The Battle of Muirdykes in 1685: George Brysson’s Memoir #History #Scotland
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.
A small force of Argyll’s men made an amphibious assault across the River Clyde from Old Kilpatrick.
[Crossing the Clyde]
‘We resolved then to cross Clyde [at Kilpatrick on the morning of 18 June]. But behold there was a troop of horse lying on the other side of the water [on Erskine Green], which made our passage most difficult. However, Sir John Cochrane [of Ochiltree] said, “Gentlemen, it is not time for us to delay, for whenever the enemy does miss us in the morning, they will pursue; therefore, let us force our passage over the water.” There were two boats ; Sir John entered the one with about ten or twelve men, [Patrick Hume of] Polwart got into the other with as many men. The troop sent down four or five of their men on foot to the side of an old boat that lay at the side [>p322.] of the river. Our men would have fired at them, but Sir John would not suffer them, because they had the old boat to be a defence to them; but desired them to forbear till they were nearer the side of the water. And then said, “I think our shot will now reach the body of their troop, so fire at them”; which was accordingly done. And one of their horses being shot dead, and some wounded, the five men that lay at the side of the old boat, firing at us, made haste to get to their horses, and so the whole troop fled; and we got ashore as fast as we could, and pursued them.
They rode more than a mile before they stinted, and so drew up upon the top of a hill. So we sent the boats to and again, till we had brought over about 150 men. The Earl of Argyle, and the rest, refused to come over. [… >p324.]
There was a gentleman whose house stood upon the water-side, who had provided a brewing of good ale, and a batch of oat loaves, to serve the king’s forces, as we were informed. The gentleman being with the forces himself, we went in and refreshed ourselves; and indeed, we had great need, for some of us had eaten very little for three days, being still pursued by the enemy, and had slept none all that time. I tied up three loaves in my napkin, thinking to keep myself from such a strait for some time as I had been in before; and I tied them to my belt, but, through sleepiness and weariness, I lost all.’
The house were Brysson obtained his loaves was probably the old Erskine House, which lay by the ferry house and was demolished in the nineteenth century when the new house, later a hospital, was built. The house may have belonged to William Hamilton of Orbiston, who served in the militia in 1685. The small government force at Erskine had probably been placed there to give warning if Argyll’s forces tried to cross the Clyde. The Old Kilpatrick/Erskine ferry crossed at the first narrow place on river.
‘After this, we resolved to mount ourselves with horses, (being all well armed,) and to ride straight toward England, where we doubted not but [the Duke of] Monmouth was prospering.’
Monmouth’s invasion of the South West of England had landed only a week before Brysson crossed the Clyde. His invasion was late and at that point, no word of it had reached Argyll’s forces. Monmouth failed and was beheaded in July.
‘But that troop of horse, which we had put from the water-side, got other two troops of militia, and so came upon [>p325.] us, and disappointed us of our design. They coming within our view, we marched up to a stead [i.e., a farm-house with outbuildings,] that stood upon the top of a brae, where there was a very pretty thorn hedge enclosing a garden, into which we entered, and resolved there to stand for our defence. When we had waited a considerable time, and saw no appearance of their approach. Sir John says, “These cowardly rogues dare not come and attack us in this strength. Come, let us go out and fight them in the open fields.” So he divided his 150 men into three companies: himself to command one; and Polwart, another; and major [James] Henderson, the third.
So we marched directly towards them, who were drawn up in a plain, a little below the house; who, at the very first appearance of us, fled and went quite out of our sight. So we saw no more of them till it was afternoon; by which time they had got other two troops, the one commanded by [William Ross,] my lord Ross, the other by captain Cleland. These two, being trained forces, were more forward than the country gentlemen. They observed the way that we took, and so cast about an hill, and came just before us, and met us as we were coming up the hill.’
Cochrane’s small force appears to have headed south and west from Erskine before crossing the Black Cart Water at ‘Luton Bridge’, which appears to be an old bridge near Howwood. From there, they headed up Muirdykes Mount, where they found their way blocked by a Lord Ross’s larger government force.
[The Battle of Muirdykes, Afternoon of 18 June, 1685]
‘We were marching in two men rank, the small company that was then of us, for by this time we were decreased to threescore and ten, many dropping off as they [>p326.] had opportunity. When we were advanced a good way up the hill, they came suddenly upon us, and after firing, thought to have ridden us down; but Sir John cries, “Come up, my lads, and stand to it, and through God’s grace I will bring you-off.” Though there was little appearance thereof, yet we took courage, knowing the worst of it. And after we had received their fire, we discharged upon them again very vigorously, and then betook us to our halberts, (for every man of us had a halbert, besides special firelocks) so that we made them retire.’
[What Brysoon meant by ‘special firelocks’ is not clear. However, it is clear that Argyll’s forces probably had better arms than the government forces that opposed them. ‘Special firelocks’ probably indicates some form of flintlock, or wheellock, muskets, that were more advanced than the matchlock muskets whch were probably in the hands of many in the government forces. There are also reports that some of Argyll’s men were issued with bayonets that plugged the musket, a very early reference to the use of that weapon. All of Argyll’s weapons had been purchased in the United Provinces. Some of them were perhaps the arms that Richard Cameron had purchased there in 1679, which Argyll’s faction appear to have taken over.]
‘There was no harm done on either side at the first fire; only Mr. Thomas Archer, a young gentleman [and minister] on our side, received a dangerous wound in the back, by which he was disabled, and left lying on the ground.
Then my lord Ross sent one to treat with us, who told us,. We were pretty men: why would we throw away our lives! would we not take quar- [>p327.] ters? To which Sir John said; “We disdain your quarters! for we are appearing here for the protestant religion, and ye are fighting for popery, for whieh ye ought to be ashamed.” So he returned with his answer.
In the mean time, we got into an old stone-fold, which was a little defence to us. Sir John. took the whole; command upon him, and so divided us, and set one half on his right hand, and the other on his left hand, and gave orders to all to “charge and make ready” and ordered those on his right hand first to receive the enemy’s fire, and after, that not to fire till he gave them a sign by his napkin, and after the sign to fire briskly, and then to take the halberts in their hands, in case the enemy should attempt to come over the little stone-dyke, and to defend themselves bravely; and ordered those on his left not to fire when those on his right fired, till once he gave them another sign, and then to fire close upon the enemy, and after fire to take their halberts and defend themselves from being trodden down.
The enemy approached, and we received their fire, but fired none again till they came very near; and then Sir John gave the sign to those on his right hand, who gave a very close fire; The enemy not knowing but our shot had been done, attempted to come over the dyke, and break in amongst us, but the lads oh the right hand defended bravely. Then Sir John gave the sign to [>p328.] those on his left, who fired furiously upon the enemy, so that several of their saddles were emptied, and amongst the rest Captain [William] Cleland was shot dead at the very dyke-side, so that they were forced to wheel again. One of our lads stept over the dyke and pulled Cleland’s scarlet coat off him, and put it upon the top of his halbert, and waved it against the enemy.
They staid a considerable time before they made another assault; and we put ourselves in a posture of defence, and loaded our pieces, and made ourselves ready to receive them; We were ordered to behave ourselves as at the former onset. Sir John said, “They have now lost some blood; therefore they will make a vigorous assault; and, therefore, lads, take courage, and stand to it, for our cause is good.” So at length they approached again, and we received them as formerly; and beat them from the dyke with the loss of more of their men. And if any lord Ross had not bad on harness, he would have gone the same way Cleland went; for the [musket] ball broke upon his harness, and hurt him on the neck. They were so affrighted that they durst not give us the fourth onset. The dyke did us good service, and defended us much from their shot; for we were below them. We had none killed in all this action, except one man who was shot through the head, and two more wounded; besides Mr. Archer, who was wounded at the first fire, before we came into the fold. After this [>p329.] they went behind an old stone dyke, and the dragoons ‘lighted from their horses, and stood behind the dyke where they continued pluffing and shooting without any harm to us, except that Sir John had two shot which lighted upon his buff-coat, which smarted very much, but did not pierce his coat. After they were weary with shooting they gave over. Then Sir John said, “it becomes us to thank God for our wonderful preservation.” He desired we would be all in a watchful posture; and, in the mean time, to go about the worship of God. And so he took a book and sang the forty-sixth Psalm throughout, and after that prayed pertinently.
By this time our enemies had guarded us round as a ring, but without reach of our shot. It was an exceeding cold day as ever I saw at that time of year [i.e., in mid June]. I had thrown off my big coat when we first engaged; and being cold, I went to seek it, where I found Mr Archer groaning in his wounds. When I knew it was he, I was exceedingly troubled; he being an eminent Christian, and my intimate. He was almost dead, what for want of blood and for cold. He desired me to lift him to the bield of the dyke, and cast something over him, [>p330.] which I did; and got a cloakbag and put it under his head, and laid a cloak about him. I told him I could do no more for him at present, and that we were all yet still in hazard of our lives; for we were surrounded by the enemy.
When I returned, I told Sir John that Mr, Archer was dying of his wounds, who ordered several to go alongst and carry him to a herd’s house which was hard by, and give the people of the house money, desiring them to take care of him. They received him very kindly; from which place, he was carried afterwards by the enemy to Edinburgh, where he was executed in the Grassmarket [on 21 August]; whose speech and testimony are in record amongst the rest of the worthies who suffered for owning the truth.
[Night of 18 June]
After this, when it began to grow dark. Sir John said, “What think ye of these cowardly rogues! They dare not fight us, for as small a number as we are, but have a mind to guard us in till to-morrow, that the body of the King’s forces come and cut us off; therefore, let us still behave ourselves like men;” (for indeed there were very pretty men amongst us, that were expert both with sword and gun) “let us, therefore, charge our pieces well, and let us go off the field in a [>p331.] close body together, with as little noise as we can. If we escape them in the dark, it is well; if not, let us fight our way through them.”
We buried our dead man, and so made ready for a march, and so went off the field in a close body, but saw none of our enemies, for they were more afraid of us than we were of them; for whenever it was dark, they had left their ground and fled into Kilmarnock, as if there had been an host pursuing them; as the country folk told us afterwards. So when we had marched very hard for about a mile, Sir John said, “I think we are safely by them now;” we apprehending them to be still keeping their ground. So we began to consider what to do next. And because many had left us the day before, Sir John took an oath of us, that we should not part one from another, without leave asked and given; and then asked, who amongst us knew the ground to be our guide. There were none amongst us that knew it except himself, it being his father’s ground that we were then on [i.e., an estate belonging to William Cochrane, earl of Dundonald]; so he took the guiding of us himself. And so we marched exceeding hard all that night, that so we might be a good way off from the enemy; but when day began to appear [on the morning of 19 June], that [>p332.] we saw about us, behold we had gone the round, and were come back within two miles of the place where we engaged the enemy! Sir John said, “Woe is me! I have led you into a snare. I know not now what to do for it; for if we keep the field the whole body of the forces will be upon us: so come of us what will, we must lodge in some house.”’
It is not clear which direction Cochrane led his party, but his father did hold lands in the neighbouring parish of Neilston at Cowden, Uplaw, Knockglass and around Loch Libo, which do lie about two miles from Muirdykes. (RPS, 1669/10/114.)
‘There was a stead hard by, where two of his father’s tenants lived. He caused us all sit down upon the ground, till he sent major Henderson to acquaint the people that Sir John was there, and a company of men with him, and desired they might give us quarters; and to tell them that, if they were quarrelled for it, we were a stronger party than they, and would take it by force; but they most willingly received us. And there was a wonderful providence in our being so near the place of engagement, for when they ranged all the country about, they came never near that place.’
The Wodrow manuscripts record an allegation that ‘in the parish of Lochwinnoch, in the shire of Baronthrow [i.e., Renfrewshire] ther was a parties that was persewing of Sir Jjohn Cocheren, and they cam upon two lads laying sleeping in a dike sid, and shot them and not awaked them.’ (Wod.Qu.MSS., XXXVII, 142.)
‘The major [i.e., Henderson] had travelled all that night with a bullet shot in his left shoulder, and sticking like a plum within the skin, none knowing of it but himself, which was cut out when we came to the house. We knew not [>p333.] whether meat or sleep was most desirable, for that was the fourth night we had been without sleep, and with very little meat.
There was one of our company dropt asleep on the ground where we had been sitting. When we came to the house we did not miss him, his halbert and his gun being with him. After we were lodged in the house he slept on, till some people, passing by, could not awaken him, but carried him sleeping to the first house they came to, and set down his halbert and gun in the house beside him, there being some lambs in the house for speaning. He slept there till it was well afternoon, and then he awakened but knew not how he came there. He thought we were either all taken prisoners, or then killed. So he lay down to take the other nap, till there came a man to take out the lambs, who said, “Friend, you lie not well here, you would lie better amongst your neighbours!” He said, “Where are they?” So the man brought him to us. But he never knew who had carried him to the house, his sleep was so great.
Then Polwart said, after we had got some meat, “I know ye have all need of sleep, but of necessity four of you must watch, two at each barn-door, in case we be surprised by the enemy, to give warning to the rest. And the honest men will watch without, and give you notice if they see [>p334.] any hazard.” I offered myself for one, and other three did the like. And he desired that within two hours we would awaken him, and he would cause relieve us, which accordingly was done. We lay there all that day [of 19 June] very safely, and saw regiments passing within two miles, but none came near us. So at night we took march again, having sent before to provide quarters for us. So we got a guide, who conducted us safe to the place where we tarried the next day [20 June], and sent some friends to inquire if they could get any account of the earl of Argyle, who would not come alongst with us over Clyde. In the evening they brought us word that he was taken prisoner. Then Sir John called us all together, and told [>p335.] us, “That my lord was taken, and that we were now free from our oath, and every one of us might shift for himself the best way we could.” So we had a lamentable parting.’
After further adventures, Brysson escaped to Northumberland.
For Patrick Hume of Polwarth’s narrative of the battle of Muirdykes, see here. Polwarth also escaped.
Sir John Cochrane of Ochiltree was less fortunate. About a week later he was captured in the house of his uncle, Gavin Cochrane in Renfrew. He was betrayed by Gavin’s wife, Margaret Cleland, whose brother, Captain William Cleland, had been killed by Cochrane’s men at Muirdykes.
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