in their houses, or round about the town as our men were flying, with broad swords, without mercy or remead. Thir cruel Irishes, seeing a man well clad, would first tirr him, to save his cloaths unspoiled, syne kill the man. We lost three pieces of cannon, with much good armour, besides the plundering of our town, houses, merchants’ booths, and all, which was pitiful to see! The lord Burleigh, … and diverse other Covenanters, wan away. Montrose follows the chase into the town, leaving the body of his army standing close unbroken while his return, excepting such as fought the field. He had promised them the plundering of the town for their good service, but he stayed not, but returned back from Aberdeen to the camp this samen Friday at night, leaving the Irishes killing, robbing, and plundering of this town at their pleasure, and nothing was heard but pitiful howling, crying, and weeping and mourning through all the streets! Thus thir Irishes continued Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Some women they pressed to deflower, and others they took per force to serve them in the camp. It is lamentable to hear how thir Irishes, who had gotten the spoil of the town, did abuse the samen; the men they killed they would not suffer to be buried, but tirred their cloaths off them, syne left the naked bodies lying above the ground. The wife durst not cry nor weep at her husband’s slaughter before her eyes, nor the daughter for the father, which if they did and were heard, then they were presently slain also.’

For full accounts of the battle and its aftermath, see Gordon’s account, here, Spalding’s account, here, and the information from the Battlefield Trust.

Aberdeen exchanged hands for the fifth time a few days later after Montrose withdrew into the Highlands and 4,000 Covenanters under Argyll occupied the town on 19 September.

The losses caused by the Montrose’s forces were accessed at £135,000. At the same time, the burgh’s economy was suffering, not only from plundering, but the imposition of free quartering. (Lynch, The Early Modern Town in Scotland, 180.)

Soon after, Cargill abandoned Aberdeen for good and moved to the safety of St Andrews, where, early in the following year, he matriculated at St Salvator’s College. (Grant, No King But Christ, 16.)

For Cargill’s early life, see here.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved

~ by drmarkjardine on June 11, 2013.

One Response to “The Battle of Aberdeen 1644 and Donald Cargill”

  1. […] In 1637,  at the age of ten or eleven, Donald was old enough to continue his education at Aberdeen Grammar School. It was there that Donald first encountered the turmoil and violence of revolution. […]

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