The Battle of Killiecrankie

The Battle of Killiecrankie

Author
Jonathan D Oates
ARRSE Rating
3.5 Mushroom Heads
On 27 July 1689 one of the bloodiest battles in Scottish history took place at Killiecrankie in Perthshire. A small Highland army led by a lowlander – John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee or 'Bonnie Dundee' – confronted a much larger army of Scots, English and Dutchmen led by a highlander - Lieutenant General Hugh Mackay. The battle was fought to decide who should rule the country: the new and far from popular Presbyterian Government, which supported William of Orange and Queen Mary (William II of Scots; William III of England and Mary II in both countries), or the recently exiled King James VII of Scotland and II of England, who was then leading a separate campaign in Ireland to regain his throne. Whoever won the battle of Killiecrankie would gain control of central Scotland and would have a good chance of securing the Lowlands for his King. Mackay had more men, more artillery and more cavalry, but in the event the Highland army won, inflicting heavy losses on the Williamite forces. The handsome and charismatic Dundee was however killed at the moment of victory; a serious loss to the Jacobite cause.

This book covers the whole first Jacobite campaign of 1689-1691, including the Battle of Dunkeld, which took place the following month on 21 August, when a beleaguered garrison of the Cameronian Regiment, led by Colonel William Cleland, faced a far larger Highland Jacobite force. The battle raged for sixteen hours as the Cameronians were gradually forced back towards the Cathedral. Many Cameronians who had barricaded themselves inside houses were trapped and burned alive. At 11pm, having run out of energy and ammunition, the Highlanders withdrew, leaving 300 of their men dead or dying in the town. Colonel Cleland, who was among the dead, is buried in the Cathedral. Apart from the human casualties, Dunkeld, especially the Cathedral, still shows the damage sustained during the intensive street-fighting.

The surviving Cameronians claimed Dunkeld as a war-winning victory but at this point both sides were too exhausted in terms of money and manpower to continue the campaign. A compromise peace settlement was reached and the fighting was officially over; or almost over. The final act of the tragedy, the massacre of Glencoe, would take place in 1692.

The Battle of Killiecrankie is a useful addition to the literature of the first Jacobite campaign, which has received less attention than the Forty-Five. The author makes good use of primary sources, including letters, memoirs, newspapers and archaeological evidence. The book is copiously illustrated with pictures of military uniforms, weapons and maps. It provides insights into the politics of the period. I learned a lot from it. So why have I awarded it only 3.5 mushroom-heads?

Firstly, because The Battle of Killiecrankie is not an easy read. Military historians will welcome it but the common reader is likely to find the mass of detail heavy going. Moreover the lack of an index is a drawback in any historical work of this kind, whether to the common reader or the serious researcher.

Secondly, because there are too many annoying mistakes and misprints. In Scotland King James was always referred to as James VII: this includes a reference in the Claim of Right, which is misquoted in the book as referring to him as James the Second. (James II of Scots reigned from 1437 to 1460.) King James VII was de jure King of Scots, not de facto. William of Orange was William II of Scots, not William I, as stated. Dunkeld Cathedral was not completely ruined; the nave still serves as the parish church. It gets worse: in 1689 some Episcopalian clergy were ejected from their churches and manses; they were not “elected”. On 18 May, at a gathering of clans in Lochaber, Dundee and Macdonnell of Glengarry were inveighing against William III (sic: i.e. William II of Scots); not “inveigling”. A good copy editor would have weeded out this kind of error.

Thirdly, the author fails to explain that William of Orange was not just King James's son-in-law: if the rights of James Francis Edward, Prince of Wales, be set aside, as they were, William was also, as King James's nephew and cousin, third in line of succession to the thrones of England and Scotland after his wife Mary II and her sister, the future Queen Anne. His marriage had allowed him to "leapfrog" Anne.

Fourthly, I would have welcomed more about Viscount Dundee's complex motives for placing himself, despite his relative lack of military experience, at the head of the Jacobite army and for leading the unnecessary cavalry charge in which he was killed. One factor, which the author does mention, was his hero-worship of his distant relation, the Marquis of Montrose, and his wish to prove worthy of him. However Dundee's other motives were more convoluted and political.

Finally, not far from Colonel Cleland's last resting place, Dunkeld Cathedral also contains the tomb of an undoubted, albeit doubly-illegitimate, great-great-grandson of King James VII and II: Charles Edward August Maximilien Stuart, also known as Count Roehenstart, who died in 1854. This intriguing coincidence might have been worth a mention?

The author, Dr Jonathan Oates, has a long-standing interest in the Jacobite campaigns; he is currently working on a biography of General Hawley. He works as an archivist in London and is a freelance lecturer on family, local and criminal history.

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