21 August 1689, the Battle of Dunkeld: the end of the Covenant Cause

In the previous post we looked once more at the Battle of Killiecrankie where King James II’s army in Scotland had triumphed over that of William, the Usurper. But in the course of the engagement, Viscount Dundee, James’ Lieutenant-General and architect of the victory, had suffered a mortal wound and with his death the chances of ultimate success in the Campaign were dealt a grievous blow.

Within days of the battle, the Jacobite army, now under the command of Colonel Alexander cannon, who had brought the Irish reinforcements across the previous month, pulled back north into safer territory.

The Privy Council, close to panic and with little military resources to hand following the virtual complete destruction of MacKay’s command, ordered the newly formed Earl of Angus’ Regiment to advance from Perth and engage the Jacobite Army.

Said Regiment, some twelve hundred strong, was largely formed from the Cameronians, followers of Richard Cameron, known to posterity as the Lion of the Covenant, who had met his death leading an unsuccessful rebellion against Scottish Government forces at the Battle of Airds Moss in 1680.

As would be expected from such men they were fiercely loyal to the Covenant and each company was required to have an elder in addition to a Cameronian chaplain to ensure adherence to their idiosyncratic religious views.

Dundee’s strength had been in forging the Jacobite Army in the first place, bringing together strongly minded but prickly clan chiefs and maintaining them in the field for the months of the campaign prior to Killiecrankie. Cannon was not so gifted. Few men are. And although he was able to hold the force together some chiefs took themselves off home, Cameron of Lochiel and MacDonald of Sleat specifically. However, they left their men under Cannon’s command, which still numbered over 3000 men, notwithstanding the losses suffered in the battle.

When news reached the Jacobites that the Cameronians had advanced to Dunkeld with the intention of moving on to take and hold Blair Castle, Cannon moved his men southwards again, to engage and destroy Angus’ regiment.

The military situation now was very different from that of three weeks previously. In the days prior to Killiecrankie, General MacKay’s overriding concern had been in bringing Dundee to battle. The overwhelming superiority of his men’s fighting qualities, their training and equipment and the leadership abilities of his officers was, he believed, significant in all aspects to that of his enemy. This view, naturally, would be shared by said enemy and so he believed that they would only with the greatest reluctance engage his force in combat. Thus when he led his men out of Dunkeld on the fateful morning of the battle, and through the defile of the Pass of Killiecrankie, he had little concern as to the possibility that the Jacobite Army might seek and secure favourable ground on which to engage MacKay’s troops.

This hubris was to prove his undoing and it was largely due to the fact that Dundee had been able to unleash the full ferocity of the highland charge down a steep slope that led to MacKay’s complete defeat.

The commander of Angus’ Regiment, Colonel William Cleland, a veteran of Bothwell Bridge, who had considerably less military experience than General MacKay but a more realistic appreciation of the martial abilities of the two sides, sought on this occasion to take up an initial position which was, in defensive terms, considerably stronger.

An aeriel view of Dunkeld today. Largely unchamged since the battle was fought there.

An aeriel view of Dunkeld today. Largely unchamged since the battle was fought there.

Dunkeld then, as now, is a small and compact settlement with the few streets set out closely around the cathedral and the mansions of the Bishop and Marquis of Atholl. Cleland’s men had fortified themselves in a strong position in the houses in the centre of the town backed onto the Cathedral precincts and awaited the attack of the Jacobite Army which outnumbered them in the order of three to one.

And at about seven o’clock on the morning of 21 August the Cannon launched the Jacobite Army in a full-scale assault on all sides of Cleland’s position. As the bitter hand to hand struggle progressed throughout the morning, Cleland’s men were gradually forced back towards the Cathedral with Cleland himself killed at an early stage in the fight.

 

By noon, however, a stalemate had been reached, with the Jacobite Army unable to make any further progress against their enemy and they disengaged from the action, retreating back to the north. King

William Cleland commanding the Earl of Angus' regiment during the battle.

William Cleland commanding the Williamite forces during the battle.

William’s men had suffered great losses but they had won the day and the momentum which the Jacobites had gathered from their victory at Killiecrankie was now all but completely dissipated.

Cleland's monument

Cleland’s monument

History would prove that the high water mark in the fortunes of the Jacobite cause had been reached and despite further risings in 1708, 1715, 1719 and 1745, the Stuarts would come no closer to re-securing the throne.

But what of the Covenant that other complex, mystical and symbolic cause for which so many men and women had fought since the original document was first penned in 1638, some fifty years previously?

Dunkeld was the last battle that could be said, in any small measure, to have been fought in its name, albeit for the cause of an uncovenanted king. Fifty years of struggle had gained it nothing and “it faded away, impotent and gloomy, like one of Ossian’s ghosts. From that day on it had no authority in Scotland, and no living relation to the church.

Even more so it is clear that the cause of the Covenant and the input of Covenanters and strict Presbyterians of all shades had played no part in those events which had brought about the change of monarchy and all that followed on, for better or worse, mostly the latter, from what became known as the Glorious Revolution.

And going forward it would be more moderate and temperate views that prevailed in defining the role of the Kirk in Scottish life

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