Thursday, 18 June 2020

The Highland Charge

The highland charge is the name of a famed tactic used  by highland clans during  the 17th and 18th centuries. These centuries saw a series of signal victories by armies largely comprised of highlanders during the wars that raged through the British Isles throughout this turbulent time. The tactic has received a fair amount of attention, discussion and revision.  In this article I will look at the tactic’s origins, its successes and drawbacks. I will look at how it fitted in with the warfare of the time, and examine whether any generalisations can be drawn about Gaelic martial culture. I was also look at the mechanics (as it were) of the charge itself.

 It would be best to start with a description of a “classic” highland charge. Having manoeuvred into a favourable position, that is protected from cavalry and cannon, with a field free of obstruction and preferably with the highland army attacking from height or with another advantage as at Killekrankie (1689) or Inverlochy (1645). Ordered into ranks with the chief and his retainers occupying forward positions with successive ranks conforming to the social hierarchy. Men took position with their kin so that they could observe one another’s conduct, to inspire, encourage and perhaps, shame. At the command  the highland army advances rapidly up to musket range and fires a volley. Some sources state that this was at a longish range hoping to tempt their opponents to give fire at the same range, which others state that they held their fire until at about 50 yards. In either case this will be their sole volley as afterwards the highlanders cast aside their muskets and move speedily into close combat. Some sources also state that the highlanders would avoid their opponents counter fire by dropping to the ground. With their opponents struggling to reload, or in the late 17th century fix bayonets, the highlanders use the shock of rapid contact and their superior hand to hand training and weaponry to drive their opponents from the field in a matter of minutes.
Musket with plug bayonet

  Casualty figures for battles often come across as somewhat unlikely but it certainly seems that in many cases casualties for the successful army could be considerably lower than the losers, the notable exception being Killekrankie where 800 Jacobites died comprising about a third of the total force. This can be contrasted with Prestonpans (1745) where the lost 100 total casualties about a 25th of the whole force. A successful highland charge would invariably lead to a bloody chase over many miles with commanders finding controlling their army difficult to impossible once the pursuit had begun.

  As is often the case with Gaelic  martial culture, the Highland charge is often seen in the light of being an ancient Celtic practice, maintained and cherished by a hyper-conservative culture. However modern authors such as Stuart Reid  have stated that the charge is more the consequence of amateurish enthusiasm and a response to undisciplined armies with chronic supply problems. Others find that the tactic was a canny response to the shortcomings of the  military technology of the time and a shrewd exploitation of Gaelic martial characteristics.

 The Ancient way of fighting......

“ They then ran down to the river with such incredible speed that it seemed to us as if they were at the edge of the wood, in the river, and on top of us almost all in the same moment. Then with the same speed they swarmed up the opposite hill towards our camp and attacked the men who were busy fortifying it.” Julius Caesar describing the Battle of the Sambre (57 b.c.)
“ After their custom gave vent thrice to a yell of horrible sound and attacked the southerns in such an onslaught that they compelled the first spearmen to forsake their post; but they were driven off again by the strength of the knights” The Galweigan attack at the Battle of the Standard 1138 as given by Ailred of Rievaulx

 There are simply too many historical inconsistencies to accept the idea of a headlong reckless charge as being an especially long lived  “Celtic” tactic.  Gauls, Britons and assorted Celts were certainly described as rushing  into battle by early writers but even if we choose to take those accounts at face value, dark age and medieval Gaels and Picts are rarely discussed in these terms. While medieval Gaels may have been idiosyncratic in the way they made war, there is no real evidence to base the later tactic of the highland charge as a development from a kind of  proto-charge with firearms taking the place of bows and “speeding things up”. In fact as we have seen in previous articles medieval and renaissance highlanders used a wide variety of sophisticated tactics and while charges are described they are not especially common or unique. While we cannot emphatically dismiss the idea of massed infantry charges being used by Scottish Gaels in earlier periods, evidence for the tactic is reduced to phrases such as “rushed to war”, “assault” etc, the use of a charge being inferred by modern writers. A good example of this is the Battle of Harlaw (1411) a major battle fought in the east of Scotland between Gaels and lowlanders. The battle itself has few contemporary sources yet the highlanders are frequently described by modern writers as assaulting the better-armed Lowlanders in a series of charges yet there are  no contemporary accounts which describe this.  It would certainly be an eccentric way of doing things according to the standards of the times. Despite being present in nearly every Hollywood film the idea of rushing headlong into an enemy formation was not at all usual for ancient and medieval armies instead armies advanced slowly to contact maintaining cohesion was paramount with even cavalry charges being tightly controlled until the final moments.
 While it would be nice to dismiss the idea of charges being an ancient practice this has proven hard, for example the MacDonalds are said to have charged into the government forces at the battle of Inverlochy (1431). However, it is very clear from the sources that rather than being tactically naive the Gaels ,if they charged at all,  used charges as a minor element of a range of tactics used. On examination of primary sources it is hard to find anything resembling the tactic which would later become known as “The Highland Charge”. Indeed the famed Irish Galloglass of highland provenance were heavy infantry through and through and the depictions and contemporaneous descriptions of highland troops are totally consistent with descriptions of the Galloglass. Moreover Scots highlanders in Irish service appear to have operated consistently with the Irish way of conducting warfare but with more use of archers. 
Galloglass in action
The charge itself took at least some of its effect from the exploitation of the slowness of re-loading period firearms As Gen Hawley states “you’ll never get a chance to fire a second”. The utility of making a speedy advance through bow shot or indeed at an enemy who is  standing waiting for you in formation is questionable. loss how to proceed 

“Be sparing of your powder, we have none to throw away. Let not a musket be fired except in the very face of the enemy. Give but a single discharge, and then at them with the claymore, in the name of God and the King”
“Gentlemen: it is true you have no arms; your enemy, however, to all appearance, have plenty. My advice to you therefore is that as there happens to be a great abundance of stones upon this moor, every man should provide himself, in the first place, with as stout a one as he can manage, rush up to the first Covenanter he meets, beat out his brains, take his sword, and then I believe he will be at no loss how to proceed!”
Quotes attributed to Alistair MacColla at the battle of Tippermuir (1644)
MacColla at Auldearn

 It is not until the early modern period, well into the age of gunpowder that a tactic like the “charge” began to be practiced on a large and consistent scale . During the wars of the three kingdoms armies largely comprised of highland troops fought regular armies operating in a thoroughly modern mainstream European manner. Alistair MacColla  is sometimes credited with “inventing” the charge during this period in Ireland with his veteran Irish forces then bringing this successful tactic to Scotland with him and introducing it to the clan armies that were led by the Marquis of Montrose.
 Another explanation of the development of the charge is that it was way of coping with the amateur nature of Highland armies, both in terms of their lack of training, discipline and the lack of ammunition in their armies.  Highlanders serving in the 18th century British army  performed well,  but clan levies certainly would not have had the training to keep pace with modern European armies. Indeed Lord Murray noted that ; “they don’t like to be exposed to the enemy’s fire, nor can they resist it, not being trained to charge as fast as regular troops, especially the English wch are the troops in the world yt fires best” 
 The lack of ammunition could certainly have been a factor, Highland armies did not often successfully engage regular forces in firefights in the conventional manner though in later campaigns were provisioned well enough to be capable of engaging in firefights. It should also be remembered that the clansmen encountered by MacColla would have contained large numbers of archers who would have had no real ammunition shortages.

 Highlanders were by no means the only forces to adapt to the limitations of muskets by giving a volley as a prelude to moving rapidly to close combat. English forces in the civil war also would give a volley before closing with clubbed muskets, the veteran Swedish yellow brigade would also advance rapidly to contact. Neither the English nor Swedes could be described as enthusiastic amateurs with supply problems, moreover given the low level of close combat training in both countries or lack of “heroic martial culture”  we cannot really ascribe the rush to close combat as being a consequence of a desire to “get to grips” in the ancient manner. Perhaps they felt as the later British General Burgoyne was to say in 1777  “The officers will take all proper opportunities to inculcate in the mens’ minds a reliance on the bayonet; men of their bodily strength and even a coward may be their match in firing. But the bayonet in the hands of the valiant is irresistible.”.  It should be noted that many of MacColla’s Irish men (and many of the Scots too) are likely to have served in the international brigades of the continental armies during the thirty years war so may have seen this tactic developed there.

Necessity being the mother of invention, we can imagine perhaps a determined group of experienced soldiers on seeing their desperate supply problems but keenly aware of their own ability deciding to speed up their already fast advance to contact, or thinking to try out something they saw on the continent. When this way of dealing with powder supply problems reaches a culture with a strong tradition of hand to hand personal combat it’s not hard to see it being enthusiastically and universally adopted particularly as the tactic proved so successful.

 So how and why did it work?

At first blush advancing over a field of even moderate length into the fire of thousands of firearms seems to be a recipe for disaster. We might expect outcomes similar to the Somme (1916) or the Zulu war (1879). However, firearms of the period were very inaccurate. In a recent test in Austria period firearms were tested for accuracy. This was under laboratory conditions with firearms shot from a rest, detonated electrically and using modern, superior, powder. Despite these advantages the best result was 50% accuracy at 100 metres at a roughly man shaped target with follow up shots being even less successful. In period armies including the British, French and Prussians tested the potential accuracy of their soldiers and achieved even lower accuracy. Many commanders of the time held fire until well less than 50 metres. English commanders of the civil war recommended giving fire at two pike lengths as did the Duke of Alba, this is a stunning 10-15 metres. Training and standardisation improved through the 17th-18th centuries but quality of firearms, ammunition and training remained at fairly low levels.  While a close range volley was part of the tactic from the charge’s inception the British Army also began to employ a single devastating volley at close range  “even that rank not to fire till they are within 10 or 12 paces, but if the fire is given at a distance you probably will be broke for you never get time to load a second cartridge,” Gen. Henry Hawley. This in place of the continuous roll of “platooning” fire normally employed by contemporary armies.The horrific Jacobite casualties at Killekrankie, 600 or so coming from musketry, are unusual and from analysis of 17th-18th century battles musketry alone does not seem capable of stopping a determined charging force.

“we left our guns, drew our swords and targets like lions , yet we were obliged to draw our pistols to break the first ranks; then they broke, and we hashed and slaughtered at them like fury” Captain James Mor describing the fight at Prestonpans
 Author Stuart Reid claimed that without a general panic in opponents lines a charge would not be driven home . He goes onto interpret the pause in the left-hand flank charge at Culloden as being caused by an unfleeing Government line, he also claims that the bitter fight of the Macraes on the left flank at Sherrifmuir was caused by the stubborn resistance of Government troops to flee. General Hugh MacKay the government commander at Killiekrankie also stated that highlanders would be repulsed if infantry lines remained firm. It seems redundant to point out that a fleeing enemy is preferable to one interested in giving you a fight however, even if we allow that the examples above are correct interpretations there are numerous accounts of  hand to hand fighting in accounts of highland battles in this period.
“At last they cast away their musquets, drew their broadswords, and advanced furiously upon us, and were in the middle of us before we could fire three shots a-piece; broke us, and obliged us to retreat”. Donald McBane.

Indeed the pause in the charge at Culloden was likely caused by multiple factors including murderous grapeshot fire, the charge crashing into itself due to the “wedges” swerving to avoid the cannons and the  topography of the ground ahead of the government positions. The left flank of the fight at Sherrifmuir was obstinate but rather than caused by a lack of Jacobite drive to engage an unfleeing enemy was more a bitter fight of rallying and chasing troops with the Jacobites continuing  to be broken then rallying under assault by Government cavalry. Highlanders certainly never seemed to show reticence in engaging troops in other contexts and it seems unlikely that they would be relying on fear to break an enemy before they closed on them.

 The hand to hand fight.

 In the ‘45-’46 campaign Government troops made several efforts to overcome, or at least stand up to,  highlanders in hand to hand combat. This implies that hand to hand combat was actually expected and that the government forces did not consider their training or equipment up to the task. As at Killekrankie steel skull caps after the type sometimes worn by cavalry were issued to be worn under soft hats, which certainly dented more than a few highland swords, while evidence for the Duke Cumberland’s famous drilling of soldiers to bayonet to the right may not exist what is certain is that soldiers were far more confident in their abilities after Falkirk implying perhaps that drilling in bayonet fighting was happening. Mutual defence was always part of bayonet drill and while improvised, a long musket with a fierce blade wielded en-masse was a formidable obstacle.To say nothing of earlier pike formations. 
From Donald McBane's fencing treatise

 Donald McBane a 17th-18th century British soldier had to pay for fencing tuition receiving none from the army. While issued with swords it would seem that British soldiers were expected to rely on their bayonets and their mates. Clubbing muskets, that is swinging the musket from the barrel with both hands, was common in the age of  pike and shot but continued on in later periods and McBane describes doing just that when facing highland forces at Mulroy (1688);
 “I was sadly affrighted, never having seen the like before, a Highlander attacked me with sword and targe, and cut mt wouden handled bayonet out of the muzel of my gun; I then clubbed my gun and gave him a stroke with it, which made the butt-end to fly off; seeing the Highland men to come fast upon me, I took to my heels and run thirty miles before I looked behind me, every person I saw or met, I took for my enemy...”
Throughout this period mainstream European armies were filled with a mix of some volunteers, conscripts, impressed men, desperados and the lowest stratas of society. This resulted in an uneven psychological make up of the military ranks with motivation being provided by camaraderie, fear of punishment and sometimes genuine conviction. As I have noted before it is a miracle that early modern armies performed as well as they did. We can easily apprehend that it would be a challenge to motivate such soldiers to stand and fight in the face of an onslaught of charging “barbarians”.
  The feudal nature of highland armies also featured their fair share of impressed men who may have had absolutely no desire to go anywhere near a battle. The Jacobites did not impose fearsome punishments on their army in the name of discipline but as the army reflected the social structure of the men’s home communities social pressure would be a more compelling motivator to fight, or at least act like one is fighting. While we cannot say that everyone in highland society was a warrior, we can say that it was a warrior society and that martial values, heroism even, were held paramount.  It was the front ranks of the highland charge that bore the initial brunt of the fighting and in those brief minutes were where the battle was won or lost. Our front rank was comprised of the chief or proxy, his immediate retainers, the tacksmen and in earlier periods his luchd tagh or bodyguard and others forming the top stratas of the society. In an honour based society they  had much to gain and much to lose from their conduct in battle. They were profoundly aware of their place in the society of the deeds of their ancestors and their obligations to the chief, their precedents and their posterity.

 By the mid 17th century the highland elite were armed for close combat with the target and broadsword they would carry for the whole of the period of the charge. The Chevalier de Johnston describes the highlanders using the shield to knock aside bayonet points whist bringing the broadsword down at the same moment. Once into the press the dirk held in the left hand, the shield rim, or targe spike and the sword would be used until the weight of following up clansmen broke the enemy formation. Presumably two handed swords and polearms carried in earlier periods would have been used to push aside pike points as in mainstream European armies. Training schools ensured that young men were well versed in the use of these weapons and a culture of cattle raiding and private warfare ensured that the culture had a weight of experience behind it. 
Highland weapons

By the 18th century this was a society that was in a state of profound change. The cattle raiding culture that produced young men familiar with and inured to the hazards of war was effectively over. The last clan battle was in 1688 and the sense of being a warrior in a warrior society was becoming more and more theoretical. Despite this the charge remained highly effective until the last desperate and a-typical fight on Drummossie moor.

 When the charge worked it worked with spectacular success. By the use of this tactic, smaller less well supplied forces could defeat armies they could not possibly hope to beat by normal means. The obvious drawback was that  it was hard if not impossible to prevent the army from taking off in pursuit of a flying enemy potentially leaving the field to the enemy. The inherent disorder of a charge once committed was potentially hazardous with the confused order “STOP” leading to serious disruption during the battle of Falkirk (1746). That battle gives the lie to Wade’s comment that the highlanders could not withstand cavalry though commanders were keen to operate on ground that was hard for cavalry and only came up against well deployed, manned and utilised cannon fire at Culloden (1746).

While the charge was highly effective in battle the tactic itself was not  war winning. Highland armies has the potential to engage in a more or less conventional manner, as seen at Auldearn (1645), Clifton (1745) and Glenshiel (1719) but this was a rarity and generally highland forces were disappointing in such circumstances moreover they struggled with sieges against determined defenders.  It must be said that the development of the tactic led to an incredible ability to leverage the strengths of highland armies and exploit the weaknesses of their enemies which lead to a string of some of the most extraordinary victories against almost overwhelming odds in European military history.



There follows some contemporary descriptions of the Highland charge.

Martin Martin of Skye
“THE ancient way of fighting was by set battles; and for arms some had broad two-handed swords and head pieces, and others bows and arrows. When all their arrows were spent they attacked one another with sword in hand. Since the invention of guns they are very early accustomed to use them, and carry their pieces with them wherever they go. They likewise learn to handle the broad sword and target. The chief of each tribe advances with his followers within shot of the enemy, having first laid aside their upper garments; and after one general discharge they attack them with sword in hand, having their target on their left hand (as they did at Killiecrankie), which soon brings the matter to an issue, and verifies the observation made of them by our historians: Aut mors cito, aut victoria læta. “

General Henry Hawley
"They commonly form their front rank of what they call their best men, or true Highlanders, the number of which being always but few , when they form in battalions they commonly form four deep and these Highlander’s form the front of the four, the rest being lowlanders and arrant scum. When these battalions come within a large musket shot or three score yards (50m) this front rank gives their fire and immediately throw down their firelocks and come down in a cluster with their swords and targets, making a noise and endeavouring to pierce the body or battalion before them - becoming 12 or 14 deep by the time they come up to the people they attack. The sure way to demolish them is at three deep to fire by ranks diagonally to the centre were they come, the rear rank first; and even that rank not to fire till they are within 10 or 12 paces, but if the fire is given at a distance you probably will be broke for you never get time to load a second cartridge, and if you give way you may give up your foot for dead, they being without a firelock or any load, no man with his arms, accoutrements etc, can escape them, and they give no quarters but if you will observe the above directions, they are the most despicable enemy that are"

Donald McBane
“The sun going down caused the Highlanders to advance on us like madmen, without shoe or stocking, covering themselves from our fire with their targes. At last they cast away their muskets, drew their broad swords and advanced furiously upon us, and were in the middle of us before we could fire three shots apiece, broke us and obliged us to retreat” 

Field Marshal George Wade
“ When in sight of the enemy they endeavour to possess themselves of the highest ground, believing they descend on them with greater force. They generally give their fire at a distance, they lay down their arms on the ground and make a vigorous attack with their broad swords, but if repulsed, seldom or never rally again. They dread engaging with the cavalry and seldom venture to descend from the mountains when apprehensive of being charged by them” 

Lord George Murray
“Any man yt ever served with the Highlanders yt they fire but one shot and abandon their firelocks after. If there be any obstruction that hinders them of going on the enemy all is lost; they don’t like to be exposed to the enemy’s fire, nor can they resist it, not being trained to charge as fast as regular troops, especially the English wch are the troops in the world yt fires best” 

For more on the accuracy of muskets please see these excellent blogs


  1. Excellent article Neal. I'm not sure but I thought that it was Montrose (not MacCulla) who gave the speach before Tippermuir that you quoted.

    As for accounts of Highlanders "rushing" into battle in the medieval period, I just take this to mean that Gaelic light infantry (kerns / caterans) ran towards the enemy to launch their missiles, but unlike the Highland Charge they ran away again rather than engaging in close combat.

    1. Hello,
      Thank you for your kind comment. I saw those quotes attributed to MacColla. In either way the source for them is far later than the battle itself. I thought that dealing with the veracity of the quotes would be a bit of a tangent. Yes rushing into and then out of missile range is certainly a possibility.