On this day 1594: Clans defend Catholic faith at Battle of Glenlivet

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The Battle of Glenlivet was fought deep in Speyside less than a year after a decree was passed that Catholics must either give up their faith or emigrate.

The engagement was fought between Catholic forces led by George Gordon, 1st Marquess of Huntly, and Frances Hay, 9th Earl of Erroll against the Protestant army of Archibald Campbell, 7th Earl of Argyll.

The Battle of Glenlivet was fought near Ben Rinnes in Speyside. PIC: Flickr/GaryE1981.

The Battle of Glenlivet was fought near Ben Rinnes in Speyside. PIC: Flickr/GaryE1981.

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Huntly, who was raised in France as a Roman Catholic, and his clan allies endured a punitive campaign, led by Argyll, after being suspected of plotting with the Spanish to invade Scotland.

The Earls of Argyll were commissioned to head north to deal with the rebels with the two side encountering each other high on a hillside near Ben Rinnes, on October 3 1594.

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Huntly was backed by around 2,000 Highlanders and 1,500 cavalry drawn from the Gordon, Hay, Gomyn and Cameron clans, with chainmail and lances deployed for the fight.

Argyll’s force was made up of around 7,000 men drawn largely from clan Campbell, Murray, Stewart, Forbes, MacGillivray, Maclean and Grant clans and the Chattan Confederation of Clan Mackintosh and Clan MacNeil.

Despite the larger army, Argyll’s soldiers were taken at a disadvantage when the earl was left without his pike - which was packed away in baggage - while his missile troops were in the front of the advancing force.

This allowed Huntly’s much-feared horses to do their worst, pushing the arquebusiers and archers back on to the main body.

Although Argyll’s missile troops did fire against the oncoming enemy, the presence of horse to the front and on the flank, along with artillery fire, made their position untenable and soon broke Argyll’s force with several hundred men killed.

Huntly used his horse to great effect in the confined space of a pass and entirely routed Argyll’s troops.

According to one tradition, a weeping Argyll was led from the field although other accounts claim he hid in the woods while his army dispersed. He went into temporary exile after the battle.

On hearing of the outcome of the Battle of Glenlivet, James VI ordered the castles of Huntly and Erroll be demolished on October 29 1594, although the extent of the damage is said to have been minimal.

The earls later agreed to leave Scotland by 15 March 1595 and travelled in Flanders, Germany and Italy until the summer of 1596.

Then, they received a letter from James VI saying they would never reside in Scotland again if they did not agree to signing a confession of faith to the Kirk, which they did on 26 June 1597 in the Auld Kirk of Aberdeen.

Huntly was restored to the king’s favour at the baptism of Princess Margaret on the 17 April 1599 when he was awarded his marquisate.

According to Historic Environment Scotland, the Battle of Glenlivet is considered a significant illustration of the struggles within Scotland between Presbyterians and Catholics and the relentless efforts of the kirk to eliminate the Catholic faith from the country.

However, it also notes that Archibald Campbell was also a Catholic, having converted in his young life, indicating more issues were at play in the run up to the battle than religious faith.

It is also significant as the first battle in the Highlands of Scotland where artillery appears to have played a part in the action.

-Taken from Historic Environment Scotland’s Inventory of Historic Battlefields