OF THOSE WHO WOULD WATCH
The men on the Brig O’Dee fired their muskets sporadically and half-heartedly at the men on the wide dry riverbank to their west, and the standing men attacked returned fire. Neither side was in a position to hit the other. The shooting merely reminded the opposition of what would come if either dared close the gap between them. Alexander Leslie considered admonishing his men for wasting valuable powder, but he decided against it. The men were tired, hungry and bored. Hey had marched for days to get to this point. The shooting at least gave them some release and reminded them that this was a real battle. It kept them cautious. They knew that the men on the Bridge would not come down, having such a strong vantage point, and the bridge being the main road into Aberdeen itself, needed guarding. If either side were to move, it would be the men approaching along the river.
The banks were wide and flat, with slopes covered in trees starting several yards back. The bridge building had cut back the forest and much of the rocky granite ground was the spread of debris and rubble left over by the bridge-builders centuries before. It made walking difficult. Two men had been taken away with badly twisted ankles. Cavalry would find the ground impossible here. The cannons had been drawn as close as possible by horse, and then manhandled over the pebbles and rocks that lay strewn all around.
The Dee itself was in full flow, and impossible to cross at present. The Bridge was the only way anyone could head directly to and from the Granite City itself, and the Royalists, under Archibald Johnstone of Waristone held the gatehouse that marked its Southern approach.
The bridge was magnificent, perhaps among the finest in Scotland. Its span was supported by seven wide arches of hewn glacial stone three of which took the river through its midst.
On the bridge, men moved little. A few cavalry officers patrolled the bridge from one end to the other and back again. Musketeers fired, and casually reloaded. There seemed no sense of urgency. The scene gave an aura of feeling that no one really expected to have to fight at all.
On the ground, the Covenant forces were preparing for action, and on total alert to any potential surprise attack. A sentry, sent to monitor the region, came rushing back, raising the tension among men who saw him running.
He spoke urgently, but quietly to his commanding officer. “Lord Montrose, there are people approaching through the woods. Could they be trying to ambush us?”
Montrose, known to many simply as ‘The Graham’ shook his head. “I doubt it, Robert. The paths there wind down from Arlanside Village, where I rested last night. The people there are Covenanters to the core, I can assure you. The Royalist faction could not have gained access to such a route without arousing suspicion. “
The sentry smiled. “Then they must be coming to join us. We have reinforcements”
“Again with the presumptions, Rob. They move too swiftly and merrily for heavily laden soldiers of foot. I fear we are about to gain an audie….”
The 5th Earl Of Montrose’s words were interrupted by the arrival of what he had been on the brink of describing. A body of civilians appeared through the trees, laughing and smiling. Some waved cheerily to the soldiers as their women-folk and servants laid down blankets on the ground. A few had brought little wooden stools to sit on. They placed themselves down just clear of the tree-line, at the top of a gentle slope above the even Deesside valley, and one man immediately broke into a modest picnic box.
“My God, they’ve come to gawp at us,” Robert MacCowan said.
Montrose tuttted in disgust. “They bring their children to the spectacle too. What sort of people are they?”
Alexander Leslie came over joined in the discussion. “The kind who have seen too many witch-trials and public hangings that they get bored. I have seen people seek such amusements at many of the battlefields of Europe.”
“Shall we tell them to leave?” Montrose asked.
Leslie decided against the idea. “They come at their own risk. Our attention should be for the men who hold the bridge. The observers are of no consequence to us.”
“The watchers have salmon, and venison,” the sentry called Robert Carter said. “I have a ration of stale bread and mouldy cheese. They waft salmon at us.”
“We must take no notice of such distractions,” Leslie said, sternly.
Montrose smiled. “You’re council is sound, Alex. I appreciate your support. You have the experience I lack. This is my first battle.”
“I know that well, James Graham, though you saw some of the European training schools on your Grand Tour, did you not?”
“I did, and I hope to apply some of the methods of the Adolphus School today if possible. I will have my musketeers line up in threes. The front man shall kneel. The middleman shall crouch and the rear line shall stand. All three could then give fire without harming the man in front. Such is the Adolphus way.”
Leslie grinned. “The Swedish Cavaliers have made a good impression on you the clothes you wear even reflect their fashion. You look more foppish than half the King’s men. In fact, you even look like Charles in some ways. You should be cautious in such an envious look nowadays.”
“Why so, Sir?” Montrose asked, uncomfortable with such criticism, no matter how well intentioned and honest it was.
Leslie shrugged. “Our Covenant colleagues fear the King has swayed your heart away from total dedication to the cause. You still talk of Charles with great affection, and send him letters testifying to your loyalty.”
“I confess that I have had some doubts and reservations. I am more wary of the Royal advisors, like Hamilton, than Charles himself. He is merely naďve in his choice of administrators from among our fellow Scots. The Covenant was a protest and a petition in sixteen thirty-seven. Now, only two years later, it has all gone horribly wrong. . I still respect my oath to the original draft message of the Covenant. We will not have the English impose their Book of Common Prayer on Scotland, and they will not make us have Bishops in the Kirk-Churches if we do not want that. However, the changes made of late give too much power to Argyll and his allies in the Highlands. The Campbell Clan is calling Argyll the true King Of Scotland already, and I fear he will not rest until he has such status for real. There is a clear difference between challenging the King on some political points of order, and trying to undermine Royal authority altogether. I fear we may be crossing that line now, as Caesar crossed the Rubicon. ”
“Your very talk could be taken as seditious, Graham. I am a fully committed Covenanter. Please do not forget that fact.“
Montrose frowned. “Then I will say no more, for the present. I have much thinking to do in the days to come.”
Leslie patted his friend on the back. “Graham, I know you are troubled by all this. I appreciate that. I mean, look at the Royalists before us, holding the end of the bridge. They don’t trouble their minds. They serve whoever first levied them. They do not question whether they make the right choice of allegiance or not. Neither do I to some extent, but you do. You pray to God to ask whether you do the right thing or not. You have a greater conscience than any man I know. You are troubled. I only hope when the crunch comes, you will maintain your support for the Committees of the Covenant. ”
“Thank you. You are right, as so often. That’s why I value your expertise on this mission. Many of the Royalists are old friends of mine. I see their point of view. I know what there cause means to them. I betrayed Huntly… “
“James, Huntly was a Royalist agitator. You knew we had to capture him. You’re only mistake was telling him that he would be able to go under safe escort. You lacked the authority to give such assurances. You’re name alone is not enough to gain you such respect. Huntly believed you, and now he now feels as if you personally betrayed him because we took him under armed escort.”
“I doubt if he will ever forgive me.”
“His own sons, Lord Gordon and Lord Aboyne served his cause, and they have forgiven you. Their father is just a little more stubborn on such matters. You are equally stubborn and obstinate. I fear such could be your undoing one day.”
Montrose seemed uncertain how to answer the assertion, and more shooting was now coming from the bridge. The men there were taunting the Royalists, by declaring themselves ready for bed. “Fight or flea,” they shouted. Over and over again. Montrose made his mind up to fight. “Prepare and fire the three cannons,” he ordered, and the men started priming the guns.
Some of the spectators had only just started drifting away, but their friends called them back to see what was going on. The noise and pointing fingers was attracting attention from the bridge. Leslie cursed. “The fools are giving away our strategy.”
Montrose agreed. “I could send men to force them to leave, if you wish.”
Leslie shook his head. “The damage is done now. They would have seen what we were doing soon enough anyway. It’s unlikely that the public could affect the outcome of today’s events one way or another.”
Montrose turned to the cannon-crew commanders. Aim your first shots high as ordinance. We don’t want to damage the bridge itself if we can help it. Get the men, not the granite.”
The cannons roared. Two went off simultaneously. One a few seconds later. The roar made the children cry and cover their ears. A pet dog ran off yelping in terror, and its owner fled after it in concern.
On the bridge, the men laughed, and snorted, making rude gestures. From the audience, someone heckled the Covenanters. “That was pathetic,” a man’s voice called out.
Montrose snapped. “I said aim high to miss the bridge. I did not tell you to shoot down the clouds in the sky.”
“The shot ran far overhead,” Leslie said. “The guns are set too close to the bridge. We have little choice but to move the cannon back about eighty feet to have a chance of making them effective.”
“The river bank is too fragmented to pull the canon along,” Montrose observed. “We need to move them up the Arlanside paths, past our gawkers and round past the woodland. And back down into better position where the trees end for a few yards back near the tributary flow.”
Leslie scowled. “So to move the guns back, we have to move them forward. We’ll be within range of the muskets ahead of us as we get to the Arlanside pathway. They’ll see us coming too easily.”
Montrose thought for a moment. “It’ll be dark soon. We will move the guns by night and be ready to fire them at first light.”
“They’ll still be able to see us if the Moon is out brightly enough,” Leslie said. “It’s a very dangerous move you are contemplating.”
“And I must make it more dangerous still,” Montrose said. “I know they have men watching us from across the river. I’m creating a diversion by moving some men downstream. Hopefully the men opposite will follow us along rather than watching the cannon. They’ll think I’m planning on going a mile down to the ford. I’m not. I’m going to double back on them and head back here for dawn. They’ll find the ground harder going on their side. We’ll leave them behind, wondering what we’ve done.”
Leslie pondered the strategy. “It could work. Colonel William Gunn. Is in charge of their cavalry. He is impetuous enough to fall for such a ruse. He has a reputation for following his instincts and for his instincts letting him down badly.”
“That gladdens my heart,” Montrose said with a grin. “We shall proceed.”
“Shall I go with you?” Leslie asked.
Montrose thought for a moment. “Leave the bulk of the army here, under Lord Erskine. You lead the cannon crew, and I shall spearhead the diversion division. I shall arrive with the rising Sun itself.”
“A very romantic cavalier gesture, Graham,” Leslie said, grinning. “It’s the sort of thing you’d write into one of your poems.”
Montrose smiled at the compliment and moved off to draw a unit of men together.
As the light began to fade, Leslie moved the cannon crew forward. It took ten men to drag each cannon. A few had gone to find the horses and detach them from the baggage train in order to bring them round through the woods to help haul the cast iron field pieces.
Two guns proved a heavy but capable drag while the third ran quickly into difficulties. It snagged as its wheel twisted on the uneven rocks, and fell onto a man’s foot. His cries of pain and alarm alerted the musketeers on the bridge who started firing wildly towards the noise. Erskine sent some of his men forward to help lift the cannon, and moved forward himself too, only to take shot between the eyes. He immediately fell down dead in his tracks.
To Leslie’s surprise, a body of spectators had not yet gone home despite the twilight. Some of them were cheering and applauding the first true action of the day. Men rushed to draw their fallen comrade to his feet and only now discovered the apparently obvious instantly fatal nature of the wound. Others helped to free the cannon from its distress despite the ongoing gunfire that could easily have done for them as it had for Erskine.
Just as Leslie was learning of the tragic consequences to his man, a spectator, witnessing a cannon being drawn past, called to hum. ”I say, Sir. Is that it? Will there be more fighting tonight, or should we return tomorrow? If so, what time might be best?”
Leslie stormed over to the man, grabbing the hilt of his sword and half sliding it from the scabbard as he went.
“We are not here for your entertainment, you sad, sick buffoon. We have a job to do. Please remove yourself from this place and do not return.”
“Sir, I am a civilian, not a soldier. You have no right to order me around. Without my farm, none of the good folk of Aberdeen would enjoy cow’s milk or fresh eggs.”
Leslie swore and grabbed the man by the lapels of his shirt. “How old are you, Sir?” He asked.
“Twenty-seven, Sir,” the man said, with his deep voiced defiant arrogance giving way to a squeaking note of terror.
Leslie grinned in a way that told the man something bad was coming. “Old enough to have at least one son. Does your son run your farm for you? |”
“My boy is eleven. He works the farm with my wife. Yes. Why?”
“Then they have little need for you at present, Sir. I, on the other hand, lost a good man today. I must promote another soldier to take his place. That means you should now consider yourself levied and pressed to the service of the Covenant army of Lord Montrose. You are a private. Get to the river, and ask them to find you a uniform. You’re in the army now.”
The man spluttered and gasped in horror. Leslie snapped at him, as the canons were wheeled by and coupled to carts pulled by the horses. “That’s an order, soldier. If you don’t obey me, I’ll have you shot as a deserter.”
The man started to cry. His wife wept by his side, but moved away from him in revulsion as his trousers began to steam and moisten before her eyes. “Oh, Matthew,” she shrieked.
Leslie laughed. “Clean soldier’s trews will soon replace those. Just don’t make a habit of it.” Leslie ordered two men to escort the recruit to his new place in life, and he was not given time to kiss his wife goodbye. The weeping lady was told by Leslie to come back in the morning if she wished to see her husband in action. She fled in tears towards the village.
Once clear of the riverbank and drawn by horse, the cannons proved relatively easy to draw along. Within an hour, they were in their new places, and ready to reload. From a distance, sporadic gunfire told Leslie that Montrose was seeing some action now. The shooting was negligible and limited, so Leslie suspected that the enemy had little chance to seriously threaten Montrose’s men.
The shooting stopped. About thirty minutes later, Montrose’s men appeared, marching at the double behind the colours in triumph. Montrose grinned, and called to Leslie. “It worked like a charm. They have to pick themselves over some serious rockfalls on their side. We kept them back nicely. I see the guns have a new home, so I suspect your own maneuvers worked too.
Leslie’s look of despair told Montrose that all had not gone well and he quickly told the Graham what had befallen Lord Erskine, who now lay buried under a Cairn of rocks just a little further down the beach.
Montrose said a modest prayer over the grave, and then introduced himself to the new soldier, who was being shown how to aim and fire a musket.
“Use shot for practice,” Montrose advised the trainers. “”Point to the men on the bridge. Who knows, you might even hit someone.”
Other than those sentries set to watch, the men got a few hours sleep before rising in preparation for the dawn. As the Sun came up, the cannons roared, and the musketeers moved forward, firing at will. The men on the Bridge reacted in sheer terror now. A man in their midst, on horseback had been cut clean in two. His legs were still on the horse. His upper body had simply vanished, possibly into the river, or into smithereens. Many soldiers who had been close to him simply threw down pikes and muskets and fled.
Rousing cheers from the woods told Montrose that the watchers had arrived early too, and with the second blast a second Royalist fell dead, possibly to a musket shot. The earthwork defenses that had blocked the Southern approaches to the bridge collapsed with the impact of the cannon shot. Several men were half buried by the debris. Most started to get up but one man lay screaming under the rubble in agony. Seeing him from the other end of the bridge, a rider was shouting in urgency bordering on panic. As he did so, several men on the bridge dropped their guns and turned to run.
A lady cried out from the tree line that she thought her man had taken one down. Leslie saw the farmer’s wife and son, grinning with pride. Matthew simply stood looking troubled at the thought of what he was doing now. Then a howl of anguish went up, as a man fell bleeding amidst the trees, with a gaping hole in his chest. The spectators screamed and ran, just as desertions were taking place on the bridge too. A flag of truce rose, and Montrose knew that the men were requesting the right to surrender. The Colonel, Sir William Johnstone, came offer under truce to formally cease hostilities. He was lying on a makeshift litter, made of wood. His leg was clearly broken. Montrose listened to his lament. “You didn’t win, Graham. We lost. The cannon strike dropped the bridge barricade on me and Gunn panicked, declaring me dead. The men believed him and dropped their guns. Even the ghouls watching from the banks down here could see that I was only injured. As far as I’m concerned, Gunn will never serve in the army again.”
“Where is he?” Montrose asked.
“Hiding, sulking. I have no idea, but I expect you’ll catch up with him soon enough,” Johnstone said. “He’ll be luckier if he falls into your hands than if I get hold of him.”
“Who was the man sliced in two?” Montrose asked, with a note of compassion. “Setton from Pitmeddon,” Johnstone said, almost tearfully. One of my finest. I fear he won’t be the last before this sorry business is over. What will be come of myself and the others you have captured?”
Montrose shook his head. “You are soldiers. You will probably be granted the right to stand down from your service and you will be asked to sign the Covenant. You may face fines, but I doubt if any of you will face imprisonment, unless you choose not to be co-operative.”
Johnstone nodded his head. The terms of his capture seemed fair.
Montrose noticed that the watchers had melted away as the final shots had fired. His first victory had been won, and the witnesses had turned their backs just before that fact was made apparent for them. The politics of the war, and who fought who and why was irrelevant to them. Only the new recruit’s wife stood to watch her husband, who was now on his knees torn between weeping and praying, shocked by the knowledge that he had killed a man, and had his own life turned upside down.
Montrose felt embittered. Somehow the moment of victory lacked any sense of triumph for him. He thought only of the little grave marker for Lord Erskine nearby.
About half way home, Montrose was startled when a herald suddenly rushed forward with a message. The King had surrendered to the Scots at Berwick, on the Border the day before. Montrose recoiled in horror. His fight had taken place after the cease-fire had been declared. The First Bishop’s War was over. He could have had no way of knowing.
As the victors took occupancy of Aberdeen itself, Montrose retired to his family home, and started to compose up his latest letter to Charles The First. It would be a while yet, but when he fought again, it would be for the Royalists against the Covenant. His soldiering adventure had begun. He would know few days of true happiness ever again.
© Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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