Late in the evening of the 21st of August 1689 the drone of Clan Donald’s pipes could be heard lamenting across the craggy hills overlooking the Tay, as slowly they and other exhausted Highlanders trudged north from the Cathedral City of Dunkeld. Below them was a town ablaze, with smoke rising into the night sky. And as they left defeated, the clansman could just make out the faint singing of psalms; given in praise by a regiment that had defied the odds and who truly believed they were the soldiers of God. The Battle of Dunkeld is one of the less well known of the Jacobite wars, but it was a significant turning point. There were deeper issues too: here culture, religion and politics clashed; past hatreds rose to the surface and old scores were settled.
Every story has its beginning somewhere, and the road to Dunkeld began over a hundred years earlier with the Scottish Reformation of 1560. Firebrand John Knox and a cabal of Protestant nobles swept away Catholicism and replaced it with a Presbyterian church with a dour Calvinist doctrine. The English Reform, sparked into life by Henry VIII was very different. There the change was led by the monarch who placed himself at the head of his Church; in Scotland it was enacted against the will of the monarch, Mary, and so the Crown had far less influence or role to play.
When James VI of Scotland became king of England in 1603 he left behind a Kirk he found hard to control, and at a stroke became the Supreme Governor of the Church of England; a status befitting his own belief in the divine right of kings. James was keen to introduce many of the practices of the English church to Scotland; like bringing back bishops to exercise royal authority, but it was unwelcome. On his death in 1625 he left a church and country divided; and it was a difficult legacy for his son, Charles I, to inherit.
In the hands of a more able king, one with more political acumen and the kind of slippery guile needed to pilot a ship through such rough seas, a compromise may well have been found. In the hands of Charles Stuart it was a disaster. Already proving unpopular in England with measures seen as pseudo-Catholic; Charles seemed hell-bent on a collision course with the Church of Scotland too. In 1638, after Charles introduced new controversial measures, the fiercely independent clergy and the Protestant nobles rebelled, and in an act of sedition signed the National Covenant at Greyfriers Church in Edinburgh. The Covenant strived to protect the constitution of the Kirk; and stated that by using unlawful powers Charles Stuart had forfeited the right to govern in Scotland (although he would remain king). The General Assembly of the Church ratified it, as did the Scottish Parliament. Daggers were drawn.
The Covenant was sent the length and breadth of Scotland, where thousands signed it; and it essentially sent the country into war with its king. Charles was unable to overthrow the rebellion and the Covenanters, as they were called, became the de facto government in Scotland. Charles wanted to restore order, but it was the raising of money to do it that brought him into conflict with his English Parliament; and, ultimately led to his execution by Oliver Cromwell in 1649.
As the British Isles descended into Civil War the Covenanters split into two factions as the erstwhile leader, the Marquess of Argyll became increasingly dictatorial. The counter-revolution was led by James Graham, Marquess of Montrose, who switched back to being a Royalist. He was an inspirational leader, and in 1645 he won a string of victories against the Covenanters, in what became known as the ‘Year of Miracles’. His secret was the loyalty of the Highland Clans; and using their martial abilities he came close to toppling the regime, and in doing so be came a hate figure for the Covenant movement. However, betrayed by Charles II in 1650, Argyll finally got his revenge and had Montrose publically executed. Charles never forgave the Campbell Chief for the position he’d been placed in. Charles was crowned swiftly at Scone following his father’s execution, and fled into exile. Argyll entered a pact with Cromwell, infuriating the exiled king even more.
In 1660, with Cromwell dead, Charles II was restored to the throne; but he never returned to Scotland. Instead, he blamed the Covenant for all the humiliations suffered by his dynasty, and above all he hated them for their part in his father’s death. He unleashed the hounds and swore to destroy what was left of the Covenant movement; Argyll’s was the first head to roll.
In the period from 1660 to around 1680, known as the Killing Times, there was fought a grotesque religious war in Scotland. Most of the butchery, persecution, defiance and heartbreak on both sides took place in Lanarkshire, Dumfries and Ayrshire. Ministers took to preaching in fields as their churches burned; whole congregations were attacked; and two big battles, Drumclog and Bothwell Brig were fought between the agents of the king and the rump of the Covenant. By Charles’ death in 1684 little remained but memories and bitterness within the communities of the southwest. Yet two men stand out, and their own personalities and roles during the killing times eventually led to the bloody fires of Dunkeld: Richard Cameron and John Graham.
Richard Cameron was a fanatical field preacher, dyed in the wool of the Covenant cause; and a man of considerable charisma. He and his followers beat the king’s troops at Drumclog, but Bothwell would prove their Waterloo– or, so it seemed. In a bold act, Cameron nailed the famous ‘Declaration of Sanquhar’ to the town cross – a piece of paper denouncing Charles Stuart and a declaration of war against him. It was inspirational stuff, and although he was eventually hunted down and killed for treason his defiant stand and martyred death would live on.
John Graham of Claverhouse was a distant cousin of Montrose and had been brought up hearing the heroic tales of his illustrious kinsman. After serving in the Low Countries, Charles II brought him back as a sort of soldier-policeman with a remit to round up and destroy the Covenanters. Known as Bloody Clavers, he was ruthless in his mission. A supremely talented tactician, a romantic idealist and foolhardy character; Graham would come to symbolise everything that Cameron and his people hated about the Stuart regime. And, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon.
Charles II died in 1684 and was succeeded by his hot-headed, crass and politically inept brother, James VII; and worse, he was a Catholic. After a serious of tactless blunders, and with the birth of a son in 1688, securing the Catholic succession, the parliaments of England and Scotland removed the king and replaced him with his nephew William of Orange. Many in Scotland were bitterly opposed to this ‘Glorious Revolution’ and took up arms against William and his government. They took their name from the Latin for James, and called themselves the Jacobites. Their leader was, unsurprisingly John Graham of Claverhouse, now Viscount Dundee.
Revelling in a role that emulated Montrose, Dundee raised the clans and drove them south to capture Blair Castle in Highland Perthshire by the middle of 1689; and on the 27th of July his army annihilated the Redcoats at the Battle of Killiecrankie. However, riding out over a scene of unimaginable glory Claverhouse was shot and killed. He would be buried in the grounds of Blair Castle. Without their leader the Jacobites became rudderless. Command was given to Alexander Cannon, much to the disgust of Sir Ewen Cameron of Locheil, who went home in the huff taking most of his clan with him. Still, Cannon decided to press home the victory at Killiecrankie and head south. The next obstacle in the way was the mighty River Tay at Dunkeld.
In 1689 the Earl of Angus raised the 26th regiment of foot to serve William of Orange, and the men were drawn from old Covenanter country and families in Lanarkshire. They were true believers in the Glorious Revolution and the demise of the Stuarts. The regiment was made up of staunch and religious men, and they took their inspiration from the martyrdom of Richard Cameron and called themselves the Cameronians. It was wonderfully ironic that they were chosen to defend Dunkeld from the ‘heathen’ Jacobites and the machinations of the Grahams.
The Battle of Dunkeld lasted around 11 hours, and was a tough, house to house street fight. The Cameronian leader, William Cleland was killed early on, but dragged out of sight lest his men lose heart. The Jacobite force came close on several occasions to breaking through the Redcoat line around the Cathedral and the Marquess of Atholl’s mansion house; but they never managed. And, with night falling, and the town ablaze Cannon had no option but to give up, sound the retreat and head north again. Against nearly four times as many men, the Cameronians had prevailed and the Jacobites were stopped from crossing the Tay. No wonder they sang their psalms and thanked God.
It was the end really of the first Jacobite Rising; they’d be defeated again at a skirmish near Cromdale in Strathspey; and William himself would crush James’ army at the Boyne in Ireland a year later. Dundee’s death at Killiecrankie was probably the undoing of the rebellion’s chances; but Dunkeld was where it was dealt the mortal blow. The Jacobite Stuarts would never sit on the throne again.