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.