27th July 1689 The Battle of Killiecrankie

As the hands of the clock moved round to midnight on Tuesday 26th July 1689, John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee and Lieutenant-General of King James’ army in Scotland, took a slow sip of wine.

Sat with him around the big, oak dining room table in the Great Hall of Blair Castle were some dozen of the principal Chiefs of the Highland Clans and a handful of his own officers.

They sat in silence as they awaited the return of the scouts, riders that Claverhouse had sent south just a few hours ago, directed to confirm the whereabouts and intentions of the Government redcoat army, commanded by General Hugh MacKay.

And as they waited they ate and drank enthusiastically from the larder of the Master of Blair Castle, John Murray, 2nd Earl of Atholl who was absent having allied himself with the forces of the aforementioned General MacKay.

While Claverhouse and his commanders dined and waited so did the soldiers of their small army, camped outside Blair Castle’s walls. Every man fully aware that the battle which would determine the outcome of this 10 week campaign would be fought within the next few hours.

Blair Castle, where Claverhouse's army camoped the night before Killiecrankie

Blair Castle, where Claverhouse’s army camped the night before Killiecrankie

The circumstances which had brought them here on this warm Scottish evening had been unwinding for many years previously but could be traced back five and a half years to February 1685 when the old King, Charles II, restored to the throne in 1660 amid such wild celebrations and public optimism, after the long dark years of Cromwellian rule, had suffered a sudden seizure and died.

Charles II, whose death in 1685 initiated James' rule and subsequent usurpation

Charles II, whose death in 1685 initiated James’ rule and subsequent usurpation

The crown had passed to his younger brother, James, Duke of York, who had chronically mismanaged the situation from day one. A committed Catholic, in darkly Protestant times, his mishandling of his own affairs as well as those of the crown had created widespread dissatisfaction with his rule and had led to the prominent members of the English and Scottish political leadership to extend an invitation to James’ own son-in-law, the deeply ambitious and suitably Protestant William Prince of Orange, to come and seize the throne for himself.

James VII/II, whose mismanagement of the business of kingship created the problem in the first place

James VII/II, whose mismanagement of the business of kingship created the problem in the first place

Needing little encouragement William and his invasion force had landed at Torbay in December 1688 and headed for London as King James’ support melted away by the minute. James, despite the entreaties of those loyal to him, Claverhouse in particular, had vacillated whilst his natural despondency grew until in the week before Christmas he had fled his capital city for France, flinging the Great Seal into the Thames as he went. Within days William and his wife had been declared joint rulers of England.

William, Prince of Orange, whose unprincipled pursuit of ambition was rewarded with the Crown of the Three Kingdoms

William, Prince of Orange, whose unprincipled pursuit of ambition was rewarded with the Crown of the Three Kingdoms

The Convention of the Scottish Estates had been summoned in Edinburgh in March to determine whether the Scottish people would take a similar decision or choose James instead to continue to rule his Scottish subjects. Support for James was weak from the outset but, bolstered by the efforts of Claverhouse and other loyal men, the decision was still far from certain when letters from both monarchs were received and duly read to the assembled body.

The letter which James should have sent, carefully crafted by Claverhouse and other allies of the King, which was a model of tempered leadership, had been discarded at some point. And the one which was read out, penned by the sort of foolish men who the King had chosen to surround himself with, both during his rule and now in exile, was anything but and the mood of the gathering swung sharply in favour of the usurper.

Within hours Claverhouse stood alone in committing himself to firm action to restore his king to the ancient throne of his fathers and left the Convention for Dundee. With the collapse of support for James the Convention duly reached their decision and William and Mary were pronounced joint rulers of the three kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland.

Three weeks later on 13 May 1689, with his commission as James Lieutenant-General in Scotland issued, Claverhouse raised the Royal Standard on Dundee Law and the first Jacobite Rising was under way.

At this point his ‘army’ comprised only the 200 officers and men of the horse troop that he had commanded for the last few years as he had sought to maintain the rule of law in those parts of Scotland where men and women, deeply committed to the establishment of undiluted Presbyterian Rule, as set out in the Solemn League and Covenant first penned in 1643, went about furthering their aims through violent insurrection.

However, as the weeks passed Claverhouse and his men moved through the Highlands drawing to their cause many influential leaders of men, particularly those of the highland chiefs who could be persuaded that the best option for them and for the people of Scotland was the overthrow of William and the return of a Stuart to the throne.

Faced with this development the Convention appointed General MacKay in command of their forces and charged him with bringing Claverhouse’s rebel force to battle and destroying it. Since then both armies had played cat and mouse with each other throughout the highlands and about the north-east of Scotland as they sought circumstances which would favour victory. Hitherto these circumstances had proven elusive but now, in the dog days of July, matters had drawn to a head.


Now in the early hours of the short Scottish night, the scouts returned. MacKay’s army comprising almost four thousand men was, it seemed, camped at Dunkeld, some twenty plus miles south of Blair Castle, with the intention of moving north at first light to seek out King James’ army and bringing it finally to battle.

Claverhouse, his officers and the chiefs sat around the big oak table in silence as the full implications of this news sank in. Whilst all were warriors and eager for a decisive victory they were each aware of the likely consequences of defeat: the end of the Stuart cause with William secure on his throne for years to come, the ruin of their clans’ fortunes with a vengeful government unlikely to be reluctant to pursue Jacobite loyalists to their utter ruin and either execution or transportation for any fortunate to survive defeat.

General Hugh MacKay of Scourie, commander of the Williamite army destroyed at Killiecrankie

General Hugh MacKay of Scourie, commander of the Williamite army destroyed at Killiecrankie

Then the Viscount broke the silence and with a calm and decisive voice swept away the doubt and indecision. Announcing his intention to head south and engage MacKay as soon as dawn broke, he issued a stream of orders concerning the marching order of the army and the route to be taken.

In the meantime twenty miles to the south at Dunkeld, General Hugh MacKay, similarly appraised of the whereabouts of his enemy had already issued his instructions for the morning’s northern march and his force lay abed.

As dawn broke both armies formed up into marching order and headed towards each other. Mackay himself was a highlander but had left Scotland long before to pursue a military career. He had one concern only this morning and that was the fear that Claverhouse’s army, faced with superior odds, would again decline to engage him and melt away like highland mist and the seemingly endless pursuit would have to continue. In his mind the only challenge was to bring Claverhouse to battle at which point the superior quality of his men, their equipment and his leadership would bring about the inevitable victory.

However, there was the difficulty of the Pass of Killiecrankie to be first hazarded. The road north from Dunkeld follows the River Tummel for some miles until it meets the confluence with the River Garry at which point the way closes in to a dark and narrow defile which is the Pass. Even a General such as MacKay with his unshakeable belief in the superiority of his troops was cautious about this passage. Consequently, he had directed some of his troops to hold the Pass the previous day and as he now drew near to the entrance in the early afternoon sunlight it was not without concern that his troops entered the dark and forbidding way.

The narrow defile of the Pass of Killiecrankie.

The narrow defile of the Pass of Killiecrankie.

When his command subsequently emerged at the other end and a galloping trooper brought the news to him at the head of the column that the last of his soldiery were safely through, it would have seemed to him that the last remaining possibility of failure had passed.

Claverhouse, in the meantime, also a seasoned veteran of formal, continental warfare as well as the more haphazard style of fighting which prevailed in Scotland at the time, had cause for doubt which matched MacKay’s confidence in magnitude. He was now committed to leading his irregular force in to battle against greater numbers of regular infantry. To engage toe-to-toe in a stand up fight would be to invite disaster. So he had to find and fully utilize any opportunity for advantage that might be gleaned.

The first such was terrain. Aware that MacKay would need to traverse the Pass following the road at the bottom of the gorge, the Viscount held firmly to the high ground as his army made passage south. The single tactical ploy for a highland army is to charge and while this had proven effective on flat ground its advantage would be considerably multiplied if it could be deployed downhill.

The HIghland Charge, a challenge to defend against on level ground. Considerably harder downhill of it.

The Highland Charge, a challenge to defend against on level ground. Considerably harder downhill of it.

So the two armies felt their way towards each other as the day wore on. Not long after MacKay’s men had cleared the Pass a shout went up from the front of their column and all eyes followed the direction of pointing hand up the hill on their right hand side where a handful of kilted figures had emerged from the trees. These were followed by several more and it became clear that this was indeed the vanguard of Claverhouse’s army.

MacKay immediately realised the weakness of his tactical position, his army with their backs to the thundering River Garry and at the bottom of a steep slope. Ordering his men through a quarter turn he issued orders for them to head a little up the slope where a slight ridge promised a better tactical position.

Meantime the Highland army had cleared the woods and under the direction of Claverhouse and the chiefs, formed easily from column of march into battle order. As MacKay completed his initial dispositions further down the hill it was clear that the Highlanders still retained a significant advantage at the top of the steep slope. Furthermore it was equally clear that the width of the Claverhouse’s frontage exceeded his own and thus threatened to outflank him.

MacKay, somewhat discomfited by this realisation, issued orders to thin his ranks from three to two in order to extend his frontage to match Claverhouse’s. Whose initial tactical advantage at the top of the slope now greatly increased in magnitude without any effort on his own part.

Many an eyebrow will have been raised further up the hill as they watched the execution of this manoeuvre. For an experienced general, steeped in the ways of warfare, MacKay’s fortunes were dwindling rapidly before a ball had been kicked.

Finally, with both armies optimally disposed in the view of their respective commanders, all now settled down for the inevitable, interminable wait which was the custom of the time.

Claverhouse sat on his horse a little behind the front centre of the army. Dressed for once in a buff coat at the insistence of the senior chiefs who knew to the extent which the fortunes of this escapade rode on the shoulders of this one man. After all the drama and intrigue and endless marching of the past few months it all now came down to this one engagement.

Finally, with the sun dipping behind the hills to the west and shining into the eyes of the redcoat soldiers Claverhouse gave the order to charge. It has been said that “Even a haggis, God bless her, can charge down a hill”. And the view has been expressed that a Highland army ceases to resemble a comic opera the moment it starts to move.

What a sight and sound that must have been as over two thousand of the finest fighting men in the kingdom hurtled down the hill roaring their determination. Whatever the cumulative experience of MacKay’s command little of their previous combat exploits would have prepared them for this.

Within moments the highland charge struck the redcoat line which, thinned to two troopers only, almost immediately came apart. With the angle of the slope pulling the impetus of this wave of ferocious humanity slightly to the one side, some redcoat regiments remained intact while others were completely swept away. MacKay, to his credit, retained his composure and was able to pull his surviving forces into some semblance of order as he led the retreat back in the direction whence they had marched so confidently but a few short hours before.

The pursuit of the shattered wreckage of his command continued in all directions for several miles with fully two thirds of those engaged failing to survive the day.

At the height of the battle the slaughter was tremendous.

At the height of the battle the slaughter was tremendous.

The disasterous news for the Jacobite army, however, was further up the slope, where King James’ Lieutenant-General lay mortally wounded. With the battle at its height and Claverhouse seeking to pull the imbalanced charge back onto better order, an enemy musket ball had penetrated under his raised sword arm, beyond the protection of his breast-plate. Within a few minutes John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee and the man who had pulled the whole rising together in the first place by sheer determination and force of personality was dead.

Claverhouse passes away and the hopes of the Jacobite cause die with him.

Claverhouse passes away and the hopes of the Jacobite cause die with him.

With him also passed the fortunes of the Jacobite cause. Although there were to be four further attempts to restore the Stuarts to the throne over the next fifty six years none had any real prospect of success. As Claverhouse will have realised from the very beginning their best chance was for James to have stood his ground in the face of William’s initial advance.

And so passed one of Scotland’s finest leaders of men. And as the history of any struggle is penned by the victors and not the vanquished, his memory has been sorely traduced in the intervening centuries with the focus falling on the false history of the ‘Killing Times’.


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6 thoughts on “27th July 1689 The Battle of Killiecrankie

  1. Alan Webster July 27, 2015 at 5:15 pm Reply

    I attended the excellent Soldiers of Killiecrankie festival on Saturday and part of it was a guided tour of the battlefield where you can stand on the spot the battle took place. The sight is not easy to access as there is a house nearby
    It was easy to imagine what took place and would recommend anyone with an interest on the subject to try to go next year.
    Scottish history is full of if only moments but Scotland may be a very different place if Bonnie Dundee had not been taken that day.
    I look forward to next instalment


    • bonniedundee1689 July 27, 2015 at 5:21 pm Reply

      There are few places like it. Thanks for your positive comments, Alan.


  2. […] the previous post we looked once more at the Battle of Killiecrankie where King James II’s army in Scotland had […]


  3. […] Hanoverians. Exactly the same approach used by Dundee when he left Blair Castle on the morning of Killiecrankie in July 1689 seeking General MacKay’s redcoats during the first Jacobite […]


  4. […] And then they were gone. That lone troop of horse, heading north up that road which in four months time would end at the Battle of Killiecrankie. […]


  5. […] have had considerably greater resources to hand when the decisive Scottish encounter was fought at Killiecrankie ten months later. But this is to surrender to the vicissitudes of […]


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