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The Battle of Killiecrankie

July 27, 1689

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In 1689, after William of Orange (William III) had landed on the shores of England ousting King James II from the dual thrones of England and Scotland, the Scottish Highland clans were to a great extent sympathetic to their former King.  When John Graham of Claverhouse and Viscount Dundee ("Bluidy Clavers" to his enemies; "Bonnie Dundee" to his supporters) raised the Royal standard for King James II, most of the Highland Chiefs joined this "Jacobite" revolution (so named from the Latin for James, Jacobus) largely through the influence of Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, XVII Captain and Chief of Clan Cameron.  During the prior winter, before Dundee had "arrived on the scene," Sir Ewen had been engaged in forming a confederation of clans loyal to James and had written to or met every chief of importance.  When, therefore, Dundee came to Lochaber, Sir Ewen was able to give him an exact estimate of the support he was likely to receive.

A force of about 1,800 men and a few horse had joined Dundee when he heard that General Mackay of Scourie, in command of the governmental troops, was advancing towards Inverness.  Bonnie Dundee was determined to intercept Mackay near Blair Atholl and, regardless of the disparity in numbers, bring him to battle.  Many of the clans, including 500 additional Camerons, had not yet arrived ("the day arranged for the general gathering of the clans had not yet arrived.")  Dundee had ordered these reinforcements to follow "with all haste."

Sir Ewen had only his Lochaber men with him, numbering about 240, but he dispatched his eldest son, John and several others to Morvern, Sunart, Ardnamurchan and the surrounding districts to bring his adherents from these places with all speed.  Dundee, however, was so anxious to have Sir Ewen along with him that he requested him to follow with the small body of Camerons he then had, leaving orders for his son to follow with the others as soon as possible.  Sir Ewen, with this "small band," overtook Dundee just before he entered Atholl, where they were soon joined by about 300 Irish under the command of Major-General Cannon.  Proceeding on their way, they arrived at Blair Castle on July 27th.  Intelligence reports soon related that Mackay had just entered the Pass of Killiecrankie, heading towards the Atholl Basin.  Strategically the pass was of great importance, as it controlled a crucial north-south route through the Highlands. 

Dundee, after meeting with the Highland Chiefs in a war council, marched at the head of his troops to meet the enemy, never halting until they were within a musket shot of Mackay's army, which numbered about 3,500 foot and two troops of horse.  These men were mostly Lowland Scots and veterans of the Dutch wars.  Just left of the center, which consisted of the few horse Dundee commanded and forty of his "old troops," Sir Ewen took up his position at the head of the Camerons.  Though there were great intervals between Dundee's battalions and a large void space left in the center, the line could not possibly be "stretched" so as to equal that of the enemy.  Wanting men to fill up the void in the center, Sir Ewen was not only obliged to fight Mackay's own regiment, which stood directly opposite to him, but also had his flank exposed to the fire of Leven's battalion . Ewen he had not men enough to engage all these forces, consequently he thereafter suffered greatly.  Further diminishing his Cameron forces of only 240 men was that 60 were sent as Dundee's advance guard.  As for the composition of the "Camerons" they consisted of those obviously with the surname of Cameron, in addition to a large body of MacMartins being led by their cheiftain.  "Tannachy" was also present, along with "Glendessary" and a number of others including the "tribes" of Lonoch.

By the time Dundee got his army in order it was well on in the afternoon, and his men, aggravated by the fire of the enemy from the low ground, were anxious to be led into action.  One delay was inevitable, namely the sun, which was shinning straight in their faces; they were held back until near sunset.  During this interval Sir Ewen visited his Camerons and appealed personally to each of them, every one of whom declared in turn that they should conquer or die that day.  A rare description of the Chief of Clan Cameron has been preserved in "The Grameid," a first-hand Latin composition by James Philip of Almerieclose: "A helmet covers his head, to his side is girt a double-edged brand, blood red plumes float on his crest.  A cuirass of leather, harder than adamant, girds his breast and on his left arm hangs his shield.  His tartan hose are gartered round his calf, mail covers his shoulders, and a brazen plate his back.  All of his trappings are rigid with solid brass, and throw back to the clouds reflected light.  His very look so fierce, might fright the boldest foe.  His savage glance, and the swarthy hue of his Spanish countenance, his flashing eyes, his beard and moustache curls as the moon's horns, or the handle of the tongs, might terrify the bands of half-human Sycambrians."  

At seven o'clock Dundee gave the order to advance, upon which the Highlanders dropped their plaids and haversacks and advanced.  Sir Ewen, after ordering his men to follow Dundee's command, seems to have been much encumbered by the use of what were described as "the only pair of shoes in his clan."  Not being able to keep pace with his men, he commended them to the protection of God, sat down by the way and deliberately pulling off the footwear that crippled him.  He had the agility to get up to his men as they were drawing their swords, in close quarters with the enemy.  "It is incredible with what intrepidity the Highlanders endured the enemy's fire; and though it grew more terrible on their nearer approach, yet they, with a wonderful resolution, kept up their own, as they were commanded, till they came up to their very bosoms, and then pouring it in upon them all at once, like one great clasp of thunder, they threw away their guns and fell in pell-mell among the thickest of them with their broadswords. After this the noise seemed hushed; and the fire ceasing on both sides, nothing was heard for some few moments but the sullen and hollow clashes of broadswords, with the dismal groans and cries of dying and wounded men."

Sir Ewen was "attended" on this occasion by the son of his foster-brother (who had saved him at the battle of Achdalieu by receiving the shot intended for his Chief in his own mouth.)  "This faithful adherent followed him like his shadow, ready to assist him with  his sword, or cover him from the shot of his enemy.  Soon after the battle began the chief missed his friend from his side.  Turning round to look what had become of him, Ewen saw him lying on his back with his breast pierced by an arrow.  He had hardly breath before he expired to tell Lochiel that seeing an enemy, a Highlander in General Mackay's army, aiming at him with a bow and arrow from the rear, he sprung behind him and thus sheltered him from instant death.  The men of Lochaber's charge made it through to the enemy line, where Mackay's foot were "swept away by the furious onset of the Camerons."  Of the 240 reported Cameron men who took the field at Killiecrankie, one half perished in the battle, mainly from the flanking fire by Levin's battalion.  The contemporary song "The Battle of Killiecrankie" related: "Sir Evan Dhu, and his men true, Came linking up the brink, man: The Hogan Dutch they feared such, They bred a horrid stink, then."

Unfortunately, Dundee fell at the close of the battle, mortally wounded by a shot about two handbreadths within his armor, on the lower part of his left side.  The Highlanders, though they had to mourn the loss of about one third of their army, secured a complete victory.  Few of the enemy escaped, but having lost their brilliant commander, the war may be said to have ended - before it was well commenced - by a Highland victory; perhaps the most brilliant on record.  One hundred and fifty years later poets were still telling the tale of that great victory in the Pass of Killiecrankie.