Let’s break away from the summer campaign of 1689 which will end at Killiecrankie and look at an earlier episode in Dundee’s military career.
In June 1679 the Battle of Drumclog was fought near Loudon Hill in Ayrshire between a government force under his command and a mob of covenanters who were able to surprise him. It might be considered that with the wildness of the times and prevailing circumstances Drumclog was inevitable, but the seeds for this clash were sewn a month before with the nefarious deed carried out on Magus Moor on 3rd May.
On this day a stagecoach bearing Archbishop Sharp and his daughter Isabel, was crossing the moor heading for St Andrews when nine covenanter horsemen fell in behind it in pursuit.
James Sharp was a prominent and controversial figure of the time. As Primate of all Scotland he had been at the forefront of the major events in Scotland for the previous two decades. Captured and imprisoned by Cromwell’s forces in 1650 he had been involved with General Monck in the negotiations for the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Subsequently appointed as Archbishop of St Andrews and to the Privy Council, he then engaged in what was seen by many to be the instigation of the suppression of covenanting principles. And his involvement in the imposition of the death penalty on prisoners captured after the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666, made him, in the eyes of most covenanters, a sworn enemy of their cause.
And now the opportunity had arisen for them to take their vengeance. As the coach increased speed to escape, one of the archbishop’s mounted servants dropped back in an effort to fend off the pursuers and was immediately cut down with a sword blow. Within minutes the coach was brought to a stop and the archbishop ordered out. Eight of the men crowded round the now-kneeling prelate and laid about him with their swords while his daughter, restrained in the coach, looked on in horror.
Several heavy sword blows to the head ended the business. The archbishop’s efforts to block the blows leaving his hands shredded. Abandoning the lifeless body the covenanting gang plundered the baggage removing what documents they found before riding off leaving the archbishop’s daughter to tend her father’s body.
This murder, a savage and shocking event, even by the standards of the time, was to have profound implications, with the Privy Council subsequently using it to justify the imposition of suppressive measures against those who held to the Covenant.
But all this was yet to follow. In the immediate aftermath of the Archbishop’s assassination the first task of the authorities was to identify, capture and bring to justice, those who had been responsible for the deed.
Fleeing the scene of their crime the assassins rode west to Dunblane then south west to safe haven with their own kind. Among these, there were some more vituperous in their beliefs, that saw this event as a heaven sent opportunity to initiate further, escalated action against the repressive hand of the state. One of the more vocal among these was Robert Hamilton who duly organized a public demonstration of covenanting zeal. On 29 May, the King’s Birthday, he led a band into the burgh of Rutherglen where celebratory bonfires had been lit. Dousing these they then ceremoniously burnt copies of recent repressive legislation then fixed their declaration to the market cross.
News of the events at Rutherglen reached John Graham of Claverhouse in Falkirk late in the afternoon of the 29th May. By the 30th he was in Glasgow and early the next morning he left there hot on Hamilton’s trail. Sweeping through the township of Hamilton he apprehended three of the participants in the Rutherglen display including the renegade preacher John King. He was able to establish that there was a large conventicle planned for the following day, Sunday 1st June, in the vicinity of Loudon Hill. Early that morning he rode forth, took breakfast at Strathaven thence on to Loudon Hill some six miles distant.
As Claverhouse and his troop breasted the hill at Drumclog they saw arrayed in full battle order some half a mile distant a sizeable gathering of rebels. These had already been made aware of the approach of the government troops and non-combatants had fallen back to the rear with the remainder prepared for action.
Claverhouse’s force faced considerable adverse odds. Eye witness accounts number his force at 120 men of whom half were mounted. The covenant opposition was in the order of two thousand, albeit inexperienced amateurs, if enthusiastic. This Graham had experience of the battlefields of 17th century Europe, although this encounter was of a different nature entirely, and now he had to bring his experience and judgment to bear. He sent forward a parley to give the rebels the opportunity to surrender and avoid bloodshed. This was peremptorily rejected.
And then the rebel force attacked. They launched themselves through the small bog that lay between the two forces and engaged the government troops. Their armament was mostly pitchforks so only by closing fast could they hope to win the day. The first attack was held at bay but their second was delivered with sufficient vigour to break through the government line. 30 troopers were killed and the rest fled or claimed quarter. Claverhouse’s mount, speared with a pitchfork in the first moments of the battle, galloped madly from the field. By the time he had returned it was too late to do anything but gather the fleeing remnants of his men and lead them to safety.
On reaching Glasgow, Claverhouse penned an unvarnished and objective dispatch to the Earl of Linlithgow. There were neither excuses nor fault-finding as it explained the failure.
It was a comprehensive and disastrous defeat for Claverhouse’s command. This covenant victory ignited the smouldering embers of rebellion in south west Scotland. The victorious covenanters moved to base themselves in Hamilton and their numbers swelled over the ensuing days.