Colonel Overton's force consisted of 1,600 foot plus four troops of cavalry. The landing took place on the peninsula at Queen's Ferry on the night of 16/17 July, with, according to Cromwell, the loss of only six men. The Scots had a garrison nearby at Burntisland and the alarm was quickly sent to Stirling; Sir John Browne and Major General James Holbourne were despatched with their brigades of Cavalry and infantry.
The two armies drew up facing each other, with the English dug in on the Ferry Hills and the Scots on the lower slopes of Castland Hill, with their right anchored on Whinney Hill and their left on the Hill of Selvege or Muckle Hill, a little to the south of Inverkeithing. Some of the Scots may have been dug in, as the English commander Lambert spoke afterwards of burying some of the Scots dead in their own trenches. Holbourne was reluctant to assault the English position with just one infantry brigade, and Lambert did not intend to move until all his troops had landed. When the cavalry joined Lambert, the outnumbered Holbourne decided to withdraw.
Lambert reported that Holbourne began to wheel as if to march away or take advantage of a steep mountain (Castland Hill). Lambert immediately sent the cavalry forward to engage the Scots rearguard, causing Holbourne to halt and draw up his troops in order of battle. In Lambert's account, the English probably outnumbered the Scots by at least five or six hundred but the Scots had the advantage of the ground, with the English horse on the left being on particularly bad ground, facing a pass lined by musketeers.
Once the deployments had been made, nothing happened for an hour and a half, with each side expecting to be attacked by the other. The trigger for action was a report from Cromwell that Scots reinforcements were marching from Stirling. As the English attacked, Browne on the Scots right led a cavalry charge using the slope and the Scots lancers broke the English cavalry opposite, who were probably inexperienced troopers. However, the English counter-attacked, routing the Scottish cavalry and capturing Browne himself. On the left, the moss troopers were initially successful, but lack of discipline began to tell and they, in turn, were routed.
With the rout of the Scots cavalry the battle was effectively over, with relatively little serious fighting at the initial battle lines. It seems the Scots cavalry either covered the retreat of the infantry, or that Holbourne withdrew the infantry leaving the cavalry to fight on alone. The pursuit of the defeated was protracted and bloody. Holbourne's experienced troops and Gray's regiment both seem to have escaped intact, although it is said that the Pinkerton Burn ran red with blood for three days, but the Highlanders were almost wiped out after a four hour running battle culminating in a stand on the slopes around Pitreavie Castle. Duart and his men turned to fight, the English accounts said that all but thirty-five out of 800 Highlanders were killed, though Balfour records that the Scots lost 800 in total of whom 100 were Duart's men.
According to Lambert the English lost 'not above eight men, but divers wounded.'(Reid 2004). Lambert's wife says 'We have lost butt few, but many wounded, most of which was in my husband's regiment of hors' (Akerman 1856).
The casualties on the Scots side were certainly heavy. Most sources agree that about 2,000 were killed and around 1,500 taken prisoner, although various figures are reported for the casualties of the Highland regiments. Cromwell in his letter immediately after the battle reported at least two thousand dead (including some senior officers), and about five or six hundred prisoners taken, including Browne and other senior officers. He amended the number of prisoners to 1500-1600 on the following day (Carlyle 1904). Cornet Baynes and Mrs Campbell also use the figures of 2,000 dead and 1500 prisoners, which were presumably the figures promulgated by Cromwell to the army (Akerman 1856).
Grainger says that Browne and his cavalry were overwhelmed and 800 MacLeans and 700 Buchanans were destroyed where they stood and other foot were killed in the pursuit of six miles that followed. In all 2,000 Scots were killed, 1,400 captured and 1,000 escaped to Stirling. Browne was wounded, captured and died soon afterwards; five regimental commanders also died. Holbourne escaped; as had happened to both Hurry and Baillie when they lost battles against Montrose in 1645, he was accused of being either a traitor or a coward for having been defeated. He was later court-martialled by the Committee of the Estates, but exonerated, although he resigned his commission (Grainger 1997). Gardiner says that half the Scots were killed, i.e. about 2,000 (Gardiner 1903).
Reid notes that legend has it that only thirty-five out of 800 Macleans were not killed. However, he suggests that there were only 500 in the regiment (Reid 2004). This underlines the fact that the casualty figures all rely on the English accounts, which are so similar as to suggest that they are official figures. Sir James Balfour is the only Scottish source, and his account of the battle states that casualties were roughly equal on each side at around 800 each. He also says that only 100 of Duart's men died with him (Balfour 1825). This account might not be correct but there is no intrinsic reason to privilege the official casualty figures promoted by Cromwell over this other set of figures.
Reid gives a detailed description of the action that draws heavily on Lambert's own account. Colonel Overton had marched from Leith on 17 July whilst Cromwell made a diversion with the main army before Stirling. His force consisted of 1,600 foot plus four troops of cavalry. The landing took place on the peninsula at Queen's Ferry, and according to Cromwell, with the loss of only six men. The Scots had a garrison nearby at Burntisland under Colonel Barclay and it was his outpost at North Queensferry which fired on the landing. The alarm was quickly sent to Stirling and Browne and Holbourne were despatched with their brigades of cavalry and infantry. In the meantime, according to Lambert, a tense stand-off escalated as those Scots units already stationed in the area arrived. Cromwell, having decided against an assault with the troops already landed, ordered Lambert to cross with two regiments of horse and two of foot. Although Lambert pressed, he could only get the foot and his own regiment of horse over all that day (Saturday) and the following night. During the afternoon, he discovered that about 4,000 Scots had advanced as far as Dunfermline, about five miles away. This force was joined by another five hundred on the Sunday, and by the time the last of the English force was landing on Sunday 20 July, the Scots were very close.
The two armies drew up facing each other, with the English dug in on the Ferry Hills and the Scots on the lower slopes of Castland Hill, with their right anchored on Whinney Hill and their left on the Hill of Selvege or Muckle Hill, a little to the south of Inverkeithing. Some of them may have been dug in as Lambert spoke afterwards of burying some of the Scots dead in their own trenches. Holbourne was reluctant to assault the strong English position with just one infantry brigade, and Lambert did not intend to move until all his troops had landed. When Okey's horse joined Lambert, the outnumbered Holbourne decided to withdraw.
Lambert reported that Holbourne began to wheel as if to march away or take advantage of a 'steep mountain' (Castland Hill), indicating that Holbourne, having originally been facing south was now wheeling backwards, intending to retire to Dunfermline. Lambert immediately sent Okey's regiment forward to engage the Scots rearguard, causing Holbourne to halt and draw up his troops in order of battle. Maclean of Duart's regiment and probably Buchanan's were on the right of the Scots army, with Holbourne's and Gray's on the left. It is likely that Barclay's musketeers were in a pass in front of Holbourne's right. Browne's cavalry brigade was on the right, with Brechin's horse and Augustine's 'moss-troopers' on the left. In Lambert's account, the English probably outnumbered the Scots by at least five or six hundred but the Scots had the advantage of the ground, with the English horse on the left being on particularly bad ground, facing a pass lined by Barclay's musketeers. He therefore placed his greatest strength on the right wing with his own regiment of horse, and two troops of Lytcott's and two troops of Okey's, all under Okey's command. On the left he stationed only four troops of Okey's and two of Lytcott's, all under Lytcott's command. The centre was made up of Lambert's own regiment of foot and Daniel's regiment of foot, with West's and Syler's regiments in reserve, commanded by Overton.
Once the deployments had been made, nothing happened for an hour and a half, with each side expecting to be attacked by the other. The trigger for action was a report from Cromwell that Scots reinforcements were marching from Stirling, and as he was pulling back to Linlithgow it was likely that even more would be sent. Lambert's account says only that it was 'resolved we should climb the hill to them, which accordingly we did, and through the Lord's strength, put them to an absolute rout'. In reality, it was not quite so straightforward. Browne on the Scots right led a cavalry charge using the slope; the Scots lancers broke the English cavalry opposite, who were probably Lytcott's inexperienced troopers. However, Lytcott counter-attacked with his own reserves and routed Browne's horse, which had no reserves, capturing Browne. On the left, Brechin and Augustine were initially successful, but neither unit was well disciplined and they, in turn, were routed by Okey's reserve, probably led by Lambert himself.
With the rout of the Scots cavalry, the initial phase of the battle was over in a very short time, according to Lambert, and with very little serious fighting. It seems the Scots cavalry either covered the retreat of the infantry, or that Holbourne withdrew the infantry leaving the cavalry to fight on alone. The pursuit of the defeated was, like that of Dunbar, protracted and bloody. Holbourne's experienced troops and Gray's regiment both seem to have escaped intact, although it is said that the Pinkerton Burn ran red with blood for three days, but Buchanan's and Maclean of Duart's Highland regiments fleeing across an open valley to the west of the Pinkerton Burn were destroyed after a four hour running battle. Lambert claimed to have taken 1,400 prisoners, including Browne and Buchanan, and said that more than that were killed because
'divers of them were Highlanders and had very ill quarter, and I am persuaded few of them escaped without a knock'.
The retreat ended on the slopes around Pitreavie Castle just over a mile north of the original Scots' position. The Highlanders apparently sought refuge in the castle but the owners, named Wardlaw, refused entry and added to their woes by dropping stones on them from the battlements. Maclean of Duart and his men turned to fight, and he was killed, but not, apparently, before seven of his clansmen in turn had stood between him and the English, crying 'Fear eile airson Eachuinn!' and each been killed. Most accounts, following the English sources, state that all but thirty-five out of 800 Highlanders were killed, although Scottish accounts suggest in contrast that only 100 of Maclean's men were killed.
The victory secured the bridge-head for the English and Cromwell was able to ship across his whole army and set about the final defeat of the Scots (Reid 2004).
Grainger's account is similar but he gives more detail about the landing. Unlike earlier abortive attempts to land in Fife, this crossing was carefully planned, using a port not previously threatened and transporting the English forces in specially constructed flatboats. The crossing took place closer to Cromwell's headquarters than to Overton's, but the movement of troops from Edinburgh and Leith to the crossing looked like a movement to reinforce Cromwell and therefore gained the element of surprise. Cromwell's camp was under Scots observation and any early movement would have been seen and its purpose understood. The withdrawal of garrison troops was basically free of risk because Harrison was due to arrive shortly with 4,000 men. The landing took place at the narrowest point of the Forth, but also close to the guns of Inchgarvie Castle on a small island. The landing was also close to the small fort at North Queensferry and below a new fortification on the hills of the peninsula known to the English as 'The Great Sconce', which had 17 guns. The landing seems to have taken place at the neck of the small peninsula, on one or both of its sides, or at Port Laing on its eastern side. The Great Sconce and the Fort at North Queensferry were overrun quickly, and four small armed ships, loaded with coal and salt, were captured in Inverkeithing Bay (Grainger 1997).
Cromwell provided a short account of the battle in a letter to Speaker Lenthall on 21 July from Linlithgow. He writes that Overton landed with about 1,400 foot and some horse and dragoons at North Ferry. Cromwell decided that the fortification should not be attacked with this force (presumably here he refers to Scottish entrenchments rather than the gun batteries, which fell in the first landing) but sent Lambert across with two regiments of horse and two of foot. His report of the battle is brief:
'They came to a close charge and totally routed the enemy; having taken about forty or fifty colours, killed near two-thousand, some say more; have taken Sir John Browne, their Major-General, who commanded in chief, and other Colonels and considerable officers killed and taken and about five or six hundred prisoners [amended next day by Cromwell to 1500-1600]. The enemy is removed from their ground with their whole army; but whither we know not certainly. This is an unspeakable mercy' (Carlyle 1904).
There are other contemporary accounts; James Baynes, a Cornet in Cromwell's army at Linlithgow, wrote to Captain Adam Baynes, his cousin. On 19 July, he says that a considerable party of foot and horse the previous Wednesday night had surprised an enemy fort in Fife, over against Queen's Ferry 'much in manner of an island and 4 miles compass.' He mentions Colonels Overton, Lytcott and Daniell being there with about 2,000 horse and foot and dragoons. He also says that the English have taken about 20 pieces of ordinance, most of them taken from the enemy in their fort and the rest from some ships taken thereabouts. Concluding, he writes
'According to all relations the King's forces do lessen, many of them being almost ready to starve. Now that we have gotten footing in Fife I hope we shall gain ground of them daily.'
Writing on 22 July he reports the successful battle:
'Sir John Brown was commanded with about 4,000 men to repulse our forces who had possessed themselves of a little island in Fife. They came within a mile or less of our works, whereupon the Major General, though not fully provided for them, drew out and engaged them, and on a sudden put them to flight, slew about 2,000 of them, took 1500 prisoners and about 50 colours. Sir John Brown is taken and divers other considerable persons not yet known. Collo. Scott is slain and its thought Lt Gen Holborne; the full of things we yet have not. We had the pursuit three miles. The rest of their army is much humbled with this business so that they dare not be seen of us'
Lambert's wife writing to the same recipient also on 22 July uses the same figures of 2,000 killed and 1,500 captured.
'We have lost butt few, but many wounded, most of which was in my husband's regiment of hors. Your brother Pease was in the pursuit 8 miles but he is safe and well...my husband's hors was wounded and a brace of bullets found betwixt his cot and armes, but I bles the Lord hee is safe and well.'
On 26 July, Cornet Baynes was in Fife, from where he reported Inchgarvie had been taken with around 20 pieces of ordnance; on 29 July, he wrote that Burntisland had been captured with many guns and arms:
'The enemy therein (about 400 men) have terms to march away with every man his armes, drums beating etc.' (Akerman 1856).
Balfour was in the Scottish army and his account was very different to the others, suggesting that the Scots were hugely outnumbered and that casualties were about equal. In his account, the English force landed on 17 July without any opposition and fortified the hill between the Ferry and 'Innerkethen'. On Sunday 20 July, 2,500 horse and foot from Stirling met 10,000 of the English. He says that there were similar numbers of dead on each side, about 800 Scots, most of them foot, who 'fought valiantly and sold their lives at a dear rate'. The young Laird of McLean was slain with 100 of his friends and followers (Balfour 1825).