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Battle of Killiecrankie 1689


Killiecrankie Battle map

17th Century Scotland, The Jacobite Wars (1689-1746)


In 1688 Parliament declared that James II had forfeited the throne by fleeing to France and offered the crown to his son-in-law William of Orange. William had landed on the south of England on 5th November with a Dutch army in order to defend protestant liberties. In Scotland, John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, known to history as 'Bonnie Dundee' raised his standard in support of the deposed Stuart king and raised an army in the highlands.


After the successful revolution of 1688 William and Mary, James II daughter, were confirmed as joint monarchs in 1689. The supporters of James II were known as Jacobites, which comes from the Latin word for James – Jacobus. Jacobite ambitions were not restricted to Scotland and James II, his son James Francis Edward (the Old Pretender) and Charles Edward (the Young Pretender) were just as keen, if not more so, at regaining the English throne, seeing Scotland largely as a stepping stone to secure the southern realm. After all England was one of the foremost powers in Europe.

Scotland was a poor country at the end of the 17th century, the economy and agriculture stunted by decades of war. Roads were rough and transport by land difficult and the growth of trade was hampered by the lack of ships and properly developed harbours. Lowland areas had particularly suffered during the religious troubles while the highlands, often seen as lawless and barbaric by the ‘peaceful’ and ‘sophisticated’ lowlander, had largely been left to manage their own affairs.

The highlands and lowlands were separated by more than geography. Lowland areas had more in common with the English. The highlanders spoke Gaelic rather than English, their dress and traditions were distinct, such as wearing the plaid and the playing of the bagpipes, clan organisation was paternalistic and militaristic. This is not to say that the highlands were any less cultured or advanced than the lowlands, only that it was seen that way in the lowlands.

The lowlands were also predominantly Protestant while there were still areas in the highlands which were Roman Catholic.

The Rebellion of 1689

John Graham, Bonnie DundeeJohn Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, had gone north to rally support for James. Claverhouse, as James’s lieutenant general, raised an army, mostly composed of MacDonald's, Cameron's, Stewarts and MacLean's. Among the army was the 18 year old Rob Roy MacGregor, renowned for his skill with the broadsword.

Claverhouse was a professional soldier having served in France and the Netherlands. While in Dutch service it is said that he saved the life of William of Orange, then the Prince of Orange and now his rival. Upon his return to Scotland he was put in charge of a troop of dragoons charged with enforcing compliance with the established religion. This brought him into conflict with the Covenanters who gave him the nickname 'Bluidy Clavers', although he urged moderation believing that severe punishment would only alienate rather than convert.

Early on in the campaign Dundee managed to capture a government messenger and learned that the government commander, General Hugh Mackay of Scourie, a Highlander and former colleague of Dundee’s was at hand with three regiments of foot and one of horse. Foiling MacKays plan to capture the rebels, Dundee made a run for Castle Gordon where the Earl of Dunfermline and a body of gentry came in.

At Dalwhinnie he issued a summons in the name of his king bidding the clansmen to muster at Lochaber on 18th May and then slipping past Mackay, he ambushed government tax collectors at Perth and diverted their funds to the Jacobite cause. Having discouraged some local lairds from raising men for King William he attempted to reach the men of his old regiment stationed at Dundee, the proposed defection was however baulked by the watchful eyes of the Williamite troopers.

MacKay had been reinforced by a further pair of foot battalions and felt strong enough to take the initiative. On 9th June Government dragoons engaged 300 MacLean's marching to join the Jacobite army, and sharp encounter saw the dragoons put to flight, leaving most of their weapons and gear behind. Despite this success and even Dundee’s charisma nothing could be done to stop the increasing number of desertions as the clansmen, laden with loot, slipped back homeward.

General Hugh Mackay of ScourieFor the next month there was little activity. Dundee resisted an offer of truce and was declared and outlaw with £20,000 on his head. He wrote a letter to Lord John Murray castellan at Blair Castle, which he held for his absent father the Marquis of Atholl, urging the young peer to declare for the king. The castle was of considerable strategic value and its loss to either side would be a grievous blow. Its was feared by Dundee that Murray’s sympathies lay with William of Orange so he decided to play safe by ordering the Marquis’s factor Stewart of Ballochie, a known Jacobite, to raise the Athollmen and seize control. The value of Blair was not lost on MacKay who chivvied his battalions on to win the race that was fast developing. It was Dundee who won, reaching the castle on 26th July with some 2,500 men. Mackay was left struggling past Dunkeld his force numbering 4000.

The Battle of Killiecrankie (27th July 1689)

At Blair the Jacobites held a council of war. Through they commanded the castle the government troops were known to be fast approaching and many of the clan chiefs urged caution preferring to refuse battle until all of the scattered clans had come in. Dundee was more bullish stressing his men’s high morale and found support from Lochiel, the most respected of the clan leaders. The highlanders girded themselves for battle.

The following dawn Mackay marched out of Dunkeld and by mid-morning the army was approaching the pass of Killiecrankie, a narrow and treacherous defile, enough to cause alarm to any commander of regular troops. The track, little more than a pathway, wound for two miles through the pass and, after a halt of two hours, the troops began the long assent.

Once clear of the pass, MacKay made his headquarters at the nearby Urrard House and deployed his battalions to meet Dundee’s expected attack. On the Extreme left he posted a commanded party of shot under Lt Colonel Landers. Next to these stood the regiments of Balfour, Ramsey and Kenmure. The Cavalry formed the centre and Leven's together with MacKay's own and Hastings stood on the right.

Battle Map, Click to enlarge

On the right of the Jacobite line stood the Macleod's and next to them an Irish unit under Colonel Cannon, and then came the might of clan Donald, men of Clan Ranald, Glengarry and Glencoe flanked by Grants of Glenmoriston. In there centre there was a bare 40 mounted men under Walter of Craighie while on the left stood Cameron of Lochiel, MacLean's, MacDonald's of Kintyre the McNeil's and MacDonald of Sleat.

Whilst the sun shone brightly in the eyes of his highlanders Dundee’s would not advance. MacKay began a cannonade with his light guns, after a short time the guns, under strain, disintegrated. No casualties were inflicted on the Jacobite line. At 8.00pm when the fierce glare of the summer sun began to wane, Dundee shouted the charge. Concerned that his line might be outflanked MacKay had divided his foot battalions. To compound this folly he allowed a distinct gap to appear in the center relying solely on his cavalry to hold the center.

Battle of Killiecrankie

As the Jacobites hurled their slogans skimmed fleet-footed towards the Williamites the lie of the ground caused them to edge to the right exposing them to devastating enfilade from MacKay's right. His regiment, Hastings and half of Levens avoided the furry of the onslaught. On the left however the charge struck home, the raw levies parrying swinging broadswords with clumsy bayonets, the evening air ringing to the clash of steel. Lauders fusiliers, Balfour's and half of Ramsey’s broke, spewing a torrent of fugitives fleeing the merciless blades. In desperation MacKay hurled his squadrons against the highlanders flank but Belhaven’s troop were flung back their rout disordering Kenmure’s shaken foot who, in turn, dissolved in flight.

Mackay managed a fighting retreat with as many men as he could muster, the dazed survivors falling back through the pass in the gathering dusk making for Stirling. Behind he left more than half his force, some 2000 men, dead or taken.

The victors had also suffered. The opening volleys had torn great gaps in their ranks and as many as 600 had fallen, including Sir Donald MacDonald of Sleat. Amongst their loss was one who was irreplaceable, Dundee himself. Observing the attack on the left in difficulty he spurred towards his staled clansmen and as he did so a random shot, probably one of the last, struck him in the side. He fell and died shortly afterwards. John Graham had died at the moment of his greatest victory and with him died the Stuart cause in Scotland, for as Lochiel had predicted, there was no one who could take his place.

The End of the Rebellion

Command of the Jacobite army fell to colonel cannon who advanced the army down the valley of the Tay heading for Perth. At Dunkeld their way was barred by a force of 1200 covenanters led by Lt Colonel William Cleland.

In the early hours of 21st August the Jacobites attacked the town from all sides. The covenanters fought back doggedly. When they had ran out of ammunition they began to strip the lead from the roof of the cathedral and as they were forced back set fire to the houses they passed.

Cleland made a final stand around the cathedral and Dunkeld house repeatedly fighting off Jacobite attacks. Cleland took a fatal shot to the head, just as the highlanders were withdrawing.

The following year was to be a fatal one for the Jacobite cause. In Ireland king James was defeated at the battle of the Boyne and was again forced to flee to France. His Scottish army mustered again, led by Thomas Buchan. At the beginning of May the government forces led by Mackay, who was still in command, surprised the Jacobites in camp near Cromdale. Over 400 prisoners were taken although both Cannon and Buchan escaped. With this, 'The Rout of Cromdale', the rebellion came to an inglorious conclusion.


Article published on 19th June 2013

Article first published on 2nd February 2008

Bibliography and Further Reading
The Killing Time: Killiecrankie and Glencoe, Niall Barr, Tempus
Jacobite Rebellion, 1689-1745 (Men-at-arms Series), Osprey
Bonnie Dundee, Andrew Murray Scott, John Donald Publishers
Places to Visit
Pass of Killiecrankie -
Blair Castle, the ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl -
Killiecrankie House Hotel -

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