The floodplains on the fringes of Selkirk town, northeast of the junction between the Yarrow and Ettrick waters, have long been the site of many ferocious Border battles, fought with rugby ball and cricket bat. Before they were home to the sports clubs of today, however, the plains were the site of a battle far bloodier than any local derby.
In 1645, following a remarkable series of victories across Scotland – particularly at the battles of Auldearn and Kilsyth – James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, turned his attention on the Borders. There, he hoped he would find thousands of reinforcements for his Royalist army among the Border Lairds. Unfortunately for Montrose, he wildly underestimated the Borderers’ loyalty to the Covenanter cause, and so it was with only around five hundred Irish-Catholic musketeers, and a small troop of horse, that the Marquess camped on the floodplains outside Selkirk. The Army of the Scottish Covenanters – on campaign in England and recently allied with the Parliamentarians in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms – had learned of Montrose’s decisive victory at Kilsyth, and so sent Sir David Leslie, the Lieutenant General of Horse, back into Scotland with all the cavalry he could muster. Leslie collected reinforcements from Covenanter garrisons in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick, and crossed the border on 6th September 1645 with five thousand horse and dragoons, and one thousand infantry. Doubtlessly, men from Hawick and surrounding Teviotdale, loyal to the Covenanter cause, would have also joined Leslie’s ranks.
Leslie had initially intended to cut off Montrose from the Highlands, but learned (possibly from the turncoat Earls of Home and Roxburgh) of Montrose’s position and strength, and so instead turned south to intercept him. Under the cover of a thick morning fog, early in the hours of the 13th September, Leslie split his army into two forces, sending one on a flanking manoeuvre, and taking the other to meet Montrose’s musketeers head-on. At Philiphaugh, when Leslie’s approaching soldiers were but half a mile from their encampment, Montrose’s royalists were finally alerted to the presence of their enemy. Montrose emerged onto the battlefield to find his troops in confusion and disarray. Repelling Covenanter charges twice, thanks presumably to the defensible position of their camp, the battle drew swiftly to a conclusion with the arrival of Leslie’s flanking force. After Montrose made a last-ditch attempt to restore the situation, by charging two thousand Covenanter dragoons with only one hundred cavalry of his own, he was urged by his friends that the Royalist cause in Scotland would die without him, and so he fled. The rest of his troops, including about three hundred women and children from his camp, were then massacred by the victorious Covenanters, their Presbyterian minsters preaching that leniency was folly against Royalists.
After Philiphaugh, Montrose’s hold on power in Scotland was gone. After fighting a guerrilla campaign in the Highlands, that following winter and spring, he received orders from King Charles I (himself now a prisoner) to lay down his arms. One year later, the First English Civil War would conclude with a Parliamentarian victory, and the (temporary) abolishment of the British monarchy. For the time being, the Covenanters’ cause was alive and well.