The Siege of Dundee 1645

1st September 1651 the siege of Dundee.

Montrose attacks Dundee


At the time of his attack on Dundee the Marquis of Montrose had achieved victories on behalf of King Charles I and his army was no longer considered an inconsequential pack of mercenaries. The Covenanters were waging full-scale war and Oliver Cromwell was steadily rising through the ranks with another nine years to wait until becoming Protector of England.

The royal burgh of Dundee had been on alert since 1643-44 with militia appointed to guard its four quarters. The Council had reclaimed strategic land and buildings from individuals and were in the process of repairing the boundary walls. Originally an open seaport the burgh was not walled until it had been attacked twice during the Wars of Independence, then again by Richard II and Edward VI. In its need for funds the Council had made several requests to have loans repaid that had been given for government forces to be equipped, such as 4000 merks granted to the Marquis of Argyle who was in pursuit of James Graham, the 1st Marquis of Montrose.

Montrose first approached the burgh with a view to attack within days of his victory over the Covenanters at Tippermuir. Finding it strong and prepared to fight he kept this hotbed of sedition until after the battle of Aberdeen. Most accounts agree that Dundee was a solution to a prestige dilemma. Montrose had to find a reason for being north of the Tay so attacking covenanting Dundee would offer supplies and keep the men busy. Given advance warning by the Earl of Crawford, Dundee called out its men and stood ready. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready enough when the attack came.

Leaving a base at Dunkeld, Montrose headed for that ‘most seditious place, which was a faithful receptacle to the rebels in these parts…’ and arrived to the north by 10am, April 4th 1645. His approach at three angles took advantage of defences still in need of rebuilding and took the burgh’s volunteer garrison by surprise. His men took control of the town’s ordnance that had been placed on Corbie Hill (now quarried out) and turned Dundee’s guns on itself. His targets included the parish church, the hospital and Bonnet Row (now Hilltown) where he ‘wilfullie and treasonablie raised wilful fire in the suburbs thereof called the Bonnet Raw’.

A servant to the Laird of Rothiemay, trumpeter John Gordon, was sent to order magistrates to surrender. It is accepted that the town fathers followed usual practice and secured the messenger in the Tolbooth. Any reply to the surrender request was understandably slow in arriving so Montrose started the assault by ordering Lord Gordon and Macdonald to storm the town. Soon they received news that the experienced Covenanter Generals Baillie and Hurry were riding from Perth and barely one mile away with 3000 foot and 800 cavalry. As his own raiding party comprised barely 700 men with 150-200 horse Montrose was advised in two ways; retreat and leave his forces to their fate or charge and die gloriously on the battlefield. Montrose decided to take a third option. Most commentators regard his next move as an example of his leadership skills and command over his troops. He rode into the market place rounding up the inebriated and pillaging soldiers before dividing the force onto two diverging roads and closed the rear himself before ‘the sun had set’. Assuming entry soon after 10am the invading army were present in the burgh for no more than six to seven hours.

Hurry and Baillie had divided their troops in half before entering the west of the burgh expecting that their prey was an assured capture. Whilst Montrose was exiting the east walls a reward of 20,000 gold pieces was offered as an incentive to the pursuing troops.

Montrose then continued to march a section of his troops through the night until they reached Arbroath. In thirty hours the army had marched sixty miles, plundered a town, got drunk, made a hurried retreat and marched over open countryside in darkness. One biographer, Williams, noted that the Covenanters claimed the salvation of the town as a victory - although the Scots knew different! Buchan offers open admiration for a leader who could gather together drunken men laden with plunder claiming that ‘he who could execute such a flight was a consummate strategist’. With light skirmishes the chase continued until Montrose and his men were safe in the hills of Glenesk. His biographer, Wishart, writes

‘Whether such an account will be believed abroad or in after ages I cannot pretend to say; but it rests on the most certain information and the best of evidence. In fact, I have often heard officers of experience and distinction, not in Britain only, but also in Germany and France, prefer this march of Montrose to his most famous victories.’

This fleeting visit left a legacy of damage, calculated at £162,299 15s, for the burgh and its residents. The boundary walls alone cost £162 to repair. An Act of Parliament, 13 January 1646, reported that the burgh had suffered

‘not onlie the slaughter of manie of the inhabitantis bot also a great pairt of the biggingis of the toun, whiche was ane of the chiefe of this kingdome, is fearfullie defaced and maist pairt of the inhabitantis rwined, the toun disabled to undergoe the publict service and burdingis and without supplie is likelie to decay.’

This attack may sound vicious but my attention has been captured by recent accounts and a novel that equate it as equal, if not exceeding, in verocity to the later siege of the opposing side in the same argument by General George Monck. How this opinion came about is not quite clear. For instance, the 1645 attack claimed the loss ‘of manie..’. The 1651 attack by Monck’s forces reduced the population ‘be estimation … about ten or ellevin hundredth, beside four or five hundredth prissoneris.’ Other calculations rate the deaths at approximately 800 men, women and children.

Another point of disagreement, in my mind, is the separation of the main parish church, St. Mary’s, from its tower, known locally as the Steeple. This ‘fact’ is clearly stated by 20th century historians yet I find no contemporary evidence to support it. It is not mentioned in town records or by any biographer. An 1893 account quoting Wishart claims the invaders took control of the market–place and the church whilst others fired the houses. This same account states that ‘the South church was made useless’ but was this by a fire bad enough to reduce a church to rubble whilst leaving its bell tower standing? Possibly. A gas explosion in 1841 did exactly that. The parish church of St. Mary’s has a complicated history with six reincarnations. Due to attacks as part of the Rough Wooings (1547-50) there was a gap in the church grounds. This section was rebuilt as the South church in 1558. A collegiate system was established by the end of the 16th century with one building divided into separate charges to accommodate different congregations. In later periods the South Church was contained within the transept of St. Mary’s not the nave which is the part connected, then disconnected from, the tower. Although modern usage may reflect past tradition it is not enough on which to base a conclusion. Had it been St. Mary’s nave which was destroyed so completely why would records refer to the South church? There was no northern church to differentiate from and the site is at the western edge of town.  

An artist in the 19th century image portrayed Civil War combatants in front of the derelict tower suggesting that the tower was destroyed in the conflict. By dating their clothes I conclude that the artist has dated the separation of tower and church to the 1640s. Is this belief based on fact or an urban myth?

If Dundee thought it was hard pressed in 1645 it was to suffer even more six years later. Unknown to the inhabitants they would be besieged six years later by General George Monck on behalf of Cromwell.

Despite their adherence to the reformed faith and the Solemn League and Covenant the people of Dundee showed kindness and sympathy when the defeated Montrose was en route to his execution in Edinburgh.