The Moss-trooper; by Thomas Jones Barker

Conjectural dispositions at outset of battle. Note the extremely constricted nature of the battlefield, hampering more conventional deployment.


The term ‘Moss trooper’ is often, but quite erroneously applied to the Anglo-Scots border reiver of the sixteenth century. In fact there was an important difference between them in that most border reivers were otherwise respectable farmers and landowners, who from time to time set forth from their castles to steal livestock from their neighbours – ideally but not invariably on the other side of the border. Moss troopers on the other hand were landless bandits, usually operating in wandering gangs, lurking in the mosses and maintaining themselves by highway robbery and petty thievery as well as cattle rustling. Initially the moss troopers who preyed on Cromwell’s stragglers and despatch riders were just such bandits. But once they began to be organised under the command of regular officers such as Augustine (probably Captain Augustine Hoffman, formerly of Leslie’s Horse), and Patrick Gordon, alias ‘Steilhand the Mosser’, they developed into first-class light cavalry.


For the next ten months of 1648-9, Linlithgow Bridge and the river Avon would form the northern frontier of English-occupied Scotland, but of immediate English concern was the siege of Edinburgh Castle. Despite its having been rather unexpectedly stormed by a handful of men under Alexander Leslie and Sandie Hamilton back at the beginning of the Civil wars in 1639, it was generally regarded as impregnable and the siege was no more than a blockade. Nevertheless, the governor, Walter Dundas, was equally unenthusiastic – having to put up with the numerous kirkmen who took refuge there after Dunbar must have been a sore trial – and the castle’s defiance was more symbolic than real. For a time a far more serious threat was posed by a new army being gathered in the west by Gibby Kev and Archibald Strachan, and by the rise of the Moss Troopers.

Kev at least was soon dealt with. Major General Lambert was sent after him with most of the cavalry, only to be unexpectedly attacked in his quarters at Hamilton in the early hours of 1 December 1650. Very literally caught napping, Lambert was quickly driven out of the town but in the process Kev’s troopers themselves fell into some disorder and when he ordered them back out of the burgh to reorganise in the open, the raw levies jumped to the conclusion he was retreating and began to run. A greatly relieved Lambert then charged forward again, completed the accidental rout and captured Kev into the bargain. Later that day Cromwell himself moved on Glasgow whilst Strachan, whose loyalty had long been compromised by his conscience, disbanded his men and defected to the English.

Dealing with the Moss Troopers or ‘Mossers’ was far more difficult. At first they had simply been a nuisance; roving bands of fugitives turned bandits, but in time they developed into a real threat. The most notorious of the bands was led by a ‘heigh German’ mercenary known as Captain Augustine, and on the night of 13 December he crossed the Forth at Blackness with 120 men and made his way to Edinburgh. Swinging his way around to the far side he got in through the Canongate Port by the tried and trusted method of placing an English trooper at the head of the column. Once inside the Mossers then simply galloped straight up the High Street, deposited, by way of supplies, a quantity of ammunition and pickling spices in the castle, then burst out again half an hour later and got clean away. The castle still surrendered ten days later, but the raid was a clear sign that the Scots were regaining their confidence.

Ironically enough, although Cromwell had gained an outstanding tactical victo tory at Dunbar, he had completely failed to achieve his primary political objective of neutralising the supposed threat posed by Charles Stuart. On the contrary, the net effect of Dunbar was to discredit the hitherto dominant Kirk party and so strengthen the position of the King and the increasingly militant Royalist party.

Astonishingly this resurgence of Royalist support actually resulted a brief civil war in the unoccupied part of Scotland. On 4 October the Earl of Atholl openly declared for the King and Charles slipped away from his semi-confinement in an attempt to reach him, only to be apprehended by Leslie in Glen Clova next day. Undaunted, Major General John Middleton also declared for the King shortly afterwards and began mustering substantial forces, including a fair number of regulars with whom he attacked and defeated Sir John Browne in a vicious skirmish at Newtyle in Forfarshire on 21 October 1650. One of Browne’s officers and fifteen troopers were killed, and 120 taken prisoner. Significantly nearly half of Browne’s men then changed sides and joined the Royalists, but when Leslie was ordered north to deal with the rebels they fell back to the Marquis of Huntly’s castle at Strathbogie. There common sense reasserted itself and they agreed to disband their forces on 4 November. A month later however the balance of power changed dramatically and decisively with the defeat of Ker, and Strachan’s defection to the English. Sensing the way the wind was going Leslie re-aligned himself with the Royalists and on 1 January 1651 Charles II was at last formally crowned at Scone, outside Perth.

This roused Cromwell to lead another push against Stirling in early February, but although Leslie was forced to evacuate his outpost at Callendar House and covered the withdrawal with a skirmish on the Carse of Balquiderock, where Bruce had triumphed so long ago, the English army again halted and then fell back to Edinburgh in appalling weather. This time Cromwell himself fell ill and was effectively laid up until June.

In the meantime the Scots recovery went on apace as a new and increasingly confident field army came together at Stirling. Linlithgow had already been raided once in January and on 14 April a large party of horse and dragoons, probably led by Augustine, (who now had a colonel’s commission) mounted another much more successful raid:

taking advantage of an exceeding misty and foggy morning, fell with their horse into Lithgow; they killd only one man, hastned out again: but the major [John Sydenham] with about 30 horse went forth of the town, giving order for the rest to follow. As soon as he was drawn forth, the enemy charged him, and he brake in among them; but his men forsaking him, the enemy pursued both him and them to the town, cutting and hacking them. A fresh party of ours being recollected, the enemy forthwith retreated, and were pursued; in the pursuit our men took 2 or 3 of theirs prisoners, and about 2 or 3 of ours were slain.

In fact the English were far more badly beaten than they first admitted, for not only did Major Sydenham die of his wounds, but a Captain Dowson and eight of his men were captured and then murdered by the Mossers.

The raid was soon followed by a more substantial move back into the South West, which forced the English to evacuate Hamilton. On 19 May Major General Robert Montgomerie won a neat little victory at Paisley. At much the same time Middleton, having reassembled his Royalist forces brought them in to the camp at Stirling and thus reinforced, Leslie essayed a push southwards into the Torwood at the end of June. Cromwell duly came up from Edinburgh to meet him, only for the Scots to take up a strong position behind the river Carron. In a vain attempt to lure Leslie out of this position Cromwell first laid siege to Callendar House and then stormed it, slaughtering the governor, Lieutenant Galbraith and all sixty of his garrison. Despite this provocation Leslie refused to budge and eventually retired again into the defences of Stirling. Baffled, Cromwell cast about for a means of outflanking him.

Back in January Colonel Monck had unsuccessfully attempted a landing at Burntisland on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, but was thwarted by contrary winds. Now, after an abortive attempt to locate a suitable ford above Stirling, Cromwell decided to try another landing, with a much larger force, and early on the morning of 17 July 1651 while the greater part of his army ostentatiously demonstrated in front of Stirling, he embarked:

Colonel [William] Daniel’s regiment of foot, with as many forth of Leith as made them sixteen hundred with four troops of Colonel Lidcot’s regiment, all commanded by Colonel [Robert] Overton. And accordingly attempted landing at Queen’s Ferry, where almost on three sides the sea encompasseth a rocky piece of ground, which, with the loss of about six men, was effected… this done they presently fell to intrenching themselves.

The move was not unexpected. For some time the Scots had been building up the garrison of nearby Burntisland with fresh levies under a veteran officer, Colonel Harie Barclay and he evidently had an outpost at North Queensferry. Not only were Overton’s men shot up as they landed but word was passed back to Stirling so swiftly that notwithstanding Cromwell’s demonstration, Sir John Browne and Major General James Holburne were immediately sent off with their brigades of cavalry and infantry. In the meantime, as Major General Lambert reported, a tense stand-off escalated as those Scots units already quartered in the immediate vicinity turned up, and more English units were shipped across.

The enemy received the alarm the same day about ten of the clock, and sent a considerable party of horse and foot to beat ours back, upon which my lord [Cromwell] had some thoughts of attempting the enemy where they lay, which was not thought fit, but resolved to the contrary; and, in order to the preservation of the forces, his lordship commanded me to march hither with two regiments of horse and two of foot.

Upon Saturday, very early, we came to the water-side, and though I made all possible speed to boat over it, I could not get over more than the foot and my own regiment of horse all that day and the next night: about four in the afternoon on Saturday I discovered the enemy’s body advanced as far as Dumfermling, within five miles of us, being, to my judgement, about four thousand.

And that night they encamped there, and, it seems, hearing more forces were come over, got a recruit of five hundred men the next day. All Saturday night we laboured to get over our horse, and before the last came to shore on the Lord’s day, the enemy was advanced very near us.

By this time Lambert had in total; his own and Colonel William Daniel’s Foot, reinforced by four companies of Colonel George Fenwick’s; Colonel Francis West’s Foot and Colonel Edmund Syler’s Foot; his own regiment of Horse; Colonel John Okey’s former dragoons; and Colonel Leonard Lytcott’s Horse. The quality of this force seems to have been a little questionable. His own regiment of Foot was certainly a good one, but Daniel’s had only been raised the year before, originally for service in Ireland, and had been left in reserve at Dunbar. Nothing is known of West’s Regiment other than it was disbanded a year or two later, while Syler’s may have been a militia regiment from Lincolnshire. As to the cavalry, both Lambert’s and Okey’s regiments were good veteran ones, but Lytcott’s were also newly raised and would perform badly in the coming fight. It is hard to escape the impression that it was very largely a scratch force thrown together from second-line units. All in all Lambert reckoned he outnumbered the Scots by about 500 men. Most of the Scots cavalry belonged to Sir John Browne’s 3rd Cavalry Brigade, which comprised his own, Colonel Charles Arnott’s, the Earl of Balcarres’ and Sir Walter Scott’s regiments. In addition, Lord Brechin’s Horse, which had actually been quartered in Dunfermline at the time, was part of the small force which opposed the initial English landing, and subsequently took part in the battle as did Augustine’s 200 Moss Troopers. Similarly the Scots infantry was primarily comprised of Major General James Holburne’s Brigade, which was one of those to escape more or less intact from the debacle at Dunbar. Both his own and the Laird of Buchannan’s regiments were quite large, mustering 646 and 896 men respectively on 18 July. Stewart’s Regiment, destroyed at Dunbar, had since been replaced by the Master of Grey’s, 610 strong, which will have given Holburne a total of 2,152 regular infantry, exclusive of officers. The ‘recruit of 500 men’ which Lambert reported to have arrived on the Sunday morning was presumably the regiment of Highland clansmen led by Sir Hector MacLean of Duart which was to figure so prominently in the battle. One account of the affair credits the Scots with having five regiments of foot and it is likely that the otherwise unidentified fifth unit was a detachment of Barclay’s men from Burntisland, but there is no indication of their number.

Both armies drew up facing each other, the English on the Ferry Hills and Scots on the lower slopes of Castland Hill, with their right anchored on Whinney Hill and their left on the Hill of Selvege, or Muckle Hill, a little to the south of Inverkeithing. Some of them may have been dug in, for Lambert afterwards spoke of burying some of the Scots dead in their trenches.

On the one hand Holburne was understandably leery of assaulting the strong English position with a single brigade of infantry, while Lambert had no intention of going anywhere until he had brought across all his troops. However the arrival of the last of Okey’s Horse was the signal for Holburne, who by now was outnumbered, to order a withdrawal.

In his report Lambert described how Holburne ‘began to wheel, as if he meant either to march away, or take the advantage of a steep mountain’. The ‘mountain’ was of course Castland Hill and this indicates that Holburne, having originally been facing south, was now wheeling backwards, preparatory to retiring on Dunfermline. Sensing he might have them on the run Lambert immediately sent forward Okey’s Regiment to engage the Scots rearguard, whereupon Holburne halted again and drew up his men in order of battle.

Duart’s Highland regiment was apparently posted on the right, and probably Buchannan’s as well, while Holburne’s and Gray’s regiments were on the left . Where Barclay’s men were posted is unclear. They too may have been on the left, but Lambert says that a ‘pass’, in front of Holburne’s right, was “lined by the enemy’s musketeers”, and this is perhaps a more likely location. From subsequent events it would appear that Sir John Browne’s cavalry brigade was on the right, and that an ad hoc one comprising Brechin’s Horse and Augustine’s ‘Mossers’ was on the left.

As for the English:

We were more in number, in my judgement, by at least five or six hundred, but on the other side the enemy had the advantage of the ground, our left wing of horse being upon a very ill ground, where was a pass lined by the enemy’s musketeers;

Upon consideration whereof, we placed our greatest strength in our right wing, consisting of my own regiment of horse, and two of colonel Lidcot’s, and two of colonel Okey’s troops; the charge of that wing being left with him; and in the left only four troops of colonel Okey’s and two of Lidcot’s, to whom the charge of that wing was committed.

The battle [centre] consisting of mine and colonel Daniel’s regiment of foot, and reserved by colonel west and colonel Syler’s regiment, being commanded by colonel Overton.

Both sides were now deployed in order of battle, but nothing happened for another hour and a half. Lambert tells us he was still expecting the Scots to attack him ‘being come so far to seek us’, while Holburne, having been prevented from retreating, was similarly expecting to be attacked.

At length the stalemate was broken when Lambert received word from Cromwell that reinforcements were marching from Stirling to Holburne’s assistance and that as he himself was pulling back to Linlithgow it was likely that even more would be sent shortly. Rather disappointingly Lambert, having described his initial movements and deployment in some detail, then rather blandly states that it was therefore ‘resolved we should climb the hill to them, which accordingly we did, and through the Lord’s strength, put them to an absolute rout’.

There was of course a little more to it than that. Browne, leading the Scots cavalry on the right (or western side of the battlefield), charged forward and with the advantages of the slope and their lances, broke some of the English cavalry opposite. These were presumably Lytcott’s raw troopers, but Browne may have had to put in everything he had to achieve this, and had no reserves to exploit his initial success. Certainly the upshot was that Lytcott counter-attacked with his own reserves and routed the lot, capturing Browne in the process. Similarly, on the left (Inverkeithing side) Augustine and Brechin were initially successful, but the Moss Troopers were pretty undisciplined and Brechin’s men scarcely less so. Once again they were completely routed by Okey’s reserve – probably led in by Lambert himself, who collected two pistol balls lodged between his armour and his coat.

With the Scots cavalry well scattered, it was the turn of the infantry. There is no real evidence of a serious fight at this stage of the battle. Indeed Lambert states that it was all over in a very short time. This, taken with a curious statement in the Fraser Chronicles that ‘Hellish Hoburn came not up, which if he had the Scotch had carried it but doubt’, suggests that the Scots cavalry either charged to cover the retreat of the infantry, or, more likely, that Holburne, seeing all was going to pot, simply made off leaving them to their fate.

Either way, just as at Dunbar, their retreat must have been prolonged and nightmarish experience. Holburne’s own veterans and Gray’s regiment both seem to have escaped more or less intact, although an oral tradition relates that the Pinkerton Burn ran with blood for three days afterwards. Both Buchannan’s and Duart’s regiments on the other hand, fleeing across the open valley to the west of the burn were effectively destroyed after a four hour running battle. Afterwards Lambert, claiming to have taken 1,400 prisoners including Browne and Buchannan, commented that more were killed than taken because ‘divers of them were Highlanders, and had very ill quarter; and indeed I am persuaded few of them escaped without a knock’. Be that as it may, however the numbers might be computed, their long retreat ended on the hill-slopes around Pitreavie Castle, some two kilometres due north of their original position on Castland Hill.

Tradition relates that the Highlanders sought refuge in the castle, but the owners, a family named Wardlaw, not only refused them admittance but actually threw stones down on them from the roof. With Lambert’s men closing in fast, Duart and his men turned at bay. He himself was killed, but not before seven of his clansmen had interposed themselves one by one, crying ‘Fear eile airson Eachainn!’ ( ‘Another for Hector!’). Legend has it that all but thirty-five out of 800 [sic] of the Highlanders were killed, though, more realistically, Sir James Balfour records that the Scots lost about 800 men in total, of whom no more than 100 were Duart’s clansmen.

It was by any reckoning a quick and decisive victory won by Lambert at the cost of ‘not above eight men, but divers wounded’. More importantly it secured the bridgehead and, over the next two days, Cromwell shipped over another four regiments, and then followed himself with virtually his whole army. By 26 July he reported that he had 13-14,000 men across and on 31 July he marched on Perth which surrendered to him on 2 August. Shy of fighting in the open ever since Dunbar, Leslie had made no attempt to engage him, and now with his lines of communication very firmly cut, he fell in with the King’s desperate notion of marching into England in a vain attempt to rally the English Royalists for one last throw of the dice. With the army gone, and soon to be destroyed at Worcester, Scotland was all but powerless to resist the last English invasion. Stirling Castle surrendered on 15 August 1651, Dundee was stormed and sacked on 1 September and Aberdeen was occupied without a fight a week later. The last of the field armies, commanded by the Marquis of Huntly and the Earl of Balcarres had surrendered by 3 December, and, with the surrender of Dunottar Castle on 24 May 1652, it was all over.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *