“ The Unhappie Accident” – The Battle of Mulroy (1688)

The header photograph shows the plaque on the commemoration cairn near the site of the battle; it and the other Mulroy picture shown are from the Village of Roybridge website linked below.

The Battle of Mulroy (August 1688) was fought on the slopes of Maol Ruadh, a steep hill near the confluence of the River Roy with the River Spean. Maol Ruadh is the name appearing on the peak on modern maps and is likely construed as “Roy Mouth” although David Mackay offers the more evocative, “Red Round Hill”.

Although the Three Kingdoms were in a state of upheavel with both Monmouth’s and Argyll’s rebellions being in the recent past, and the machinery of the “Glorious Revolution” currently driving to completion, Mulroy was a clan battle fought over who controlled some of the land in Keppoch. It was to have significance in the Kingdoms only because some of the king’s soldiers had been sanctioned to fight (and subsequently die) in it and this event could not be overlooked by the royal government.

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The ground rising toward the ridge of Maol Ruadh near Roybridge, Highland Council Area – from the Roybridge website

Roybridge is a village at the foot of Maol Ruadh and has a good summary at their website, including a passage from a participant’s account of the battle:

Roybridge Community

In a nutshell the MacDonalds of Keppoch held a portion of land by the clan system right of long occupancy, continued improvement and successful defense. Clan Mackintosh, however, held a “parchment” title to the same land, a fiefdom created by the overlaid feudal system. The conflict between these two systems in the Highlands was long and sometimes violent. A clan chief often had to walk a fine line between the two. David Mackay writes concerning Mulroy, ”Like so many of the causes that lead to bloodshed, the conflict lay not between right and wrong, but between two different kinds of right.”

Lachlan Mackintosh had been given by the government a “writ of fire and sword”, permission to enforce an eviction notice by any means necessary. As a member (and contested leader) of the Clan Chattan Confederation, he could call his allied clans into the field (to which all save the MacPhersons – the traditional leaders – had responded). To add weight to the writ, Capt. Mackenzie’s Independent Highland Company from the Watch was added to the eviction force. Likely the army was about 1000 to 1100 men, although it could have ranged as high as 1500.

MacDonald of Keppoch was in the ruined tower fortress of Keppoch House when clan chief Lachlan Mackintosh arrived with his army. He quickly fled into the countryside to raise his forces.

Coll MacDonald, had been a student at St. Andrews when he had succeeded his father as chief in 1682. Being a young man of some refinement and the newly raised chief,  he had approached Mackintosh to see if a mutually accommodating settlement concerning the Keppoch land could be reached. He was immediately thrown into a cell! Upon his release a few months later (at the insistence of the government) his viewpoint on the matter was somewhat altered. He soon earned the appellation “Coll of the Cows” for his skill and fierceness in lifting Macintosh cattle.

Once away to the hills, with Lachlan now in possession of Keppoch House, Coll summoned his kith and kin to oust the invaders. Having stationed himself on the highground above, his allies were to join him over the course of a day or two. Altogether MacDonald’s force probably numbered between 700 and 800.

A contemporary description of the battle, an exerpt of which appears at the Roybridge website above, is taken from “The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion” by Donald McBane, then a private soldier in Suddie’s company of the Watch. It is a stark account of the nature of warfare.

McBane notes that his company was outnumbered two to one by the MacDonalds which seems contrary to the numbers reported in other sources. As his company was placed on the right flank of the Mackintosh line, however, it could have been the highly local situation that he experienced. After some firing back and forth, the MacDonald’s charged downhill, crashing into the Mackintosh with a full head of steam. McBane reported that the entire affair lasted prehaps an hour, ending in a rout of the Mackintosh and the inevitable pursuit by the MacDonalds.

McBane, who went on to fight again, and lose again, at Killiecrankie, became a professional soldier in Marlborough’s army and a duelist and swordsman of some note. His harrowing accounts of his personal encounters with Highlandmen armed with sword and target at both Mulroy and Killiecrankie give a vivid picture of the nature of the close-in fighting.

Coll MacDonald was concerned that if a royal officer were killed, it would likely precipitate a strong reaction from the government, so he warned his men against engaging such an officer. In the heat of the battle, MacDonald of Tullich saw Capt. MacKenzie approaching him and warned him off. Mackenzie, himself a capable soldier and hot-blooded warrior, yelled that there was no MacDonald ever born that he feared! In desperation of his chief’s orders, Tullich threw his pistol at Mackenzie, catching him full in the face. The captain was carried from the field mortally wounded. (This and other traditional stories of the battle can be found in David N. Mackay’s 1922 book, “Clan Warfare in the Scottish Highlands”).

Part of the later government response was building and strongly garrisoning Fort William at Inverlochy, less than a day’s march from Keppoch’s land. Years later, Keppoch, perhaps thinking of Mackenzie’s death in particular, recalled the battle as “the unhappie accident I had with Mckintoshe at Milroy.” (From Peter Simpson’s “The Independent Highland Companies 1603 – 1760”, 1996).

Although a small battle, even compared to those of Montrose, Mulroy does offer an excellent chance to continue to wargame with mainly Highland clan troops. Further, it will allow me to experiment with a few modest rule extentions in For King and Parliament.