By James Irvine Robertson
The old two-handed sword of the sort wielded by Wallace and Bruce is the claidheamh da laimh. The later, basket-hilted, lighter, double-edged broadsword is the claidheamh mor or claymore. The introduction of this weapon in the seventeenth century allowed the Gael to develop a new kind of warfare, first employed by Alasdair McColla, Montrose's ferocious henchman, in Ireland. The clansman dropped his protective armour and clothing, and defended himself with 30" two-ply wooden shield, the targe. He wore just a shirt, brogues roughly cut from deer or cowhide, and his plaid. This great swath of tartan kept the rain off him, and was used as a blanket at night under the stars or the more likely rain clouds. If there was a blizzard, then he dipped his plaid in water which made the garment into a wind break which became even more effective when it froze. There were mutterings of disapproval at the effeminacy of one young MacDonald chieftain who led his father's tenants on his first winter raid upon some neighbours. Benighted at the top of a pass, his men were appalled to see him build a pillow from the snow.
Inspired by the music of war pipes, the Gaels learned to charge at the foe, pause at the edge of musket range, fire their guns, and throw themselves to the ground to avoid the enemy's first volley. Whilst they struggled to reload, the clansmen split into wedges of a dozen men and, screaming war cries, they burst through the concealing powder smoke at their opponents. The claymore was a butcher's weapon, and in the wake of an attack the field would be littered with dismembered corpses and limbs. It took a century and Culloden for regular troops to learn to counter a well-launched Highland charge.
The Stuart kings used Highlander against Lowlander in the seventeenth century, but the Gael had three drawbacks as a fighting man. He would only obey the orders of someone he knew, preferably his laird or chieftain. When he won a victory, he would melt back homeward with his plaid stuffed full of loot, and he was unhappy campaigning far from home and leaving his own estate undefended. Cattle were always the greatest prize. Raiding one's neighbour or, even better, the sassenachs was considered more sport than crime.
The Lowlanders were sedentary, dependent on their crops to survive. The Highlander had a lesser investment in his arable patch. He knew his house could be easily rebuilt. In times of danger he could shift his beasts to remote corries where they would be safe and if the worst came to the worst and his livestock were stolen he could always take someone else's. The Gael believed the whole of Scotland rightfully belonged to him. To take a cow from a Lowlander was simply reclaiming his own. His thinking went even beyond this. A cow lived and bred on the hill on God's good grass, air, and water. It belonged to the Lord and no man could claim possession of it, not unless it was guarded by his own sword.
In some tribal cultures warfare becomes ritualised, but in the Highlands it was always a bloody business. Whole communities were exterminated in the most barbaric fashion and great tracts of country laid waste in settling clan disputes or the struggle for dominance between rivals. Much as the Gaels might weep at the behaviour of the redcoats after Culloden, they had been doing the same to each other for centuries, particularly in the strife-torn 1600s.
As a generalisation one in six of the population were warriors. Any man who failed to answer his laird's call risked being thrown off his land which would lead to starvation for his family. Still more imperative was the Fiery Cross - a couple of charred sticks bound with a white rag dipped in blood - which was carried round by a runner. This signalled that the country was in danger of attack. To ignore this summons could lead to dishonour and execution.
In 1644 war was raging between the parliaments and the Stuart king. The earl of Atholl was a child. Alasdair McColla had brought his hardened caterans across from Ireland to pursue his clan's rivalry with the Campbells who had usurped the power of the Macdonald lords of the Isles. He proceeded to burn his way across the Highlands in the name of the king. In August McColla approached Atholl, the crops of Badenoch in flames behind him. 800 Athollmen - Stewarts and Robertsons - gathered to defend their country. Just before the confrontation, the marquis of Montrose interceded and persuaded the two armies to unite under his leadership to fight for Charles I.
Only Sir Alexander Menzies, chief of his clan and holder of land in Strathtay and Rannoch, refused to join this force and his people paid the price when the royalists laid waste to his territory. During Montrose's dazzling campaign, the earl of Argyll seized his moment to attack unguarded Atholl but faced a terrible retribution when the royalists returned to ravage Campbell lands and slaughter any men they could catch from Loch Tay to the sea. From McColla's warriors the Athollmen learned the Highland charge and Montrose won only victories when they were in his ranks.
The Athollmen rose again in 1650 against Cromwell's regime which led to occupation and an attempt at pacification, but three years later they fought again in Glencairn's rising. The restoration of Charles II brought the Atholl family into royal favour and checked the rise of the Campbells of Argyll, the earl fleeing to Holland after being sentenced to death for treason. He returned to Scotland in 1685 to fight in support of the duke of Monmouth's claim to the throne and the marquis of Atholl, who had been elevated from earl in 1676, was commanded by King James VII & II to counter him. Under Patrick Steuart of Ballechin, the marquis's war lord, the Athollmen invaded Argyllshire, captured Inveraray, and hanged seventeen Campbell lairds from the walls of the town. They cut the arms off one before his execution.
When James VII abandoned the British throne to William of Orange in 1688, the marquis of Atholl hurried to London to show his support for the new regime and allied himself to the Scottish Convention that supported William, but Patrick Steuart, took Blair Castle for the Jacobites - the followers of James - and the locals flocked to the banner of Viscount Dundee.
At the Pass of Killiecrankie, the second of the two formidable natural gateways into the heart of Atholl, the Highland charge swept a government army into the river Garry. At the moment of victory, Dundee was killed and the remnants of the defeated regiments retired south. For a month his followers were rudderless. Then the government sent the Cameronians, a regiment drawn from the Covenanters of the south west, to Dunkeld where they fortified the cathedral precincts. Four thousand vengeful Highlanders occupied the heights above and the ensuing battle, in which quarter was neither expected nor given, ended up with the complete destruction of the city before the Highlanders retreated but the rebellion grumbled on for another four years.
The old marquis died in 1703. His son, created duke by Queen Anne, vehemently opposed the Union. When Queen Anne died in 1715, the Whig government in London invited George of Hanover to take the throne. The earl of Mar was dismissed from office by the new king and he accepted a commission from the Jacobite Pretender, returning to Scotland to raise the flag of rebellion. The duke remained loyal and held Blair Castle against the rebels throughout the campaign but his vassals, tenants and most of his own family joined Mar. The Athollmen were split into four regiments, three of which were commanded by the duke's sons, and the fourth by his nephew, Lord Nairn. Two battalions of the Atholl Brigade were detached to link with the Jacobites in north England. On the day that Mar fought the indecisive battle of Sheriffmuir, the Athollmen in England surrendered to the government army besieging it at Preston, and the Rising collapsed. For thirty years afterwards Atholl was peaceful, its lairds licking the financial wounds imposed as punishment by the authorities.
By the mid eighteenth century the people were edging towards the rest of Scotland. The pacification process after the '15 had brought General George Wade to Scotland and he built the first roads into the Highlands. He bridged the Tay at Aberfeldy on his route north from Crieff and this met his second road from Perth at Dalnacardoch. These highways, much of which are still in use under layers of tarmac, were intended to facilitate the movement of troops and cannon north to subdue the clans, but their main effect was to bring the Perthshire Highlands and Lowlands closer together. New ideas were flowing through the straths and people were already beginning to emigrate to find a prosperity that the harsh climate and poor soil of their home country could never offer.
But 1745 brought the Year of the Prince. The most spectacular, ill-starred, and, thanks to the Charter Room at Blair Castle, one of the best documented year of Atholl's history was ushered in when Prince Charles landed in Eriskay in July 1745. In his company of seven was the duke's elder brother William, disinherited for his participation in a rebellion of 1708.
When the prince marched his twelve hundred western clansmen towards Atholl the government-supporting duke moved to his southerly seat at Dunkeld. About half the local lairds decided to remain loyal to the Hanoverians and tried to avoid the looming conflict. But many other gentlemen of Atholl felt their honour demanded they once more support the Stuart claim to the throne. They and the tenants on their estates had fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers who had fought for the Stuarts. If Prince Charlie's father, James, was their king, then William was their duke and they must obey his commands. Clan Donnachaidh joined the Atholl Brigade. In spite of the wishes of their chief, so did Clan Menzies.
Lord George Murray, who was by far the most able of Prince Charles' generals, perhaps explained the feelings of many Athollmen when he wrote to his brother, the duke James. 'I own francly...that what I do may and will be reccon'd desperat & ... may very probably end in my utter ruen. My Life, my Fortune, my expectations, the Happyness of my wife & children, are all at stake (& the chances are against me), & yet a principle of (what seems to me) Honour, & my Duty to King and Country, outweighs every thing.'
For two days duke William entertained the prince at Blair. The duke's cousin, Lady Lude whose mansion house lay virtually within cannon shot of the castle, laid on a ball at which most of the remaining Atholl gentry were guests and the ordinary folk flocked to see the Highlanders and Prince Charles. He and his army then marched through Killiecrankie, Pitlochry, and Dunkeld to Perth while press gangs made up of northern clans, who would not be hampered from thoroughness by ties of kinship, recruited reluctant soldiers from the clachans and the shielings high in the hills.
Lord George drilled his Athollmen until they were the cream of the rebel army. They marched down to Edinburgh and continued south with the prince to Derby. With three government armies ranged against him, each greatly outnumbering his own men, Charles was persuaded to retreat and the weary Highlanders returned to Scotland. In February 1746 at the Battle of Falkirk the Athollmen were the only rebel unit to obey orders and their steadfastness saved the day for the Jacobites, but the retreat continued. The few pieces of rebel artillery were hauled up Wade's road through Dunkeld to Blair whilst the Highlanders marched through Crieff and across Taybridge.
For a couple of days the Athollmen were in their own country once again while deserters were rounded up. Then the withdrawal north continued and government troops, most of them Campbells of the Argyll Militia, occupied Atholl, billeting themselves in the mansion houses of the absent lairds and the townships. The pass of Drumochter, where the hill called the Sow of Atholl faced the Boar of Badenoch through the March blizzards, was the nomansland between the two armies.
A month later, responding to a letter detailing Campbell excesses in Atholl, Lord George Murray launched a spectacular raid into these straths. Sweeping through Drumochter in the small hours of the morning, he split his troops into thirty-odd small companies each of which attacked the soldiers that occupied their homes. With scarcely a casualty Atholl was retaken by the Jacobites and the captured militia herded north like cattle to Ruthven. Lord George then besieged his brother's castle at Blair which was occupied by the 21st Regiment under Col Sir Andrew Agnew, a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered old warrior. His opinion of Lord George was succinct. 'Is the loon clean daft, knocking down his own brother's house?'
The siege - the last time a castle was besieged in Britain - contained elements of farce. The Jacobites made their headquarters in McGlashans Inn in Old Blair, taking over from the redcoats who had fled into the castle at the rebels' approach. Lord George had only a couple of small cannon and these were set up in the churchyard in front of the inn. First the garrison had to be offered a chance to surrender.
Knowing Sir Andrew's cantankerous reputation, none of the Jacobites were willing to approach within gunshot. The dilemma was solved by Molly, one of the serving wenches at the Inn. She knew and had catered to the needs of the government soldiers and volunteered to sashay up to one of the ground floor windows where she handed in a note asking the redcoats to surrender. The missive was taken to Sir Andrew, and his roars of rage made Molly lift her skirts and flee back across to the rebel commanders standing in the churchyard. The redcoat officer who wrote a diary of the siege saw Lord George and his lieutenants double with laughter at her report.
The authorities sent Hessian mercenary troops to Dunkeld to counter the Jacobite re-invasion but these were reluctant to try to cross the passes at Killiecrankie and Glen Goulandie where they might be ambushed by the enemy. They contented themselves by parading on the haugh land on the banks of the Tummel by Pitlochry hoping to draw the Highlanders to combat.
For the troops inside the castle, food and water were short. The besiegers' artillery was too small do to much more than break the slates on the roof so the local smith set up braziers in St Bride's churchyard to roast the cannon balls and thus set the castle alight. This was foiled by tubs of urine posted by Sir Andrew at strategic points. The bored officers inside the castle set up an effigy dressed as their commander peering through a spy-glass from a window. The Highlanders enthusiastically blazed away at this tempting target until Sir Andrew inquired what was going on. The young lieutenant who set up the dummy had to brave the Highlanders' inaccurate fire and dismantle it.
Just when matters were becoming critical for the redcoats, Prince Charles recalled Lord George. The morning patrol of the Hessians found the Highlanders gone. Those besieged in the castle ventured cautiously out, finding still alive a horse that had been shut in an outbuilding for the fortnight of the siege without food and water, and reclaimed McGlashans and Molly as their own once more.
The first time the Atholl Brigade was fully employed in battle was its last. A fortnight after they returned north came Culloden. The Athollmen were on the right wing, the men of each estate standing together behind their lairds. For half an hour they stood in ranks receiving fire from the government artillery as they waited in the driving sleet for the order to charge. When the prince issued the command it failed to reach Lord George who was standing at the head of his men. Finally a regiment to the left could stand the delay no longer and launched the last attack in the last battle on British soil. Within fifteen minutes the conflict was over. The left wing of the Jacobites never made contact with the enemy. Low morale and the impossibility of breaking through the immaculate lines of bayonets left them impotent, throwing stones through the powder smoke at the redcoats.
The Athollmen charged down alongside a field wall and their front was constricted. They ran into a killing ground. A government regiment had manoeuvred so that it could fire into the flank of the charging Highlanders. To the musket fire scything into the ranks of the Brigade was added clusters of two-ounce balls of lead from the artillery which had switched to grape and canister shot. The Athollmen broke through the first rank of Barrel's Regiment, but the second line held and the impetus of the attack failed. A retreat began through the additional musket fire of the Argyll Militia which was now lining the field wall.
Bar the casualties to the Jacobites as they waited for the order to charge, almost all the losses occurred on the right wing. Some three hundred governments troops were killed. But about fifteen hundred dead and wounded Highlanders littered the heather in front of them. Those who were too badly injured to crawl or be helped from the field were bayonetted by Cumberland's men.
It took nearly a week before the results of the battle filtered down to Atholl, now once again in the tight grip of the military. On some estates where the laird had been a government supporter, not a man was lost because the tenants knew that their farms were secure if they avoided service in the prince's army. On the Jacobite estates, the womenfolk would have waited in dread for the news of casualties and in all too many cases it was devastating.
Details from rebel armies that lose are always sketchy. Nobody wants to be associated with disaster and face the consequences. And so proper casualty figures of those who died in these straths was never compiled. However on two Atholl estates - Killiechassie and Kynachan - figures do survive. On the first the laird and four of his men returned, leaving twenty nine dead on the field. Of the thirty six men from Kynachan, only one is said to have come home. It was Atholl's darkest hour and the beginning of the end for the Gaelic culture.
Had Prince Charles never come to Scotland the ancient culture of the Gael would have probably quietly decayed under the impact of the Industrial Revolution. But the Rising, and the savage effectiveness of the government in exterminating the way of life that spawned its soldiers and could spawn them again, gave the death of this society a focus and a tragic romance that echoes down the centuries.
Captured rebels were executed, transported to the colonies, or died in prison; weapons were confiscated, episcopal meeting houses burned, the kilt, tartan, and the plaid banned, bagpipes forbidden, the authority of the chiefs removed, the Gaelic language suppressed, the estates of leading Jacobites annexed. In addition, government troops were raping, murdering, burning, and looting their way across the Highlands. The duke of Atholl's factor, Thomas Bisset, strove to protect his master's lands and its people but the Campbell militia had scores to settle and took its revenge upon the innocent. The guilty were beyond their reach, piled in the mass graves on Culloden moor.