Battle of Inverkeithing

The Battle of Inverkeithing in Inverkeithing, Scotland was a battle during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.[3] It was fought on 20 July 1651 between an English Parliamentarian army under John Lambert and a Scottish Covenanter army acting on behalf of Charles II, led by Sir John Brown of Fordell. Lambert's force was a seaborne expedition landed at Fife to get around the main Scottish position at Stirling. The battle resulted in a decisive English victory that gave Oliver Cromwell's forces control of the Firth of Forth and outflanked the defensive position of the main Scottish Army under David Leslie.

Battle of Inverkeithing
Part of Scottish Civil War

Memorial cairn to Sir Hector Maclean of Duart and his clansmen who were killed at the Battle of Inverkeithing
Date20 July 1651
56.025°N 3.413°W / 56.025; -3.413
Result Decisive English Parliamentarian victory
(supporters of Charles II)


Commanders and leaders
Sir John Brown of Fordell John Lambert
4,500 4,500
Casualties and losses
800–2,000 killed
1,400 captured[1][2]
under 200[2]
Official nameBattle of Inverkeithing II
Designated30 November 2011
Reference no.BTL23


After his victory at the Battle of Dunbar, Oliver Cromwell went on to occupy large parts of southern Scotland. David Leslie, commanding the royalist forces, in recovering from the disaster at Dunbar, created a series of defensive redoubts in the centre of the country, effectively preventing the New Model Army from making any further progress in the campaign. Unable to push past Leslie, firmly entrenched at Stirling, Cromwell was quick to realise that Fife, on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth, was now the key of the whole campaign. Once across the Forth the English would be able to march on Perth and cut the Scots lines of communication with their northern hinterland, now essential for both supplies and recruits.[4]

A seaborne invasion of Fife was a tricky operation. Early in 1651 the Council of State, the executive authority of the Commonwealth, had ordered the construction of special flat bottomed boats, which arrived in Leith in April. While this would enable men and horses to be ferried in close to the northern shore, it would take time for the army to land in sufficient strength to fight off a counter-attack. Leslie could easily move sufficient forces from his base at Stirling to throw the invaders back into the sea. Or, alternatively, he could wait for enough Englishmen to cross to Fife before falling on the weakened remnant at Edinburgh, and then sweep south towards England. This was a considerable risk; but the only alternative was another winter of war, which neither the Lord-General nor his men can have viewed with much enthusiasm.[4]

Crossing the Forth

The Firth was to be crossed at its narrowest point, between North and South Queensferry, spanned today by the road and rail bridges. A landing here offered another advantage, besides speed: North Queensferry stands on a narrow peninsula, which offered good prospects of building up a defensive bridgehead against an enemy attack. After the local defences were softened up by a bombardment of the forts at Inchgarvie, Burntisland and Ferryhill, Colonel Robert Overton led an assault party across on the night of 16/17 July, landing on the eastern side of the Ferry Peninsula at Inverkeithing Bay. By the morning almost 2000 troops were on the northern shores of the Forth, and Overton at once set about constructing entrenchments. Reinforcements were sent across with Major-General John Lambert two days later, bringing the army's strength to about 4500 men by the morning of 20 July.

No sooner had the Scots heard of the landing than a force of about 4000 was detached from the main army to counter the threat: 1000 cavalry under the command of James Holborne of Menstrie, Highland infantry under the command of Sir Hector Maclean of Duart and some lowland regiments of infantry and cavalry under the command of Sir John Brown.[4] The detachment was placed under the overall command of Sir John Brown of Fordell. Brown's orders were simple: to prevent Lambert breaking out of his bridgehead.

It is possible that Cromwell at first saw the Fife operation as no more than a diversion, intended to unlock the Scots' position at Stirling. While the landings were taking place he approached Leslie's camp with his remaining force. Seeing Leslie march off in support of Brown, he then moved quickly across the hills, through Bannockburn and on to the vacated camp at Torwood. A little to his north Cromwell found that his further progress was blocked by the enemy, now occupying a strong position in an area known as the King's Park. Unable to make any headway, Cromwell withdrew by nightfall. It was now up to Lambert.

The battle

The Ferry Peninsula is separated from the rest of Fife by narrow isthmus, about a quarter of a mile wide. From the low-lying land of the isthmus and the surrounding shore, the centre is dominated by the Ferry Hills, rising two hundred and forty feet above sea level. Beyond the peninsula, to the north-west, the ground rises up again to Castland Hill and its neighbour Meickle Hill, between which the road runs inland through the narrow valley to Dunfermline. These two hills also command the coastal route to Rosyth and the road running towards the village of Inverkeithing. If the Scots occupied this position it would be impossible for the English to make any forward move. The Scots' army advanced through these hills on the 20th; but for reasons that are not entirely clear, Brown was attracted down from the heights to the lower ground close to the isthmus, looking across to the English entrenchments on the Ferry Hills.

Realising the danger they had placed themselves in, the Scots began to wheel as if to move back slightly on to the higher ground. Lambert at once sent Colonel John Oakey and his dragoons forward to attack their rear. Faced with this threat Brown had no choice but to form a line of battle on the Whins, three eminences rolling outwards from Castland and Meickle towards Inverkeithing Bay, and across the valley in the direction of Rosyth Castle. Lambert made his own dispositions. The ground on his left was difficult and rocky, so he concentrated his greatest strength on the right: his own cavalry regiment, two troops of dragoons and another two troops of horse, all under the command of Colonel Oakey. The infantry were placed in the centre and the left, where they were supported by the remaining dragoons and cavalry. Robert Overton took command of a reserve infantry force stationed to the rear.

Lambert waited, expecting to be attacked at any moment; but for an hour and a half nothing happened. By now he had received news that Cromwell had fallen back on Linlithgow, and that the enemy might at any time receive reinforcements. This was the moment to act. His army moved forward, keeping formation as it squeezed through the bottleneck of the isthmus. The Scots lancers in the valley swept downwards towards the infantry on the left, cutting through the thin ranks with ease. Seeing the danger, Lambert responded by swinging round his infantry reserve, supported by a troop of horse, which thrust into the flank of the advancing Scots before they were able to change front. Against the fire of the musketeers, and the long reach of the English pikemen, the lancers had no chance. Within a quarter of an hour the fight on this side of the field was over.

Lambert was now free to concentrate on attacking the main part of the Scottish army around the Whins. Against the ferocious discipline of the New Model Army the green Scottish recruits had little chance. Soon a large part of the army fled in terror, leaving Brown to face the onslaught of the enemy right with only 200 horse and two battalions of infantry. He was completely overwhelmed. Lambert's men occupied the heights, and the Scots were driven back to the level ground between Hillfield and Pitreavie. Here, in one of the most famous episodes of the battle of Inverkeithing, the Clan Maclean of Mull regiment, commanded by their chief, Sir Hector, surrounded by superior enemy forces, fought fiercely in defence of their chief, calling out, "Fear eile airson Eachainn!" (Another for Hector!), as they sacrificed themselves.[5][6]

Lambert claimed to have killed 2,000 of the enemy and captured 1,400. Clan Maclean tradition says that their contingent began the battle with 800 men and only 35 survived.[7] However, Sir James Balfour, a senior officer in the Covenanter army, wrote in his journal that about 800 Scots were killed in total, of whom no more than 100 were from Clan Maclean.[8] Lambert's own loss was under 200 men.[2]

Four days later Cromwell crossed to Fife in person. For him the victory was "an unspeakable mercy".


Although far smaller than Dunbar, the Battle of Inverkeithing was the decisive encounter of Cromwell's Scottish war. It ended a long strategic deadlock, giving the English command of the plains of Fife and the north-east. Leslie was completely outmanoeuvred. By shifting the thrust of his offensive to the northern shore of the Forth, Cromwell deliberately dropped his guard in the south. He reckoned that King Charles could not resist the lure of a march into England; and once in the open the enemy could be destroyed. Charles obliged and soon began a march that took him south to Worcester and destruction of his army at the Battle of Worcester.



  1. Reid 2004, p. 91.
  2. Plant, 1651: the Worcester campaign
  3. The Battle is also known as the Battle of Fife and Battle of Pitreavie (Chalmers 1844, p. 276).
  4. MacLean 1889, p. 179.
  5. Stewart 1825, p. 54.
  6. MacLean 1889, p. 181.
  7. Reid 2004, p. 90.
  8. Reid 2004, pp. 90–91.


  • Chalmers, Peter (1844). Historical and statistical account of Dunfermline. 1. Edinburgh & London: W. Blackwood and sons. p. 276.
  • MacLean, John Patterson (1889). A History of the Clan MacLean from Its First Settlement at Duard Castle, in the Isle of Mull, to the Present Period: Including a Genealogical Account of Some of the Principal Families Together with Their Heraldry, Legends, Superstitions, Etc. R. Clarke & Company. pp. 179–183.
  • Plant, David. "1651: the Worcester campaign". British Civil Wars and Commonwealth website. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
  • Reid, Stuart (2004). Dunbar 1650: Cromwell's Most Famous Victory. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-774-3.
  • Stewart, David (1825). "Part I Section 3: Devoted Obedience to the Clans—Spirit of Independence—Fidelity".". Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland; with details of The Military Service of The Highland Regiments. 1 (3rd ed.). Edinburgh and London: Archibald Constable and Co., and Hurst, Robinson and Co.

Further reading

  • Baldock, T. S. (1899). Cromwell as a Soldier.
  • Dawson, N. H. (1938). Cromwell's Understudy: the Life and Times of General John Lambert.
  • Douglas, W. S. (1898). Cromwell's Scotch Campaigns, 1650-51.
  • Firth, C. H. (1962). Cromwell's Army.
  • Fraser, A. (1973). Cromwell Our Chief of Men.
  • Gentles, I. (1992). The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland.
  • Stephen, W. (1921). The History of Inverkeithing and Rosyth.
  • Stevenson, D. (1997). Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Scotland, 1644-1651.
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