To mark the 330th anniversary of the Battle of Killiecrankie, historian and author Maggie Craig considers why this violent confrontation still evokes memories as well as enthusiastic public interest.
The Battle of Killiecrankie was fought on 27 July 1689. This bloody clash of arms in a mountain pass a few miles north of Pitlochry in the Central Highlands of Scotland was the first salvo in the Jacobite wars. This series of uprisings aimed at restoring the House of Stuart culminated at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, almost 60 years later.
In 1503, Scotland’s James IV wed Margaret Tudor of England, sister of Henry VIII. The Marriage of the Thistle and the Rose did not immediately stop Scotland and England from fighting each other. However, the resulting family relationships meant that when Elizabeth I of England died childless in 1603, the only possible heir was James IV and Margaret Tudor’s great-grandson.
Jamie the Saxt to his Scottish subjects, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots became also James I of England. His son Charles I lost his throne and his head. After the Restoration in 1660, two of James’s grandsons subsequently sat on the British throne, Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York. He ruled for three years as James VII and II before he was deposed in 1688, in what its supporters called the Glorious Revolution.
James was a devout Catholic in a country which had largely become staunchly Protestant. He also subscribed to the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. This held that the monarch was infallible, his position God-given. James was not prepared to rule as a constitutional monarch in partnership with parliament.
His inflexibility led to him fleeing London for exile in Europe with his second wife, Mary of Modena, and their young son, yet another James. The English crown was offered to William, the Protestant Prince of Orange, and his wife Mary. She was the daughter of James by his first wife, Anne Hyde.
Those who stayed loyal to King James were dubbed Jacobites, the name derived from Jacobus, the Latin version of his first name. One of his most fervent supporters was John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, remembered in song as ‘Bonnie Dundee’. To the Presbyterian Covenanters of south-west Scotland whom he and his troops harried mercilessly, he was ‘Bluidy Clavers’.
In April 1689, those who now held the reins of power in Scotland agreed that James VII and II had forfeited the Scottish as well as the English crown. They could no longer stomach his autocratic belief that all Scots owed him their “natural allegiance.” John Graham of Claverhouse disagreed and raised the standard of King James on Dundee Law. This steep hill in the middle of the Tayside city offers panoramic views over the river and surrounding countryside.
Claverhouse headed further north, aiming to seize and hold Blair Castle, ancestral seat of the Dukes of Atholl. Its location a few miles above the Pass of Killiecrankie gave it crucial strategic importance, commanding the route north and south.
About 2,500 strong, his army included MacDonalds, MacGregors and MacIans of Glencoe. Sir John Maclean of Duart in Mull was in his high command, as was Sir Ewen Cameron of Locheil. The 18-year-old Rob Roy MacGregor was also there, fighting alongside his father.
Estimated at between 3,500-5,000 men, the larger army dispatched north to meet Dundee was led by Major-General Hugh Mackay of Scourie. Both he and Claverhouse were experienced soldiers.
As Mackay led his men up through the narrow pass, they had the tumbling River Garry to their left and steep hillsides to their right. Spotting Claverhouse’s army on those braes to the east meant there was no choice other than to fight there. The two armies did not immediately engage, spending around two hours hurling verbal insults at each other.
Dundee was also waiting for the sun to go down, so it was not shining in his men’s eyes. The bright July sunshine did not hamper his sharp-shooters. From the protection of a building standing between the two armies, the snipers began the killing. Mackay sent a small group of men forward. They inflicted some casualties on the Jacobites before retreating back to their own lines.
At about eight o’clock in the evening, the Jacobites came running down the hill in three terrifying waves, deploying the classic Highland charge. The lie of the land, with natural grass terraces, meant they were not always visible on their descent, making it more difficult for their opponents to take aim and pick them off. They would have been all too audible in the summer’s evening, yelling blood-curdling battle cries.
They slammed with full force into the left flank of Mackay’s army, scattering it. Although the right flank fired back, inflicting heavy losses, it too gave way when attacked by the Jacobite cavalry, Dundee leading the way. Here, in the moment of victory, he was shot through the chest, a musket ball piercing his metal breast-plate. Mortally wounded, he was, tradition has it, propped up against a nearby Neolithic standing stone known ever since as Claverhouse’s Stone.
Meanwhile, Mackay had mopped up his surviving men and retreated with them back down through the pass towards Perth and on to Stirling. The Jacobite army was in no fit state to pursue them. Contemporary sources from both sides estimate 800 dead and wounded in the Jacobite army and an even more horrific 2,000 on the Scottish Government side. Most of these deaths occurred in the space of less than one hour.
One man who got away was Donald McBane (sometimes McBain), Highlander and Redcoat. He later wrote of how he jumped over the River Garry to escape pursuing Jacobites, a distance of 18 feet. The spot is known today as the Soldier’s Leap and lies within the National Trust for Scotland’s visitor centre at Killiecrankie.
Dundee’s pierced breast-plate can be seen today among the impressive arms and armour and many other treasures on display at Blair Castle. He is buried in the vault of St Bride’s Kirk in the castle grounds.
Given the huge loss of life, it’s likely most of the dead lie where they fell, in burial pits. A campaign group is fighting to protect these and other parts of the site from further development of the A9, still Scotland’s main route linking the Lowlands and the Highlands.
As one of the bloodiest of battles, fought in a place of such outstanding natural beauty, Killiecrankie lives on in the collective memory. Annual re-enactments take place, carried out by passionate enthusiasts.
A rousing folk song made popular by the much-loved Corries kept the story alive, telling the tale to successive generations. Although the second line of this verse raises a smile, the third and fourth sum up the horror of that bloody summer’s evening in July 1689, when men dressed in velvet and lace fought each other to the death:
I’ve fought on land, I’ve
fought at sea,
At hame I fought my auntie, oh,
But I met the Devil and Dundee,
On the braes o’ Killiecrankie, oh.
Maggie Craig writes Scottish historical fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45, Bare-arsed Banditti: The Men of the ’45, When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside and several historical novels set in Edinburgh and her native Glasgow. Gathering Storm is the first in a suite of Jacobite novels.
Pass of Killiecrankie and River Garry: public domain
James VII and II by Peter Lely: public domain
John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee by by Paton: National Galleries of Scotland/public domain
The Soldier’s Leap by Anne Burgess: Wikimedia Commons
Re-enactment of the Battle of Killiecrankie: courtesy of the Soldiers of Killiecrankie
See more about Killiecrankie and other endangered battle sites