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The Battle of Justice Mills - The Fecht

The Fecht - was an engagement in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms which took place between Royalist and Covenanter forces outside the city of Aberdeen on 13 September 1644

In 1644, the town having mostly acceded to the covenant, Montrose, who had embraced the Royal cause, having crossed the Dee about ten miles up, marched down to within two miles of Aberdeen, and sent a drummer with a summons to surrender. This was refused, and the messenger dismissed; but as he was returning, he was killed either accidentally or by design, on which Montrose advanced, and being met by Burleigh's troops and the citizens at the Justice Mills near the Hardgate and Crabstone, about half a mile from the town, a bloody conflict ensued, in which Montrose overcame, and, pursuing his victory, he took possession of the town, which he gave up to pillage, putting many of the inhabitants to the sword.

At the Battle of Justice Mills, Covenanting forces under Lord Burleigh, based in Aberdeen, met the Royalist Marquis of  Montrose’s troops, which included a contingent of Irish Mercenary forces.  Accounts make it clear that the subsequent sacking of the town was brutal. The Battle centred around the Crabstane, which lies about 60 metres north-west of the current well site.

The Battle of Justice Mills, sometimes referred to as “The Fecht of Aberdeen”, was fought on the 13th of September in the year 1644 between the attacking Royalist forces of the Marquis of Montrose and the defending Covenanter forces of Lord Burleigh and the Burgh Council of Aberdeen. From its inception to its conclusion, the battle took some two hours.

On the Royalist side, Montrose – a seasoned and clever commander – led some 1,500 troops, including Alasdair Mac Colla’s Irish veterans and an admittedly meagre fifty cavalry. His army was somewhat reduced in the aftermath of his assault on Perth, but it had won the day there and morale was high. The Covenanters were led by Lord Burleigh, as well as by a bewildering array of Civic authorities and other interested parties. Comprising 2,500 men including a respectable detachment of cavalry and the Fife Regiment, the Covenanter army had weight of numbers, though it was hampered by a somewhat tangled chain of command. As well as this, a regiment of 3,000 Gordons had been turned away from the Covenanter army on account of personal squabbles amongst the commanding officers. Choosing the ground, the defenders elected to fight in the open rather than retreat within the un-fortified streets of Aberdeen, blocking Montrose’s approach to the Burgh from the most commanding position available on that road – the hill at Justice Mills. Now all but invisible in modern Aberdeen, this hill once offered an army a chance to strike at any foe on the low ground on the western approach of the Hardgate. Finding an army drawn up against him, Montrose sent a letter to advise the townsfolk of Aberdeen of his terms:

Loveing freindes Being heir, for the maintenance of Religion and liberty and his Maiesties just authority and service thes ar, in his Maiesties name to requyre you that immediately, upon the sight heirof you, rander and give up your towne In the behalf of his Maiestie Otherwayes that all old persons women and children doe come out and reteire themselfs, and that those who stayes expect no quarter I am as you deserve. -  Montrose

Aberdeen was to be given up to him entire or all who resist were to receive no quarter. His terms seem harsh to modern minds – and harsh they were – but Montrose fought his war on strict rules, and the protocols for attacking a city differed little in 17th Century Europe to those set forth in Chapter 20 of Deuteronomy. Peace was to be offered and, if forsaken, all men of that city were to be put to the sword. His terms were given to the people of Aberdeen in the company of some gentlemen and a drummer. The Council drafted a reply, but it was not to reach Montrose under a flag of truce, for the drummer was shot dead whilst returning to his lines, ostensibly by a Covenanter horseman. Montrose was incensed and, giving the townsfolk no time to withdraw, ordered the attack. The hastily assembled militias of Aberdeen and Fife were no match for the Irish and the battle was soon over. A spirited charge at the press of the militia soon broke the defenders’ spirits and the Covenanters withdrew shortly after noon. The retreat to the imagined safety of Aberdeen turned into a rout and the triumphant Royalists killed 160 as they overtook the fleeing Covenanters. Indignant, Montrose agreed to let his troops plunder Aberdeen, and the Council Registers tell a terrible tale: “the enemie entring the toune immediatelie, did kill all, old and young, whome they fand on streittes.” Three days of terrible violence followed, and throughout the war no other Burgh would suffer as Aberdeen had until the sack of Dundee in 1651.

The Aftermath
Montrose was to march throughout the Highlands between 1644 and 1645, winning further victories before finally meeting defeat, at Philiphaugh, 1 year to the day after his victory at Aberdeen. During his campaign he remained mobile – 4 times he drew his army to Aberdeen, yet it was never occupied – though it did not remain free from military occupation. After Justice Mills, Aberdeen spent most of the remainder of the decade occupied by a garrison of Covenanters and much of the Burgh was burned and plundered by the Marquis of Huntly’s army in May of 1646. The individual leaders in this war were to fare poorly, also. The Marquis of Huntly was executed in 1647, and Charles I was beheaded outside Whitehall in January 1649. Montrose, who returned from exile to stage an invasion of Scotland from Orkney on behalf of Charles II, was captured at Carbisdale and subsequently executed; his right arm and sword were kept as grim souvenirs.

Perhaps the truest summary of the time comes from James Gordon, parson of Rothiemay, writing in his Description of Bothe Touns of Aberdeene (1661).

“Yit nather did the blood shed therein by Montrose, nor a few houses burnt or rifled therin by Huntlye’s souldiers, so much harme the citie, as twentie and three yeires continuall sufferings, whereby it hes been oppressed: for quhat thes two did is a light matter compared with all that.”

A piteous picture of the city is given in the account of Montrose's pursuit of the Covenanting army after its defeat at Justice Mills, not far from Bishop Elphinstone's bridge over the Dee.  Many of Montrose's followers were fierce Celts, but, alas! war is always the outlet of the worst passions in any race of men.
    Says old Spalding,
"Nothing was heard but pitiful howling, crying, weeping, mourning, through all the streets.  The men that they killed they would not suffer to be buried, but took their clothes off them, then left their naked bodies lying above the ground.  The wife durst not cry nor weeps at her husband's slaughter before her eyes, nor daughter for the father, which, if they were heard, then were they presently slain also."

The army stayed in the city two days.  The 2nd day was the Sabbath, but the voice of prayer was not heard in any church, and the work of bloodshed and robbery went on throughout the city, strewed with the unburied dead, many of whom finally, says Robertson, were "committed to the earth by bands of mourners, among whom not one man was to be seen."  Yet in all, only 160 men seem to have been killed.  Most of these, though appearing on the Covenanting side, had been dragged to fight against their will.  The City magnanimously records that it buried the dead without burial dues, and that the use of "mortclothes" was not charged to their representatives.

The Battlefield Itself

The action was fought along the line of the Hardgate, the main road from the South West into Aberdeen. It was fought across mainly arable fields, partly in oats, where the road crossed the How Burn and climbed Clay Hill towards the Crabstane. However Mareen suggest the slopes to the east of the burn may have been partly gardens even in 1644. On the sloping ground there were several buildings with walled yards which were held as strong points by the government pikemen.  Unfortunately Gordon’s map of 1661 shows very little detail of the area concerned, other than a prospect from the Crabstane towards the town, which shows a very open landscape.

After defeating Lord Elcho's forces at the Battle of Tippermuir, outside Perth, Montrose's forces had captured a large cache of weapons and munitions, but had not captured Perth, and had suffered the desertion of the highland forces under his command, leaving a force of around 1000 Irish infantry under Alasdair MacColla and 44 horse from the Earl of Newcastle.

Montrose led these men on a rapid advance on Aberdeen, the main Covenanter sea port in Scotland, picking up a force of around 500 highlanders on the way. After a diversion to avoid being forced to take a fortified bridge over the River Dee, they reached Aberdeen on the 12th of September.  On the morning of the 13th, the Covenanter Force under Lord Burleigh marched out of the Town to meet the attackers. The Royalists sent a messenger and drummer under a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the City. Aberdeen's chief citizens and Guild leaders received this ultimatum near the present day site of Justice Mill Lane. They rejected this demand. Some Covenanters fired on the Royalist party, killing the drummer. Montrose was so angered by this that he immediately ordered an attack and issued the order not to spare any of the enemy.  Montrose drew up an extended line of men, to prevent being out-flanked and placed a small group of horsemen at each end "otherwise, if they would disobey, that then he desired them to remove old aged men, women, and children out of the way, and to stand to their own peril". The battle began with a cannonade from the Covenanters field guns.  Lord Gordon on the Covenanters left wing attacked with his cavalry. Montrose moved his horse to assist on the right flank, and this small group of 44 horsemen repulsed and routed the Covenanter attack. Montrose quickly ordered these horsemen back into the line as they were now needed on the left where the battle was developing. Sweeping across to the other side of the field, they attacked the flanks of the Covenanters forces and forced them to flee.

Montrose then ordered an infantry attack up the centre, routing the Covenanters who started fleeing back towards the town. Lord Burleigh's 2500 defenders were soon overwhelmed - 160 men were killed. The Irish and Highland troops then looted the town and neighbouring villages.  Montrose remained in Aberdeen for 3 days, before leaving for Rothiemurchus in the Highlands to recruit new men and avoid a confrontation with the approaching Parliamentarian force under the Marquess of Argyll.

Lower Justice Mill, Union Glen. Justice Mills of one kind or another are first mentioned in the 1300s, and were the site of a famous battle. In their final form, an Upper Justice Mill occupied a site now partially covered by the Odeon Cinema, while the Lower Mill stood in Union Glen, at the bottom of the steep slope with its Mill Dam above and behind it with a water wheel centre). The left hand part of the building and the wheel were removed when the Regent Cinema was built, the dam was drained and a thoroughfare created into Union Glen, but the central and right hand parts survived, albeit derelict, into the 1960s.

Union Grove
This street is named after Union Grove, the home of Provost Hadden and his family. In earlier times there was a dam here which provided water to the Upper ]ustice Mill for centuries. St. Nicholas, Union Grove (Church of Scotland), was still the St. Nicholas United Presbyterian Church in 1894 when it celebrated its centenary. At that time the Kirk's best known personality was Miss ]anet Melville, who organized a famously effective Sunday School for many years. A woman of outstanding character and personality whom gave a lifelong example of practical Christianity. Her life story can be found in D.P. Thomson's 'Women of the Scottish Church':

Further Details

After his victory at Tippermuir and the capture of Perth, the Marquis of Montrose received news that the Marquis of Argyll was marching from Stirling with a large Covenanter force. Anxious to keep up the momentum of his campaign, Montrose left Perth on 4 September 1644 and marched north-east along the Firth of Tay. The well-defended burgh of Dundee was summoned to surrender but refused, so Montrose continued towards Aberdeen. Most of the Highland clansmen departed with their plunder after Tippermuir, and Lord Kilpont's men disbanded after Kilpont himself was murdered by his own second-in-command, Stewart of Ardvorlich. However, Montrose was joined by two troops of horse under Nathaniel Gordon and Sir Thomas Ogilvy.

Montrose appeared before Aberdeen on 12 September with three Irish regiments (Laghtnan's, McDonnell's, O'Cahan's) totalling 1,500 men, 100 MacDonald Highlanders and two troops of horse. On 13 September, the burgh was summoned to surrender. During the negotiations, a soldier from the Covenanter garrison is said to have shot and killed a drummer boy accompanying the heralds, infuriating Montrose and his troops who swore vengeance on the Covenanters of Aberdeen.

Having refused the summons, a Covenanter force under the command of Lord Balfour of Burleigh marched out and deployed along the crest of a flat-topped ridge about half-a-mile south of the burgh. The ridge topped the northern slope of the How Burn valley and overlooked a complex of buildings and ponds known as Justice Mills at its western end. Burleigh's infantry comprised around 2,000 men: two regular Covenanter regiments (his own and Lord Forbes'), the Aberdeen militia and some local levies. He also had around 300 cavalry, including three troops of regulars, which were deployed on the flanks.

Montrose drew up on the opposite side of the valley with the burn separating the two armies. MacColla and Montrose were in the centre of the Royalist line at the head of the three Irish regiments. Musketeers and two dozen horse were placed on each wing to hamper the Covenanter cavalry. Sir William Rollo commanded the Royalist right flank; Colonel Hay, a professional soldier who had served with Lord Huntly, commanded the left.

The battle opened when Colonel Hay advanced to drive a detachment of Covenanter musketeers out of Justice Mills. A counter-attack by Captain Keith's troop of horse was thrown back and a firefight developed as Covenanter musketeers moved up to contest the position. Sir William Forbes of Craigevar advanced with fifty Covenanter horse to attack Manus O'Cahan's regiment on the left of the Royalist centre. The musketeers coolly opened their ranks to let the Covenanters ride through then turned and fired a volley into their backs. Nathaniel Gordon's Royalist horse charged and routed the disordered Covenanters, capturing Craigevar and his second-in-command. On the right wing, Lords Crichton and Fraser led Covenanter cavalry attacks against Sir Thomas Ogilvy's Royalist horse and MacDonnel's Irish regiment. Although the Covenanter attacks on both wings were largely ineffective, they succeeded in keeping O'Cahan's and MacDonnel's regiments pinned down and unable to join the Royalist attack in the centre, where Montrose and MacColla led Laghtnan's regiment up the steep slope against Burleigh's main position. After a brief firefight, the Irishmen threw down their muskets and charged with swords and dirks into the Covenanter centre. The line collapsed immediately as the militiamen turned and ran back towards the town, pursued and slaughtered in the streets by the furious Irishmen.

The burgh of Aberdeen was subjected to a 3 day orgy of murder, pillage and rape which Montrose made no attempt to stop. He may have wanted to make an example of Aberdeen for resisting him, but the atrocities committed there greatly damaged his cause. On hearing that the Marquis of Argyll's pursuing army was advancing from Brechin, Montrose read the King's proclamation against the Covenant and withdrew towards the Highlands.

Argyll occupied Aberdeen on 19 September with a force of 4,000 foot and 900 horse. During September and October 1644, the Covenanters pursued the Royalists across large tracts of north-eastern Scotland. Argyll sent a large detachment to secure Inverness, while Montrose's much smaller force was further weakened when Alasdair MacColla insisted upon marching away to recruit in the western Highlands, taking 500 of his men with him. Montrose tried to raise the Royalist Gordon clan around their stronghold of Strathbogie (now called Huntly). He was joined by a few hundred clansmen but his efforts were hampered by the continued absence of the clan leader the Marquis of Huntly and by the fact that Huntly's eldest son Lord Gordon had sided with the Covenanters.

On 28 October, Argyll finally caught up with Montrose at Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire. Skirmishing continued for several days in the vicinity of the castle but Montrose maintained a strong defensive position and Argyll was unable to bring the smaller Royalist force to battle. When Argyll withdrew to find fodder for his cavalry horses, Montrose took the opportunity to escape across the hills to Blair Atholl. As many of Montrose's followers were deserting him, Argyll marched back to Edinburgh, convinced that the Royalist uprising would fade completely with the onset of winter

Justice Mill Lane, Aberdeen

The historical interest of this site lies principally in the location of the Hardgate well. Fenton Wyness (City by the Grey North Sea, 1965, p.179) gives a vivid account of wounded and dying combatants from the Battle of Justice Mills in 1644 being carried to that spot and claims that the well that day ‘ran reid’ with blood. However, the source for those details is untraceable. John Spalding makes no connection between the well and the battle (Memorialls of the Trubles in Scotland and in England AD1624-AD1625 Vol II, edited by John Stuart, Aberdeen 1850) while Parson Gordon, who lived through the period, drew the earliest map of Aberdeen and wrote an accompanying description, mentions the battle, but not the well. The well seems first to appear on a map at the stage of the first edition Ordnance Survey in 1867. The superstructure of the well was refurbished in 1970, when a plaque was also fitted to it referring to its supposed part in the battle. It is likely that the plaque draws its information solely from Fenton Wyness. Moreover, the well  does not feature in any other works which deal with historic wells in Aberdeen.  For example, Milne’s 1911 book  Aberdeen does deal, very carefully, with the evidence for other historic wells in Aberdeen. The exclusion of this well may be significant. Although it cannot be ruled out merely an omission it remains fair to suggest that this well was not of any significant historical importance.

Battle of Justice Mills

During an assessment in June 2001 of an area on the corner of Justice Mill Brae and Union Glen upstanding walls of the early 19th-century Justice Mill were recorded. Excavation revealed demolition material from this later mill but no evidence of an earlier structure was recorded. The earliest reference to the Justice Mills is 1398

Marquis of Montrose was executed in Edinburgh in May 1650. One of his hands was sent to Aberdeen and was nailed to the front door of the Tolbooth. It remained there until July, when King Charles II, on his way to his Scottish Coronation at Scone and briefly in residence at Pitfodel’s Lodging, just across the Castlegate, observed the blackened and decaying object and ordered its Christian burial.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013