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Issue 47 - Holding the line

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 47
October 2009


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Holding the line

We look at the battle of Dunkeld.

William of Orange became King of Great Britain and Ireland in February 1689. On 27th July, Viscount Dundee, fighting for the deposed James VII, was killed at his victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie in Highland Perthshire. Nearly half of the 6,000 participants were killed.

General Mackay, the defeated Government commander retired south to regroup before returning north to pursue Colonel Alexander Cannon, the replacement Jacobite leader and his army of Highlanders.

On 12th August, the Scottish Council ordered the Earl of Angus’s regiment to Dunkeld, its mission to prevent the rebels in Atholl from raiding the Lowlands and to provide a launch pad for the recapture of Blair and Finlarig castles. Dunkeld was, and is, a sleepy village cradled in mountains on the Highland line with the River Tay curling round just south of the cathedral, semi-ruinous since the Reformation. A new mansion house had been built north of the cathedral by William Bruce as the seat of John Murray, 1st Marquess and 2nd Earl of Atholl.

Most of 800 men in the Earl of Angus’s regiment were Cameronians, Covenanters, religious fanatics from south west Scotland who had been persecuted, particularly by Viscount Dundee in the days when he was John Graham of Claverhouse, under King James. They had played a key role in the politicking that led to Scotland appointing King William as the new king. Their young commander Colonel William Cleland described Highlanders as “monkeys” ,and the loathing that the Cameronians felt towards their Episcopalian enemies was fully reciprocated by the men of Atholl.

The Cameronians arrived in Dunkeld on the 17th August, prepared barricades, repaired and strengthened the garden walls that would create a perimeter in the core of the town. They sent out scouting – and raiding – parties. Pickets were placed on nearby prominences. A group of local gentry rode in to remonstrate about a rumour that the occupiers intended to burn the town and carry out massacres. A few bands of armed Highlanders were seen on the surrounding hills.

Some dragoons rode into town on the 19th. They chased off the watching Athollmen and took a few prisoners.

That night the fiery cross was sent round the glens and straths.

The following morning a thousand men had gathered above the town. The dragoons and 150 Cameronians moved against the Highlanders. The latter tried to lay ambushes, but the skirmishing resulted in a dozen dead Athollmen.

Then the vanguard of Cannon’s army of some 5,000 men appeared on the heights and the Government troops withdrew to their simple fortifications in Dunkeld. The dragoons wereordered back to Perth. The Cameronians thought themselves betrayed.

At 7am the following morning, the Highlanders attacked in overwhelming numbers. From the north, the MacLeans charged the outpost stationed on a little hill.

The thirty defenders retreated dyke by dyke before retiring to the town.

The east was indefensible and the sentries there fired their guns before setting fire to the outlying houses and retreating back to the barricade in front of the market cross within the warren of houses and garden walls in the town.

This was soon breached and the defenders scurried back to the walls in front of the cathedral. The same happened to the west of the town. Some two dozen soldiers fired upon the Highland cavalry until they were forced back by the swarms of Highlanders.

The Covenanters’ defence lines were the old canons’ house between the cathedral and the River Tay, Dunkeld Cathedral itself, and the nearby mansion house, a square stone building with a central courtyard. In front of these, the rebel attack stalled.

The formidable tactic of the clansmen was their charge, braving enemy musketry until firing their own weapons within a few yards of the foe and then falling on them with their broadswords.

This had routed the Government army three weeks earlier at Killiecrankie.

But in Dunkeld the clan regiments were hemmed in by narrow streets; their charge was impeded by the yard walls and, behind these, the pikes and halberds employed by the Covenanters in the absence of bayonets were an effective counter to the broadswords.

Before long the bodies of dead Highlanders below the rubble-stone walls created further impediment.

It was remarked by one soldier that the breeze seemed to blow the powder smoke in the faces of the attackers from whichever direction they were coming. Highlanders had gained possession of some of the houses and were firing down inside the barricades. Others were sniping from the hills around. Cleland was wounded by a shot to his liver and to his head. He tried to drag himself to the redoubt of the mansion house to avoid his men being discouraged by the sight of his body, but died on the way. Shortly afterwards the second-incommand, Major Henderson, received fatal wounds. Three other captains were wounded and command devolved to Captain Munro of Auchenbowie. Soldiers were urgently stripping lead from the roof of the mansion house and the church – at one end of the ruinous cathedral – and melting it into musket balls in moulds they scraped in the ground. They agreed to make a final stand in the mansion house and burn it with themselves inside rather than surrender.

Munro sent out volunteers with blazing faggots to set fire to the houses from which the Highlanders were firing.

Where there were keys, they locked the doors. Sixteen men died in a single house and the sound of their agony cut through the incessant gunfire and the clash of steel. The whole town was now ablaze save for three houses within the perimeter.

By 11am, four hours after the battle began, the attacks began to slacken. The Highlanders began to retreat refusing to fight further against ‘mad and desperate men.’ They left behind some 300 dead, mainly MacLean’s, Stewarts and Camerons. The Cameronians lost a tenth of that number so much so that the regiment had to be withdrawn from service.

The battle destroyed what reputation Cannon had as a Jacobite commander, his army disbanded.

In the following Spring, he gathered some 1500 men, but was routed at Cromdale on May 1st which extinguished the last hopes of King James to regain his crown.

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