Places of Interest, Killiecrankie

By James Irvine Robertson

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lthough at some time or another most glens, hills, and straths round here would have echoed with the 'sullen and hollow' clank of sword against sword and the screams of the wounded and dying, a couple of miles north of Pitlochry the A9 strides across the most famous battlefield in Highland Perthshire. The battle was at the start of the chaotic Highland War which dragged on for several years after Catholic James VII's abandonment of the throne and the arrival of the Protestant William of Orange. John Graham, Viscount Dundee, rejected the Scottish Estates' decision to accept William as king, and made himself the first Jacobite by raising the standard for the deposed Stuart monarch.

At the end of July 1689 a government army hurried north after it was reported that Dundee was recruiting amongst the Athollmen and that Blair Castle was in the hands of rebels. The Highlanders were waiting for the redcoats just north of the pass of Killiecrankie - the name means wood of the Picts. For much of a hot July day the redcoats were lined up in defensive formation on a patch of flat ground just above Urrard House. They could not retreat since they would have been cut to pieces when they went back through the gorge. The rebel army was massed on the heights of Craig Eallaich and Dundee waited until the sun had descended behind the hills and was no longer in the eyes of his men before launching the Highland charge.

The stories of the battle say that the clansmen fought naked. After sitting on a bare hillside throughout much of a hot afternoon, it would have been surprising if they were still wearing their bulky plaids but the shirt they wore beneath would have preserved most of their modesty. Not even Highlanders would wish to charge into battle through bracken, heather and thistles without some sort of fig leaf to protect and contain their vitals.

The rebels waited until they were near to the 'very bosoms' of their enemy before firing a musket volley and after this 'great clap of thunder, they threw away their guns and fell pell-mell amongst the thickest of their opponents with their broad-swords.'

The execution amongst the attackers when the redcoats fired their own volley was equalled by the butchery of the Highlanders' blades. Without an effective bayonet, the regular troops had little to counter the broadsword. Half of the government army managed to stand its ground and make an orderly withdrawal, half fled back through the pass in precipitate retreat being harried as far as Perth by the victorious Highlanders and bands of other Athollmen who had not participated in the battle.

A horrifying account of the battle and of the nature of the weapon that Highlanders used survives from a government officer. 'Many of General McKay's officers and soldiers were cut down through the skull and neck to the breast: others had their skulls cut above their ears like night caps; some soldiers had both their bodies and cross belts cut through at one blow.'

Dundee was killed by a musket ball at a critical point of the engagement and, in the hiatus this caused, McKay was able to withdraw the surviving regiments of his army across the Garry and retire across the hills to Weem and the south. Some 1200 government troops were casualties left on the field; 500 were taken prisoner and perhaps 800 Highlanders were killed, total losses higher than Culloden.

The Jacobite army doubled in size within a couple of days of the battle but Cannon, the new commander, was no match for his predecessor. 300 Robertsons were routed at Perth by McKay and three weeks later the Cameronian regiment inflicted defeat upon a much stronger force of rebels when they tried to take Dunkeld.

The National Trust Visitor Centre at Killiecrankie is the entrance to the path that follows the old road through the Pass and gives some idea of how formidable an impediment to communications the geography of the Highlands used to create. Along the river are the Soldier's Leap, where one redcoat's fear gave him wings across the turbulent rapids, and the spot were the Rev. Robert Stewart hacked Brigadier Balfour to death. At the end of the battle the steel basketwork of the hilt of the minister's sword had to be cut away by a blacksmith before he could extricate his hand.

Nowadays the vegetation of the Pass is unusual because the woodlands have changed little over the centuries and today still regenerate naturally. Hares and deer, particularly red deer, devastate the tree cover in the Highlands but Killiecrankie has retained its predators. Although not as romantic as wolves, the combination of the railway, the B8079, and the A9 do just as efficient a job in controlling browsers.