Alasdair the Devastator: Part two

Mac Colla has often been credited with refining the tactic known as the ‘Highland charge’; a tactic which was utilized in the Civil Wars, wherein a large body of men would run at high speed toward the enemy infantry, fire a volley of pistols at close range, and then finish with the foe, hand to hand. And this tactic proved remarkably effective, in part due to the musket’s slow reloading time, as well as the shock and awe it inspired. In combat, Mac Colla’s unit was usually placed on the wings, and he was infamous for charging out ahead of his men, chopping the enemy pikes and spears in half with his claymore as he did so; claiming the honor of being the first among his men to spill the enemy blood as the battle begun.

And this seemingly insane strategy worked incredibly well as back in the 17th century, the Covenanters were using muzzle-loading gunpowder muskets (a process that could take anywhere from 20 to 40 seconds depending on how skilled the musketeer was), as mentioned above; but Mac Colla himself didn’t really see how such an awkward and time consuming weapon was much of an advantage in battle; especially over the tried and true sword-and-shield technique of yesteryear. So, capitalizing upon the effectiveness of the charge, he set about further developing and refining it into what it would eventually become.

And as you can imagine, his efforts proved the charge to be an extremely effective tactic against all manner of formations and troop types. In one of his first battles alongside Montrose, Mac Colla hadn’t enough weapons to provide to his troops, and where any other commander would have conceded defeat; Mac Colla simply had his men charge toward the enemy armed only with a large rocks. They reached the enemy in good order, having ducked and rolled beneath several musket volley’s to arrive; and then, with rocks in hand, slew those they found there; taking the weapons of the dead, and then using those for the remainder of the battle; which they soundly won, severely outnumbered as they had been. Using this fear-inducing tactic, combined with what must have looked to the enemy like an almost unparalleled lack of self preservation; Mac Colla’s 2,000-man unit routed and annihilated a Covenanter force that outnumbered him three-to-one. At the Battle of Kilsyth he charged uphill against orders and ended up breaking the enemy formation there with a perfectly-timed charge. At Auldearn, his 500 men were surprise-attacked by a coordinated attack from four full regiments of musketeers, but he managed to somehow hold off the attack long enough for Montrose’s cavalry to get around the enemies flank and break their formation. This ambush it was said, so enraged Mac Colla that he ordered all of his men to run the enemy down on foot, through moor and over hill, and kill as many of them as they could.

It was during this campaign that Alasdair Mac Colla and Clan MacDonald eventually completed their vengeance on the Campbells; an act they accomplished while fighting with Montrose at the Battle of Inverlochy in 1645. Mac Colla marched through a dense bog to flank the Campbell castle, and then charged straight into the enemy formation sent out to defend it; crushing them swiftly, he captured the ancestral seat of Clan Campbell in a matter of moments. As mentioned in Part one, he was knighted by Montrose shortly after; making him Sir Alasdair the Devastator. But those happy times were not to last forever. For whilst things were going well in Scotland, the situation back in England was a different matter entirely. It turned out that Oliver Cromwell had defeated King Charles’ forces, and that the King had ultimately issued an order for Montrose, and all Royalists, to lay down their arms and surrender as a result.

Mac Colla of course, being the man he was, refused.

Montrose however, left the war as was the Kings wish, whilst Mac Colla continued to fight an increasingly futile series of battles over the next two years; constantly surrounded by enemies and often without back-up. Outnumbered, and out gunned being the routine; he was finally slain in 1647 at the Battle of Knocknanauss. Today, he’s a larger-than-life folk hero in several bagpipe tunes and Scottish drinking songs, though most non-Catholics who would be aware of him might continue to think of him as little more than a monster. I, even as a protestant, regardless, see him simply as a hero to my Clan; Clan Donald; Clan MacDonald, Sept of Clan Donald; MacDonald of Clanranald, Sept of Clan MacDonald.

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