Battle of Killiecrankie Pass

The Battle of Killiecrankie (Gaelic: Cath Raon Ruairidh) was fought between Highland Scottish clans supporting King James II and VII and troops supporting King William of Orange on 27 July 1689, during the first Jacobite uprising. Although it was a stunning victory for the Jacobites, it had little overall effect on the outcome of the war and left their leader dead. Their forces were scattered at the Battle of Dunkeld the next month.

When the bloodless Glorious Revolution brought about the end of Catholic James VII and II’s reign in December 1688, the spirit which had produced the National Covenant (1638), then the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) no longer prevailed in Scotland save for a minority of diehard Covenanters. It could be said that the Revolution Settlement which put William of Orange and Mary on the throne of Britain brought a welcome departure from an obsession with religion which had unduly influenced the policies and conduct of government in public affairs, particularly in Scotland. Secular rather than theological matters became uppermost; it was this rather than anything else which marked a turning point in the nation’s history. Of course, episcopacy and Roman Catholicism continued to thrive in the Highlands and Islands but the majority of the Scottish population living in Lowland Scotland was now undisputedly Presbyterian. No longer were questions of religious creed, form of worship and Church government the determining factors and over-riding forces among the Scottish intelligentsia and the political rulers; expediency rather than unwelcome impositions and knee-jerk reactions would henceforth be the way successive governments dealt with ecclesiastical polity. After 1688, Scotland became preoccupied with new and progressive ideals and goals, chiefly in trade and manufactory, which directly or indirectly would benefit Scottish society in general and the middling sort – the merchant middle class – in particular. Economic considerations rather than theological argument preoccupied both government and people; material prosperity was seen by those who governed Scotland as the way to improvements in the standard of living, albeit in the name of the monarch.

Commerce between England and Scotland had always been patchy, the Scots traditionally trading with Europe, particularly the Low Countries. The chief sources of wealth derived from fishing and the export of cured and salted fish, the staple domestic and foreign diet during the winter months. Although Scotland’s manufacturing industries were still in their infancy, the production and export of various kinds of cloth were on the increase; wool fells (fleeces) and animal hides had long been traditional exports for the production of wool and leather goods; salt, soap, cordage and gunpowder were also lucrative commodities both at home and abroad, woollen goods and linen yarn being particularly sought after. In 1688, Scotland was poised on the brink of an age of prosperity and peace not known since the time of Alexander III (1249 – 86). However, on the horizon were dark clouds that would cast a long shadow over Britain in general and Scotland in particular between 1688 and 1746. Those who threatened to upset the apple cart of peace and prosperity were called Jacobites, the followers of James VII and II and his descendants who took their name from the Latin Jacobus (James).

When James VII and II’s wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a baby boy on 10 June 1688 they named him James Francis Edward Stuart; the arrival of the child offered a prospect of the continuation of a Catholic succession. For James’s Protestant subjects on both sides of the Border and William of Orange in Holland, this was seen as nothing short of a calamity; concern was publicly voiced and James began to feel insecure on his throne when he learnt that William of Orange was gathering an army of 70,000 and preparing to invade Britain. William was the son of Charles II’s eldest daughter Mary and was married to James VII and II’s Protestant daughter Mary, making William an attractive Protestant alternative to the Catholic James. For his part, James was consoled by the knowledge that he had a strong ally and friend in John Graham of Claverhouse, known as ‘Bloody Clavers’ by his Covenanter enemies, ‘Bonnie Dundee’ by his supporters. In October 1688 Claverhouse had led an army of 13,000 in support of James whom he saw as the lawful King; for this and the suppression of the Covenanters, James elevated Graham to Lord Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee. In return, Dundee swore to fight in the King’s name from that day, which he would do until his untimely death the following year. Be that as it may, the Catholic King had his back to the wall, his hold on the throne growing ever more tenuous; an apprehensive James was desperate when William of Orange landed at Torbay, Devonshire, on 5 November 1688. Queen Mary of Modena and her infant son were sent to France for safety on 9 December, followed by James himself two weeks later. A dispirited Dundee returned to Scotland and dispersed his army, retiring to his country seat at Dudhope Castle, Dundee. Like the Marquis of Montrose before him, Dundee was unfortunate in the master to whom he offered his loyalty.

The Revolution was made glorious because it was bloodless. By February 1689 the English parliament had passed the Act of Succession which stipulated that no Catholic could occupy the throne. It was offered to and accepted by William and his wife Mary as joint rulers of England. On 13 February they were proclaimed King and Queen of England and Ireland but not Scotland. That was a matter which would have to be decided by the Scottish parliament. On 14 March 1689 a Convention of parliamentarians met in Edinburgh to vote on whether James or William and Mary should rule Scotland. In late-seventeenth century Scotland there were marked political and cultural divisions – Lowlander versus Highlander – and to a lesser extent, religious conflict. The majority of the Gaelic-speaking Clan chiefs were Episcopalians and Catholics who had supported the Stuart dynasty since the reign of Robert II in 1371; the English-speaking Presbyterians – the majority of the population – not surprisingly supported the Protestant William and Mary. John Graham, Viscount Dundee attended the March Convention; his voice was foremost among the dissenters who rejected the House of Orange in favour of the House of Stuart, the others being the Episcopalian and Catholic Clan chiefs. Dundee, a Lowland Presbyterian, strode out of the hall, intent on organizing another Convention at Stirling held in James VII and II’s name. At Stirling Dundee’s associates could not make up their minds, so he left the Stirling Convention in disgust, retiring to his home at Dudhope Castle, near Dundee. The Edinburgh Convention invited him to join the continuing debate or else – somewhat ominously – to ‘lay down his arms’. Dundee replied that he was not under arms and that his wife was about to give birth; he requested leave of absence until a date which was convenient to him.

On 30 March the parliamentary Committee of Estates voted that, on account of his contumacy, Dundee would be declared a rebel and a fugitive from justice. On 4 April the Scottish parliament also declared that James had forfeited his Scottish crown and throne and offered the honours to William and Mary which they accepted. That same month, on hearing the news, Dundee raised James’s standard on the Law Hill of Dundee and began recruiting an army. In the north several Clan chiefs had reason to support James who, when he was Royal Commissioner for Scotland between 1681 and 1682, had cultivated their friendship and rewarded them with lands belonging to the Marquis of Argyll when he was declared forfeit in 1681. However, Argyll’s son, John, 2nd Duke of Argyll had declared for William and Mary and might soon attempt to recover his father’s estates. Those Clan chiefs who had benefited from Argyll’s misfortune were now fearful of losing their newly acquired property and increased prestige, so they readily answered Dundee’s call for support. By now, Dundee had been appointed James’s Lieutenant General in Scotland, although the documents confirming his appointment never reached him; the Irish messenger carrying the papers was intercepted, the incriminating documents being confiscated by government agents. Among the Clan chiefs who joined Dundee were MacDonald of Clanranald, MacDonald of Sleat, MacDonald of Glengarry, MacDonald of Keppoch, MacDonald of Glencoe, Maclean of Duart, Stewart of Appin, Ewan Cameron of Lochiel and Macneil of Barra.

First Jacobite Rising, 1689 – 90

As we have seen, Dundee had been declared an outlaw; the task of bringing him into custody was given to Major General Hugh Mackay of Scourie, an experienced soldier who had led the Scots’ Brigade in William of Orange’s army against Louis XIV of France in the Wars of Alliance to keep the Netherlands free from French domination. William had not trusted many of his British officers but Mackay was an exception. Mackay was a soldier of whom Bishop Gilbert Burnett of Salisbury once said that he was ‘the most pious man that I ever knew in a military way’. With this in mind, William appointed Hugh Mackay as his commander in chief in Scotland.

Mackay immediately turned his mind to crushing Dundee and the rebel Clan chiefs who supported him. Dundee was no easy target; he out-manoeuvered Mackay on his march into the north; Dundee’s objective was Glengarry, where he met the Clan chiefs with 1,800 recruits they had raised. It was Dundee’s hope to confront Mackay on ground favourable to his Highland levies, weaker by far in numbers than Mackay’s well armed, well equipped force of between 3,000 and 4,500.


Dundee considered that the soft underbelly of Scotland which would open the way to the Lowlands was Blair Castle owned by the Earl of Atholl. Learning of the approach of Dundee’s army, Atholl made a lame excuse to absent himself from his castle, leaving it in the charge of his son and heir, Lord John Murray, a supporter of the Williamite forces. Dundee ordered Patrick Steuart [sic] of Ballechin, a relative of the Murrays, to hold Blair Castle for King James; the result was that Lord John Murray found himself in a strange situation – that of besieging his own castle. While the siege was in progress, Dundee learnt that Mackay was in Perth, intent on assisting Murray in the recapture of Blair Castle.

Dundee laid his plans carefully; he was determined to intercept Mackay at Blair Atholl at a point along the road through the hills. The clans had been summoned but only Cameron of Lochiel had arrived with 240 Camerons; he had however sent his son and others to Morven, Sunart, Ardnamurchan and the surrounding districts to raise further recruits along the way to Blair Atholl. Ewan Cameron of Lochiel met up with Dundee before Blair Atholl, where they were joined by 300 Irish led by Major General Cannon. By now Dundee’s army numbered 2,400 and he resolved to march against Mackay, intending to confront the government forces in the Pass of Killiecrankie. There Dundee occupied a ridge above the Pass and when Mackay arrived he saw that the Jacobites occupied ground which was favourable to the clan mode of warfare – the Highland Charge. The two sides were unevenly matched; against Dundee’s 2,400 were Mackay’s 4,500 foot and four troops of horse. Mackay’s force consisted of the Earl of Leven’s Regiment (his own regiment), Lord Kenmure’s Regiment and the regiments commanded by Colonel Balfour, Lieutenant Colonel Hastings and Colonel Ramsay, Lieutenant Colonel Lauder’s fusilier regiment, with James Hamilton, 2nd Lord Belhaven commanding the horse. Mackay’s left wing was commanded by Lauder’s fusiliers, then Balfour’s Regiment, and the regiments of Ramsay, Kenmure, Belhaven and the cavalry and the Earl of Leven’s Regiment holding the centre; the right wing was held by Mackay and Hastings. Dundee’s right wing contained Clan Maclaine of Lochbuie, the Irish and the MacDonalds of Clanranald commanded by Colonel Alexander Cannon, a Lowlander, with Clans Macleod, Grant, the MacDonalds of Glengarry and Glencoe, Clan Morrison and forty horse commanded by Wallace of Craigie, then Cameron of Lochiel; the left wing was held by Clans Maclean of Duart, more MacDonalds and Clan Macneil of Barra. Dundee commanded the right wing. Among the Jacobite army was Rob Roy of Clan Macgregor, renowned for his skill with the broadsword.

The battle began with Mackay deploying his men in a line and ordering his fusiliers to fire on Dundee. Owing to the smaller number of men, the Jacobite line was much shorter than Mackay’s so the Williamite army’s firepower was concentrated and effective. The Jacobites were also disadvantaged by having the sun in their eyes, so they waited until sunset before attacking Mackay. At 7pm Dundee ordered the charge; the clansmen fired what muskets they possessed then threw them away, charging downhill with targe and broadsword. Mackay increased the rate of fire to counter the charge but a depression in the terrain shielded the advancing clansmen – Lochiel’s men to the fore – who slammed into Mackay’s centre. The Jacobite charge was so sudden and fast that the government troops did not have time to fix their plug bayonets into the muzzles of their muskets. Dundee’s men swatted the unhappy government troops aside like flies. The battle quickly turned into a rout, Mackay fleeing the field, leaving 2,000 of his men dead. But victory did not come without a price; John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee, ‘Dark John of the Battles’, was fatally wounded. Cameron of Lochiel had tried to exact a promise from Dundee that he would stay back from the fight; Dundee would have none of it, begging to give ‘one shear darg’ [a day’s harvest] to King James. Dundee died along with between 600 and 900 of his Highlanders. As for the defeated Hugh Mackay, he would later return to the Continent to command the British Division in the Dutch-British-German army fighting for William of Orange (now William III); in 1692, Mackay was killed at the battle of Steenkirk, Holland.

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