The Forgotten Battle of Muirdykes in 1685 #History #Scotland


The battle of Muirdykes has almost been forgotten. When it does appear in history, it is usually consigned to a footnote as the last desperate gasp of the doomed Argyll Rising of May to June, 1685.

The Argyll Rising was an invasion of Scotland led by the earl of Argyll to overthrow the regime of the new king, James VII. It was supposed to coincide with the duke of Monmouth leading an invasion of England, but Monmouth delayed and did not land until a week before Muirdykes. By that time, the Argyll Rising was already in deep trouble.

Those who took part in the Scottish invasion were mainly moderate presbyterians opposed to their new Catholic king. They hoped that Protestants would not rally to the king’s side, but that did not prove to be the case.

After weeks spent in Argyll’s clan Campbell heartlands and debate over where they should strike into the Lowlands, his forces finally crossed the River Leven three miles above Dumbarton. What followed was a farce as his men were led in the wrong direction and found themselves, tired, directionless and boxed in by government forces.

The narrative of the battle given below comes from a letter Patrick Hume of Polwarth wrote to his wife in the latter half of 1685. A moderate presbyterian, Polwarth was one of the captains in Argyll’s forces. He later went on to become a key figure in bringing the Society people on board with the Williamite Revolution of 1689 to 1690.

The battle was fought near Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, on the afternoon of Thursday 18 June. The action begins in the morning of that day as some of Argyll’s men finally made an attempt to break into the Lowlands where they had more support.

Erskine Green

[The Crossing of the Clyde]
‘Thursday, June 18, wee came back to Kilpatrick, not above 500 men in all, sadly wearied; soone as I got downe the hill, very faint & weary, I tooke the first alehouse and quickly ate a bit of bread, and took a drink, and imediately went to search out the Erle ]of Argyll]; but I met Sir John [Cochrane of Ochiltree], with others accompanieing him; who, takeing mee by the hand, turned mee, saying my heart goe you with mee: Whither goe you said I? over Clide by boate said he: I, wher is Argyle? I must see him: He, he is gone away to his owne countrey, you cannot see him: I, how comes this change of resolution, and that wee went not together to Glasgow? He, It is no time to answer questions, but I shall satisfy you afterward.

To the boates wee came, filled 2 and rowed over; but a good troop of horse on Askine Green, waited our landing, and came as near the water as they could draw up to fire on us; & planted some foot men and firelocks, behind some dry boates lying on the shoar: yet they wounded only one man.’

Ferry Erskine Bridge

Old ferry landing near Erskine Bridge © Leslie Barrie and licensed for reuse.

Some of Argyll’s men forced a crossing of the River Clyde from Old Kilpatrick, close to the present site of the Erskine Bridge. They made an amphibious assault on Erskine ‘Green’, which lay opposite Old Kilpatrick and probably where the ferry landed at Erskine.

Map of Old Kilpatrick and Erskine

‘Wee shot hard among them, beat the men from their dry boates, wounded and killed horses, and made the rest well in disorder; so they marched away. Wee stay’d till such as wer to come over came over, in all about 100 men; then wee marched to a place to dine which I knew not; Sir John was busie, causing get horses taken, to help some of us in our march; and an honest gentleman who was present, told mee the manner of his parting with the Erle: Argyle being in the roome with Sir John, the gentleman coming in, found confusion in the Erle’s countenance and speach; in end he said, Sir John, I pray advise mee what shall I doe; shall I goe over Clide with you, or shall I goe to my owne countrey? Sir John answered, my Lord, I have told you my opinion; you have some Highlanders here about you, it is best you goe to your owne countrey with them, for it is to no purpose for you to go over Clide: My Lord, faire you well; then call’d the gentleman, come away Sir; who followed him when I met with him.

Having got some country horses, about 10, such as wer lest able to walk mounted, and wee came to the place wee designed to eat at, upon a hill; thither the troope with some joined them persued us. Sir John would have us divide in three parties, and goe over a litle deam to charge them; I would have them takeing meat, and sitting a gaird, on a stone dike to defend the deam by turnes; that wee might not loose time, but get at a strong moss, he intended to be at, before night; but he gave me a reason to satisfaction. Wee drew up, marched out, and putt them from their ground; for they wer only come to dog us till more forces came up:


Looking up Muirdykes Mount  © Chris Court and licensed for reuse.

[The Battle of Muirdykes]
Wee returned, and all who had gone out, about 90, (the rest being Highlandmen fled over the hill in our sight) tooke meat and marched presently to Luton bridge [over the Black Cart Water, probably earlier version of Garthland Bridge at Howwood]; the troop keeping sight of us the whole way. We had stay’d but a litle there, when we got an alarm; wherupon wee marched up the hill [now Muirdykes Mount, aka. Fir Hill], and severall Highlandmen slipt away by the backs of the yaird dikes; some took leev and pairted:’

Map of Muirdykes

‘Those who resolved to die on that ground, and to sell their lives at as worthie a rate as they could, march’d up; and seeing themselves surrounded with squadrons of horse and dragoons, wer not at all dashed, but expressed much courage: Wee had scarce time to take up a ground, in the place called Moure dikes, in a little closs of stubly ground, within a low ston dike, and to draw up, when a strong troop appeared to assault us: Sir John, who caried with as much bravery as any man could doe, conceiving the troup to be his nephew [William] the Lord Rosse’s [horse],

intended to have bespoke him, and had begun on horsebacke; but unluckily one of our men fireing his gun, they fired on us; and Sir John being interupted, got from his horse, and with abundance of danger joined our body; & caried the markes of severall pistoll shot on his buff coate. Wee beat them off with sore stroakes; yet only one of them lay on the place, in that charge, which was given upon our left hand: Then another party came imediately from the body above us, and charged on the right hand; ours received them most courageously, beat them off in disorder with smart blowes; and Captain [William] Cleland [of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons]

who comanded, lay dead on the place: After that, the strong body below as advanced; but our men wer very ready, and received them briskly, that they approached not to the dike; & imediately a strong troup on the left hand charged furiously, and got in over the dike, a litle below us, and charged us closs: But our men fired hard and home, run on them with that spirit, that they broke them in pieces, and beat them off in great disorder; for they caried sore blowes at that incounter; for I did perceive our shotes gall them. Ther horse charged no more, but some dragoons on foot came to charge on our right hand; but wee quickly made them run to their horse: Then they planted on a dike above us, and played on us with rifled guns and firelockes, and wee on them; by which ther was slaughter and wounds on both sides; and so night came on.

Wee advised what to doe, and resolved that by night, wee would fall out upon the squadron above us on the right; and if it wer possible, to get to a strong moss before morning; for we knew that they had sent for foot to fight, and overpoure us; but finding that they wer drawen off the ground, wee marched off quietly, unperceived; and marching all night, came to a safe hiding before the morning, wher wee lurked all that day [of 19 June].

Wee had no men kill’d in the action, but 4; few more wounded; but it was caried with that readiness of courage, that wer I to choose 75 men upon my life’s hazard ; I would not reject one of that 75 (and no more ther was) that came of that night.

The next night we marched againe, and came to another lurking place [on 20 June]; stay’d till night, engaged among us never to part but by consent: And late, Sir John got notice Argyle was taken, and his party quite broke; wherupon he came and told us, that now it was impossible to stay together, but we must pairt, and shift each for himselfe; so wee condescended, and pairted.’

Polwarth wrote the above in a letter to his wife in 1685. He added at the end of the letter:

‘And this narrative is true, not full, for I am forced to conceall names of persons, places, yea countreys, till a freer time. I have written this haistily, and had not time to correct errors in the write.’

The battle of Muirdykes is recorded on the Canmore website.

The OS name book, using evidence from of the New Statistical Account, states that:

‘“The battle of Muirdykes, fought on a farm of the same name in the eastern part of the p[aris]h June 18 1685. The D[u]ke of Argyle collected in Holland an army of 1500 refugees from Scotland. with whom he landed at Kintyre & proceeded towards Glasgow. When he reached Kilpatrick his followers began to desert him. With a few of them he crossed the Clyde & came to Inchinnan, where he was taken prisoner, carried to Edinburgh & executed. A remnant of his followers, under the command of Sir John Cochran, came to Muirdykes, where they were attacked by the forces of King James VII, whom they defeated, and remained on the field behind a natural entrenchment till it was dark. Afraid of the enemy being reinforced, they retired during the night, and proceeded Southwards in the parish of Beith. The King’s forces made a similar retreat under the shade of night, and so the field was found next morning deserted of both parties” N[ew]. S[statistical]. Acc[oun]t. The site is marked on trace. The present farmer never found anything in ploughing, but the one before him found several bullets.’

Polwarth’s letter was not the only account of the battle of Muirdykes, as George Brysson, one of the foot soldiers among Argyll’s men, wrote a fascinating narrative of the battle. That is the next post.

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Additional Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to this post on Facebook or other social networks or retweet it, but do not reblog in FULL without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine

~ by drmarkjardine on November 20, 2015.

10 Responses to “The Forgotten Battle of Muirdykes in 1685 #History #Scotland”

  1. […] George Brysson, a foot soldier in the Argyll Rising, left a remarkable memoir of his part in the battle of Muirdykes on Thursday 18 June, 1685. His narrative is noteworthy for the detailed account he gives of the battle, his references to the wounding of the martyr, Thomas Archer, and the way in which the death of Captain William Cleland was used by Argyll’s men. It is interesting to compare it with Patrick Hume of Polwarth’s account of the same events. […]

  2. […] the 18 June, some of Argyll’s men won the Battle of Muirdykes. However, it was too […]

  3. […] evening of Saturday 20 June, after George Brysson had his lamentable parting with his comrades from the Battle of Muirdykes, he set off with a small party of companions in search of safety. If they were captured alive, they […]

  4. […] drew together for the rebellion, the earl of Argyll was captured just as his forces won a small victory at the battle of Muirdykes on 18 June. Soon after, his men who had forced their way across the Clyde, broke up and fled into […]

  5. […] off, stealing their rowing boats and making a crossing of the Clyde. However, Polwarth stated that he had urged Argyll to seek safety in to his Clan Campbell heartlands and George Brysson claimed that Argyll had refused to come with them. What is clear is that within […]

  6. […] firsthand accounts of the battle of Muirdykes, see that of Hume of Polwarth and that of George […]

  7. […] of the battle with was fought on 18 June were recorded by Patrick Hume of Polwarth, George Brysson and Lord […]

  8. […] further accounts of the Battle of Muirdykes, see the versions of Patrick Hume of Polwarth, Lord Fountainhall, George Brysson and his escape after it, and the visit of Maxwell of Cardoness […]

  9. […] Rumbold and his men intended to cross the Clyde at Kilpatrick with Sir John Cochran’s men who took part in the Battle of Muirdykes later that day. However, Rumbold’s men lost their way and failed to make the rendezvous. (Wodrow, History, IV, […]

  10. […] Dr Mark Jardine – The Forgotten Battle of Muirdykes in 1685 […]

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