On this day in 1689 Dundee withdraws from the Convention of Estates and heads north with his King’s commission.
The Convention which had been called to determine whether James VII and II, the incumbent, or William II and III, the recently arrived usurper, should be declared lawful King of Scotland, opened on 14th March.
King James VII and II, monarch of the Three Kingdoms
As far as James’ supporters were concerned the Convention was illegal but if they refused to participate their cause would be lost. Military action at this point wasn’t an option. Besides there was still a strong possibility that they could achieve a positive result at the Convention. And success through peaceful means would be preferred. Particularly since with William and Mary having been crowned joint monarchs of England the previous month, if James’ Scottish subjects were to choose him as their monarch then subsequent war with England was a clear possibility.
The principal argument in favour of choosing William was that there would be an end to the difficulties which had bedeviled James’ reign arising from his Catholicism and his autocratic leadership style. Some believed that monarchical union with England was creating a strong impediment to the development of Scotland’s foreign trade and international diplomatic relations and so total separation with a return to a separate monarchy was the best way forward. There was another school of thought that full political union with England would see Scotland’s interest best served.
William III of England, soon to be also William II of Scotland
This would be the last convening of the Scottish Parliament before the final session in 1706 which was to see a similar disastrous decision taken. The first task for the Convention was to choose a President for the proceedings. The candidates being the Duke of Hamilton and the Marquess of Atholl. While nominally unaffiliated, Hamilton was backed by William’s supporters and James’ followers lined up full square behind Atholl. Hamilton’s election was the first sign that things were beginning to unravel.
Marquess of Atholl (with the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in the background)
The next business to be dealt with was the security of the city. Hostile mobs roamed the streets and had vented threats and abuse to those members considered to be supporters of James. The bigger issue, however, was determined to be EdinburghCastle. This was still held for King James by the Duke of Gordon. Along with the Bass Rock it remained the only piece of real estate in Scotland about which this could be said. Gordon was a good man but more than ready to hand over his charge so long as proper authority could be given. It took much effort from Dundee, and Colin Lindsay, 3rd Earl of Balcarres, including a secret journey during that first night, to ensure that he remained staunch to his King’s cause. Emissaries were sent backwards and forwards to negotiate the castle’s surrender but by the 3rd day, 16th March, the castle still held out for James.
Edinburgh in the 17th Century, with the castle towering over
Proceedings opened on 16th March with the news that there were two letters before the Convention, one each from William and James. After much discussion it was determined that William’s should be opened and read first, lest James’ contained instructions directing the immediate dissolution of the illegal proceedings.
William’s letter was a model of diplomacy and conciliation, reasonably asking that this gathering of Scotland’s political leadership should select him as monarch. And then James’ epistle was then opened. Balcarres and Dundee had, some weeks previously, drafted a proposed text for just this moment and despatched it to John Drummond, Earl of Melfort who had fled to France with James the previous December. And it was in the full expectation of hearing some reasonable variant of this that Dundee sat listening.
So it was with growing incredulity and horror that he and all loyal men in that chamber listened to the words then read out. Melfort had taken it upon himself to best the judge the mood of the gathering and had written harsh words declaring James’ imperious claim on the nation’s loyalty and promising nothing bar a pardon for all misdirected individuals who returned to their proper duty before the end of the month. Any remaining sympathy to James’ cause among the switherers was immediately crushed.
Earl of Melfort, architect of disaster for his King’s cause
Amidst the resulting uproar, King James’ supporters sat slumped in their seats while the letter was read a second time. They realised that their last hope of achieving a positive result was gone. Plans were then made to convene an alternative Convention with the full authority of King James, in Stirling on 18th March.
On the morning of the 17th March, as the proceedings opened Dundee announced that there he had discovered a plot to assassinate him. It seems there was strong evidence of such a scheme although perhaps he may have exaggerated the danger he was in, in order to achieve the desired result. More uproar ensued as many of those present believed this to be irrelevant to the business of the day.
Dundee then stood up. As the tumult subsided he announced in a cold clear voice that, in his view, the Convention had been called illegally and he had received instructions and commission from King James to adjourn the proceedings to Stirling the following day. And with that announcement he walked unhurriedly from the hall without a backward glance.
A rendezvous had been organized for dawn on the morning of 18th March when Dundee and all those loyal to James, including the Marquesss of Atholl, would proceed to Stirling. However, Atholl and all the rest, including Balcarres, had cravenly reconsidered their position. So when Dundee, in full dress uniform, and his 30 troopers stood patiently in the early morning sunshine, word was brought to him that he was on his own.
One can only imagine the disappointment he felt at the shameful behaviour of his peers. Nonetheless with a firm command he ordered his men to ride. They rode around the north side of the city and approached the imposing castle walls. Dundee dismounted and swiftly climbed the hundred feet up the craggy slopes to the unguarded Postern Gate, where the Duke of Gordon awaited. Dundee briefed him on the latest setback to their cause and directed him to hold the castle in his King’s name. And with that he rejoined his men and rode north whither the spirit of Montrose directed him.
The Postern Gate, where Dundee conferred with the Duke of Gordon before heading north