Tag Archives: Cameron of Lochiel

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


18 May 1689 The Clans Rally to the Standard

Dundee had set the date of 18 May for the clans loyal to King James to gather at his standard.
After the bold night raid on Perth on 10 May Dundee and his small band which still numbered less than 200 men, continued through Angus, levying King William’s cess for the use of King James as they went.

Late in the afternoon of 13th May they were once again outside the town of Dundee where the Standard had been raised precisely one month before. Claverhouse, dressed in armoured breast-plate with a black-furred helmet looked down upon the town. Holed up with the Williamite garrison behind the walls was Lieutenant-Colonel William Livingstone, old comrade-in-arms of Dundee’s. With his force of mounted troopers he would have made a valuable reinforcement to the small Jacobite army. However, the gates remained barred and Livingstone, deeming the situation unpropitious, remained inside the walls.

Dundee withdrew as night fell and headed for Glen Ogilvie where he spent his last night with Jean and his new born son before, in the morning, taking his leave of them for ever.

Bonnie Dundee takes his final farwell of his wife and son

Bonnie Dundee takes his final farwell of his wife and son

This was now 14th May with the gathering of the clan chiefs scheduled for 18th. He needed to be in Glen Roy before his invited guests. Time was short and there were but two common routes available to him either of which carried the risk of encounter with government troops which, at best, promised delay. So true to the Graham spirit he led his men directly across Scotland on a two day forced march.

They headed across the dark and desolate country round Loch Rannoch, around Ben Alder and up by Loch Treig through countryside still firmly in the grip of winter, before traversing the spur of Ben Nevis where below them they could see the Roy enter the Spean and springtime was evident all around them.

And here in Glen Roy, through which Montrose had led his men on their epic march on the way to The Battle of Inverlochy some forty years before, this Graham was warmly welcomed by Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel. This was the archetypal Highland Clan Chief of legend down to the last detail. The man who, legend had it, had killed the last wolf in Scotland and had bitten out the throat of an English soldier during a battle with General Monck’s garrison at Inverlochy, stood scrutinising the younger warrior.

Dundee for his part, having experienced first hand the rapacious prickleshness of MacDonald of Keppoch outside Inverness, would doubtless have been anticipating this meeting over the previous days with some concerns.

However, any fears he may have had proved groundless. It would seem that both men liked and trusted each other at first sight. They were two similar men of courage and integrity and if Lochiel’s motivation to become involved with this cause was more about the fear that an Orange succession would bring about once more the dominion of the House of Argyll over the other clans rather than from a deep love of the Stuarts, his commitment was nonetheless complete.

With his first act, Lochiel handed Dundee, unopened, the letter he had received some days before from General MacKay. This it transpired contained many promises, were Lochiel to bring his men out on the government side; a large sum of money, the governorship of Inverlochy Castle and the command of a regiment included.

Two days later on 18th May they made the short journey up Glen Roy to Mucomir to await the rallying clans. The first to arrive was Alastair Dubh MacDonell of Glengarry with his 300 men, followed thereafter by MacDonald of Morar with 200 Clanranald MacDonalds. And they continued to arrive; the MacIan with over 100 Glencoe MacDonalds, 200 Stewarts of Appin and then Keppoch, all smiles and warmth as though their disagreement at Inverness had never happened, rolled up with over 200 Keppoch MacDonalds.


The Fiery Cross: the method long used to rally clansmen to arms

The Fiery Cross: the method long used to rally clansmen to arms

The fiery cross was duly sent out to the more remote clans and in due course attracted also the MacDonalds of Sleat, MacLeans from Mull, Coll and Morvern, the MacLeods from Raasay, MacNeills from Barra and MacGregors.

Finally King James had an army in the field. It numbered less than 2000 men with barely one tenth of that number mounted but at its head a capable and inspirational leader with a clear purpose in his mind. And now he began to shape this force to achieve that purpose and he began to drill them that they might be best prepared for the fight that lay ahead.

27th July 1689: The Battle of Killiecrankie

The highland nights in July last but a few short hours. As had been the case so often during the few months since he had led his troops away from the wreckage of the Edinburgh Convention, the King’s Lieutenant-Colonel took no sleep. The decisive hour of the campaign now approached and the fortunes of the Stuart cause would be hazarded decisively in battle.

Dundee knew that MacKay’s army was less than 20 miles away at Dunkeld and would march north at dawn. He knew also that Murray would have conveyed to MacKay the news that the full Jacobite army was now at Blair. MacKay had not risen to his position by behaving in a capricious and unpredictable manner. Dundee could be confident that his counterpart would seek to engage the Jacobite army in a full field engagement and to destroy them. The task before him was to bring his smaller, less disciplined force into action at close quarters, and use whatever advantages could be gained from the rough terrain to, in turn, eliminate MacKay’s command and take full control of Scotland in King James’ name.

Dundee conducted a full council of war in the banqueting hall of the castle early that morning. While he was clear in his own mind as to what was required, he still had to convince his men. His lowland officers, aware of the proximity and superior numbers of MacKay’s force advised caution. To take on an experienced enemy with lesser numbers, was to risk the complete destruction of their army and with it the King’s cause. The chieftains, for the most part, sought to attack MacKay immediately. Dundee turned to Sir Ewan Cameron of Lochiel, who had sat silently through the contentious discussions. Effectively giving the casting vote to this high status chieftain. There was little surprise when he indicated they should seek battle that day.

The Jacobite army headed for the Pass of Killecrankie but by a circuitous route which saw them maintain the higher ground as they approached the pass: optimum use of the terrain was essential to ensure Dundee’s men extracted all possible advantages that could be mustered over the enemy.

Meanwhile MacKay had led his men out of Dunkeld at first light. The men that Murray had posted to guard the pass had long since disappeared so MacKay sent 200 troops through it to ensure that his main force would not suffer a surprise attack in the narrow defile. By late afternoon the redcoat force was clear of the pass, the point of their greatest vulnerability. However, they were still in a difficult position. They stood on low ground facing North West, looking up at the rising slopes of Creag Eallaich. At their back thundered the River Garry, in heavy spate after days of rain. At this point the first elements of Dundee’s army came into sight on the hill above them, marching from left to right.

There was no possibility of MacKay launching an attack up the steep slope, but the ground they held was eminently defensible. To avoid being outflanked he thinned his battalions to a depth of three men only and stretched them to their maximum extent, leaving a space in the middle where he placed his horse.

Thinning out his line to this length created two problems for MacKay. Its ability to handle a full-blooded highland charge down the slope was one but now the difficulty in exercising command and control along its length now became apparent to him. He rode back and forth along his line issuing orders, adjusting dispositions, seeking to maintain control of a situation which was rapidly getting away from him.

Above him Dundee’s army stood silently drawn up in full battle order, calmly awaiting his order to attack. In classical fashion the hard work had been done. The Jacobite force had surprised their enemy and were now fully deployed with all the advantages that the difficult terrain could endow. At about eight o’clock, as the sun began to slip behind Beinn Dearg in the distance, Dundee gave the order.

The clans came crashing down the slope. Each contingent had been given a redcoat battalion to aim for and in the fashion of many generations of fighting men, developed to a fine level two generations previously by Montrose and MacColla, they swept into the redcoat force.

Amid the inevitable confusion whole battalions of redcoats melted before the storm. Others remained intact as the angle of the slope diluted the effect of the charge at some points.

General MacKay’s prospects of victory disappeared within those first few moments of contact. Thereafter it was only a question of damage limitation. He performed credibly as the battle progressed. He pulled together those relatively intact units moving them across the battlefield, and having considered making a stand, soon determined that withdrawal was more in keeping with his master’s interest and within two hours of the commencement of hostilities he led away what remained of his initial force, some 400 form his original 4000. Other redcoat general’s during other crushing defeats in future Jacobite Risings would perform less commendably.

Meanwhile, higher up the slope of the battlefield, John Graham, First Viscount Claverhouse and the King’s Lieutenant-Colonel lay mortally wounded. As he had raised an arm giving directions at an early stage in the battle, a musket ball had struck him in the chest under his arm.

Before the last sounds of combat had faded from the field he was dead. The army he had fashioned through the sheer force of his implacable determination and led to spectacular victory against opposition better trained and equipped now stood triumphant. But the man who had made it all possible was gone. And with him went the prospects of a Stuart restoration.

22nd July 1689: Both Armies Move Out

General MaKay, ensconced in Edinburgh, has considered his options.  Blair Atholl is a big concern to him. While Lord John Murray is staunchly Williamite his followers are by no means as reliable. By McKay’s calculations there are 1500 fencible men up for grabs by either side in that area. BlairCastle is key to free passage between the northern and southern highlands and this is now held for Dundee, albeit with Murray besieging it. So, abandoning his original plan of joining the Earl of Argyll in the west, McKay strikes north for Stirling with BlairCastle his immediate objective. He has 4000 redcoat soldiery at his back.

Dundee has now been joined in Lochaber by Lochiel, Glengarry and the Sleat MacDonalds. The final rendezvous for all those who have not yet joined the standard is set for Blair Atholl on 29th July. Dundee’s intention is to make his way there not by the most direct route but by that which will allow him to recruit as many fighting men as he can. In the meantime he knows Patrick Stewart will need some support in holding BlairCastle so he orders Sir Alexander MacLean to break off his siege of McKay’s ally, the Master of Forbes at CraigievarCastle, and make haste to Blair with his 400 men to assist in holding that fortress.

Then, on 22nd July, Dundee’s army breaks camp and moves out of Lochaber heading to Badenoch and Castle Cluny.

Killiecrankie, the climactic battle of the campaign is 5 days away.

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