Late in the day of 01 May, Bonnie Dundee and his small force arrived at Inverness to find the town besieged by MacDonald of Keppoch and his seven hundred men with the destruction of the township imminent…………
After Raising the Royal Standard on 13 April Dundee had ridden north into the mountains with his small troop of horse. His purpose was clear. He had an army to raise from the Lairds of the north and the Clans in the west and with his presently limited resources was in no position to take on General Hugh MacKay who had left Edinburgh in pursuit some days previously.
Dundee was a most prodigious letter writer, particularly during his time as custodian of law and order in the south west. He now generated epistles tirelessly in all directions, seeking material and political support for the King’s cause from any who might provide it.
MacKay in the meantime, had taken up the pursuit of this outlaw force with a simple plan conforming to the military orthodoxy of the time. He aimed to chase Dundee and ‘hinder the growth of the disaffected’. It was to his great misfortune that he was now engaged on a campaign which would owe little to military orthodoxy but much to those with the vision to see, the swiftness to decide and the courage to act. Mackay would turn out to be from the same mould of many British generals down the ages: overconfident in the martial abilities of the men under his command, contemptuous of the irregular troops he would face and hidebound by a mental field manual which eschewed innovation and imagination.
It has been said in his defense that he was ill served from the outset by those he placed reliance upon. The Laird of Grant, who was to block Dundee’s access to Moray failed to do as directed. The Earl of Mar, charged with guarding the highlands of Aberdeenshire, passed away inconveniently. And the Marquis of Atholl, whose castle at Blair was key to the passage between the northern and southern highlands, chose to sit on the fence. The truth of the matter is that any competent judge of men or assessor of their mood in times of extensive political upheaval would have taken a firmer grip of the situation from the outset. Sadly for King William’s interests, Hugh MacKay was not of that calibre. And so he commenced a three month chase around the highlands and lowlands of eastern Scotland in a fruitless pursuit of King James’ Lieutenant-General which would only end at the precise moment when Dundee chose to meet MacKay’s redcoats in the field, and then defeated them utterly. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…….
Two days before arriving at Inverness, Dundee had brought his force south to the Cairn o’ Mount in the hope of drawing a portion of MacKay’s men, under Lieutenant Colonel William Livingstone, a close comrade of Dundee’s since the Battle of Drumclog, into defection.
That same day, 29 April, MacKay left Dundee heading to Brechin and chose to leave Livingstone’s force behind that they might maintain the surrounding countryside suitably ‘in awe’. The next day, 30 April, MacKay left Brechin leaving behind 120 of Colchester’s horse who were apparently now unfit to participate after the rigours of the previous day’s ride. And as they swung into Fettercairn, Dundee watching carefully from the high ground of the Cairn o’ Mount eight miles away, turned around and headed north again. And so when MacKay pounced it was to find the ground before him empty. As would prove so often to be the case throughout this three month cat and mouse chase prior to Killiecrankie, MacKay was only able to see the road in front and behind him, while Dundee saw the hills on either side and the hills beyond them also.
Foiled in his attempt to lure Livingstone’s force into defection Dundee then headed north and west and overnighted at Castle Huntly. Leaving early on 01 May he headed straight to Inverness, passing first the battlefield of Auldearn where he would no doubt have spent a moment in silent salute to the victory of his kinsman the Marquess of Montrose over forty years previously. Then past the field of Culloden where the final hopes of the Jacobite cause were to be extinguished fifty odd years later.
Once more his tireless letter writing had produced fruit. Word had come from Cameron of Locheil in the west, outlining his enthusiasm for King James’ cause and inviting Dundee and his men to Lochaber. He had despatched MaDonald of Keppoch to meet Dundee at Inverness and escort him south west to Lochaber.
Keppoch had arrived at Inverness three days previously, his MacDonalds heavily encumbered with plunder they had gathered as they had made their way through the lands of Clan MacKintosh. For these three days he had threatened and blustered the magistrates of the town who were now in his camp seeking to agree a peaceful conclusion, when Bonnie Dundee rode in amongst them.
Keppoch’s band was of signal ferocity and their appetite for plunder and destruction was well whetted. They outnumbered Dundee’s force by some four to one and Coll na Ceapaich, Chieftain of the MacDonald’s of Keppoch was a man unaccustomed to taking orders from another, particularly from a lowlander he had never met.
This was a difficult situation for Dundee. Keppoch’s force allied with his own would bring his numbers up to the level where it would be feasible to take on General MacKay. However, this degree of naked banditry would have a detrimental effect on his efforts to knit together an effective alliance against King William. So Dundee chose to face him down. And in front of Keppoch’s men and the burgesses of Inverness, in a manner which compelled compliance, Dundee rebuked him in the strongest terms, as Keppoch stood before him, humble and bewildered.
After offering a blustering apology Keppoch gathered together his men and his plunder and headed off in high dudgeon. So while Dundee had maintained some degree of law and order, enforcing the King’s discipline, it was at the cost of a valuable supplement of fighting men.
And as Keppoch and his men disappeared over the hills to the west, General Hugh MacKay and his redcoats rode into Elgin, some forty miles and two days march to the east.