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Battle of Killiecrankie (1689)
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Pass of Killiecrankie
Pass of Killiecrankie
looking south down the pass from just above the Soldier's Leap
Copyright Sunnyside Studio

From Stirling, Mackay proceeded to Perth, after ordering the troops of horse and dragoons of the expedition to follow him. On arriving at Perth, a letter was shown him from Lord Murray, from which he learned, that Dundee, who had been solicited by Stewart of Ballochin to hasten into Athole, was already marching through Badenoch, and so anxious was he to anticipate Mackay's arrival in Athole, that he had left behind him several chiefs and their men, whose junction he daily expected. Lord Murray added, that if Mackay did not hasten his march so as to reach Athole before Dundee, he would not undertake to prevent his men from joining the Viscount. As Mackay informs us, that before leaving Edinburgh he had begun "already to have very ill thoughts of the expedition in gross", and as on reaching Stirling, the idea that he would be straitened for provisions haunted his mind, this information was assuredly by no means calculated to relieve these fearful apprehensions. He had gone too far, however, to retrace his steps with honor, and although four troops of dragoons and two of horse had not yet joined him, in the position in which he was then placed, seemed most forcible, to proceed immediately on his march to Athole.

The last and perhaps most important reason given by himself for this step, is that, as the possession, by Mackay, of the castle of Blair, was in his opinion the only means of keeping in awe the Athole-men, (who, from their numbers and strict attachment to the house of Stewart, were more to be dreaded than any other body of Highlanders), and preventing them from joining Dundee to roam uncontrolled through the disaffected district of Athole, gathering strength at every step, or to attempt to gain the important fortress of Blair.

Such were the grounds, as stated by Mackay in his own exculpation, which made him resolve upon marching into Athole, and which, he observes, "more capable commanders might readily be deceived in". Those who make the unfortunate result of this movement the rule of their judgment, will be apt to condemn Mackay's conduct on this occasion as rash and injudicious, but when his own reasons are duly weighed, it is difficult to see how he could have acted otherwise than he did. There can be no doubt, that had he been as successful at Killiecrankie as he was unfortunate, he would have been applauded for the exercise of a sound discretion, and regarded as a tactician of the highest order.

On the 26th of July, Mackay left Perth at the head of an army of 4,500 men. Of this force, notwithstanding that the four troops of dragoons and two of horse already alluded to, had not yet arrived, a fair proportion consisted of cavalry. At night Mackay encamped opposite to Dunkeld, and here, at midnight, he received an express from Lord Murray announcing the alarming intelligence that Dundee had entered Athole, in consequence of which event he informed him that he had retreated from before the castle of Blair, which he had for some time partially blockaded; and that although he had left the narrow and difficult pass of Killiecrankie between him and Dundee, he had posted a guard at the further extremity to secure a free passage to Mackay's troop through the pass which he supposed Dundee had already reached. Mackay seems to have doubted the latter part of this statement, and his suspicions were in some degree confirmed by the fact, that Lieutenant-colonel Lauder, whom he dispatched with a party immediately on receipt of Murray's letter, to secure the entrance into the pass from the vale of Blair, did not see a single man on his arrival there.

Pass of Killiecrankie
Pass of Killiecrankie
Copyright Sunnyside Studio

Discouraging as this intelligence was, Mackay still determined to persevere in his march, and having dispatched orders to Perth to hasten the arrival of the six troops of cavalry he had left behind, he put his army in motion next morning, July 27th, at day-break, and proceeded in the direction of the pass, the entrance to which he reached at ten o'clock in the morning. Here he halted, and allowed his men two hours to rest and refresh themselves before they entered upon the bold and hazardous enterprise of plunging themselves into a frightful chasm, out of which they might possibly never return. To support Lauder in case of attack, the general, on halting, dispatched through the pass a body of 200 men under the command of the Lieutenant-colonel of the Earl of Leven's regiment whom he instructed to send him any intelligence he could obtain of Dundee's motions. A short way below the pass Mackay fell in with Lord Murray, who informed him, that with the exception of 200 or 300 men, who still remained with him, the whole had gone to the hills to secure their cattle, an answer which Mackay, with the open and unsuspecting generosity of a soldier, considered satisfactory, and made him, as he observes, "not so apt to judge so ill of Murray as others did".

Having received a notice from Lauder that the pass was clear, and that there was no appearance of Dundee, Mackay put his army again in motion, and entered the fatal pass. Hasting's regiment (now the 13th), and Annandale's horse were placed behind to protect the baggage, from an apprehension that Dundee's Highlanders might make a detour round the hill to attack it, or that the country people might attempt to plunder it if not so guarded. The idea that no opposition would be offered to their passage through this terrific defile, which seemed to forbid approach, and to warn the unhappy soldier of the dangers which awaited him should he precipitate himself into its recesses, may have afforded some consolation to the feelings of Mackay's troops as they entered this den of desolation' but when they found themselves fairly within its gorge, their imaginations must have been appalled as they gazed, at every successive step, on the wild and terrific objects which encompassed them on every side. They however proceeded, at the command of their general, on their devious course, and finally cleared it, with the loss of only a single horseman, who, according to an Athole tradition, was shot by an intrepid adventurer, named Ian Ban Beg MacRan, who had posted himself on a hill, from which he fired across the rivulet of the Garry and brought down his victim. A well, called in Gaelic, Fuaran u trupar, Anglice, the "Horsemans's well", is shown as the place where the horseman fell.

As soon as the five battalions and the troop of horse which preceded the baggage had debouched from the further extremity of the pass, they halted, by command of the general, upon a corn field, along the side of the river to await the arrival of the baggage, and of Hasting's regiment and the other troop of horse. Mackay then ordered Lieutenant-colonel Lauder to advance with his 200 fusiliers and a troop of horse in the direction he supposed Dundee might be expected to appear. Lauder had not advanced far when he discovered some parties of Dundee's forces between him and Blair. Being immediately apprised of this by Lauder, Mackay, after giving orders to Colonel Balfour to supply the troops with ammunition, and to put them under arms without delay, galloped off to the ground, from which Lauder had espied the enemy, to observe their motions before making choice of the field of battle. On arriving at the advanced post, Mackay observed several small parties of troops, scarcely a mile distant, marching slowly along the foot of a hill in the direction of Blair, and advancing towards him. Mackay, thereupon, sent orders to Balfour to advance immediately up to him with the foot. But these orders were no sooner dispatched than he observed some bodies of Dundee's forces marching down a high hill within quarter of a mile from the place where he stood, in consequence of which movement, he immediately galloped back to his men to countermand the order he had just issued, and to put his army in order of battle.

Dundee, who had been duly advertised of Mackay's motions, had descended from the higher district of Badenoch into Athole on the previous day, with a force of about 2,500 men, of whom about one-fifth part consisted of the Irish, which had lately landed at Inverlochy under Brigadier Cannon. Some of the clans which were expected had not yet joined, as the day appointed for the general rendezvous had not then arrived; but as Dundee considered it of paramount importance to prevent Mackay from establishing himself in Athole, he did not hesitate to meet the latter, whose force numbered about 4,000.

On his arrival at the castle of Blair, intelligence was brought Dundee that Mackay had reached the pass of Killiecrankie, which he was preparing to enter. Dundee, against the advice of most of his officers, resolved to allow Mackay to enter the pass undisputed. He appealed to the feelings of the Highlanders, whose ancestors, he said, acting upon their national maxim never to attack a foe who could not defend himself on equal terms, would have disdained to adopt the course proposed, (and in saying so he did not, he observed, mean to insinuate that the persons he addressed had degenerated from the honor and courage of their ancestors). One principal reason stated by Dundee for allowing Mackay to advance through the Pass unmolested, was the great advantage they would gain by engaging him on open ground before he should be joined by his English dragoons, who, from their being so formidable to the Highlanders, would, if allowed by him to come up, more than compensate for any accession of force which Dundee might receive. Another reason not less important was, that in the event of Mackay sustaining a defeat, his army would probably be ruined, as he could not retreat back through the Pass without the risk of evident destruction, whereas should the Highlanders suffer a defeat, he had already given orders to his friends in the neighborhood, to cut off the few remaining stragglers that might attempt to escape.

The forces which had been descried by Lauder, appear to have been a body of 400 men under the command of Sir John Maclean, whom Dundee, on learning that the advanced guard of Mackay's army, after traversing the pass, had taken up a position near its northern extremity, had dispatched from Blair castle to keep them in check. But his scouts having shortly thereafter brought him notice that the whole of Mackay's army was preparing to enter the pass, he resolved to make a detour with the main body of his army round the hill on which the castle of Lude stands, in the vicinity of the pass, and fall upon Mackay as soon as he should clear that defile. Having made himself acquainted of the country people, with the localities in the immediate neighborhood of the pass, and of the suitableness of the ground for the operations of such a force as his, he advanced at double-quick time from Blair along the present line of road, and on arriving at the river Tilt, turned off to the left round the back of the hill, and crossed that river near its confluence with the rivulet of Ald Chluan. This movement will account for the sudden and unexpected appearance of Dundee on the face of the high hill on Mackay's right.

Immediately above the ground on which Mackay had halted his troops is an eminence, the access to which is steep and difficult, and covered with trees and shrubs. Alarmed lest Dundee should obtain possession of this eminence - which being within a carbine shot from the place on which Mackay stood, would give him such a command of the ground as would enable him, by means of his fire, to force Mackay to cross the river in confusion - he, immediately on his return from the position occupied by his advanced guard, "made every battalion form by a Quart de Conversion to the right upon the ground where they stood". and then made them march each in succession before him up the hill till they reached the eminence immediately above the house of Urrard, which Dundee had reached before Mackay had completed his ascent, and on which he halted.

At this conjuncture, neither Hasting's regiment nor Annandale's troop of horse had yet come out of the pass, but Mackay, nevertheless, at once proceeded to arrange his men in fighting order on a plain between the edge of he eminence and the foot or commencement of the ascent to Dundee's position, which, from its extent, enabled him to form his men in one line along the eminence. In making his dispositions, Mackay divided every battalion into two parts, and as he meant to fight three deep, he left a small distance between each of these sub-battalions. In the center of his line, however, he left a greater interval of space, behind which he placed the two troops of horse, with the design, when the Highlanders, after the fire of the line had been spent, should approach, to draw them off by this larger interval, and flank the Highlanders on either side, as occasion should offer. Mackay assigns as his reason for placing his cavalry in his rear till the fire should be exhausted on both sides, a dread huge entertained of exposing them to Dundee's horse, with whom it could not be supposed that these newly-raised levies could cope. Hasting's regiment, which arrived after Mackay had taken up his ground, was placed on the right; and, for greater security, there was added to it a detachment of firelocks from each battalion. On the extreme left on a hillock covered with tress, Lieutenant-colonel Lauder was posted, with his party of 200 men, composed of the elite of the army. Mackay having been recognized by Dundee's men busily employed riding along his line, from battalion to battalion, giving orders, was selected by some of them for a little ball practice; but although "their popping shot", which wounded some of his men, fell around him whenever he moved, he escaped unhurt.

After his line had been fully formed, Mackay rode along the front, from the left wing, which he committed to the charge of Brigadier Balfour, to the right, and having ascertained that everything was in readiness to receive the enemy, he addressed the battalions nearest him in a short speech. He requested them to reflect that their own personal safety was involved in the issue of that day's contest; and assured them that if they maintained their ground, and kept firmly and closely united together, their assailants would quickly flee before them for refuge to the hills - that the reason for which the Highlanders stripped themselves almost naked before battle was rather to enable them to escape, than from any hopes they entertained of pursuing their foes. Should, however, his men unfortunately give way before the rabble of Highlanders whom they saw marshaled on the adjoining heights - an event which he by no means expected - there was an absolute certainty, as these naked mountaineers were more nimble-footed than they were, and as all the Athole-man were in arms, ready to take advantage of their defeat, that few or none of them, would escape with their lives. In conclusion, he warned them that the only way to avoid ruin was to stand firm to their posts, and, like brave men, to fight to the last in defense of their religion and liberties, against the invaders of both, to secure which, and not the desire of the crown, was the sole reason which had induced his majesty to send them on the present service.

Whilst Mackay was thus occupied on the lower platform, his gallant rival was equally busy flying about on the eminence above, ranging his men in battle array. He was particularly distinguished amongst his officers by a favorite dun-coloured horse which he rode, and by his plated armor, which glittered in the sun-beams. Dundee, who had arrived upon the higher platform about the same time that Mackay had gained the ground he now occupied, ranged his men in one line in the following order - On the right, he placed Sir John Maclean, with his regiment divided into two battalions. On the left, he posted the regiment of Sir Donald Macdonald, commanded by the young chief and Sir George Barclay, and a battalion under Sir Alexander Maclean. In the center were placed four battalions, consisting of the Camerons, the Macdonells of Glengary and Clanranald, and the Irish regiment, with a troop of horse under the command of Sir William Wallace, who had early that morning produced a commission, to the great displeasure of the Earl of Dunfermline and other officers, appointing him colonel of a horse regiment which the earl commanded. It may be observed, that neither Mackay nor Dundee placed any body of reserve behind their lines.

The great extent of Mackay's line, which reached considerably beyond Dundee's wings, compelled the latter, to prevent the danger of being outflanked, to enlarge the intervals between his battalions. A general movement from right to left accordingly took place along Dundee's line. Before Dundee's left halted, Mackay, imagining that the object of the movement in that quarter was to get between him and the pass, for the purpose of cutting off all communication between him and Perth, made his line make a corresponding movement to his right, but on observing that Dundee's left wing halted, Mackay brough his line to a stand. These different movements necessarily occupied a considerable time, and both armies being now finally arranged, they gazed upon each other with great composure for the space of two whole hours.

During this interval of care and anxious suspense, the feelings of both parties - their hopes or their fears - would probably be tinctured by a deeper hue of confidence or despondency as they reflected on the events or former days. Though more than forty years had elapsed since the brilliant achievements of Montrose, the Highlanders, naturally brave, had lost none of their military ardor, and the descendants of the heroes of Tippermuir, Aldearn, and Kilsyth, who now stood in battle array on the upper plain, whence, with a scowl of scorn and defiance, they looked down upon the Sassenachs below, calling to mind the recital of the heroic deeds of their fathers, to which they had listened with wonder and enthusiasm in their childhood, would burn for the moment when, at the command of their chief, they should measure their broad swords with the bayonets of their Lowland foes. On the other hand, Mackay's men had no such recollections to inspire confidence or to cheer them in their perilous enterprise, and when they beheld the Highland host ready at a moment's notice to burst like a mountain torrent upon their devoted heads, and called to mind the tales they had heard of the warlike prowess of the Highlanders, they could no but recoil at the idea of encountering, in deadly strife, such determined antagonists. There were, it is true, many men in Mackay's army to whom the dangers of the battle field were familiar, and in whose minds such reflections would doubtless find no place, but the great majority of his troops consisted of newly raised levies, who had never before seen the face of an enemy.

Mackay himself, though an old and experiences offices, and a brave man, was not without his misgivings; and as the evening advanced without any movement on the part of Dundee to commence the action, his uneasiness increased. Nor were his apprehensions likely to be allayed by the reply made by the second son of Lochiel, who held a commission in his own regiment of Scots fusiliers, in answer to a question put to him by Mackay. "Here is your father with his wild savages", said Mackay to the young man, on seeing the standard of the Camerons, putting on at the same moment an air of confidence, "how would you like to be with him?" "It signifies little", answered the son of the chief, "what I would like, but I recommend to you to be prepared; or perhaps my father and his wild savages may be nearer to you before night than you would like". The apparent irresolution of the Highlanders to begin the battle was considered by Mackay as intentional, and he supposed that their design was to wait till nightfall, when, by descending suddenly from their position, and setting up a loud shout, according to their usual custom, they expected to frighten his men, unaccustomed to an enemy, and put them in disorder. As Mackay could not, without the utmost danger, advance up the hill and commence the action, and as the risk was equally great should he attempt to retreat down the hill and cross the river, he resolved, at all hazards, to remain in his position, "though with impatience", as he observes, till Dundee should either attack him or retire, which he had better opportunities of doing than Mackay had. To provoke the Highlanders, and to induce them to engage, he ordered three small leather field pieces to be discharged, but they provided of little use, and the carriages being much too high, broke after the third firing.

Pass of Killiecrankie
Pass of Killiecrankie
from the road bridge looking north up the pass
Copyright Sunnyside Studio

Towards the close of the evening, some of Dundee's sharpshooters, who had kept up, during the day, an occasional fire in the direction in which they observed Mackay moving, by which they had wounded some of his men, as already stated, took possession of some houses upon the ascent which lay between the two armies, for the purpose of directing their aim with surer effect. But they were immediately dislodged by a party of musketeers dispatched by Mackay's brother, who commanded the general's regiment, and chased back to their main body with some loss. This skirmish Mackay supposed would soon draw on a general engagement, and his expectations were speedily realized.

It was within half an hour if sunset, and the moment was at hand, when, at the word of command, the Highlanders and their allies were to march down the hill, and with sword in hand, fall upon the trembling and devoted host below, whom, like the eagle viewing his destined prey from his lofty Eyre, they had so long surveyed. Having determined, as much to please his men as to gratify his own inclination, to lead the charge in person, at the head of the horse, Dundee exchanged his red coat, which he had worn during the day, and by which he had been recognized by Mackay's troops, for another of darker colour, to conceal his rank, and thereby avoid the risk of being singled out by the enemy. Dundee, after the manner of the ancient Greek and Roman generals, is said to have harangued his men in the following enthusiastic strain:-

"You are come hither to fight, and that in the best of causes; for it is the battle of your king, your religion, and your country, against the foulest usurpation and rebellion. And having therefore so good a cause in your hands, I doubt not but it will inspire you with an equal courage to maintain it; for there is no proportion betwixt loyalty and treason, nor should there be any betwixt the valour of good subjects and traitors. Remember that t-day begins the fate of your king, your religion, and your country. Behave yourselves, therefore, like true Scotsmen, and let us by this action redeem the credit of this nation, that is laid low by the treacheries and cowardice of some of our countrymen, in making which request, I ask nothing of you that I am not now ready to do myself. And if any of us shall fall upon this occasion, we shall have the honor of dying on our duty, and as becomes true men of valor and conscience; and such of us as shall live and win the battle, shall have the reward of a gracious king and the praise of all good men. In God's name, then, let us go on, and let this be your word - King James and the church of Scotland, which God long preserve!".

A pause now ensued and a death-like silence prevailed along the line, when, on a sudden, it appeared in motion, marching slowly down the hill. The Highlanders, who stripped themselves to their shirts and doublets, advanced, according to their usual practice, with their bodies bent forward, so as to present as small a surface as possible to the fire of the enemy, the upper part of their bodies being covered by their targets.

To discourage the Highlanders in their advance by keeping up a continual fire, Mackay had given instructions to his officers commanding battalions, to commence firing by platoons, at the distance of a hundred paces. This prder was not attended to, as Balfour's regiment, and the half of Ramsay's, did not fire a single shot, and the other half fired very little. The Highlanders, however, met with a very brisk fire from Mackay's right, and particularly from his own battalion, in which no less than 16 gentlemen of the Macdonells of Glengarry fell; but, undismayed by danger, they kept steadily advancing in the face of the enemy's fire, of which they received three rounds. Having now come close up to the enemy, they halted for a moment, and having leveled and discharged their pistols, which did little execution, they set up a loud shout and rushed sword in hand upon the enemy, before the latter had time to screw on their bayonets to the end of their muskets. The shock was too impetuous to be long resisted by men, who, according to their own general, "behaved, with the exception of Hasting's and Leven's regiment, like the vilest cowards in nature". But even had these men been more stout-hearted, their courage would not have availed them, as their arms were insufficient to parry off the tremendous strokes of the exes, and the broad and double-edged swords of the Highlanders, who, with a single blow, either felled their opponents to the earth or struck off a member from their bodies, and at once disabled them. While the work of death was thus going on towards the right, Dundee, at the head of the horse, made a furious charge on Mackay's own battalion, and broke through it, on which the English horse which were stationed behind, fled without firing a single shot. Dundee, thereupon, rode off to attack the enemy's cannon, but the officer (Sir William Wallace) who had that morning produced his commission as colonel of the horse, appears to have misunderstood Dundee, who, on arriving near the enemy's cannon, found himself alone. He, therefore, gave the horse a signal to advance quickly, on which the Earl of Dunfermline, who then served only as a volunteer, overlooking the affront which had been put upon him, rode out of the ranks, followed by 16 gentlemen, attacked the party who guarded the cannon, and captured them.

As soon as Mackay perceived that Dundee's grand point of attack was near the center of his line, he immediately resolved to attack the Highlanders in flank with the two troops of horse which he had placed in the rear of his line, for which purpose he ordered Lord Belhaven to proceed round the left wing with his own troop, and attack them on their right flank; he ordered at the same time the other troop to proceed in the contrary direction, and assail them on their left. Mackay himself led round Bellhaven's troop, but it was scarcely in front of the line when it got into disorder, and instead of obeying the orders to wheel for the flank of the enemy, after some confused firing it turned upon the right wing of Lord Kenmure's battalion, which it threw into disorder, and which thereupon began to give way.

At this critical moment Mackay, who was instantly surrounded by a crowd of Highlanders, anxious to disentangle his cavalry, so as to get them formed, called aloud to them to follow him, and putting spurs to his horse galloped through the enemy, but with the exception of one servant whose horse was shot under him, not a single horseman attempted to follow their general. When he had gone sufficiently far to be out of the reach of immediate danger, he turned round to observe the state of matters, and to his infinite surprise he found that both armies had disappeared. To use his own expression, "in the twinkling of an eye, in a manner", his own men as well as the enemy were out of sight, having gone down pell-mell to the river where his baggage stood. The flight of his men must have been rapid indeed, for although the left wing, which had never been attacked, had begun to flee before he rode off, the right wing and center still kept their ground.

Mackay now stood in one of the most extraordinary predicaments in which the commander of an army was ever placed. His whole men had, as if by some supernatural cause, disappeared almost in an instant of time, and he found himself standing a solitary being on the mountain side, not knowing what to do, or whither to direct his course. Whether had they had the courage to follow him, the timid troop would have turned the tide of victory in his favor, may indeed be well doubted; but it is obvious that he adopted the only alternative which could render success probable. Judging from the ease with which he galloped through the Highlanders, who made way for him, he thinks that if had had but 50 resolute horse such as Colchester's, he "had certainly", as he says, "by all human appearance recovered all", for although his whole line had begun to give way when he ordered the horse to follow him, the right of the enemy had not then moved from their ground. While ruminating upon the "sad spectacle" which he now beheld, his mind preyed upon by the most gloomy reflections, he fortunately espied to the right, "a small heap of red coats", which he immediately galloped for, and found it to consist of a part of the Earl of Leven's regiment, mixed with a few stragglers from other regiments who had escaped from the swords of the Highlanders. The Earl himself, his Lieutenant-colonel, the Major, and most of the other officers of the regiment, were with this body. Mackay perceived a part of Hasting's regiment marching up to the ground it had occupied at the commencement of the action. Having rode up to this party, he was informed by the Colonel that he had left his ground in pursuit of the enemy, a detachment of which had attempted to outflank him, but having wheeled to the right upon them with his pikes, they abandoned the idea of attacking him, and repaired to their main body, which they observed among the baggage at the river-side.

The plunder which the baggage offered was too tempting a lure for the Highlanders, whose destructive progress it at once arrested. It was in fact solely to this thirst for spoil that Mackay and the few of his men who escaped owed their safety, for had the Highlanders continued the pursuit, it is very probable that not a single individual of Mackay's army would have been left alive to relate their sad disaster.

As soon as Mackay had got up Hasting's battalion and joined it to that of Leven's, he dispatched his nephew, Captain Mackay, who, though he had received eight broad-sword wounds on his body, was still able to ride his horse, in quest of such of his officers as might be within his reach, about the bottom of the hill, with orders to collect as many of their men as they could, and join the general.

This mission was totally unsuccessful, for although he had fallen in with several officers, few of them took any notice of him; and all who had survived the battle were now scattered far beyond Mackay's reach. While receiving this afflicting intelligence, Mackay descried in the twilight, a large body of men, who appeared to form themselves along the edge of a wood on Balfour's left, where Lieutenant-colonel Lauder had been posted with 200 men. As he was not yet aware of the fate of Lauder's corps, which was among the first that fled, he supposed that the body he had observed might either be that party of another body of his men who had retired to the wood on the descent of the Highlanders, and he therefore rode off to reconnoiter them, after directing his officers to endeavor to put their men in a condition to fire one discharge, at least, if attacked. Mackay approached the party sufficiently near to discover that they were Dundee's men, and having turned his horse's head he walked slowly back, that he might not excite the apprehensions of the Highlanders. The ground on which Mackay stood with the wreck of his army, amounting to scarcely 400 men, was the farthest removed of any other part of the position he had selected in the morning, from the point to which he was necessarily obliged to direct his retreat, and over the intervening space he could not but expect to fall in with parties of the Highlanders, who would fall upon him. and kill or disperse his tired followers. But he extricated himself from the difficulties which beset him, with considerable adroitness. He advised them on no account to show any inclination to run, but, on the contrary, might endanger it the more, as the Highlanders, observing their terror, would certainly break in among them, and pursue them with the greater avidity. When about to retire down the hill the party was joined by Lord Belhaven, and a few other horsemen, who proved very serviceable as scouts during the retreat. Mackay then led his men slowly down the hill, and evaded the enemy so completely that he did not meet with the least interruption in his march. He retired across the Garry without molestation, and made a short halt to ascertain whether he was pursued. Seeing no disposition on the part of the Highlanders to follow him, he began to think of the best way of returning out of Athole. All his officers advised him to return to Perth through the pass of Killiecrankie, but he saw proper to reject this advice, and resolved to march several miles up Athole and cross over the hills to Stirling.

Giving orders, therefore, to his men to march, he proceeded to the west along the bank of the river, and had the satisfaction, when about two miles from the field of battle, to come up with a party of about 150 fugitives almost without arms, under the command of Colonel Ramsay, who was quite at a loss what direction to take. Mackay then continued his march along the edge of a rivulet which falls into the Garry, till he came to some little houses. Here he obtained from one of the inhabitants, information as to the route he meant to follow, and having made himself acquainted, as far as he could, by an examination of his map, with the situation of the country through which he had to pass, he crossed the stream and proceeded across the hills towards Weem castle, the seat of the chief of the clan Menzies, whose son had been in the action with a company of 100 Highlanders he had raised for the service of the government. After a most fatiguing journey, he reached the castle before morning. Here he obtained some sleep and refreshment, of which he stood greatly in need, having since his departure from Dunkeld, on the morning preceding, marched about 40 miles.

The news of Mackay's defeat had preceded his retreat; and on his march during the following day, he found the country through which he passed in an uproar, and every person arming in favor of King James. The people of Strathtay alarmed at the approach of Mackay's men, whom they took to be Highlanders, and considering their houses and cattle in danger, set up a dreadful shout, which so frightened Mackay's men that they began to flee back to the hills under an apprehension that the Highlanders were at hand. Mackay and some of his officers on horseback, by presenting their pistols and threatening the fugitives, succeeded in rallying them, but owing to the thickness of the morning more that 100 escaped, all of whom were killed, stripped, or taken prisoners by the country people. Mackay continued his march with very little halting all that day, being Sunday the 28th, and arrived late at night at Drummond castle, in which he had a garrison. Next day he reached Stirling with about 400 men.

On the morning after the battle - for night had thrown its curtain over the horrors of the scene, before the extent of the carnage could be ascertained - the field of battle and the ground between it and the river, extending as far as the pass, presented an appalling spectacle in the vast numbers of the dead which strewed the savage and unrelenting ferocity with which Mackay's men had been hewn down by the Highlanders. Here might be seen a skull which had been struck off above the ears by a stroke from a broad-sword - there a head lying near the trunk from which it had been severed - here an arm or a limb - there a corpse laid open from the head to the brisket; while interspersed among these lifeless trunks, dejectaque membra, were to be seen broken pikes, small swords and muskets, which had been snapped asunder by the athletic blows of the Lochaber axe and broad-sword.

If the importance of a victory is to be reckoned by the comparative numbers of the slain, and the brilliant achievements of the victors, the battle of Killiecrankie may well stand high in the list of military exploits. Considering the shortness of the combat, the loss on the part of Mackay was prodigious. Not less than 2,000 of his men were either killed or captured. Among the slain were Lieutenant-colonel Mackay, brother of the General, Brigadier Balfour, and several other officers. Highland tradition reports that Balfour was cut down by the Reverend Robert Stewart, a Catholic clergyman, nephew to Stewart of Ballochin, for having contemptuously refused to receive quarter when offered him by the priest. The same tradition relates that Stewart, who was a powerful muscular man, followed the enemy in their flight down to the river, and towards the pass, wielding a tremendous broad-sword, with which he cut down numbers of the fugitives, and so much did he exert himself in the use of his fatal weapon, that, at the conclusion of the carnage, his hand had swollen to such an extent, that it could only be extricated from the basket-hilt of his sword, by cutting away the net-work.

Armour worn by Viscount Dundee at Killiecrankie
Armour worn by Viscount Dundee at Killiecrankie

Click here to see a video of the song
Braes of Killicrankie - Joann Gilmartin from TVScots

Hi Alastair,

A Canadian friend sent me your Electric Scotland Newsletter.

We wondered if you would be interested in highlighting our struggle to preserve the heart of the Jacobite Battlefield in Killiecrankie. The site of a comprehensive Jacobite victory.

We have put up two videos with evidence of where the battle line was and where some 2,500 men lost their lives in 1689. Cameron of Lochiel estimated 1,800 Scottish Government Red Coat soldiers died and 600 Jacobite highland clansmen died.

This link is to our web site page, with the video and supporting evidence that investigates where the last volley was fired by the red coat soldiers in to Clan Cameron. We use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyse the musket ball finds to determine where they could have been fired from.

This next video investigates the position of the whole battle line that stretched over 1.5km in length. This investigation uses archaeology, first-hand accounts and GIS analysis. 

Our Facebook page is

Best wishes


James Rattray
Chairman Soldiers Of Killiecrankie
01796 473335

The Battle of Killiecrankie a resounding Jacobite Victory.

On the 27th July 1689 a Scottish Government red coat army of 3,500 men was defeated by a small highland clan army of just under 2,000 Gaels. It was a resounding victory for the highland clans later to be called Jacobites, supporters of James II of England and VII of Scotland.

The Jacobite Wars have been hijacked over the last 250 years by many. Each group telling their own interpretation of the history. This started by the Jacobite song writers such as Robert Burns, ‘Braes of Killiecrankie’ and Lady Nairn who were not alive through the Jacobite period.

Lock down due to the Corona pandemic led me to do ten live sessions from Killiecrankie Battlefield. I live on the battlefield, so access was not a problem, complying with all the restrictions in travel that Corona required.

The live sessions told the story from two first-hand accounts of the battle. General Hugh McKay the Scottish Government red coat army commander and from Cameron of Lochiel, Viscount Dundee’s right hand man, both leaving detailed accounts. Viscount Dundee the brilliant Jacobite commander did not survive the battle. You can view these sessions on our web site

What I and those who watched the sessions learnt, was that the Battle of Killiecrankie reflected Scotland’s two very different 17th century societies Lowland and Highland. The Scottish Government Army was composed of Lowland English speaking scots, commanded by a highlander in General McKay. The Highland Army were mainly Gaelic Scots commanded by a Lowlander, Viscount Dundee.

There was only one English regiment on the field of battle, Hastings Regiment on McKay’s right wing. Hastings was so poorly equipped that General McKay had to despatch ‘fire locks’ to them from other regiments to give them some protection.
My six time great-grandfather fought as one of the forty strong Jacobite Cavalry at Killiecrankie.

My four times great-grandfather fought in the 1745 Jacobite rising. He was arrested and tried in London like so many other Jacobites. What is not often told about these trials, is that English Jacobites did their best to try and free as many Scottish Jacobites as possible. Our own family account of James Rattray’s trial tells us how people unknown to the family got up and spoke up in support of James Rattray and how he was acquitted.

I tell you this as so many over the centuries have portrayed the Jacobites as some kind of struggle between the Scots and the Westminster Parliament. Remember that in 1689, Scotland had its own parliament and was separate country except for sharing the same monarch.

The real story of the Jacobite Wars was that it was a clash of Scotland’s two cultures. The highland Gaelic Clans supporting James II and VII, a Catholic who believed in the divine right of Kings. The English speaking lowland culture supporting the Protestant dynasty started by William and Mary.

Unfortunately the highland culture came out on the wrong side of the Jacobite Wars ending at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. This allowed measures to be put in place by the victors that changed the highland way of life for ever.

Let’s not forget this struggle of highland versus lowland culture has continued through the centuries. Gaelic was banned in Scottish Schools up until very recently. Remember the Scottish Education system was one of the four opt-outs that Scotland negotiated when it agreed to join with England to for the United Kingdom in 1707. The Scottish Parliament was dissolved and the English Parliament was dissolved and the UK parliament created.

This highland versus lowland culture continues to this day. Here at Killiecrankie the site of a famous Jacobite victory, Transport Scotland are determined to drive a new carriageway through the very area where many of the 2,500 men died in 1689. A continuation of the centuries of struggle of Highland Versus Lowland cultures.

We have put together a couple of videos that depict our research as to why the route chosen by Transport Scotland will destroy the very heart of the battlefield. You can see these videos on our web page

In a letter dated 28th August 2020, Michael Matheson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, dismissing any new evidence we highlight in these two videos, by stating the Public Enquiry he set up is the final decision maker. Those of you who chose to view the videos will see questions we ask about the quality of some of the facts that Transport Scotland put forward as evidence to the enquiry.