Battle of Muirdykes

Battle of Muirdykes

18 June 1685

At the Battle of Muirdykes on 18 June 1685 a party of 70 Whig Infantry is attacked by 200 Government cavalry as the try to escape Scotland.

Why was there a Battle at Muirdykes near Howwood?

After breaking out from the Cowal Peninsular, the Whig Army marched east crossing the River Leven at Bonhill. By the night of 17 June, the Earl of Argyll’s Army had shrunk to under 1,000 soldiers and was faced by a force of over 1,500 Government troops, including light Artillery. Although the ground they had chosen at Killearn was good for defence, the Whig leaders agreed on a night march to the ferry over the River Clyde at Old Kilpatrick.

Night March to Old Kilpatrick

The Whig lit campfires and posted vedettes, while across the valley the Government forces stood at their arms anticipating a night attack. Argyll ordered men to form up leaving Rumbold and what remained of the cavalry as the rear-guard. While the vanguard was led by Cochrane, with the volunteer companies. As they crossed the hills, gaps appeared in the ranks as the vanguard pressed forward, these were exaggerated by some taking the opportunity to slip away. At the rear Cochrane’s cavalry became lost as they missed the path taken by the others.

By the time Cochrane reached the outskirts of the Old Kilpatrick, the column behind him was ragged and disintegrating. However, ahead was the ferry and after rushing the Militia guarding the crossing, Cochrane took two boats across the river to seize the south bank. Under heavy fire, the Whigs captured the ferry bridge and created a bridgehead. Unfortunately, on the north bank the Whig Army had lost all cohesion with soldier pillaging houses for food, and others totally lost in the hills, including Rumbold and all the cavalry. With disaster close at hand, Argyll gave the order that every man was to fend for himself. Then with a small party of friends and his son, Argyll crossed the Clyde and headed towards Renfrew, aiming for Glasgow.

The Whigs march South

Cochrane had around 150 veteran soldiers in the bridgehead and after talking to the other officers they agreed to march south to join Monmouth. However, as they prepared to move off, Militia Horse appeared, forcing Cochrane to deploy his force on a low ridge, using a hedge row as cover. With the sun now up, Cochrane needed to make haste, so he ordered his men to attack the Militia. As the Whigs advanced down the hill, their enemy turned around and galloped off to Renfrew. This allowed Cochrane to march off in good order. By using the doves and cattle tracks the Whigs made good time and as they marched, men slipped away forcing Cochrane to stop. He now had 80 soldiers, all well-armed and experienced. Cochrane made them all swear to stand by each other, rather than flee. They then set off once more.

Before sunrise on 18 June, it became clear to Dumbarton that the Whigs had disappeared. Ordering his infantry back to Glasgow, he sent out his cavalry in every direction to locate his enemy. One detachment under Major Ross headed south towards Glasgow, and Renfrew. Here he received notice that a large body of Whigs had been seen heading south. Adding two Militia Horse troops to his existing force of one Cavalry and one Dragoon troop, Ross cantered off on the heels of his enemy. By late afternoon, his scouts reported seeing the enemy some five miles ahead. The chase was on, and as they came with a mile of the Whigs, he could see an opportunity to cut them off. After ordering Captain Cleland to take his dragoons and the Militia after the enemy, Ross took his troop off the road and across the hills. The stage was set of the final clash of the Argyll campaign in Scotland, the battle of Muirdykes.

The Whigs look for a Secure Camp

Cochrane had seen the enemy horse hot on his trail and made the decision to secure a strong position to camp overnight. Close at hand was the perfect location, and he ordered his men to head to a small hill surrounded by walls called Muirdyke. As they scrambled up the hill, Ross’ cavalry appeared on his left flank. As the Whigs quickly formed a firing line, the Government horse came cantering towards them. In normal circumstances, the outcome would be the destruction of the infantry.

The encounter at Muirdyke

However, Cochrane’s men stood firm, forming a tightly packed body and after receiving the pistol shots from the cavalry, they returned fire and then picked up the polearms they had close at hand. Rather than the infantry breaking, the cavalry passed around them and pulled up behind them in disorder. Cochrane took the opportunity and raced to the hilltop, where his men took up a defensive line.

The Secord Assault of the Muirdykes

Ross reformed and ordered the newly arrived Dragoons into the attack. Placing these on the right, he advanced on the left. The cavalry cantered in firing pistols and attempted to cross the ditch and wall that surrounded the Whig position. However, their enemy fire moved devastation volleys into the troopers, then counter-attacked the cavalry. Ross’ men were beaten back, with the loss of Captain Cleland. The Government horse pulled back once more and waited for the Militia Horse to form-up. The Whigs were surrounded, with Ross on the level ground, the Dragoons in the centre dismounted, while the two troops of Militia would attack opposite Ross’ men.

The final Government attack

The final Cavalry Charge at Muirdykes

On the hilltop, Cochrane could see the danger and deployed his men to counter the threats from Ross and the Militia. However, he only left a few musketeers and the wounded to hold back the dragoons. As the Government cavalry attacked the fighting over the walls became vicious. The Whig held their ground, but Ross now sent detachments around their rear. However, these troops found the ground hard going in the small wood. This gave Cochrane’s time to redeploy some soldiers to face the new challenge.  On Cochrane’s left, his men broke the Militia Horse and they turned to face the new threat. Not waiting to reload, the Whigs charged downhill into the cavalry, breaking them. Meanwhile, Ross had been injured and his men were wavering, only to be overwhelmed by the victorious Whigs. In the centre the dismounted Dragoons had been attempting to infiltrate the position, but Whig fire had slowed them down. As Ross’ cavalry pulled back, Cochrane charged the Dragoons. See all hope lost they ran to their horses and pulled back out of musket range.

The Whigs Escape

The Whigs may have won the battle of Muirdykes but as night drew-in they were exhausted and surrounded. There was no doubt that at sunrise they would be attacked by fresh Government infantry, possibly even artillery. Cochrane told his men to ready themselves for a break-out. His men then reaffirmed their oath to stay with each other before heading out into the night. With weapons ready they moved quietly towards the Government line, only to find that the troopers had disappeared.

Somewhat surprised, Cochrane headed south to find somewhere safe to hold out. Finally, after a long night march they found somewhere secure. During the day they watched Government units heading south on their trail. After two days, with the Whigs only moving at night, Cochrane learnt that Argyll and Rumbold had both been captured. Seeing the game was up, Cochrane dissolved the soldier’s oath, and each man was free to make his own way to freedom. The Monmouth Rebellion in Scotland was over.


This account is based on a more detail description of the Battle of Muirdykes, available from Helion & Company in my Book Fighting For Liberty.