Following their victory at the battle of Killiecrankie on 27 July 1689, the Jacobites under the command of Major-General Alexander Cannon attack a Scottish government force of Cameronians, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel William Cleland, in and around the town of Dunkeld on 21 August 1689. The brutal urban fighting would see most of the town destroyed.
Jacobitism is Born
In the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Catholic King James VII of Scotland and II of England and Ireland was deposed by his Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange and his wife Mary (James’ Protestant daughter). William, the stadtholder of the Netherlands, had landed with a Dutch army at Torbay in the English West Country on 5 November 1688. He had been invited to England by a group of lords fearful of a Catholic absolute monarchy and the spectre of a succession of popish monarchs following the birth of James’ son, James Francis Edward Stuart, on 10 June 1688. William was also keen to prevent England from joining an alliance with France under Louis XIV — who the Dutch were at war with — and bring English troops, ships, and money to bear against the French. With his support melting away rapidly in the face of William’s advance on London, James fled to France on 23 December. The English Parliament declared that in fleeing the country James had abdicated the throne and offered the crown to William and Mary. On 4 April 1689, the Scottish Parliament ruled the same. William and Mary were invested as joint monarchs.
In Scotland, there was still support for James among Catholics and Protestants (Episcopalians), highlanders, and lowlanders (mainly the northeast). Supporters of James became known as Jacobites, derived from Jacobus, the Latin for James. In April 1689, shortly after the Scottish Parliament’s ruling, the Jacobites rose in support of King James. With men drawn predominately from the highland clans, the rising of 1689 was led by the charismatic John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, an experienced professional soldier and a relation of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose who had led the highlanders to a string of victories for the royalist cause of James’ father Charles I during the civil war of the 1640s. Claverhouse had served under William of Orange while serving in the Scots Dutch Brigade 1674-78 during the Franco-Dutch War (1672-78).1
As part of the wider European war that was taking place at the time (War of the Grand Alliance 1688-97), the French had landed James in Ireland in March 1689 with 4,000 French troops, opening a new front against William.
On 27 July 1689, Claverhouse’s highland army routed a larger Scottish government force led by William’s commander in Scotland, Major-General Hugh Mackay, at the battle of Killiecrankie. In a major blow to the Jacobite cause, Claverhouse was killed in the fighting.
Following the death of John Graham of Claverhouse at the battle of Killiecrankie command of the Jacobite forces fell to Major-General Alexander Cannon, a lowland Scot from Galloway who had also served under William of Orange as an officer in the Scots Dutch Brigade. Cannon — a colonel in the English military establishment at the beginning of the revolution — had accompanied James into exile in France and was with James when he landed in Ireland. He was promoted to Brigadier-General and sent to Scotland with 300 men to support Claverhouse’s rising. Cannon was, however “unfit for the command of such an army. He seems to have possessed none of Dundee’s genius, and his regular military experience rendered him totally unfit to deal with such an irregular and capricious race as were the Highlanders, with whose habits, feelings, and dispositions, he was totally unacquainted”.
Appointed Major-General after the death of Claverhouse, Cannon gathered the Jacobite forces and marched south from their base at Blair Castle to Dunkeld, spending two days there where they received reinforcements, including men from Glencoe and the Appin Stewarts. Further clansmen were assembling at Braemar and the Jacobite forces in Scotland under the command of Cannon soon numbered around 5,000.2 Instead of marching on a lightly defended Perth with his full force, Cannon sent a party of 300 men to secure supplies that had been stockpiled there for the government forces. On 1 August the party was taken by surprise by government cavalry led by Major-General Hugh Mackay, with around 100 killed or captured.3 Fearing government forces would be too strong in the Perth area Cannon decided to march his army north to Braemar to collect the additional reinforcements all the while pursued by Mackay’s mounted force.
“General Canon’s army was now so reduced, that he was obliged to betake himself to the mountains; and so marched round the skirts of the Highlands, while M’Kay keept the plains below, every day in sight of each other, exchangeing bravadoes to fight, but the one durst as little goe up to the high-ground, as the other descend to the low; so that they were in mutual fear of each other.”
The decision not to move south in a decisive show of force angered many of the clan chiefs including Sir Ewan Cameron of Lochiel, the most prominent of the chiefs, who left the army and returned home, although he allowed his Camerons to remain with the Jacobite army under the command of his son.4
To guard against any Jacobite move on Perth from Atholl the Scottish Privy Council ordered the Earl of Angus’ Regiment on 12 August to march from their billets in Doune and Dunblane to Dunkeld, a small market town on the north bank of the River Tay.5 Their deployment to Dunkeld was part of a much larger expeditionary force which under the command of Major-General John Lanier was to move into Atholl and capture the Jacobite base of Blair Castle.
“The Lords of his Majesties Privy Councill doe heirby ordaine Live-tennant Collonell Cleilland to march the Lord Angus regiement under hlﬁ command from Downe and Dunblaine and wher they are now quartured to Dimkell, and upon ther aryvall at that place appoynts the said Live-tennant Collonell to acquant Major Generall Lanier and the commanding otﬁcer of his Majesties forces at Pearth and to receive and prosecute such ordors and directiones as Major Generall McKay, the said Major Geiierall Lanier or the commanding otlicer of the forces at Pearth shall give or send to him.”
Bemused by the order by the Privy Council, Major-General Hugh Mackay who knew that Dunkeld was not the ideal place to defend later wrote: “without the consideratiuoin of the insuffiicencie of the place for defence, ordered the Earle of Angus’ regiment to Dunkeld, then miles above Perth, separate from all speedy succour, and exposed to be carried by insult, without the least prospect of advancement to the service by their being posted there”.6 Known as the Cameronians after the fanatical Presbyterian minister and Covenanter Richard Cameron, the regiment was raised in April 1689 by James Douglas, Earl of Angus from the Cameronians on his father’s — the Marquis of Douglas — estates. With an initial strength of around 1,200 men, it was the largest of eight Scottish regiments raised in support of the revolution and was commanded in the field by Lieutenant-Colonel William Cleland the son of one of the Earl’s gamekeepers.7 Described as a ‘brave and well-accomplished gentleman within 28 years of age’ Cleland had helped defeat Claverhouse’s dragoons at the Covenanter victory at Drumclog on 1 June 1679 and served as a captain at the battle of Bothwell Bridge later that month. Major-General Mackay assessed Cleland as “a sensible, resolute man though not much of a souldier”.
By the time the Cameronians marched to Dunkeld some 400 men had been detached and sent to Kintyre and Argyll to guard against a possible invasion from Ireland, reducing their strength to around 800. Prior to their move to Dunkeld, the regiment was issued with 500 flintlock muskets, 400 pikes, and 40 halberds from the magazine at Stirling Castle. The pikes and halberds were described as excellent weapons with which to take on the highlanders armed with sword and targe at close quarters. No uniforms had been issued to the regiment at this time and so the Cameronians would have been wearing their civilian clothing and not redcoats. Cleland and his men arrived at Dunkeld on the evening of 17 August and “found themselves obliged to ly at their Arms, as being in the midst of their enemies”.8 Cleland sent a request to Colonel George Ramsay who commanded at Perth for supplies and ammunition. The following morning Cleland ordered barricades and entrenchments to be constructed.
Cannon had been informed by some townsmen who had fled before the arrival of Cleland that a single Scottish regiment was at Dunkeld and that they had designs to lay waste to Atholl. A force of fanatical Presbyterians in Episcopal Jacobite country would have raised fears in the area but Cleland stated he was not there to plunder or destroy but to impress King William’s indemnity and offered a pardon to anyone who submitted to William and Mary. Seeing an opportunity to destroy an isolated Scottish government force and then move on Perth in force, Cannon and his Jacobite army began moving towards Dunkeld.
While the defensive work was being carried out in Dunkeld on the 18th, 300 Jacobites appeared on the hills overlooking the town. One of the Jacobites with a white cloth on top of a halberd approached with a letter for the commanding officer which read: “We, the gentlemen assembled, being informed that ye intend to burn the town, desire to know whether ye come for peace or war, and do certifie you, that if you burn and one house, we will destroy you”.9 Cleland wrote back with his answer: “We are faithful subjects to King William and Queen Mary, and enemies to their enemies; and if you, who send these threats, shall make any hostile appearance, we will burn all that belongs to you, and otherwise chastise you as deserved”.10
On 19 August, the Privy Council ordered Major-General Lanier to gather the forces under his command and move into Atholl:
“The Lords of his Majesties Privv Councill haveing this day received a letter from Major Generall McKay of the fourteinth instant from Strathboggie, wherby they understand that it may be for his Majesties service and to make a deverssione that yee call togither the forces lying about Pearth, Forfar and Dundie, leaveing a suﬁcient detatchment at Pearth for the securitie of that place and the countrie therabouts, these forces yow march into Atholl, garisone the houss of Weyme and leave alss many at that place as it can conveniently containe under the command of the Laird of Weyme, and therafter atack and secure the castle of Blair and leave a garisone of such streanth therin as yow may judge nessessar for secureing of that place of the countrey…”
On the same day, Henry Erskine, Lord Cardross arrived at Dunkeld from Perth with two troops of horse and three of dragoons. He had been ordered to reinforce Cleland by Colonel Ramsay. Cardross and his cavalry reconnoitered the surrounding countryside and captured six Jacobites, while the rest of the highlanders melted away into the woods and hills to the north. The following day Cleland’s force supported by Cardross’ cavalry moved out of Dunkeld to attack Jacobite troops who had been firing on the town. In the skirmishing that followed around 30 Jacobites were killed, wounded or taken. That night Cardross received orders from Colonel Ramsay to withdraw back to Perth as his ‘dragoons and Horse can be of little use in these grounds’. Cardross protested but a second order from Ramsay left him with little choice but to obey and his cavalry force left Cleland and his men to their fate.11 Lieutenant John Blackadder later wrote: “Our men were mightily discouraged to hear this; but whatever could be said, the Horse would not stay, and it was much for us to keep our men from going along with them whether we would or not, but the Lieut. Coll. compelled them and told them, That tho’ every man went away, he resolved to stay himself alone; so we past Tuesday night also in Arms.”
The Battle of Dunkeld
At dawn on 21 August, Cannon’s Jacobite army numbering 4,000 to 5,000 men appeared on the hills to the north of the town. His force consisted of a regiment of regular troops under Colonel Nicholas Purcell, Macleans of Duart, Macdonalds of Sleat, Clanranald, Keppoch, and Glencoe, Macdonnells of Glengarry, Macneils of Barra, Gordons of Strathdon and Glenlivet, Farquarsons, Camerons, Frasers, Macgregors of Glengyle, Stewarts of Appin and the Athollmen along with 4 troops of horse, and four leather artillery pieces which had been captured at Killiecrankie. The Jacobite army would also have been equipped with captured muskets taken from the field at Killiecrankie, however, it would appear that they, like the Cameronians, did not have much powder and shot. Vastly outnumbered the Cameronians girded themselves for battle.
The battle opened with the leather guns, which were positioned on Gallow Hill to the north, firing on the town, but they soon disintegrated as they had done at Killiecrankie since the guns, being mounted on a wooden platform rather than a gun carriage, collapsed with the recoil. Shortly afterward, under the cover of Jacobite musketry, 100 shock troops commanded by Sir Alexander Maclean armed with swords, targes, helmets, and cuirasses stormed Shioches Hill which was held by Captain William Hay and his company. Hay’s men fired on the approaching highlanders but were forced to retreat back to Dunkeld House as they “were not able to sustain their great number and fierceness”. Lieutenant Blackadder on the highland attack: “the enemy approached very fast, the Highlanders came running on like desperate Villains, firing only once, and then came on with sword and target… After which, the Highlanders came swarming in on all sides, and gave a desperate assault in four places all at once, first firing their guns, and then running in on us with sword and target. But it pleased God, that they were also bravely repulsed, our men still firing on them, where they came on thickest. In this hot service we continued above three hours, the Lord wonderfully assisting our men with courage, insomuch that old soldiers, that were with us said, They never saw men fight better, for there was not the least sign of fear to be seen in any of them, every one performing his part gallantly.”12
The Jacobites then began an assault on the eastern end of the town. The defenders, not able to effectively hold such an open space, fired on the attackers and pulled back across the Market Cross to a barricade at the end of the street called Scots Raw, setting fire to houses as they withdrew. The Stewarts of Appin now began to move in on the west side of the town and attacked the Cameronians that were holding the cathedral. Along the riverbank, the Stewarts stormed a row of houses and used them as fighting positions against the cathedral. After around an hour of fighting Cleland who was ‘going up and down encouraging his men’ was fatally wounded by a shot through his head and another in his liver. His second in command, Major James Henderson, was also felled by Jacobite fire shortly after and command fell to the senior captain George Munroe. Munroe who had been commanding one of the barricades left it in command of Lieutenant Henry Stewart. Stewart’s position was soon attacked and he was killed while attempting to withdraw his men.
The Jacobites were pressing in hard and the Cameronians, who were left holding only the cathedral, Dunkeld House, and a few houses, were running dangerously low on ammunition, and lead was stripped from roofs and melted down for musket balls. Munroe organised small parties with burning faggots attached to the end of pikes to set fire to the buildings held by the Jacobites and then began to pull all of his forces back to Dunkeld House for a final stand. Thick smoke shrouded the town as the fires began to take hold, the Jacobites too were setting fires to dislodge the Cameronian defenders.
After four hours of fighting the battle had reached a stalemate. The costly uncoordinated Jacobite assaults had taken their toll and to the astonishment of the defenders, the highlanders, who were now also running low on ammunition, began to withdraw from the fight. “At length the Rebels, wearied with so many fruitless and expensive Assaults; and finding no abatement of the Courage and Diligence of their Adversaries who treated them with continual shot from their posts, they gave over and fell back and ran to the hills in great confusion”.13 Lieutenant Blackadder stated that the Jacobites “found themselves necessitate to flee back on all hands, leaving a number of dead carcasses behind and a great many of them getting into houses to fire upon us, our men went and sett fire to the houses, and burnt and slew many of them.” He also states that “One of the prisoners we have taken, told us, That after they were gone off, their officers would have had them come back, and give us another assault, but they would not hear of it, for they said we were mad and desperate men.”14 The Exact narrative of the conflict at Dunkeld mentions: “Their Commanders assay’d to bring them back to a fresh Assault, as some Prisoners related, but could not prevail; for they Answered them, they could fight against Men, but it was not fit to fight any more against Devils.” At around midday an officer was dispatched to Perth with news of the victory. Blackadder recounted the celebrations: “Our men gave a great shout and threw their caps in the air, and then all joined in offering up praises to God for a considerable time for so miraculous a victory.”
Cameron of Lochiel later criticised Cannon’s attack on Dunkeld: “He resolved to dislodge them, and might have easily effected it, had he used a little policy, and sent a small party of five or six hundred men to have trained them out of the town, where they were strongly fortified, and kept the army att a short distance, as he could easily have done, without the enemy’s getting any intelligence, the people thereabouts being all his friends”.15 The highland charge that had worked so well at Killiecrankie floundered upon the barricades and walls of the town.
The Jacobite casualties at the battle of Dunkeld were between 150-300 men killed with the same number wounded while the Cameronians lost around 50 men killed and many more wounded. Only three houses survived the battle, with the rest of the town destroyed by fire. Lieutenant-Colonel William Cleland was later laid to rest in Dunkeld cathedral.
The Jacobites withdrew back to Blair Castle and the army soon dispersed to gather in the harvest. In April 1690, the Jacobite clans gathered again for a new campaign under a new commander, Major-General Thomas Buchan, but were defeated by Scottish government troops under Sir Thomas Livingstone at the battle of Cromdale on 1 May 1690 which effectively ended the first Jacobite rising.
Historic Environment Scotland has included the battle of Dunkeld in their Inventory of Historic Battlefields describing the battle as “an incredibly significant battle in the history of 17th century Scotland, occurring at a time when King William was yet to wholly solidify his position on the throne and on the back of a significant Jacobite victory at Killiecrankie.”16
- Andrew Murray Scott, Bonnie Dundee (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 2000).
- Jonathan D. Oats, The Battle of Killiecrankie: The First Jacobite Campaign 1689-1691 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2018).
- Paul Hopkins, Glencoe and the End of the Highland War (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1998).
- Ewan Cameron, Memoirs of Sir Ewen Cameron of Locheil.
- Stuart Reid, I Met the Devil and Dundee: The Battle of Killiecrankie 1689 (Nottingham: Partizan Press, 2009).
- Hugh Mackay, Memoirs of the War Carried on in Scotland and Ireland, 1689-1691.
- Hopkins, Glencoe
- The Exact narrative of the conflict at Dunkeld betwixt the Earl of Angus’s regiment and the rebels.
- Andrew Crichton, The life and diary of Lieut. Col. J. Blackader: of the Cameronian regiment, and deputy governor of Stirling castle (Edinburgh: H. S. Baynes, 1824).
- Oats, The Battle of Killiecrankie
- Crichton, The life and diary of Lieut. Col. J. Blackader
- The Exact narrative
- Crichton, The life and diary of Lieut. Col. J. Blackader
- Cameron, Memoirs
- Historic Environment Scotland, Inventory of Historic Battlefields: Battle of Dunkeld: http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/BTL32
David Christie, Not Much of a Souldier: From Drumclog 1679, to Dunkeld 1689 (Spiderwize, 2011)
Jonathan D. Oats, Battles of the Jacobite Rebellions: Killiecrankie to Culloden (Pen and Sword, 2019)
Jonathan D. Oats, The Battle of Killiecrankie: The First Jacobite Campaign 1689-1691 (Helion and Company, 2018).
Stuart Reid, I Met the Devil and Dundee: The Battle of Killiecrankie 1689 (Partizan Press, 2009)
Last Updated on 30 October 2021 by Neil Ritchie