The troops of Montrose and Antrim first met on a beautiful meadow overlooking the River Tilt at Blair Atholl in the Highlands. They were soon joined by MacDonald clansmen keen for any chance to hit back at the Campbells.
It was early August and they looked forward to four months of truly great campaigning weather. Montrose worked fast. The Highlander-Irish force set off along the Tay valley for Perth where Montrose enjoyed widespread support. The harsh religious orthodoxy of the more extreme Covenanters combined with large tax demands to fund the war against the King had made Argyll deeply unpopular.
At Tippermuir outside Perth, Montrose's force came across their first Covenanting opposition. Montrose was outnumbered two to one with little ammunition and no cavalry. But he had a secret weapon. It was called 'the Highland Charge'. Taking the advantage of slightly raised ground, he stretched his troops out across the plane to avoid being outflanked.
When the Covenanting cavalry attacked, the MacDonalds charged back with such a bloodcurdling cry and volley of shots while running that the horsemen stood in wonder. Which was a terrible mistake. In an instant, the Irish roared down upon the Covenanter infantry cutting through the local militia brought out to oppose them.
With most of the professional Covenanter troops fighting in England, it proved quick work for the Irish troops. It was a rout. The Covenanters retreated in disarray and Montrose entered Perth in triumph. Royalists from across Scotland gathered at Perth to join the growing revolt against the Covenanters.
Montrose's next target was Aberdeen. After offering terms of surrender to the Covenanting force holding the stronghold, he attacked. Once more outnumbered by cavalry and cannons, Montrose's strategic genius ensured a brilliant win. He cut the cavalry off from the main Covenanting force and brought them down under a volley of fire; meanwhile the Irish sliced through the Covenanting infantry.
As Aberdeen had refused to surrender, it suffered two awful days of plunder, mayhem and terror as the Irish and MacDonald troops ripped through the city. 'The riches of the town hath made all our soldiers cavaliers', reported one newly wealthy MacDonald soldier.
But by now Argyll, humiliated by this affront to his clan, was hard on Montrose's heels. He charged up into the Highlands and retook Aberdeen. Montrose's force fled to the hills using their knowledge of the cliffs, lochs and moors to outrun the pursuing Covenanters. For over two hundred miles, as the winter of 1644 drew in, Montrose outran the Argyll troops. And then, when the Argyll troops were exhausted and many of the Campbells had retreated for winter, he struck back. Thanks to a large contingent of MacDonalds, the hunted became the hunter.
Before Argyll knew it, the MacDonalds were overrunning his territory in the Highlands, laying waste to the villages and farms of the Campbell clan. The swiftness and savagery of the raids took the Campbells by total surprise. The final indignity came when Montrose took Argyll's seat of Inverary. Shame-faced, Argyll himself was forced to flee to safety by sea. The heart of Covenanting country had been taken by Royalist forces. Vengeance was sweet. And then they vanished, heading deep into the frozen hills of the Highlands.
On February 2nd 1645 they surfaced once more with deadly force. At Inverlochy, under the shadow of Ben Nevis, they had spied Argyll and his Campbell clan-force lusting for revenge. In thirty-six hours, the army marched thirty miles over some of the most inhospitable terrain in the British Isles.
As ever, outnumbered and outgunned two to one, they remained confident. Before dawn, the Irish troops took the sacrament and committed their fortunes to the care of Saint Patrick. Out of the mist rose the pipers and the terrible MacDonald war cry, 'Sons of Dogs, come and we will give you flesh.'
Before the Campbells knew what day it was, the Irish were upon them cutting the Campbell infantry to sheds. And just as Argyll readied his cavalry to fight back, Montrose sent his horsemen in. It was to prove the Campbell's bloodiest day for a generation. Over 1,500 were put to the sword while others took to the hills. The banks of Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil were strewn with the dead. Once more, Argyll was forced to flee. His galley was already half-way down the loch by the time Inverlochy Castle fell.
The Covenanters were now in turmoil in Scotland and Montrose took the opportunity to give the King some advice about his dealings with the Roundhead rebels in England, 'The more your Majesty grants, the more will be asked; and I have too much reason to know that they will not rest satisfied with less than making your Majesty a King of straw…it is unworthy of a King to treat with rebel subjects, while they have the sword in their hands.' Charles Stuart needed little prompting to treat his Parliamentary opponents with contempt and disdain.