Tag Archives: Hugh MacKay

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.


26th July 1689: Dundee Comes to Blair Castle

Dundee leads the Jacobite army out of Badenoch early in the morning. They march south through Drumochter Pass and by early evening have halted just 3 miles short of Blair Castle. Lord John Murray receives word of this development and, hastily packing up his siege train, abandons his position and heads south to join MacKay. He orders 100 of his men to hold the narrow defile of Killiecrankie but holds little hope that this will be done. His men duly melt away.

By midnight Dundee has relieved the faithful Patrick Stewart and sits with the chieftains in the great hall of the Castle. The clan rendezvous is still three days away. He knows MacKay is probably only a day’s march south and that he will have to engage him with only the troops he has about him.

In the meantime, Cluny Macpherson, after months of ambivalence, determines on a firm course of action. He assembles his MacPhersons and heads south in Dundee’s wake. He will be too late to play any part in the battle but will not avoid being attainted with the rest of the Jacobite Clans.

General MacKay marches his redcoats north from Perth to Dunkeld. His primary concern is still to retake BlairCastle, recruit any forces in Atholl loyal to William and thence head north to find Dundee’s army.

At nightfall the 2 armies are camped less than 20 miles apart. The battle will be fought the next day.

25th July 1689: The Two Armies Close

Dundee and his army have been camped at Castle Cluny in Badenoch for 2 days.  Although Cluny and his Mackintosh clansmen had been out with the army in the earlier part of the campaign two months previously, they had returned to Badenoch and Cluny had since resisted all Dundee’s efforts of persuasion to march once again to the King’s standard.

Such comings and goings were simply the way that the chieftains conducted themselves and while it grated with Dundee whose military career hitherto had been spent in considerably more disciplined surroundings, he adapted himself to the harsh facts of the situation and exercised his significant gifts of charm and personal authority.

While he was often able to demonstrate this in person, much of his communication with recalcitrant chieftains and potential allies had needed to be done by letter. During the four months of the campaign to date he had written dozens of such letters. And now with the decisive battle just 2 days away he bends once more to his pen.

Lord John Murray of Atholl had consistently refused Dundee’s persuasive efforts to support King James’ cause and indeed was now effectively in arms against him, Dundee did not yet give up on him. He writes to him one more time, outlining the success the King was achieving in Ireland, the likely size of the military support which would shortly arrive thence and the benefits which would inevitably ensue for the House of Atholl were Lord John to decide, even at this late hour, to place his support firmly with Dundee.

In truth things did not go well in Ireland for the Jacobite cause and any hopes that fresh troops would be sent to his assistance were in all probability his and his alone. Nonetheless, battle beckoned and Atholl’s support was required.

Dundee despatched the letter to BlairCastle, which Lord John was besieging, in the care of Major William Grahame and Gilbert Ramsay, an Edinburgh advocate, with clear instructions to wait for Murray’s reply. On their arrival Murray simply refuses to see them. As they wait they speak with the Atholl men in the siege lines around their master’s house. The support for King James among the common soldiery is clear to all.

Grahame and Gilbert return to Dundee’s camp this same day. It’s clear now that not only will Murray not rally to him but is in full cooperation with McKay. Dundee realises he must now head for BlairCastle directly or Patrick Stewart will be overwhelmed. The final rally for those not yet with the standard is still 4 days away but MacKay’s move north has pre-empted him. And his army is barely half that of McKay.

General MacKay, meanwhile, has reached Perth. His army comprises 4000 foot and 4 troops of horse. He also writes to Murray, outlining his expectations of him in the successful prosecution of his siege and that he is heading Murray’s way.

Its 2 days to the Battle of Killiecrankie.

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.

12th July 1689: Opposing Forces Gather

The Battle of Killiecrankie, Bonnie Dundee’s hour of victory and death, is 15 days away. Dundee, with a Government bounty of £2000 scots on his head, is camped in Lochaber with an army of highlanders which defies accurate counting as it grows and shrinks by the day. He continues to pen voluminous correspondence to all who might be disposed to aid the King’s cause.

Colonel Alexander Cannon, with 300 Irish reinforcements, lands at Duart on Mull. A detachment whose number and martial calibre falls considerably short of the King’s Lieutenant-General’s hopes and expectations. Attacked en route this force had lost the considerable stock of victuals with which they had embarked 2 days earlier. However, they had managed to convey intact 35 barrels of powder and shot. Most likely Dundee’s preference in an either / or scenario. They have a 4 day march ahead of them before reaching Dundee’s encampment.

General Hugh MacKay, commander of the Government army which will be vanquished in a fortnight’s time, arrives in Edinburgh to make his final preparations before advancing north to meet Dundee.

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