Oliver Cromwell’s Northern Garrisons

Dr Allan Kennedy is Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. His research focuses on the social and political history of early modern Scotland, with a particular focus on the seventeenth-century Highlands.

In September 1650, the Scottish army, fighting in the name of Charles II and led by the veteran general David Leslie, was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell and his smaller English invasion force at the battle of Dunbar. More defeats followed, until, in the climactic development of the civil wars that had been raging across the British Isles since 1639, Scotland eventually found itself conquered and unwillingly incorporated into the republican state known as the ‘Commonwealth’, which Cromwell would eventually come to rule under the nearly-but-not-quite-royal title of ‘Lord Protector’.

Throughout the 1650s, the Commonwealth’s power in Scotland depended ultimately on military force, and for that reason England flooded its northern neighbour with troops. At the height of the military occupation around 1656, Scotland was home to more than 4,000 resident soldiers, plus several thousand more serving in the field army. Many of these men were housed in large garrisons-cum-fortifications at places like Edinburgh, Stirling, Ayr, Inverness and Inverlochy, with complements that could exceed 1,000. But the countryside, especially in the Highlands, was also peppered with smaller garrisons, some of which were only maintained for a short period. These might house around 100 troops, but sometimes as few as twenty, and tended to be set up inside existing castles or fortified houses. Examples of these miniature strongholds in the far north included Cromarty, Tain, Lovat, Redcastle and Brahan.

Sutherland was more fortunate than some Scottish locales, since the government regarded many of its major landowners, like the Gordons of Sutherland and the Grays of Arbo, as relatively trustworthy – so much so that it was happy in 1656 to have Lord Strathnaver temporarily store a consignment of weapons bound for regional garrisons in his home of Dunrobin Castle. Apparently the thought that the future earl of Sutherland might use these weapons for disloyal purposes never occurred!

Citadel Inverness

There is a debate as to whether this is a remnant of the 1650s. Some have suggested it might be part of an eighteenth-century ropeworks. But the clock tower is at least on the site of the Inverness Citadel! Theories about where the stones for Cromwell’s fort were ‘borrowed’ from are intriguing too – Fortrose Cathedral, Kinloss and Beauly Priories being often mentioned, but also Greyfriars Kirk in Inverness and St. Mary’s Chapel. Ormond Castle in Avoch may also have been a source of cut stone. The last might indicate an awareness of it’s potential symbolic value as a rallying point, due to it’s association with Andrew De Moray. Photo: David Worthington.

Moreover, Sutherland was, from an English perspective, sufficiently remote that the government tended not to see much point in lavishing too much attention on it. Indeed Thomas Tucker, an official dispatched by the Commonwealth authorities to survey Scotland’s ports and coastal trade in the 1655, remarked that the county so inconsequential that ‘it was never thought worth the charge of appointing [a customs] officer’. At the end of previous year, George Monck, the Commonwealth’s commander-in-chief in Scotland, had airily declared that the gentlemen of Sutherland should look to themselves to defend the shire from rebels and trouble-makers, an injunction that would have been inconceivable for more southerly parts of the country,

Consequently, Sutherland was never subject to such intense military occupation as, say, Lochaber or northern Perthshire, two zones of persistent English concern. Instead, the county’s military supervision was generally entrusted to two permanent garrisons in nearby shires – Castle Sinclair in Caithness, the principal English presence in the far north, and Inverness, the most consistently important stronghold in the whole of the Highlands. Nonetheless, ephemeral petty garrisons did exist in the area, and we know that, in 1658 for example, English troops were being housed at both Skibo and Helmsdale. In Helmsdale, interestingly, the English presence was responsible for introducing a new religious group – the Baptists – to Sutherland for the first time.

Helmsdale1

Cromwell’s soldiers would have been stationed at Helmsdale Castle, the site of which is marked by the large concrete block on the right hand corner. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Helmsdale2

The castle was in a strategically significant place, guarding where the River Ullie connected the Moray coast to the Sutherland interior straths where most of the population lived. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The primary reason for siting English garrisons in Scotland, including the far north, was security – having soldiers on-hand to face down resistance to the republican regime. But across the country, the garrisons also developed a broader remit, becoming, in effect, the primary nodes of local governance for a regime that, understandably given its alien, repressive nature, found it difficult to trust native people or institutions. This trend was certainly observable in the Sutherland area, where, for example, the commanders of both Inverness and Castle Sinclair were regularly loaded with tax-collecting, thief-catching and arbitration jobs alongside their usual brief of keeping the region quiescent. On one occasion, the garrison at Inverness even took the lead in surveying a potential silver mine located approximately in the Dornoch area, which it was thought might do wonders for the local economy.

In common with the rest of Scotland, the northern Highlands lost the bulk of its occupying presence after 1659, initially as troops were siphoned off to help secure order in England in the run-up to the restoration of Charles II, and then as a consequence of the restored king’s drive to eradicate all memory of the Cromwellian interregnum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, local disorder often followed, and in the Sutherland region powerful families like the Mackenzies, Gordons, MacLeods and Rosses jostled, sometimes violently, for position. Maybe, in these chaotic early years of the Restoration, the English military occupation of the 1650s – foreign, certainly, but not nearly as oppressive for Sutherland folk as for many others – might not have seemed quite so bad.

Sources:

  • Clarke Manuscripts, volumes XLV-XLIX (Worcester College Library, Oxford)
  • C.H. Firth (ed.), Scotland and the Protectorate: Letters and Papers Relating to the Military Government of Scotland, from January 1654 to June 1659 (Edinburgh, 1899)
  • F. Dow, Cromwellian Scotland (Edinburgh, 1979)
  • D. McCormack, ‘Highland Lawlessness and the Cromwellian Regime’ in S. Adams and J. Goodare (eds.), Scotland in the Age of Two Revolutions (Woodbridge, 2016), 115-34
  • R.S. Spurlock, Cromwell and Scotland: Conquest and Religion 1650–1660 (Edinburgh, 2007)

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