Book review: The Rivals by Murdo Fraser

Murdo Fraser offers an even-handed account of the protagonists. Photograph: Phil Wilkinson
Murdo Fraser offers an even-handed account of the protagonists. Photograph: Phil Wilkinson
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A NEW biography deftly revisits 17th century Scotland to assess the roles of Argyll and Montrose, two charismatic nobles who fought for supremacy

The Rivals by Murdo Fraser | Birlinn, 280pp, £9.99

The Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser has written a very good book about one of the most dramatic and important periods of Scottish history. It’s a joint biography of the two Marquesses, Montrose and Argyll, rivals in the 17th century civil wars, but it’s more than that, being also an acute and fair examination of the politics of the time and the issues that divided them.

Both ended their lives on the scaffold, Montrose hanged, Argyll beheaded, both, in Fraser’s opinion, betrayed by their king, Charles II, a judgement that may be questioned. Both were condemned by their fellow Scots. There are memorials to both men in the High Kirk of St Giles.

Montrose is the more glamourous figure, his year of victories 1644-5 remarkable. John Buchan, his most admiring biographer, thought him a military genius, a view some dispute. Fraser describes his campaign well, but argues that it damaged rather than helped the cause of his master, Charles I. Buchan also portrayed Montrose as an enlightened moderate, a supporter of the Covenant drawn up in resistance to royal control of the Church of Scotland, until it seemed to him that the Covenanters were pursuing too radical an end that threatened the legitimate authority of the King.

For Buchan, Argyll was an enigmatic and disturbing figure, sincere in his religious beliefs, but tending to fanaticism, a slippery politician, too ready to shift his position, eventually distrusted by everyone. There is some truth in this picture, but Fraser thinks much better of him. Indeed, rather surprisingly, it is Argyll who emerges as the hero of his book. Fraser may be a Tory, but he is no Cavalier. Admiring Montrose, he refuses to be dazzled by him. Instead he approves of what he judges to have been Argyll’s aims: securing the independence of the Kirk, working for a constitutional monarchy subject to parliamentary consent, even control, and “a long-term settlement of the troubled relationship between Scotland and our southern neighbour. From our historical perspective,” he writes, “it is he who emerges as the greater figure, a statesman of British significance whose views have better stood the test of time.” He quotes with approval the judgement of the Rev Robert Baillie (Covenanter and later Principal of Glasgow University) that Argyll was “the best and most excellent man our State of a long tyme had enjoyed.” Yet Buchan’s Argyll can’t be wished away. Argyll may, as Fraser insists, have been consistent in his aims, but he shifted ground so often that he ended distrusted by almost everyone. He was often too clever by half. He may, as Montrose alleged in 1641, have aimed to be king himself – he reminded people that he was eighth in line of descent from Robert the Bruce. Ten years later he proposed his daughter as a wife for Charles II. Late in life he described himself as “a distracted man... in a distracted time”, and, part Clan Chief, part scheming politician, part religious zealot, this was a fair self-judgement.

There were two sides to the Covenanting movement, as there were two sides to Argyll. On the one hand it fought in defence of the liberties of the Kirk. On the other it sought to establish a fiercely intolerant and indeed persecuting theocracy. There was much that was noble in its Calvinism, much that was repellent too. Fraser condemns the brutal excesses of Montrose’s Irish and Highland troops, notably the three days in which they ran riot, sacking Aberdeen and violating women, but makes no mention of the minister of the Kirk who urged on the slaughter of Montrose’s Irish and camp-followers after Philiphaugh, until a war-weary soldier asked him if he had not yet had his “fill of blood”.

Certainly there was blood enough, indeed too much of it. Civil wars, as Fraser says, are always terrible. There’s enough evidence of this in the Middle East today. He suggests in conclusion that both Montrose and Argyll might have been satisfied with the settlement that was eventually reached after the Revolution of 1688: a constitutional monarchy and the safeguarding of a (more moderate) Presbyterian kirk. Perhaps they would, but it was the frightening memory of civil war that accounted for the good sense displayed in both England and Scotland then.