A View From Home: The Battle of Aldfreck

Dr David Hume recalls a bloody Ulster-Scots encounter in the Antrim hillsides

Co Antrim historian Dr David Hume examines the story of a forgotten battle from the 16th century whose site remains undetermined in modern times.

Dunluce rests on the edge of North Antrim, a lasting reminder - despite its abandonment - of a past that closely links Ulster to Scotland. For Dunluce was once the home to the MacDonnells, Lords of the Isles and Earls of Antrim. Sir Walter Scott, visiting it in 1814, wrote that the ruins resembled Dunnottar Castle in Scotland, on a smaller scale. It is an impressive structure.

'The ruins occupy perhaps more than an acre of ground, being the level top of a high rock advanced into the sea, by which it is surrounded on three sides, and divided from the mainland by a deep chasm,' the famous novelist wrote.

Sir Randall MacDonnell, first Earl of Antrim, was the first of his family to use the castle as a family residence, and he died there in 1636. His son Randal, succeeded him, and it was during the time when Randal's wife, Catherine Manners, lived there that part of the kitchens fell into the sea, taking nine servants with them into eternity. The Duchess left the castle and never returned!

Evidence of the MacDonnells abounds in the Glens of Antrim. The family seat changed to Glenarm, where it remains, and there are many other sites associated with the family or retainers. At Bonamargey friary outside Ballycastle there is a memorial to John Macnaghten, 'first secretaire to the first Earle of Antrim who departed this Life in the yeare of our Lord God 1630.' Descendants of families the MacDonnells brought with them from Kintyre and the islands remain in the Glens today.

There is an interesting cultural mix relating to the Plantation period. Under their land re-grant the MacDonnells had to bring a certain number of Scots settlers over to Ulster. Where previously those they had brought from Kintyre had been Roman Catholic, a lowland plantation had occurred in Kintyre in the interim and the new settlers were Presbyterian. The evidence of this mix can be seen in names and religious denomination today.

The MacDonnells inherited vast lands in the Glynnes, or Glens of Antrim, through inter-marriage with the Bisset family, John Mor marrying Margary Bisset in the 15th century, and their presence in Ulster was often a turbulent one. That is where the MacDonnell mystery comes in.

When I was a child at primary school, I recall a display which our headmaster  placed on the wall of his classroom. I suppose it fired my imagination because the memory remained and encouraged a greater exploration of what it was all about. Central to the display was a letter, written in 1597 by a soldier who saw a different landscape than we did as we grew up in hills around Ballycarry.

This soldier had been involved in a battle with the MacDonnells, and was one of the fortunate ones who lived to tell the tale. The event was the Battle of Aldfreck and it was fought on a November day in 1597, after English troops garrisoned in Carrickfergus had given chase to MacDonnells and their allies who had appeared outside the town.

The arrival of the Scots Highlanders was the latest in an ongoing series of tensions between them and the English authorities. The MacDonnells had apparently been summoned to appear due to incidents in nearby Islandmagee, but their demeanour suggested they had not arrived with any sense of supplication.

English governor, Sir John Chichester, marshalled his troops and marched them out in good order to meet the Scots, who then retreated. Accounts suggest that this retreat continued for at least four miles, from hilltop to hilltop, until the Scots finally stopped. Chichester sought advice from officers and the response was that, with troops tired from a recent expedition and low on ammunition, caution should be employed.

However, a change in opinion occurred when one officer, Captain Merriman, told the Governor bluntly that 'it was a shame we should suffer a sort of beggars to brave us in that sort.' The Governor appeared interested in talking despite this remark, but two horsemen came up and made similar comments to that of Merriman. The die was cast.

In front of Chichester's smaller force were an estimated 700 Scots on a hilltop, but two miles behind them were Scots bowmen and Irish with swords and pikes numbering another 800.

The ground had been chosen well. The English garrison formed into battle formation and advanced on the Scots, who retreated from the hill on which they had placed themselves. Chichester ordered a horse charge, but only a few horsemen seem to have carried this through.

The account of Captain Charles Eggerton tells us that 'the Governor commanded the lieutenant of horse to charge, which he did, not above six of his company followed him...' This may relate to the possibility that the ground chosen for the charge was revealed to be marshy and that horses and horsemen realised this in the charge.

Another account details that soldiers were able to conceal themselves in high grass and 'some in the ouse up to their shoulders...' which would tend to support the theory that the Scots had chosen their ground well.

In response to the lack of an effective cavalry attack, the Scots wheeled around and attacked the wings of their opponents to devastating effect.

Sir Ralph Lanes, present on the day, tells us the English 'were drawn to the shrubby ground where the ambushment lay. And in the skirmish the garrison bands having spent all their powder, and a troop of the Scots horse having fallen behind the Governor, between the town and the English, offered to charge them upon the rear when suddenly, out of the shrubs, was discharged upon the rest a whole volley of shot.'  It was a fatal fusillade in a decisive battle.

The English had given encouragement to the Scots and Irish through shouts of panic in relation to low ammunition and the need for reinforcements, such calls added vigour to the MacDonnell attack. Scots horsemen came within two pike lengths of the beleaguered English and inflicted serious casualties.

Chichester, at one point, used his sword on his own men to try and prevent their flight. He was shot a number of times while on his horse and was killed, his body later being beheaded by the victorious MacDonnells.

The loss of the Governor only served to add to the panic. Several officers managed to reach Larne Lough a short distance away and swim across to Islandmagee. History tells us that Captains Merriman, Eggerton and Lieutenant Barry were among them. Sir Moses Hill, who had ridden to Carrickfergus for reinforcement, returned too late.

The bleak post-battle landscape undoubtedly had bodies of wounded and dying strewn around, and weapons discarded. Captain Eggerton tells us in his estimation that 160-180 soldiers were killed in the battle with up to 40 injured. Lanes suggests 220 footmen slain beside the officers, who included Chichester, Captain Mansell, Lieutenant Price and Lieutenant Walsh and seven sergeants. Sixty of the enemy were killed. It was a disaster for the English.

One prisoner, Captain Constable, later noted that MacDonnell, who would be pardoned in time for the episode, said the relentless pursuit of his men by the garrison made it seem to him that a battle was inevitable. The choice of the battle ground, suggested rather more premeditation.

Not long after, Sir Arthur Chichester, a brother of Sir John, became Governor and laid the land waste for 20 miles around Carrickfergus. Just over a decade later, new lowland Scots Presbyterian settlers had begun to arrive in the area with no knowledge of the events of 1597. Which is where the mystery comes in.

No-one has ever been able to conclusively identify the location of the Battle of Aldfreck. Locals favour a number of possibilities, but no trace remains. The Salt Hole, said by Richard Dobbs to be the site of the ambush, is in the townland, a natural declivity in the ground and a good place to conceal men. Beside Altfrackyn, or Old Mill Glen is another location which could have been the site, a place where two hills converge with a small plain of land which could have been marshy in 1597 forming the boundary between.

The landscape has changed so much in 400 years and the population change was so dramatic in the 17th century, that local folklore cannot identify the precise location for historians. One old farmer, now passed away, once told of how, when improvements were being undertaken in nearby Redhall estate, many skeletons were found. They were quickly reburied elsewhere, and their location is also lost to history. Were they the remains of some of the soldiers killed at the Battle of Aldfreck? We may never know!

The battle also illustrates for us that the Scots pre-Plantation presence in Antrim was one which was often turbulent. The battle occurred at the end of a century which had seen much bloody conflict between the MacDonnells and the English authorities in Carrickfergus.

In 1555, for example, the Earl of Essex had to march from Dublin to relieve Carrick, which had been besieged by the Scots, and he did so with great slaughter. One of the most famous attacks on the MacDonnells and their allies occurred when the Earl of Essex massacred women and children on Rathlin Island, where they had been sent for safety. The murderous assault was witnessed from Ballycastle by the MacDonnells, who had been wrong-footed. Aldfreck had something of a retaliatory nature in that sense.

But the Battle of Aldfreck also illustrates something else. Even before the so-called Plantation settlers arrived, there was a strong Scots presence on Ulster's east coast. The MacDonnells simply extended themselves across a channel which was not a barrier but an important means of transport.

And whenever the MacDonnells found themselves in trouble they would summon help by lighting bonfires on the headlands of the Antrim coast. Help soon came from Kintyre on such signals!

All of this seems far removed from the quite major battle which has long faded into history. To the modern residents of Ballycarry it has little meaning. It is, perhaps, someone else's history, not quite our own. But it is part of the Scottish story in Antrim. For many reasons the men who fought and died at Aldfreck in 1597 should not be forgotten.

This article first appeared in The Ulster Scot, official publication of the Ulster-Scots Agency.