The Battle of Aberdeen


(Also known as The Battle of Justice Mills, or the Crabstane Rout[1])

The Battle of Aberdeen was arguably one of the most climactic events of The Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the mid-17th century. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms were a series of civil disputes fought across Britain, the Scottish portion of which being primarily between Scottish Royalists and a group known as The Covenanters, who opposed The Royalists on religious grounds.

The Covenantors were so-called after the signing of the National Covenant (1638), a document confirming opposition to the influence of the Stewarts on the Scottish Presbyterian church. In the years leading up to the signing of the National Covenant, King Charles I had made several actions, the most notable of which being the introduction of a text known as The Book of Common Prayer (1637), which had led to a series of social and political upheavals across Scotland. The book prescribed a schedule and form of prayer designed to uphold the traditional Anglican church, which naturally had the Stuarts at the head, in fear of the rising Presbyterian values of the time which rejected royal leadership in religious matters. Many Scots wildly opposed the book, and the corresponding beliefs, so active resistance led to a great deal of turmoil and repression. The preaching of anti-Anglican beliefs was made punishable by death, many Scots were forced into hiding, and public punishments were rife. This persecution, which lasted for the better part of a century, led to the signing of The National Covenant and the ensuing civil war.

By 1644, The Covenantors had a controlling power in Scotland due to an alliance with the English parliament. So, James Graham; Marquis of Montrose; was commissioned Lieutenant-General of the Scottish Royalist forces by the king. He was appointed to overthrow the Covenantors and restore religious and political power to the James dynasty. The initial portion of the campaign consisted of a failed Royalist uprising attempt in south-western Scotland, which led to Montrose joining with Alasdair MacColla’s Irish Brigade and a portion of Macdonald Highland clansmen. It was only at this point that Montrose saw his first victory when he defeated Lord Elcho at Tippermuir.

Following the battle of Tippermuir, Montrose received news that the Marquis of Argyll, the leader of the opposition Covenantor forces, was marching from Stirling. Montrose did not wish to risk losing his momentum, and so he continued north to Dundee, hoping to hold the well-fortified town. However, when The Royalists asked Dundee for surrender, they refused, and since Montrose couldn’t risk losing too much of his army before Argyll arrived, he continued north for Aberdeen. Much of his force had already departed with their earnings after Tippermuir, and on top of this, another ally; Lord Kilpon; had been murdered by his own second, Ardvorlich, leading to the disbandment of a large portion of The Royalist army. This left Montrose with two horse units under Nathaniel Gordon and Sir Thomas Ogilvy, one hundred MacDonald highlanders under Alistair MacColla, and three Irish regiments: the Laghtnan’s, the McDonnell’s, and the O’Cahan’s, totaling fifteen-hundred men.

Lord Balfour of Burleigh, of the Covenanters, who had been stationed in the north, caught news of Montrose’s advancing force and immediately left Aberdeen with his army to take up a defensive position on the steep ridge of the How Burn valley. His forces consisted of two thousand soldiers made up of two Covenantor regiments, some levies, and the local Aberdeen militia. Montrose sent a messenger and a drummer to demand Aberdeen’s surrender under threat of no quarter, also requesting that children, women, and the infirm be sent out of the town prior to the attack. The parley was received near present-day Justice Mill Lane. The Royalist party was treated well, and although the plea was rejected, they were offered a drink, and a magistrate of Aberdeen was even reported to have tipped the drummer six Scots pounds.

The battle began as the messenger party was returning to the Royalist forces. To the dismay of Montrose, an overzealous shot was fired by a troop from a Fife regiment on the Covenantor’s side, killing the drummer with a musket ball, and to this day none know what became of those six pounds. Montrose was enraged by this action and ordered an immediate attack, calling for his soldiers to sack the town. Whether this allowed any time for the infirm of Aberdeen to be evacuated is another point of speculation.

The Royalist forces of Montrose took up position on the opposite side of the How Burn Valley, with the burn separating the two armies. The famed, claymore-wielding, Alistair MacColla[2] with his one hundred Macdonald highlanders, along with Montrose, headed the center of the Royal line with the three Irish regiments to their flanks. Musketeers and two dozen horses were placed at each wing to guard against Covenantor cavalry, with one Colonel Hay on the right-hand side and one Lord Huntly on the left. As the battle began, Hay advanced on the Aberdeen side’s musketeers, in an attempt to drive them out of Justice Mills and hold the high ground. A Covenantor horse counterattack ensued but they were caught in a line of musket fire, leading to a firefight as more Covenantor musketeers rushed to defend the position.

Near the center, a Covenantor horse unit of fifty men advanced to engage O’Cahan’s regiment just to the left of the Royalist vanguard, but the regiment simply opened to allow them through, only to turn and fire a musket volley into their backs. At this point, there was another surge of Royalist cavalry, routing the now disorganized Covenanters, and capturing a commander by the name of Craigevar and his second. The Covenantors responded with further cavalry charges into Ogilvy’s horse unit and the MacDonnell Irish regiment, but they were largely ineffective other than managing to successfully block the Irish from regrouping with the central Royalists. Montrose, unphased, with MacColla at his side, then crossed the burn and led a regiment up the steep slope towards Burleigh’s main position. A brief firefight ensued before the Royalist Highlanders dropped guns and charged with dirks and swords at the enemy center. The Covenantor line was shattered, and the militiamen routed, pursued into the town by Montrose’s remaining forces.

With the battle won, Aberdeen was sacked over three long days, which Montrose allowed with his want to make an example of Aberdeen for their resistance, and for killing the drummer. However, the great horrors committed in Aberdeen those days did nothing to aid the Royalist cause. With dwindling support, and news of The Marquis of Argyll advancing northward, Montrose and his forces left Aberdeen and withdrew into the highlands. In the following months, Montrose’s forces dwindled further. His lords separated in the hopes of raising more troops, but they failed, hampered at every turn by detachments of The Covenantors. By October of that year, Argyll finally cornered Montrose at Fyvie Castle, further depleting The Royalist forces in a series of skirmishes. Montrose escaped, but with most of The Royalist army now gone, Argyll returned to Edinburgh, convinced that the uprising had been thwarted.

By Toby Goodwin

References (n.d.). Campaigns of Montrose 1644-46. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Apr. 2022]. (n.d.). The Battle & Sack of Aberdeen, 1644. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Apr. 2022]. (n.d.). MacColla Introduction – ScotWars. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Apr. 2022].

Scotland in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. (n.d.). Military Wiki. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Apr. 2022].

Spalding, J., U U T ; Vans ‘ Palernofter, P., Condon : L V, R., Sold, Angus, A., Creech, W. and y (n.d.). HI STORY OF THE TROUBLES AND MEMORABLE TRANSACTIONS IN SCOTLAND, FROM THE YEAR 1624. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Apr. 2022]. (n.d.). Who Were the Covenanters? [online] Available at:

[1] So named after The Crabs Stone of Aberdeen, a boundary stone used to mark out the location of a croft near Hardgate.

[2] More info on MacColla can be found at  


Published by friggintoby


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