IN REACTION to the insensitive rule of a distant government in London imposing unwanted policies, the Scottish people rise up in a remarkable national movement demanding change. Ambitious politicians see the opportunity to benefit by putting themselves at the head of a popular cause. Radical parliamentary reform is delivered, but does not go far enough for some. The country finds itself divided between moderates and radicals, and the divisions become ever more bitter. Those who were once allies become rivals, as the nation is torn apart in a spiral of conflict and economic disaster.
Whatever recent parallels some might see in these events, they occurred nearly 400 years ago, following King Charles I’s attempts to impose a new Prayer Book on the Scottish church. This led to the National Covenant of 1638, three civil wars, and some 50 years of turmoil, torture, bloodshed, executions, and political and religious oppression.
The Rivals: Montrose and Argyll and the Struggle for Scotland explores this remarkable period in Scotland’s history through the lives of two major protagonists: James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose, and Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll.
On one level it is easy to personify the struggles of the period as a contest between these two great statesmen: Royalist and Covenanter, Cavalier and Roundhead, Tory and Whig. Yet there seems to be more that unites them than separates them. Both came from ancient and powerful families; both were originally Covenanters; both considered themselves loyal subjects of Charles I, then Charles II, who in turn betrayed each of them, and both died at the hands of the executioner.
Montrose is undoubtedly the better remembered of the pair today. With his extraordinary military campaign of 1644-45, he deserves a place on the list of Scotland’s greatest generals. Yet it is Argyll whose ideas have better stood the test of the time, and who was ultimately more influential in shaping our modern nation.
It was in the 17th century that we settled the great questions about the future of our country: how we would be governed; whether the King, or Parliament, would be sovereign; if the people could worship God as they chose, or only as the Crown commanded; and what ultimately would be the relationship between Scotland and our southern neighbour. At the end of this period it was the principles promoted by Argyll which won through, with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a constitutional monarchy, and a Kirk ordered on Presbyterian lines.
It was a time of political and religious reform and upheaval where Montrose and Argyll were central figures. But their motivations were not merely those of high-minded principle: they were driven by the same blend of ambition, personal loyalties, jealousies, and financial necessity, that politicians of all ages are prone to. It is wrong to assume that historic reforms came about because their champions were always acting altruistically; the true reasons are invariably more complex.
And as these two former allies became rivals, so the country around them took sides. What happens when a nation divides is that extremism flourishes, moderation is driven out, and the centre vanishes. Room for compromise is lost. Those who were once allies find their differences magnified and exaggerated by their followers, and reconciliation becomes impossible.
They had contrasting personalities: Montrose, the brilliant military tactician – bold and brave but rash, and Argyll – altogether a more opaque figure, cautious, considered and difficult to read. Argyll was the true politician, always flexible, pragmatic and accommodating, ready to do a deal with anyone who would advance his interests. Montrose, impulsive and reckless, found it difficult to work with even those who shared his political views. Someone looking to draw a mischievous modern comparison might say that George Osborne is the Argyll of today, while Boris Johnson is the Montrose.
Whilst Argyll proved the more powerful of the two, and his views triumphed in the end, we cannot be blamed for admiring Montrose, as the romantic but ultimately doomed hero, prepared to take up a sword and risk it all for a cause in which he believed.
Today the effigies of both men lie on opposite sides of St Giles in Edinburgh. They deserve to be better remembered for their contribution to Scotland, and we need to better understand the lessons of our past.
The Rivals: Montrose and Argyll and the Struggle for Scotland, by Murdo Fraser, is published by Birlinn Ltd