The Battle of Dunkeld was fought on the 21st of August, 1689.
The Battle of Dunkeld was the middle battle of three involving the Jacobites in 17th Century Scotland. The other battles in what was called ‘Dundie’s Rising’ were Killiecrankie and the Haughs of Cromdale. It’s not clear which side won the battle at Dunkeld as it depends on what you might class as the measure of victory or defeat. Maybe the Jacobites won on points, because of the numbers of enemy dead; maybe the Orange Royalists won on points, because they were outnumbered by odds of over 3:1 at the outset, but remained defiant on the day. What is clear is that Scotland lost that day. It had long since lost its sense of proportion. It lost many a good man, on either side, fighting their ain in Dunkeld.
In a service to commemorate the 300th Anniversary of the relatively little known Battle of Dunkeld, the Reverend James Harkness, Chaplain General to Her Majesty’s Forces, said, “…here [at Dunkeld], if not a major military feat of arms, there took place a decisive battle that was to determine the shape of Church and State in Scotland and beyond.” He was probably right, at least, in terms of its aftermath. Successive Jacobite Rebellions (or Risings), in 1708, 1709, 1715, 1719 and 1745, sought to redress the balance in favour of the deposed Stuart Monarchy and its flavour of religious observance, but they didn’t succeed and as they say, the rest is history. Whether they won or lost at Dunkeld (they lost at Cromdale), the Jacobites lost the first Jacobite war.
Back in 1689, less than a month after the Jacobite victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie, hope seemed to remain for the aspirations of the Catholic supporters of the ex-King James. Despite the untimely death of the Viscount of Dundee, otherwise known as John Graham of Claverhouse, ‘Bonnie Dundee’ or ‘Bluidy Clavers’, the Government of their Protestant Royal Orange Majesties, William and Mary, was jittery about its prospects for victory. General Mackay had been forced to retreat from Blair Atholl and the road to Perth and the South was open. With ‘Clavers’ at the helm, who knows what the Jacobites might have achieved, but Dundee was deid and his successor was an Alexander only by name. Instead of marching south to exploit its success, Colonel Alexander Cannon, appointed ahead of the formidable Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, led the Jacobite army north. Another eedjit, also under Irish influence, did much the same thing in 1746.
Into the vacuum that was Dunkeld, the Government dispatched Lieutenant-Colonel William Cleland and his as yet untested regiment – the 1200 or so men of the newly formed Cameronians. The pragmatic Covenanting revolutionary against the dashing and charismatic ‘Angel of Death’ could’ve been the bout of the season, but it wasn’t to be as the ‘Bonnie Butcher’ of Bothwell Brig had got his comeuppance. It’s strange, though, how the myth of ‘Bonnie Dundee’ survives, despite John Galt’s ‘Ringhan Gilhaize’ and any half decent, non-partisan look at the ‘Killing Times’ and what had gone before.
Regardless of your religious persuasion, surely nobody could look back and justify the merciless hounding and persecution of the Covenanters, most of whom were ordinary folk – the poor peasantry – merely wanting to be left in peace to worship after their conscience. The Covenanters, at a height of fanaticism, decided they should obey their ‘Heavenly King’ rather than King Charles (or King James in turn), but the response of the Privy Council and its dread tribunals, led by the likes of Archbishop Sharp and ‘Bluidy’ Mackenzie, made the ‘Holy Office’ of the Inquisition look quite tame. Scotland was governed by the Committee of Public Affairs whose Acts were barbarically executed by the swords of a thousand men like Sir James Turner and ‘Bonnie Dundee’.
General Mackay had been against sending the Cameronians to Dunkeld, pointing to the bitter animosity between them and the Jacobite Highlanders. Mackay’s opinion was founded on events that occurred soon after the murder of Sharp, when the Council brought to the shires of Lanark and Ayr an army of 10,000 marauding Highlanders. That ‘Highland Host’ neither knew nor cared anything about the quarrel, but was happy to terrorise the western Lowlands, before it retreated homewards with its spoil. As James Kirkton was to write in ‘The secret and true history of the church of Scotland from the Restoration to the year 1678’, “you would have thought by their baggage that they had been at the sack of a besieged city.” To make matters worse, Lieutenant-Colonel Cleland, who was a bit poet in his spare time, had mocked that host in derisive doggerel.
The Cameronians were originally a guerrilla force formed by the fanatical religious reformer and martyr, Richard Cameron, who was killed in a battle at Airsmoss on the 20th of July, 1680. The regiment named in Cameron’s honour was formed on the 14th of May, 1689, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with Clan Cameron, who fought for the Jacobite cause, nor ever should they be confused with the 79th Cameron Highlanders. Under Charles II & II and James VII & II, the Cameronians had been zealous, covenanting outlaws, but under William (III & II) and Mary (II & II), they were “saviours of the (inglorious) Revolution.” You can find a stirring account of the battle between these sworn foes, in Andrew Crichton’s ‘Life of Colonel J. Blackadder’ and in James Browne’s ‘A History of the Highlands and the Highland Clans’.
The Battle of Dunkeld was neither short nor sweet, ending around 11 p.m. with the destruction of all but three of its houses. The battle took place within the town, through the streets and around the Cathedral, which still shows bullet marks in its eastern gable. When the Jacobite horde entered the un-walled town, the outnumbered Cameronians took refuge behind the walls of the cathedral, the Atholl mansion house and adjoining gardens. The Jacobites, numbering as many as 4000 Scots and Irish, also occupied several houses and, denied the scope for their famous Highland Charge, they didn’t take too well to the idea of repeated frontal assaults against the muskets and pikes of entrenched and determined Lowland foes.
Not keen on surrender, when they ran out of ball, the Cameronians resorted to the sacrilege of stripping lead from the roof of the Cathedral to keep up their fire. By that time, Cleland had fallen, shot in the head and the liver within an hour of the first assault, but rather than cause his men despair, he attempted to craw away to die unseen in a neuk of the Cathedral. Major Henderson assumed command, but was killed almost immediately, whereupon Captain Munro was left in charge. Munro it was who resorted to the desperate act of setting the town afire when he sent out a party “with blazing fagots on the ends of long pikes” to set fire to the dry thatch and dislodge the Highlanders. In one house, as Browne reports, as many as sixteen Jacobites perished when “…pikemen had locked the doors of such of the houses as had keys standing in them and the unhappy intruders, being thus cut off from escape, perished in the flames.”
The ‘Bloody Irishes’ as the now blooded Cameronians called the Jacobites, made off after the conflagration, refusing Cannon’s pleas to resume the attack by crying they were ready to fight against men, “but would not fight any more against devils!” The Cameronians’ ‘success’ was founded on stout defence and destroying the town they were sent to defend. Their fatalities are unknown, but were undoubtedly substantial, whilst the Jacobites lost less than three hundred men before they retired to the sound of singing – psalms of praise.