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Issue 25 - A lament for Killicrankie

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Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


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A lament for Killicrankie

It was one of Scotland's bloodiest conflicts but Killicrankie is often forgotten today. James Irvine Robertson reports

King James VII of Scotland and II of Great Britain was Catholic. His father Charles I had been found guilty of tyranny and decapitated in 1649 but the son believed himself to be the divinely appointed absolute ruler of the realm.

He busied himself appointing Catholics to positions of political power. This was tolerated because his heir was his staunchly Protestant eldest daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. But on 10th June 1688, his second wife, Queen Mary of Modena, bore him a son, raising the prospect of a continuation of a Catholic dynasty.

On 30th June, William and Mary were invited to take the British throne. In November, the Orange Army landed in England and William and Mary were crowned in February 1689.

Staunchly Protestant Scotland had initially backed King James on his succession from his brother, Charles II. As always, the powerful were faced with a terrible dilemma. For themselves and their families to survive, let alone prosper, they had to back the winning side.

It soon became clear that the new regime had established itself down south and the Scots magnates moved across to William. James’s strongest supporter was John Graham of Claverhouse, whom the King had created Viscount Dundee. Both factions had troops at hand when the Scottish Convention ‘declared King James to have forfeited the crown, by his attempts to overcome the religion and liberties of his subjects.’ The Prince and Princess of Orange were accordingly proclaimed joint monarchs at Edinburgh on the 11th April.

Dundee raised the standard for King James and, chased by General Hugh Mackay of Scourie, proceeded to recruit an army in the north. After various comings and goings, it became clear that Blair Castle in Atholl, guarding the main pass into the Highlands, was key to the campaign.

The Marquis of Atholl, who owned Blair Castle, supported the new regime. He sent his heir Lord Murray with some 1,000 ‘Athollmen’ to hold the castle. But his royalist bailie Patrick Stewart of Ballechin and his brother, the Marquis’s chamberlain, had already taken up residence on behalf of King James.

Moreover, other Athollmen were inclined to follow their lead prompting the Marquis to hurriedly retire to Bath to take the waters for his health and to demonstrate that what was happening in Scotland was nothing to do with him.

Mackay and his army marched north from Perth to retake Blair Castle and camped at Dunkeld on the edge of the Highland line some 20 miles south .

The next day, 27th July, was hot. Mackay met with a worried Lord Murray near Pitlochry who told of the approach of Dundee’s 2,000-strong army – most of them recruited from clans Cameron, McLean and Macdonald – from the north, and advised the General not to attempt to make his way through the Pass of Killiecrankie with its narrow path running alongside the tumultuous river Garry.

But Mackay was contemptuous of Highlanders. He had been chasing such rabbles all summer. He had an untried army of 4,000 redcoats including dragoons and cavalry. He even had three little leather cannons, just the thing for a mountain campaign. He also had 1,200 baggage horses.

The Athollmen observed them covetously as they passed, and then most of them melted into the hills to hide their own cattle and work out how to obtain those horses.

The Government army entered the Pass, its narrow road only wide enough for three men abreast. The river alongside was in spate. The leading regiments emerged from the chasm some four miles from Blair and saw Dundee’s army on the slopes above. Leaving his baggage train in the Pass, Mackay hurriedly drew up his men on the nearest flat land, above the house of Urrard.

On the face of it, a trained disciplined force of professional soldiers was facing an irregular band of half its number.

The redcoats looked on their enemy much as the American cavalry might have looked at Apache Indians – ferocious and alarming savages.

And they were right to be alarmed. The outcome of the Continental battles, of their experience, depended on musketry, with armies trading volleys of fire until one broke. For close combat, they had plug bayonets. These were stuffed into the barrels of their guns which were then used as crude pikes. It took time to mount them and, of course, the weapon could not be fired with the bayonet in place.

Viscount Dundee had led both regular troops and Highlanders. He may have been the only man on the field who understood the nature of what was about to happen. He knew that in hand-tohand combat the broadswords of his men would give them an insurmountable advantage. He also understood that they would have to endure devastating fire before they closed.

His senior officers – Lochiel, Clanranald and Glengarry – wished him to stay back. Their cause could not succeed without his leadership.

But Dundee knew that the only way he could persuade his Highlanders to endure the storm of musketry as they charged would be to lead them from the front.

It was 5pm. Mackay’s cannon opened fire. One of the balls struck one of Glengarry’s regiment full on his targe, knocking him down. He arose unhurt.

“They’re in earnest now,” he laughed.

The initiative lay with Dundee and he waited for two hours until the sun had descended behind the hills and out of the eyes of his men before he unleashed them.

They faced at least two redcoat volleys as they charged down the slope into the ‘very bosoms’ of the enemy before ‘poureing it in upon them all att once, like one great clap of thounder, they threw away their guns, and fell pell-mell among the thickest of them with their broadswords.’

Mackay’s left wing broke almost immediately; most of the rest of his army followed. The few units remaining stood aside as the Highlanders poured past intent on plunder.

The baggage train already clogged the narrow Pass. Its woods now became a horrific place of slaughter, littered with dismembered limbs and body parts, the warm evening filled with screams of the wounded and dying and the ‘sullen and hollow’ clash of steel.

Summer nights are long in the Highlands. The locals joined in the chase through the hills of those who survived the Pass. Harried in the gloaming by the Athollmen, Mackay and the remnants of his army made it over to the Castle of Weem, and then continued the retreat to Stirling. But precious few of them were left.

Nearly half Dundee’s army were casualties, virtually all from the initial musketry. The enormous Hamilton of Pitcur, described as being “like a moving Castle in the Shape of a Man” was killed. So were the senior officers of the Camerons and Macdonalds. Dundee was mortally wounded by a musket ball in his side.

Up to 2,000 redcoats died. The Athollmen brought in some 500 prisoners. Brigadier Balfour, who commanded the left wing, was chopped in half in the Pass by the minister of Balquhidder, the Rev Robert Stewart. At the end of the day he went to the blacksmith to have his fist disentangled from the basket hilt of his sword. Two colonels and several other officers were killed.

The children and grandchildren of the Athollmen would fight for the return of the Stewart kings for the next 60 years but this, the first battle of the Jacobite Uprisings, produced the greatest casualty list. The Gaelic poems commemorating the battle were laments, not peons of victory.

Viscount Dundee was buried in St Brides Kirk behind Blair Castle, and the Scottish establishment gave a sigh of relief. He may have won the battle but they knew that, as inspired and inspiring a commander as Montrose, and a far more skilfull politician, he was irreplaceable. The Uprising continued, but degenerated into a series of skirmishes. Peace – at least until the Highlands rose again in 1715 – was not restored until the Massacre of Glencoe three years later.

And Killiecrankie itself? The Pass was haunted, of course, by a soldier, a Highlander, who regularly appeared until a half century ago when such apparitions faded away. And pistol and musket balls are still being found, the last picked up by a tourist on the edge of the path only recently.

An elevated four-lane A9 has replaced the tortuous track through the depths of the Pass and strides across the route of the charge. People speed north oblivious to the thousands who died beneath them..