The Doric Columns
The Battle of Justice Mills - The Fecht
The Fecht forces outside the city of Aberdeen
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.
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 lightmatter 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
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.
Montrose appeared before Aberdeen on 12 September with three Irish regiments (Laghtnan's, McDonnell's, O'Cahan's) totalling 1,500 men, 100
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
Montrose drew up on the opposite side of the valley with the burn separating the two armies.
The battle opened when
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 thepursuing army was advancing from Brechin, Montrose read the King's proclamation against the Covenant and withdrew towards the Highlands. occupied Aberdeen on 19 September with a force of 4,000 foot and 900 horse. During September and October , 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 around their stronghold of (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 and by the fact that Huntly's eldest son had sided with the Covenanters.
On 28 October, Argyll finally caught up with Montrose atin 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 . 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.
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
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