Orkney’s Forgotten War: The Royalist Occupation, 1649-1650

In 1976, George Mackay Brown wrote one of his lesser-known short stories, ‘Soldier From The Wars Returning’. The tale follows the journey of an Orcadian soldier who had enlisted in the marquis of Montrose’s Royalist army in 1649. The unnamed soldier awakes in the aftermath of the fateful Battle of Carbisdale (27 April 1650) to find himself alone on the battlefield. Assuming that Montrose’s forces had emerged victorious, and having no clue as to where the army had gone, the soldier decides to travel back home to Orkney. As he makes the long pilgrimage home, the soldier encounters different figures on the road who seem to shun his company. While crossing the Pentland Firth, he shares a boat with a group of Caithness fishermen and a minister. During the voyage, the soldier is appalled when his fellow companions, whom he describes as ‘regicides’ and ‘traitors’, openly discuss treasonous things in his presence. The bulk of the soldier’s ire is reserved for the minister, who bemoans the needless loss of life which has occurred as a result of the renewed civil war. The minister laments the foolishness of the Orkney men who enlisted in the Royalist army, saying that they ‘should have bidden at home’ and should never have listened to ‘that scented creature with the golden tongue [i.e. Montrose]’. Enraged, and bemused by the minister’s complete refusal to answer his complaints, the soldier storms off after coming to port. However, the closer the soldier comes to his home, the clearer his realisation becomes that he is, in fact, dead. He had died upon the battlefield, and it is his spirit which has made his final journey homeward. Arriving at his dwelling to find his lover in bed with another man, the soldier reflects upon all the choices which led him to this moment, concluding that ‘out of loyalty to my king, I had betrayed my fields and our unborn children’.

The opening page of A True Relation (Edinburgh, 1650) [this was the contemporary report of the battle published by the victorious Covenanting regime] – Historical Texts

Aside from being a great story, the tale of the spectral soldier is important because it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only significant cultural memory of the British Civil Wars (1638-1651) within modern Orcadian popular memory. This is surprising given the vital role which Orkney and Orcadians played in the civil wars, especially during the final campaign of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. After a decade of civil war and societal strife, Montrose led a final Royalist rising in Scotland, which aimed to topple the Covenanting regime in Edinburgh, avenge the death of Charles I (who had been executed by the English Parliamentarians on 30 January 1649) and restore his son, the newly crowned Charles II, to his British thrones. Orkney was key in this campaign, being occupied by Royalist forces in September 1649 and then acting as Montrose’s base of operations as he launched an invasion of the Scottish mainland in April 1650. At least 1000 Orcadians enlisted (seemingly willingly) in the Royalist army which was utterly routed at Carbisdale, bringing the campaign to an abrupt end.

Despite the strategic importance of Orkney during this period, and the level of local involvement in the campaign, all that remains of the episode today is Brown’s short story. Orkney’s apparent amnesia of its own importance during this period is perhaps best illustrated in the lack of interest which this period has drawn in recent histories of the islands. For example, William Thompson’s otherwise excellent New History of Orkney (Birlinn, 2008) covers the entire civil war episode in a single page, while full chapters are devoted to the neolithic, iron age and medieval. The editors of George Wishart’s contemporary history of the marquis’ campaigns, Murdoch Alexander and H. F. M. Simpson, offered one possible explanation of this phenomenon as the result of such memories being overlaid by those of the Cromwellian occupation of the islands in 1651. Indeed, all residents of Kirkwall today will recognise Cromwell Road and Cromwell Drive, yet you will not find a Montrose Street or Royalist Roundabout.

The more poignant aspect to this largely forgotten aspect of Orkney’s past is the scale of the loss of life which the islands suffered as a result of their support of the Royalist army. Most of the Orcadian troops who enlisted were either killed or captured during the campaign, most whom fell at the Battle of Carbisdale itself. One report of the battle makes special mention of the fact that 200 Orcadians were believed to have drowned in the Kyle of Sutherland after being chased into its waters by enemy cavalry. As a comparison, 578 Orcadians are believed to have died during the First World War. In addition to the human cost, Orcadians from all levels of society were active in supporting and facilitating the Royalist war machine during its occupation of the islands, from handling shipments of arms and supplies from the continent to granting free quarter to Royalist mercenaries and volunteers. Upon the restoration of Charles II to his thrones in 1660, the burgh council of Kirkwall wrote to the king to remind him of the sacrifices which Orkney had made in his service, detailing the huge sums of taxes which had been diverted to fund the king’s war and informing him that no home under the council’s jurisdiction had not lost a brother or a son to the conflict.

A picture of the Kyle of Sutherland – Wiki Commons

I am currently cowriting a book alongside Dr Ed Furgol (Montgomery College, Maryland) on the Scottish Royalist armies (to be published by Helion & Company in 2024). This recently gave me the opportunity to dig deeper into this fascinating period. The result has been revealing and enthralling, clearly signifying the vital role which Orkney played during this largely forgotten war. The episode also acts as an important case study in how local and national histories can work together to create a fuller, more meaningful tapestry. By combining local records held in Orkney Archives with sources from other repositories in Edinburgh, London, Stockholm and Hamburg, we can clearly see that the Northern Isles were far from ‘peripheral’ or ‘marginal’ within the narratives of seventeenth century Scottish and European history. Between 1649 and 1650, all eyes had looked north to Orkney, rightfully so.

For more information on this topic, you can watch Dr Lind’s recent seminar presentation, ‘By the Power of the Sword’ – Orkney and the Carbisdale Campaign, 1649-1650’, on the UHI’s Centre for History YouTube channel. Available here.

Dr Andrew Lind

This article first appeared in The Orcadian.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s