The Battle of Killiecrankie took place on the 27th of July, 1689.
After the so called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, the Dutchman, William of Orange, became William III of England in place of his ousted father-in-law, James II, who, mind you, was also James VII of Scotland. Now, the Union of the Crowns had occurred, but not yet the Union of Parliaments, so it was necessary for the Scottish Government in the guise of the Privy Council and a Convention to ratify the Orangeman as William II. Scotland’s first King William had been William the Lion, back in the 12th Century. The Convention was called for the 14th of March, 1689, and by the 9th of April the decision to abandon James in favour of the Williamites was made. However, one man wisnae too happy and about mid-way through the proceedings, he stormed out and awa’ hame.
That man was James Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, and by the time he got back to his own neighbourhood, he was declared an outlaw with a bounty of £20,000 on his heid. James Graham was known as ‘Bluidy Clavers’ or ‘Bonnie Dundee’, depending on the sympathies of whoever was doing the calling. His enemies, if you like, were the Covenanters, the Presbyterian majority that suffered under the ‘Restoration’ of Charles II & II; a persecution that continued during the brief, totalitarian reign of his brother, James VII & II. He got the epithet, ‘Bluidy Clavers’, along with his ‘namesake’, ‘Bluidy Mackenzie’, the Lord Advocate, for their actions in applying summary justice to thousands of religious fanatics who flouted legislation against the illegal gatherings known as ‘Conventicles’. On the other hand, he got the sobriquet, ‘Bonnie Dundee’, from the adherents of the ‘papist’ King James. The arrogant, handsome and charismatic Dundee was the first Jacobite and the mastermind of the first Rebellion to be so called.
Viscount Dundee made it his singular business to rally the Highland Clans in support of King James. The predominant Clans involved, included the might of Clan Donald, with the MacDonalds of Clan Ranald, Keppoch, Glengarry, Glencoe, Kintyre and Sleat. Also present were the Stewarts of Appin, MacLeans of Duart, McNeils of Barra, Macleods of Skye and Raasay, Frasers, MacNaughtons, MacAllisters, MacLachlans, MacGregors, Lamonts, the Grants of Glenmoriston, and those of Lochiel’s Camerons who had made it in time. In addition, Dundee had the benefit of around three hundred Irish under Brigadier Cannon and a small troop of mounted men, about forty or so, led by Walter of Craighie. Somewhere amongst the massed ranks of saffron clad Hielantmen was an eighteen years old Rob Rob MacGregor and his faither, MacGregor of Glengyle.
On the eve of the battle, James Graham had mustered a force of about 2,500 men and his wee troop of cavalry. The main gathering was supposed to take place later in the month, but being pressed by the Williamite force of General Hugh MacKay of Scourie, Dundee had been scampering back and forth seeking to gain the advantage, and didn’t have time to consolidate his entire strength. Dundee’s main achievement in all the jostling for position was in beating Mackay to the possession of Blair Castle. After a meeting with his Highland Chiefs in a war council, Dundee was encouraged to confront Mackay, despite being outnumbered.
On the morning of the 27th of July, 1689, Mackay had just entered the dangerous Pass of Killiecrankie, up from Dunkeld and heading towards the Atholl basin. Strategically, the pass was of great importance as it controlled a crucial north-south route through the Highlands and Blair Castle was its guardian. Allow Mackay through and Dundee would have been forced to retreat. There was no telling where such action might lead, so out he marched. By mid-afternoon, MacKay had deployed his force of between four and five thousand men in anticipation of the Jacobite attack. I’d say he had to make a stand or risk being ambushed whilst on the march if he continued and battles in those days were fairly well stage managed affairs. His troops were in a decent position, but he did have the River Garry at his back, so a retreat, if it came to that, would not have been easy. As it happened, it degenerated into a devastating rout.
Dundee had held back from giving the order for the advance, because he was waiting for the sun to move round into position behind his men, giving them an extra advantage to make up the discrepancy in numbers and capability. Dundee had no guns; MacKay had nine artillery pieces. Dundee had very few muskets; MacKay’s infantry were fully equipped. Near sunset, at around 7pm (maybe as late as 8pm) Dundee let loose his impatient horde. His Highlanders dropped their plaids and haversacks and accelerated into the fearsome Highland Charge. MacKay had thinned out his regiments in fewer ranks to present a broader front and initially, this caused a severe problem for Dundee’s men. The louping Highland phalanx ran straight into a hail of fire from the first salvo and immediately suffered the majority of its six hundred losses.
However, three things conspired to defeat MacKay. The first was the inability of his men to reload for a second decimating volley before the Jacobites were upon them with claymores and carnage. The second was due to this being the first time the plug bayonet was used in a British battle. MacKay had no pike men and all his infantry carried muskets, which couldn’t be fired whilst the bayonet was fitted. With the ferocity of the Highlanders’ charge, the Lowland infantry had no time to fix bayonets. The third factor contributing to his defeat was the very thinning of his regiments in the first place, which left his centre exposed. His superior horse was not able to plug that gap before his infantry decided they’d had enough. The melee became a torrent of fugitives to match that of the river as the soldiers fled the merciless Jacobites. The tally of up to two thousand dead and wounded might have been worse, but for the opportunity presented the canny clansmen. They couldn’t resist looting the baggage train.
For the Jacobite cause, it was a case of winning the battle and losing the war; practically before it had really begun. The tragedy for the followers of King James VII & II was the death of ‘Bonnie Dundee’. Almost as a postscript at the close of the battle, he was mortally wounded by a bullet in the side. Incidentally, John Galt has the character, Ringhan Gilhaize, in his novel of the same name, fire the fatal shot. Having lost its instigator and talisman, the first Jacobite Rebellion faltered and ended soon after.
Over three hundred years later, we can still recite epic martial verse, some of which has been turned into rousing song. Who else but Robert Burns would write a chorus such as this for ‘The Braes of Killiecrankie’:
“An’ ye had been where I hae been
Ye wadna been sae cantie-o
An’ ye had seen what I hae seen
On the braes o’ Killiecrankie-o”
Or this verse from ‘Killiecrankie’ by William Edmondston Aytoun (circa 1857):
“Like a tempest down the ridges
Swept the hurricane of steel,
Rose the slogan of MacDonald -
Flashed the broadsword of Lochiel!
Vainly sped the withering volley
’Mongst the foremost of our band -
On we poured until we met them,
Foot to foot, and hand to hand.”