I just finished C.V. Wedgewood’s short biography on James Graham, Marquess of Montrose. Though I had previously read her seminal work on The Thirty Years War, I had no idea she had written a book on Montrose until I randomly discovered it in my local used book store. By the way, please patron your local used book store. Mine is Second Story Books in Washington DC, and it absolutely rules.
Montrose is my favorite military commander of the British Civil Wars (more famously but erroneously called ‘The English Civil War’ even though it began in Scotland and ended in Ireland). Unlike many unjustly lionized loser-generals (ahem, Lee, Hannibal, arguably MacArthur), Montrose was a guy who lost in the end, but showed immense skill and daring in an impossible situation practically no one would be expected to pull off a stalemate in, much less a succession of improbable victories.
Montrose originally began the war on the rebel side, finding the overreach of the King and his neglect of his Scottish birthplace galling. As is so often the case both in our world and that of the past, rebels have a real reason to pissed. But as is also the case, when rebellion jump the shark loyalties change. Montrose served successfully as a commander in the rebel forces to seek negotiation with the King. When it became obvious that the rebels were no longer interested in negotiation now that they had a window to establish a theocracy of their own and a chance to force Presbyterianism on the population of Scotland by fiat, however, Montrose defected to the monarchy as the lesser of evils and began to set up a resistance within the very country he had just cleared of pro-Stuart forces. Perhaps he had been naive to believe in ‘moderate rebels’, certainly many can be. But few at the earlier juncture could have seen the unexpected rise of Archibald Campbell, First Marquess of Argyle and the leverage he would give to fanatics once he wormed his way into Scotland’s body politic as the chief powerbroker.
With a class of theology nerds, the 17th Century equivalent of alt right neckbeards and the tumblrgelicals of today but guided by all the screeching antireason of the modern day evangelical right, ensconced in power in Edinburgh, Montrose raised and led a tiny and ramshackle coalition of all those opposed to the rule of a single theocratic faction. With Irish Catholics, disaffected Scottish Protestants, Stuart royalists, and those driven to extremity by the Covenanter occupation all serving as one, Montrose’s small band darted in and out of the Highlands, scorching Campbell’s home bases, liberating Aberdeen and numerous small towns, and defeating much larger Covenanting forces with shock, surprise, deception and maneuver which led their tiny band to have an outsized effect on the conflict. Scotland, which had been entirely won for the rebel cause before the war was yet decided in England, now teetered in uncertainty before a truly crushing set of victories by Montrose liberated the country and put anti-Covenanter forces in power again, with Argyle fleeing the country he had once sought to rule.
With such an emergency on hand, the Scottish rebels fighting under David Leslie in England were recalled and Montrose finally defeated by a numerically and technologically superior force. Seeing the war was basically over in the decisive theater of England (this stage of it anyway) Montrose negotiated terms from his Highland bases, ensuring escape for many of his band before they were declared outlaws. He made his way to Norway, and then, later when the rebels executed the King and the Covenantors broke with the English Parliament over it and other issues, he raised exile support from the new heir-in-exile, Charles II. Montrose would land in Orkney and raise a new army in support of Chucky, but would be double-crossed in negotiations of that monarch with the restored Argyle. Eventually, he would be captured, put on a show trial, and executed in Edinburgh and Charles II would flee after failing to make a compromise with the ruling fanatics. All accounts of the humiliating parade of Montrose on his way to execution state he was calm and composed, even staring down Argyle who then elicited the jeers of the crowd for looking away. The way things were going, he knew history would vindicate him and not his opponents. In the end Cromwell would invade and take over Scotland before all the kingdoms got fed up with his Puritan rule and after his death invited back Charles. The Covenanters would go on to be hunted to near extinction, and total suppression, in the coming well-deserved revenge.
Montrose’s legacy in his homeland, however, would only soar. In a messy and complicated legacy left by the Stuarts, he showed what was best and what could have been under their arrangement had things worked out differently. A multi-confessional and multi-ethnic reign but under contract. This would indeed be what Scotland would eventually become, if in a very different way and time period. Even the Scottish National Party of today, despite its seemingly nativist name, courts the votes of minorities and immigrants and had the independence referendum apply to those who lived in Scotland and had residency no matter their background, while denying it to those who lived outside of Scotland. It was the land itself, and the governance thereof, that was what was important over sectarian absolutism, now as it was under Montrose tiny band of anti-theocracy fighters.
Since it is my personal opinion that opposition movements both to tyranny and fanatacism should learn to work with, rather than against, national movements I feel that this example of leadership, and those like it, are worth revisiting today. We live in a world bifurcated between a collapsing and flailing global ruling class who views finance, unsustainable resource extraction, and endless peripheral war as the key to everything on one hand and extreme identitarian nutjobs on the other (be they called ‘moderate rebels’ to describe sectarian jihadists in the Middle East or ‘alt-right’ /white nationalist fascists in the developed world) and the rest of us are just waiting for everything to get worse as these fools hiss at each other over the scraps of a dying planet.
But beyond that vaguely similar situation of needing to cobble together motley coalitions, its Montrose’s battlefield leadership itself that I feel would be illustrative as instructive to the future. Likely, many groups of people forced to fight and survive in the conflict zones of our world will begin as small bands unable to take or hold territory but merely showing that an opposition still exists. The leaders will share hardships with their followers. Then with success and greater recruitment come more conventional operations and the dangers of multi-faceted factional politics and shifting alliances. His life and complicated results serve as an illustrative example of both what once was, but also what might be again-and already is a reality for many in the world. More modern examples of this form of leadership, which I would like to discuss in a later post, are Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Tito for the former Yugoslavia.
Plus, Montrose is a fellow St Andrews University alumnus, so of course I want to claim him. Not to mention that as someone who lived in Edinburgh for years any enemy of the grotesque theocracy that once occupied it and ruled it in a manner similar to how Saudi Arabia is governed today is a friend of mine. The Stewarts, like the Assads, had their huge flaws and helped create the circumstances that led to conflict against them, but the alternative was so much worse. When it comes to the dying present order and the extremist alternatives to it, however, environmental concerns mean such a dynamic of lesser evilism may no longer apply. Another option is needed. I do not know what it is but I do know that like Montrose’s band it will start small, have to cast a very wide tent for supporters, and combat destructive ideology on behalf of the land itself and those living in it rather than specific sectarian or ethnic grievances. I also know that, unlike Montrose, in the end it must not fail.