27 July 1689 – The Battle of Killiecrankie

Late afternoon, a sunny day on a Perthshire hillside. The River Garry thunders through the rocky defile at the bottom of the slope. A double line of redcoat soldiers stand to arms with their backs to the river looking up at the ranks of kilted warriors massed in their clan regiments further up the hillside.

General Hugh MacKay, commanding King William’s army in Scotland, looks along the line of his anxious soldiery and considers the merits of his position. He’d had one purpose in mind this morning, as he had put his socks on in his camp at Dunkeld and that was to bring Dundee’s army to battle so that he might destroy it. For three months he had pursued them across Scotland but the Viscount’s host had persistently eluded him.

General MacKay

General MacKay

Now, not only had he successfully brought his command through the narrow and treacherous Pass of Killiecrankie with its risk of ambush but he now stood toe to toe with his antagonist, King James’ Lieutenant-General, John Graham of Claverhouse, the recently ennobled Viscount Dundee. And he could now sweep away this one remaining obstacle to the rule of the House of Orange throughout the three kingdoms.

The narrow pass through which MacKay led his troops before the battle

The narrow pass through which MacKay led his troops before the battle

Perhaps, he might have preferred it were his own force not stood downhill from the enemy. The vaunted highland charge was a battle tactic of some repute. This Graham’s kinsman, the Marquess of Montrose, had used it successfully on no fewer than six occasions during his ultimately unsuccessful campaign to restore another Stuart monarch some forty years previously. Then it was a tactic that had been mostly deployed on level ground. Save at the final encounter at Kilsyth when, famously, the charge had been executed uphill after the unfortunate commander of the Covenanting Government’s army, General Baillie, had been instructed to execute a flank march in the face of the enemy. The black-cowled Geneva ministers who had given him his orders believed that not only were they the defining authority on the issue of man’s relationship with God, but also that they were experts in the matter of warfare. The responsibility for the subsequent destruction of Baillie’s army could be laid squarely at their door.

 

General William Baillie, commander of the Covenant army destroyed by Montrose at the Battle of Kilsyth (1645)

General William Baillie, commander of the Covenant army destroyed by Montrose at the Battle of Kilsyth (1645)

Today, however, not only is MacKay looking up the hill at his enemy but to prevent the possibility of being outflanked, he has reduced the depth of his force by a full rank, lest the Jacobite cavalry expose the weakness of his overly narrow frontage. The question of whether or not his thinned-out line would be strong enough to withstand the inevitable enemy charge does not seemed to have occurred to the erstwhile redcoat commander. Who, despite his highland lineage, has spent his entire military career on the continent and is as much a stranger in this, his own country, as any of his men.

His opponent, gazing down the hill at him from his horse,is of different stock entirely. As experienced in untidy, irregular scuffling across lowland bogs as he is in the ways of formal, well-mannered, continental warfare he had seen at such encounters as the Battle of Seneffe and the Siege of Maastricht.

Claverhouse saves William of Orange at the Battle of Seneffe

Claverhouse saves William of Orange at the Battle of Seneffe

Both forces had stood, assembled in battle array, for over an hour. The leading element of the Jacobite Army having emerged from the trees at the top of the slope not long after MacKay had received the comforting news the last of his marching column had cleared the narrows of the pass. The opposing commanders had then organised their dispositions in preparation for the long-awaited battle which had loomed inevitably ever since Dundee had raised King James’ Standard on Dundee Law in April, to initiate this first Jacobite Rising.

All his efforts since then had been focused in achieving decisive victory in this definitive battle. Perhaps, indeed, this was the culmination of his destiny. For forty years he had served his King and Parliament. Much of the last ten of these in the front line maintaining law and order in the face of the best efforts of hard-line Presbyterians to subvert said rule that it might be replaced with that of the Covenant.

And, latterly, as the failures of King James VII & II to effectively rule his kingdom multiplied to the extent that the hapless monarch felt compelled to simply abandon his responsibilities, in the same self-centred and short-sighted manner as his senior subjects had themselves abandoned him, the entire hopes of the Stuart monarchy had now fallen on the shoulders of this one man.

James VII & II flees to France (December 1688), abandoning all behind him

James VII & II flees to France (December 1688), abandoning all behind him

But such a man, of character unbesmirched. A natural, charismatic leader of men, as much on the field of battle as in the Parliamentary debating chamber. One who understood fully the principles by which good men should be guided.

 

And now he sat, ahorse, ready for the defining battle of a generation and, it would transpire, beyond. Surrounded by the chiefs of the highland clans and his own loyal officers who had served with him throughout the last troubled decade. And the issues at stake were understood by every man on that sunny hillside. If MacKay and his redcoats prevailed then the fortunes of William of Orange into whose lap the crown had so fortuitously tumbled, would be secure. Less than a year after leading ashore a hostile invasion force while the incumbent monarch sat yet on his throne, he would be undisputed political and military master of the Three Kingdoms. However, if the recently deposed King James’ Lieutenant-General were to be master of the field at the end of the day then it might all be changed once more with the House of Stuart restored to the throne upon which their ancestors had sat for over three hundred years.

Now, as the sun began toi dip behind the hill upon which he had assembled his King’s army, Dundee gave the order to charge. And what a sight this must have been for General MacKay’s men, this wave of terrible human ferocity tearing down towards them.Where the armies were closest, on the Jacobite left, the Camerons and MacDonalds were in amongst MacKay’s men before they were even able to fire their weapons. The regiments on either side broke and fled and the slaughter commenced.

The highland charge which swept General MacKay's line away

The highland charge which swept General MacKay’s line away

MacKay, by no means lacking in personal courage whatever his shortcomings as a military commander, did what he could to reform his line but the irreversible nature of the rout would have been obvious within minutes.

Dundee himself, rode down with his cavalry in the wake of the charging highlanders. And as he rose and turned in his saddle to maintain the direction of the mounted thrust, a musket ball struck below the arm and outwith the protection of his breast-plate, and he fell to the ground. As the clansmen set about completing the rout of MacKay’s command, Dundee’s officers tended to their stricken leader, but to no avail. The wound was grievous and within minutes the commander of King James’ forces in Scotland and the best and last hope for the restoration of the House of Stuart lay dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “27 July 1689 – The Battle of Killiecrankie

  1. Franziska Feist July 27, 2014 at 2:15 pm Reply

    Thank you so very much for this. And for ally our effort to keep the memory of this outstanding and unique man alive!

    Like

  2. Alan webster July 27, 2014 at 7:23 pm Reply

    I had a walk on the battlefield last week and tried to imagine what that day must have been like. These articles keep the memory of Bonnie Dundee alive

    Like

  3. bonniedundee1689 August 3, 2014 at 7:31 am Reply

    Fortunately, its one of those scottish battlefield sites that has changed very little since, Alan. Always worth a visit.

    Like

  4. […] with a highland army which paved the way for another Graham, John of Claverhouse, to tread the same road some forty years later in his attempt to restore another Stuart monarch to the unified […]

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