Manus O'Cahan's Regiment: Wikis


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Manus O'Cahan's Regiment Of Foot was a Scots-Irish regiment which served during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the mid-1640s.



Manus O’Cahan’s Regiment Of Foot was a body of Scots-Irish soldiers, many of who had fought in Europe in the early years of the Thirty Years War. Some historians, like C. V. Wedgewood refer to them as a ‘Gallowglass’ (i.e. mercenary) regiment. They were actually soldiers who sailed from Ulster to Scotland to fight for the Royalist cause there. Manus O'Cahan never set foot in England; all of his fighting took place in Ulster and Scotland. Their European combat experiences made them some of the most experienced soldiers serving in the Civil War.


Scottish events of the war were complex. By the Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century there was already a centuries old blood feud running between the Campbell and Macdonald clans. As part of that feud, the Campbells had seized ownership of the Hebridean isles of Islay and Colonsey from an aged warrior called Colkitto (known as Col Ciottoch, Scots Gaelic for he who fights with both hands, as he was ambidextrous). Colkitto’s son was the seven-foot tall Alastair McColla, who went to Ireland to raise the Irish cousins to the Macdonald clan for raids against the men who now occupied the Hebridean Isles.

King Charles had offended the Scots as early as 1637, when he tried to impose the English Prayer Book on the nation. The Scots rebelled with riots, and a petition known as The National Covenant. The King declared War on his Scottish subjects. The two resulting Bishops' Wars ended in embarrassing and expensive defeat for the King.

The MacDonnells, Irish cousins to the MacDonalds offered to sail to Scotland to serve the King, hoping to use the conflict to gain their homes back as a reward if the Royalists won. This was a threat to the anti-Catholic puritanical Covenanters and the English Roundheads. Scottish allies to the King, including old Colkitto, were arrested and imprisoned to prevent them raising private armies to bring Scotland to civil war. Unfortunately, two things led to the very civil war feared by the Covenanters. 1/. Alastair McColla avoided capture and stayed in Ireland helping to raise an army composed of exiled or hiding Royalist Scots and their Catholic Irish cousins. 2/. Montrose, (James Graham) who had been an ardent Covenanter, became disillusioned by the brutalities inflicted on clansmen who he regarded as good friends. He changed sides and began to serve the Royalist cause.

MacColla and O'Cahan

In 1641, as McColla raised his army in Ulster, on behalf of Randal MacDonnell (Earl of Antrim), a strong Royalist sympathiser, the Irish Rebellion of 1641 erupted. Catholics turned on Protestant settlers who were pouring into the country by the thousand under a much despised plantation programme. McColla, and a cousin by marriage, Manus O’Cahan, were thrown together in a joint Catholic-Protestant Scots-Irish peace keeping force. Finding themselves despised by the Protestants in the force, the Scot and the Irishman rebelled and went on an a guerrilla warfare rampage throughout Northern Ireland. In the course of the conflict they developed a new battle technique known as the ‘Irish Charge’, this involved simply discarding heavy weapons such as pikes and muskets to rush the enemy to kill them at close quarter with dirks, daggers, and swords or even with unarmed combat tactics. It proved to be highly effective, especially against musketeers who needed time to reload powder and shot between volleys. They also perfected the art of running directly at cavalry to cut the horses in the bellies and fetlocks as they ran underneath them. This forced the agonised horses to throw their riders. McColla made himself unpopular in Ireland by changing sides, to serve the Protestants, and then changing sides again to serve Antrim and the Irish Catholic Confederation of which Antrim was a leader. As the Scottish Covenant forces declared military support for the English Parliament in late 1643, Antrim hit on a plan to send Scots-Irish troops to Scotland. The aim was for them to cause as much destruction as possible, and force the Scots to withdraw their soldiers from Ireland, in order to deal with the increasing crisis back home. Antrim negotiated the plans through the Confederacy's Supreme Council, and with the full blessing of James Butler, Earl of Ormonde, a personal advisor to King Charles.

In one Ulster battle, McColla was badly wounded. O’Cahan personally dragged his giant (seven foot tall) friend to safety through heavy fire on a makeshift litter and got him some urgently needed medical attention. It was in order to raise an army to quell the rebellion in Ireland that King Charles initially had recalled his Parliament in England. When his Parliament refused to co-operate with the King, his efforts to accuse them of treason against the crown led to the English portion of the Civil War. As war erupted in England, Scottish Royalists, as planned by the Confederation, brought the conflict to the fore in Scotland too. On Antrim's orders, McColla and O’Cahan, with Thomas Lachnan and James MacDonnell, raised an army of 1,500 men and sailed for Scotland, intending to make the most of the conflict to avenge the wrongs done to them by the Campbell clan, who were ardent Covenanters. Even the voyage, through waters patrolled by Parliament frigates, proved eventful. The Scots-Irish Brigade did not have all the vessels they had hoped for. There were three passenger carrying merchant ships in the small fleet that did sail; The Harp, The Christopher, the Angell Gabrielle (Flemish merchantmen) and they were protected by the Jacob Of Ross (Irish Merchantman) Many men, and most weapons had to be left behind in Ulster. The small fleet captured a group of Covenant ministers sailing for Ulster, and took them prisoner. One captive, John Weir, kept a diary of the events, from which most histories of the events are drawn. The Scots-Irishry landed in Mull on July 5 1644. They quickly started causing as much trouble and securing the coast in hope of more men coming over from Ireland. On the 7th July Manus O’Cahan led the division who took Kinlochaline Castle, coming under intense cannon fire, but emerging victorious to rejoin the main body of MacColla's men at their own captured territory, Loch Sunart. A group of Irish stayed behind to hold the fortress at Kinlochaline. Earthwork battery ramparts and trenches were dug to help secure the territories The ships were soon lost in acts of piracy against Covenant and Parliamentary vessels which now patrolled the waters looking for signs of the invaders. Realising that their position was growing increasingly dangerous as, being just 1,500 strong, they were hopelessly outnumbered, O'Cahan and McColla started to move inland, recruiting among local clansmen as they went. Many refused, and some proved to be hostile. However, help was coming from an unexpected source, James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose.

O'Cahan and Montrose

Montrose had planned on taking an army from England to serve his cause in Scotland, and made his way to an audience with Prince Rupert of The Rhine. Unfortunately, Montrose arrived just days after the English Royalist defeat at Marston Moor on 2 July 1644. Rupert promptly commandeered most of Montrose's men to make up his own fallen numbers. Montrose decided to go to Scotland incognito, with only two allies, Sir William Rollo, and Sir James Sibbart. On the journey through his own country, Scotland, where he was now an outlaw, he learned of McColla's arrival, and raced to meet him.

McColla and O’Cahan united with Montrose on the Mull Of Kintyre on the 29 August 1644. The alliance proved to be a formidable one.

They fought a string of major victories and many smaller skirmishes through the heart of Scotland in what became known as their ‘Year Of Glory’. (1644-1645)

O’Cahan led an entire division of men on MacColla’s behalf throughout the Montrose campaigns. He remains mostly an illusive figure in the history books.

The first victory came at Tippermuir, on 1 September 1644, the next, at Aberdeen, on the 13 September 1644, was more controversial in that the Royalists, including O’Cahan’s men were involved in the massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians throughout the city.

Montrose wanted to expand his forces and march south, to England to help the King, who was by this time faring badly as Cromwell’s New Model Army grew in strength. The bulk of the Scottish Covenant army was also now fighting for Parliament in England. However, the successes Montrose and McColla had in battle made the Covenanters withdraw more and more men from England to fight the war on home soil.

McColla, and the Scottish Highlanders who served with him alongside O’Cahan’s Irishry had little interest in England, as they had their feud with the Campbells to address. The Highland warriors, who came to their aid frequently left the battlefields to take their spoils of war home, so they often vanished for months on end, though most did return. The Scottish soldiers who served Montrose constantly drew him back from his planned advances on the English border to have another charge against the forces of the Earl Of Argyll, leader of the Campbell Clan.

McColla was more loyal to Montrose, but he often had to separate from him to go and help recruit more men as the army’s numbers waned. While McColla was away, O’Cahan usually stayed with Montrose, with whom he became a powerful ally. O'Cahan did briefly travel to Ulster on a mission to try to get more recruits there, but returned unsuccesfiully. It was when McColla was away on such a recruitment drive on the 21 October 1644 that Montrose and O’Cahan and their men found themselves pinned down at Fyvie Castle by Argyll’s forces. O’Cahan led a daring night raid into the Campbell lines to break the siege. The Campbells fled and O’Cahan was able to grab the powder supplies abandoned by the deserters. He jokingly told Montrose “We must at them again, for the rogues have forgot to leave the bullets with the powder.” It is one of the few direct quotations the history books record from him.

McColla returned soon after the battle at Fyvie with a strong battle plan of his own that Montrose regarded as impossible. McColla had raised a formidable body of Scottish Highlanders all of who felt a desire to crush the Campbell Clan once and for all. They were predominantly Macdonald allies like the Clan Ranald. McColla proposed a raid through the heartland of Campbell owned estates, in effect the complete destruction of Argyllshire. The assault was to culminate in a near suicidal daring march on Argyll’s personal estate at Inverlochy, which had a historic reputation for being impossible to capture. The march on Inverlochy was made, despite Montrose’s reservations, though he went along. Argyllshire was indeed razed. The hundreds of square miles covered were more remarkable for the march-taking place in the winter blizzards of early 1645, when even the sea off the coast of Scotland froze. The culminating attack, and massacre of Campbells at Inverlochy on 2 February 1645 was made after a two day march over the foothills of Ben Nevis. Argyll himself abandoned his men and sailed away on his personal galley to save his own skin.

Inverlochy was MacColla and O’Cahan’s greatest moment. It is recorded that O’Cahan personally drew first blood. Few Campbells were allowed to live of those captured there. The year of glory was now past its peak. Montrose became increasingly over-confident and he began to make tactical blunders. He also wrote letters claiming that the victories were all his own doing, rather than also the work of his Scots-Irish allies.

Decline and fall

Montrose now had support from Royalist cavalry horse divisions supplied by the Gordon’s Clan, and he barely spoke to the men who had served him all along on foot any more. On 9 May 1645 came the debacle at Auldearn. Many early historians regard Auldearn as Montrose’s supreme achievement and a carefully planned battle. In fact, it was a fiasco, where only luck and the bravery of the Scots–Irish forces saved the day.

Montrose had led his men after Covenanters who were seeking reinforcements in Inverness. Failing to catch up with them in time, Montrose camped his men at Auldearn, as he didn’t expect the enemy to have time to launch an immediate counter-attack too soon. In fact, the Covenanters marched all night to be able to attack the Royalists at first light at Auldearn. Only Covenant musketeers cleaning their guns by firing them created enough noise to be able to warn MacColla’s men in time. Montrose had spread his men over a wide area rather than grouping them together. While McColla and O’Cahan held off the attack, Montrose desperately raced around trying to raise the rest of the camp.

The traditional version of Auldearn is that Montrose hid his main army in a hollow and set up McColla, and O’Cahan as a false front and a decoy target before closing in with a brilliant pincer movement to trap the enemy. In Fact, Montrose was caught completely off guard. MacColla’s defence was much more desperate and heroic than has been claimed. Fortunately, modern accounts have re-evaluated the battle, even to the detriment of Montrose. The Scots-Irish brigades fought ruthlessly. When a few of the Gordon’s Clan who helped them started to panic, McColla personally killed them to prevent their panic causing the desertion of the rest of their clan. One of MacColla’s men fought on despite taking a pike through his mouth from one cheek to the other, narrowly missing his tongue.

Montrose only arrived with reinforcements when he had woken and rounded up his widely scattered forces, and finally the day was saved. Montrose had not hidden his army in a hollow ready to affect a spectacular ambush.

There were only two major Royalist victories to come in the Year Of Glory now. The Royalists won a resounding victory on 2 July 1645 at Alford. They followed this up with a greater victory on 15 August 1645 at Kilsyth, in effect rendering the Covenant forces of the Earl Of Argyll useless.

Philiphaugh and the death of Manus O'Cahan

Montrose was now ready to head south through Lowland Scotland and into England, but many of his allies deserted him as they had little interest in such non-Scottish campaigning. McColla is often accused of being among the deserters, but it is more likely that he left Montrose’s side to go out recruiting more men for the cause as he had done several times before. This time, he would be too late. O’Cahan stayed with Montrose as he started to prepare for the advance to the Scottish-English border. Unfortunately, the increasing collapse of the main Royalist forces in England meant that more Scots could now be sent back to help capture Montrose and his allies in Scotland. David Leslie, a leading highly experienced soldier and Covenanter, attacked O’Cahan’s men as they were just waking up at an encampment in Philiphaugh (near to the site of today’s Selkirk Rugby football club ) on the 13th September 1645. It was one year to the day after the Aberdeen massacre.

O’Cahan’s forces and those of the other Irish divisions who had stayed with Montrose, found themselves under severe surprise attack and hopelessly outnumbered. Within hours they were reduced to less than five hundred men, but they fought on valiantly. Montrose, who had camped separately from the Irish, tried to fight his way to their aid, but he was forced back and eventually fled for his life. Many were offended by this desertion, but he may have been advised to do it by the men accompanying him. David Leslie offered O’Cahan terms of surrender. If his men laid down their arms and agreed to leave Scotland forever, they would be allowed to go free. O’Cahan agreed to this, but Leslie had the now unarmed Irish captured, and O’Cahan witnessed the execution of virtually his entire army. The women and children who had followed his forces were also brutally executed, many by drowning in the rivers around Philipaugh. Colonels O’Cahan, and Thomas Laghtnan were taken to Edinburgh Castle and hanged from the South Wall there without a trial.

The Regiment Today (re-enactment)

Today the regiment can be found as an active regiment in the re-enactment society, The Sealed Knot. O'cahans regiment is a member of the Scots Brigade and take part in many events throughout Britain.


McColla (his father Colkitto now freed under prisoner exchange arrangements) and Montrose, fought on, independently of one another. They never met again. In his late seventies Colkitto retook the Isle of Islay, only to be captured on July 1, 1647. He was executed soon afterwards but the exact date of this is unknown. McColla returned to Ireland where the Rebellion continued. McColla fought and died on the 13 November 1647 at the battle of Knocknanuss. Montrose fought on in Scotland until the King was captured and ordered a general Royalist cease-fire. The victorious Covenanters now forced Montrose into exile. He moved through Europe, and later led an attack on the Covenanters on behalf of King Charles II, using an inexperienced army of Danish and Scandinavian mercenaries. He was defeated at Carbisdale, in Scotland on the 27 April 1650. Captured a few days later, Montrose was tried and executed in Edinburgh on the 30 April 1650.

Further reading

  • John Buchan - MONTROSE 1918 Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd.
  • Kevin Byrne - COLKITTO! A CELEBRATION OF CLAN DONALD OF COLONSAY (1370-1647) 1977 House Of Lochar
  • John McDonnell - ULSTER CIVIL WAR OF 1641 AND ITS CONSEQUENCES 1879 H. H. Gill & Son Dublin
  • Stuart Reid– AULDEARN 1645 2003 Osprey Publishing
  • Stuart Reid – SCOTS ARMIES OF THE 17th CENTURY Vol. 1/. THE ARMY OF THE COVENANT 1639-51 1988 Partizan Press
  • David Stevenson - HIGHLAND WARRIOR (ALASDAIR MACCOLLA AND THE CIVIL WARS) 1980 The Saltire Society.
  • D. R. Watson – THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHARLES THE FIRST 1972 Weidenfeld & Nicolson. .
  • C. V. Wedgwood - MONTROSE 1952 Fontana
  • Ronald Williams - THE HEATHER AND THE GALE 1997 House Of Lochar
  • Ronald Williams - MONTROSE - CAVALIER IN MOURNING 2001 House Of Lochar

Manus O'Cahan in fiction

  • Marianne Lamont, Nine Moons Wasted 1976 Pan Books pseudonym of Jean Sanders/Anne Rundle. A romantic story about the Irish camp follower women who followed O'Cahan, and Montrose around the battlefields.
  • Sir Walter Scott, A Legend of Montrose 1819 - Novel loosely based on the assassination of Lord Kilpont soon after the battle of Tippermuir O'Cahan's men were initially suspects in the murder, which was committed by James Stewart of Ardvorlich. Scott's story changes the identity of the killer, though he names him in the introduction.
  • Nigel Tranter, The Young Montrose; Montrose: The Captain General 1973 Coronet/Hodder & Stoughton. Novelised version of the life and times of Montrose, with O'Cahan as a minor background character.

Maurice Walsh , "And no Quarter" 1980 - Martin Somers is a surgeon/swordsman in O'Cahan's Irish regiment fighting the Covenanters for Montrose.

External links



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