ScotWars - Scottish Military History and Re-enactment
Battle of Killiecrankie, 1689

When we look at the portrait of Claverhouse, and survey the calm, melancholy, and beautiful features of the devoted soldier, it appears almost incredible that he should ever have suffered under such an overwhelming load of misrepresentation. But when-discarding modern historians, who in too many instances do not seem to entertain the slightest scruple in dealing with the memory of the dead-we turn to the writings of his contemporaries who knew the man, his character appears in a very different light. They describe him as one who was stainless in his honour, pure in his faith, wise in his council, resolute in action, and utterly free from that selfishness which disgraced many of the Scottish statesmen of the time. No one dares question his loyalty, for he sealed that confession with his blood ; and it is universally admitted, that with him fell the last hopes of the reinstatement of the house of Stuart....

Imitating the example, and inheriting the enthusiasm of his great predecessor Montrose, he invoked the loyalty of the clans to assist him in the struggle for legitimacy,-and he did not appeal to them in vain. His name was a spell to rouse the ardent spirits of the mountaineers; and not the Great Marquis himself, in the height of his renown, was more sincerely welcomed and more fondly loved than ‘Iain Dubh nan Catha,’-dark John of the Battles,-the name by which Lord Dundee is still remembered in Highland song. In the meantime the Convention, terrified at their danger, and dreading a Highland inroad, had despatched Mackay, a military officer of great experience, with a considerable body of troops, to quell the threatened insurrection. He was encountered by Dundee, and compelled to evacuate the high country and fall back upon the Lowlands, where he subsequently received reinforcements, and again marched northward. The Highland host was assembled at Blair, though not in great force, when the news of Mackay’s advance arrived; and a council of the chiefs and officers was summoned, to determine whether it would be most advisable to fall back upon the glens and wild fastnesses of the Highlands, or to meet the enemy at once, though with a far inferior force.

Most of the old officers, who had been trained in the foreign wars, were of the former opinion- ‘alleging that it was neither prudent nor cautious to risk an engagement against an army of disciplined men, that exceeded theirs in number by more than a half.’ But both Glengarry and Lochiel, to the great satisfaction of the General, maintained the contrary view, and argued that neither hunger nor fatigue was so likely to depress the Highlanders as a retreat when the enemy was in view. The account of the discussion is so interesting, and so characteristic of Dundee, that I shall take leave to quote its termination in the words of Drummond of Balhaldy :-’

‘An advice so hardy and resolute could not miss to please the generous Dundee. His looks seemed to heighten with an air of delight and satisfaction all the while Lochiel was speaking. He told his council that they had heard his sentiments from the mouth of a person who had formed his judgment upon infallible proofs drawn from a long experience, and an intimate acquaintance with the persons and subject he spoke of, Not one in the company offering to contradict their general, it was unanimously agreed to fight.’

‘When the news of this vigorous resolution spread through the army, nothing was heard but acclamations of joy, which exceedingly pleased their gallant general ; but before the council broke up, Lochiel begged to be heard for a few words. “My Lord,” said he, “I have just now declared, in presence of this honourable company, that I was resolved to give an implicit obedience to all your Lord-ship’s commands; but I humbly beg leave, in name of these gentlemen, to give the word of command for this one time. It is the voice of your council, and their orders are that you do not engage personally. Your Lordship’s business is to have an eye on all parts, and to issue out your commands as you shall think proper ; it is ours to execute them with promptitude and courage. On your Lordship depends the fate, not only of this little brave army, but also of our king and country. If your Lordship deny us this reasonable demand, for my own part I declare, that neither I, nor any I am concerned in, shall draw a sword on this important occasion, whatever construction shall be put upon the matter.”

‘Lochiel was seconded in this by the whole council; but Dundee begged leave to be heard in his turn. “Gentlemen,” said he, “as I am absolutely convinced, and have had repeated proofs, of your zeal for the King’s service, and of your affection to me as his general and your friend, so I am fully sensible that my engaging personally this day may be of some loss if I shall chance to be killed. But I beg leave of you, however, to allow me to give one shear darg (that is, one harvest-day’s work) to the King, my master that I may have an opportunity of convincing the brave clans that I can hazard my life in that service as freely as the meanest of them. Ye know their temper, gentlemen; and if they do not think I have personal courage enough, they will not esteem me hereafter, nor obey my commands with cheerfulness. Allow me this single favour, and I here promise, upon my honour, never again to risk my person while I have that of commanding you.”

‘The council, finding him inflexible, broke up, and the army marched directly towards the Pass of Killiecrankie.’ Those who have visited that romantic spot need not be reminded of its peculiar features, for these, once seen, must dwell forever in the memory. The lower part of the Pass is a stupendous mountain-chasm, scooped out by the waters of the Garry, which here descend in a succession of roaring cataracts and pools. The old road, which ran almost parallel to the river and close upon its edge, was extremely narrow, and wound its way beneath a wall of enormous crags, surmounted by a natural forest of birch, oak and pine. An army cooped up in that gloomy ravine would have as little chance of escape from the onset of an enterprising partisan corps, as had the Bavarian troops when attacked by the Tyrolese in the steep defiles of the Inn. General Mackay, however, had made his arrangements with consummate tact and skill, and had calculated his time so well, that he was enabled to clear the Pass before the Highlanders could reach it from the other side. Advancing upwards, the passage becomes gradually broader, until, just below the House of Urrard, there is a considerable width of meadowland. It was here that Mackay took up his position, and arrayed his troops, on observing that the heights above were occupied by the army of Dundee.

The forces of the latter scarcely amounted to one-third of those of his antagonist, which were drawn up in line without any reserve. He was therefore compelled, in making his dispositions, to leave considerable gaps in his own line, which gave Mackay a further advantage. The right of Dundee’s army was formed of the McLean, Glengarry, and Clanranald regiments, along with some Irish levies, In the centre was Dundee himself, at the head of a small and ill-equipped body of cavalry, composed of Lowland gentlemen and their followers, and about forty of his old troopers. The Camerons and Skyemen, under the command of Lochiel and Sir Donald Macdonald of Sleat, were stationed on the left. During the time occupied by these dispositions, a brisk cannonade was opened by Mackay’s artillery, which materially increased the impatience of the Highlanders to come to close quarters. At last the word was given to advance, and the whole line rushed forward with the terrific impetuosity peculiar to a charge of the clans. They received the fire of the regular troops without flinching, reserved their own until they were close at hand, poured in a murderous volley, and then, throwing away their firelocks, attacked the enemy with the broadsword.

The victory was almost instantaneous, but it was bought at a terrible price. Through some mistake or misunderstanding, a portion of the cavalry, instead of following their general, who had charged directly for the guns, executed a manoeuvre which threw them into disorder; and when last seen in the battle, Dundee, accompanied only by the Earl of Dunfermline and about sixteen gentlemen, was entering into the cloud of smoke, standing up in his stirrups, and waving to the others to come on. It was in this attitude that he appears to have received his death-wound. On returning from the pursuit, the Highlanders found him dying on the field.

It would be difficult to point out another instance in which the maintenance of a great cause depended solely upon the life of a single man. Whilst Dundee survived Scotland at least was not lost to the Stuarts, for, shortly before the battle, he had received assurance that the greater part of the organised troops in the north were devoted to his person, and ready to join him; and the victory of Killiecrankie would have been followed by a general rising of the loyal gentlemen in the Lowlands. But with his fall the enterprise was over.


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