Monday 15 July, 2024

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Battle of Dunkeld during the Jacobite Rising of 1689

The Cameronians and their baptism of fire defending Dunkeld against the highland army during the Jacobite Rising of 1689

At the battle of Dunkeld on 21 August 1689, the Jacobites under the command of Brigadier-General Alexander Cannon attacked a Scottish government force of Cameronians, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel William Cleland, in and around the town of Dunkeld. 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 in favour of his Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange and his wife Mary (James’s Protestant daughter).

William, the stadtholder of the Netherlands, 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’s 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.

William landed with a Dutch army at Torbay in the English West Country on 5 November 1688. His force included the Scots-Dutch Brigade under Major-General Hugh Mackay of Scourie.

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.

Scotland was a divided country on the issue of the crown. After the persecutions of the Covenanters in southern Scotland by the Stuarts, many Presbyterians were glad to see the back of James. James had also alienated many Episcopalians. However, the House of Stuart had ruled Scotland for over three centuries and despite his failings, there was still support for James and the senior line of the Stuarts.

In 1689 most of this support came from the Catholic and Episcopalian clans of the western highlands where ancient loyalties and tradition ran deep, despite the fact that the Gàidhealtachd had suffered at the hands of the Stuarts in the past.

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.

The Jacobite 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 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.

After Killiecrankie

Following the death of John Graham of Claverhouse at the battle of Killiecrankie command of the Jacobite forces fell to Brigadier-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.

Cannon had been promoted to Brigadier-General and sent to Scotland with 300 men to support Claverhouse’s rising. He 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”.

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 marched 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 MacKay kept the plains below, every day in sight of each other, exchanging bravadoes to fight, but the one durst as little goes 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

The Cameronians

To guard against any Jacobite move on Perth from Atholl the Privy Council of Scotland ordered the Earl of Angus’s Regiment on 12 August 1689 to march from their billets in Doune and Dunblane to Dunkeld, a small market town ringed with high hills on the north bank of the River Tay.

The Lords of his Majesties Privy Council do hereby ordained Lieutenant-Colonel Clelland to march the Lord Angus regiment under his command from Downe and Dunblane and where they are now quartered to Dunkeld, and upon their arrival at that place appoints the said Lieutenant-Colonel to acquaint Major General Lanier and the commanding otficer of his Majesties forces at Perth and to receive and prosecute such orders and directions as Major General MacKay, the said Major General Lanier or the commanding officer of the forces at Perth shall give or send to him.5

Known as the Cameronians after the fanatical Presbyterian minister and Covenanter Richard Cameron, the regiment was raised in May 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 to support 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”.

Bemused by the order by the Privy Council, Major-General Mackay who knew that Dunkeld was not the ideal place to defend later wrote: “without the consideration of the insufficiency 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 

Their deployment to Dunkeld was to be part of a much larger operation that would see an expeditionary force move into Atholl and capture the Jacobite base of Blair Castle.

battle of dunkeld
‘The Prospect of the town of Dunkeld’ by John Slezer, 1693

Rampant desertion and detachments being sent to Argyll and Kintyre had reduced the regiment’s number to around 700-800 by the time the Cameronians marched to Dunkeld.

Prior to their move to Dunkeld, the regiment was issued with 400 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 and so the Cameronians would have been wearing their civilian clothing and not the standard issue red coats.

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. Dunkeld House, a seat of the Earl of Atholl, was fortified and holes in the walls around the house and cathedral grounds were filled in and scaffolding erected.

Jacobites move on Dunkeld

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 achieve some success in what had been a lacklustre campaign since he had taken command, Cannon marched his Jacobite army towards Dunkeld. Cannon would also have been aware that the season would soon be coming to a close and the highlanders would begin to drift off homeward for the coming harvest.

While the defensive work was being carried out in Dunkeld on the 18th, 300 Athollmen appeared on the hills overlooking the town. One of them 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 Privy Council having this day received a letter from Major General McKay of the fourteenth instant from Strathboggie, whereby they understand that it may be for his Majesties service and to make a diversion that ye call together the forces lying about Perth, Forfar and Dundee, leaving a suficient detachment at Perth for the security of that place and the country thereabouts, these forces yow march into Atholl, garrison the house of Wemyss and leave as many at that place as it can conveniently contain under the command of the Laird of Wemyss, and thereafter attack and secure the castle of Blair and leave a garrison of such strength therein as you may judge necessary for securing of that place of the country…

On the same day, Henry Erskine, Lord Cardross arrived at Dunkeld from Perth with a force of cavalry consisting of the Earl of Eglinton’s Troop of Horse, Sir William Bennet’s Troop of Horse, and three troops of Cardross’s own 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.

Journal of a Soldier in the Earl of Eglinton’s Troop of Horse described the cavalry’s march to Dunkeld and the action that followed:

My Lord Cardross with two troops of dragoons, our Lieutenant and his troop of horse, and Captan benat and his troop of horse, marched without orders of the Comidant, and was against the waking of the day within two miles of dunkell, where we fixed our sentries and refreshed our horse till day light, and then marched in through the water and town, and drew up in the back of the town in the middle of barley, where Lieutenant-Colonel Cleland came out to us with a great many of his officers, showing us of the highland men upon a mount that was above the town; So we were ordered to go into the town to refresh ourselves, and to be ready upon sound of trumpet; which imeditely there after the trumpet sounding, there was a detachment of horse and dragoons under the comand of Captan benat and our Lieutenant , in order to march to the mount where the hilland men was : so soon as they noticing us advancing towards them retired all in through a wood, we pursuing after them and took four of them prisoners, and got 7 or 8 horse; And then returned back in to the town that night.

The following morning campfires were observed on the hills overlooking Dunkeld and there were reports of around 1,000 Atholl and Strathtay men led by Alexander Stewart of Ballechin in the vicinity. They had been summoned overnight by the fiery cross.

While troops in the town were readied to march out and meet them, a detachment of forty fusiliers and fifteen halberdiers under Captain George Munro, supported by fifty horsemen under Cardross were sent out ahead. A further thirty halberdiers led by Ensign James Lockhart followed close behind.

Cleland led the rest of his regiment out from Dunkeld leaving behind 150 men to guard Dunkeld House. Leading the main body were 100 fusiliers under the command of Captain John Campbell and Captain Robert Hume. Behind them came Captain William Borthwick and Captain William Herries with 200 musketeers and pikemen.

About two miles from the town Captain Munro’s detachment and Cardross’s cavalry came across 300 Jacobites in a nearby glen. The Jacobites opened fire and wounded Cornet Livingston of Eglinton’s Horse and a number of other horsemen, including the author of Journal of a Soldier. The cavalry pulled back, but Munro’s infantry pushed forward forcing the Jacobites back.

Cleland then came up and having observed that a nearby house was held by a party of Jacobites ordered Captain Munro to send a sergeant and six men to secure it. On approaching the house around twenty Jacobites moved against them but were quickly beaten back and chased over the hills. Cleland reformed his men and they retired back to Dunkeld along with Cardross’s cavalry.

Around thirty Jacobites had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Three of Captain Munro’s detachment had been wounded, one later dying of his wounds.

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.”

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 comprised a regiment of regular troops under Colonel Nicholas Purcell, Macleans of Duart, Macdonalds of Sleat, Macdonalds of Clanranald and Glencoe, Macdonnells of Glengarry and Keppoch, Macneils of Barra, Gordons of Strathdon and Glenlivet, Farquarsons, Camerons, Frasers, Macgregors of Glengyle, Stewarts of Appin and the Athollmen along with four troops of horse, and three leather artillery pieces which had been captured at Killiecrankie.

The Jacobite army would also have been well equipped with captured muskets taken from the field at Killiecrankie. However, it would appear that they, like the Cameronians, had little powder and shot.

At around 7 o’clock the Jacobite baggage train of 1,000 horses was sent on its way to Blair Castle and the artillery was placed upon Gallow Hill to the north of the town.

battle of dunkeld

The battle opened with the leather guns 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 afterwards, under the cover of Jacobite musketry, 100 shock troops commanded by Sir Alexander Maclean armed with swords, targes, helmets, and cuirasses stormed Stanley Hill, which was held by a company under Captain William Hay and Ensign James Lockhart. Captain Hay had ordered Ensign Lockhart to take a detachment of twenty-eight men and advance to a stone dyke at the foot of the hill but in the face of Maclean’s attack were soon forced to retreat back to the main body.

Captain Hay’s men fired on the approaching highlanders but were forced to retreat to Dunkeld House as they “were not able to sustain their great number and fierceness”. Hay suffered a broken leg.

Lieutenant Blackadder described 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.12

battle of dunkeld
In the cathedral grounds looking over to Gallow Hill where the Jacobite artillery was positioned | Image credit: © Neil Ritchie, editor

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 moved 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.

Cleland’s second in command, Major James Henderson, was hit and fell shortly afterwards and command fell to the senior captain, George Munro. Munro, 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 were left holding only the cathedral, Dunkeld House, and a few houses. Running dangerously low on ammunition they stripped lead from the roof of Dunkeld House and melted it down for musket balls.

Munro organised small parties with burning faggots attached to the end of pikes to set fire to the buildings held by the Jacobites and then pulled all of his forces back to Dunkeld House for a last stand. Thick smoke shrouded the town as the fires took hold. The Jacobites were also 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, withdrew from the fight.

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.13

“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”.14 

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 set fire to the houses, and burnt and slew many of them.”

Blackadder 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.”15 

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.”

battle of dunkeld
Dunkeld Cathedral | Image credit: © Neil Ritchie, editor

Lochiel’s Memoirs 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 at a short distance, as he could easily have done, without the enemy’s getting any intelligence, the people thereabouts being all his friends”.16 

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.

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.”17

End of the Jacobite Rising

The Jacobites withdrew back to Blair Castle and the army soon dispersed to gather in the harvest.

By 25 August, Major-General Hugh Mackay, this time taking no chances, had assembled a formidable military force at Perth comprising seven infantry regiments, two regiments of horse, two of dragoons, and three Independent Highland Companies.

Setting out on the 26th, Mackay marched his army into Atholl, passing the site of his defeat at Killiecrankie a month earlier and arrived at Blair Castle on the 28th where he established a 500-strong garrison.

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 Brigadier-General Sir Thomas Livingstone at the battle of Cromdale on 1 May 1690 which effectively ended the first Jacobite rising.

Scottish government operations continued against the Jacobite clans until 1692, the most infamous of these actions being the Massacre of Glencoe.


  1. Andrew Murray Scott, Bonnie Dundee (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 2000).
  2. Jonathan D. Oats, The Battle of Killiecrankie: The First Jacobite Campaign 1689-1691 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2018).
  3. Paul Hopkins, Glencoe and the End of the Highland War (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1998).
  4. John Drummond of Balhaldie, Memoirs of Sir Ewen Cameron of Locheil; Some claim that Locheil was unhappy at not being given command of the Jacobite army, however, he had no interest in command and a clan chief in command of a highland army would have been unacceptable.
  5. Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, 1689.
  6. Hugh Mackay, Memoirs of the War Carried on in Scotland and Ireland, 1689-1691.
  7. Hopkins, Glencoe
  8. The Exact narrative of the conflict at Dunkeld betwixt the Earl of Angus’s regiment and the rebels.
  9. 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).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Oats, The Battle of Killiecrankie
  12. Crichton, The life and diary of Lieut. Col. J. Blackader
  13. Ibid.
  14. The Exact narrative
  15. Crichton, The life and diary of Lieut. Col. J. Blackader
  16. Balhaldie, Memoirs
  17. Historic Environment Scotland, Inventory of Historic Battlefields: Battle of Dunkeld:

Further Reading:

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)

Neil Ritchie
Neil Ritchie
Neil Ritchie is the founder and editor of Neil has a keen interest in the military history of Scotland and in particular the military history of the Jacobite risings. He is also the editor of other online publications covering military history, defence and security.

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