Battle of Dunkeld, 1689

Picts, Scots and Danes, prelates, nobles and caterans, had all warred round Dunkeld, but the little city had won through in spite of repeated conflagrations and sackings. It was, however, now to receive its heaviest blow. It had its share of trouble during the war between King and commonwealth; it had rejoiced, with others, in the Restoration of 1660, but the completion of the Revolution, which banished King James and placed William and Mary on the throne, reduced it to ashes. The Marquess of Atholl had been a warm supporter of the House of Stewart during these troubles. Montrose had always received a welcome at Blair, but a change occurred.

James VII. with his Roman Catholic proclivities offended many warm supporters of the Stewarts, and allegiance was transferred to William of Orange. Amongst them was the Atholl family, but Blair Castle was seized by the Jacobites and garrisoned for James. Lord Murray, son of the Marquess, collected a force at Dunkeld and set out to relieve the Castle, retreating when news came that Viscount Dundee (or Dundie, as old papers have it) was on the march to Blair. This attempt to gain possession of Blair by the Jacobites sent General Mackay, Commander of William’s forces, to Killiecrankie. Marching first from Perth to Dunkeld, he sent forward from the latter place fusiliers to reinforce the Atholl men at Killiecrankie and then followed them early next morning. The armies met and Mackay was defeated, but Dundee fell in the moment of victory. His loss ruined the cause of James, though his army did not wholly melt away until the Battle of Dunkeld was fought, a month later. This Battle or Siege is a memorable one in the annals of Scottish History, for it practically closed a Civil War and completed the Revolution.

In Browne's History of the Highlands is a stirring account of this battle. If short, it was a fierce and savage affair, ending in the complete destruction of the town of Dunkeld, with the exception of three houses. The conflict took place between the Cameronians and the remnants of Dundee’s army, raging furiously within the town, round the Cathedral and the house of the Marquess of Atholl. The Cameronians were a band of religious enthusiasts, followers of Richard Cameron, the Martyr. Hungering for vengeance on their persecutors, they answered the call of the Scottish Convention for aid in 1689. Edinburgh Castle was holding out for King James; it surrendered to them. Afterwards the Cameronians were sent to Perthshire, their objective being Dunkeld.

General Mackay remonstrated with the Scottish Privy Council on this move, pointing out that there was bitter animosity between them and the Jacobites. In Dunkeld they would be exposed to much hostility with very small chance of defence, surrounded by unfriendly clansmen, many of whom were still under arms, led by General Cannon, Dundee’s successor.

Mackay ‘s remonstrance was in vain. The troops were sent off under the leadership of Lieut.-Colonel Cleland, who, although but 28 years old, had already seen much service. At 18, he had been a Captain in the Covenanting forces, had fought both at Bothwell Brig and Drumclog, been outlawed and lurked a fugitive in the wilds of Ayrshire and Clydesdale. An accomplished poet besides, he had written a stinging satire on the "Highland Host." It was therefore far from likely that he and his regiment would be severely left alone by the fiery Highlanders.

Mackay’s opinion proved correct. On Saturday, the 17th August, 1689, the Cameronians, 1200 all told, reached Dunkeld. Next morning they saw that the atmosphere was hostile and entrenched themselves in the enclosures of Dunkeld House, besides placing a detachment in the Cathedral Tower, strict Sabbatarians though they were.

At intervals small parties of men appeared on the hills overlooking the town. At 4 o’clock a gathering of several hundreds drew up on the hill to the north. A messenger, who bore a halbert surmounted with a white Cloth as flag of truce, was sent with a letter to Colonel Cleland couched in the following terms:

"We, the gentlemen assembled, being informed that ye intend to burn the town, desire whether ye come for peace or war, and to certify you that if ye burn any one house, we will destroy you."

Cleland refused to leave the town, but sent for reinforcements, as he heard the Fiery Cross was being sent round the hills, and he might therefore expect a still larger gathering of opponents.

In response to his appeal, Lord Cardross arrived with several cavalry troops, and a few slight engagements occurred outside the town with the clansmen. To the astonishment, however, of Lord Cardross and Cleland, an imperative order was received from Colonel Ramsay, Commander in Perth, requesting Cardross to return immediately with his troops. Cleland uttered strong objections, but the other conceived it his duty to obey orders and returned, though reluctantly, to Perth. On Wednesday, the 21st August, it was only too apparent that the Fiery Cross had been successful and that the whole Highland army had arrived. It was drawn up on the hills in order of battle.

The Cameronians could not retreat; they were surrounded. They could not surrender, for they had never shown mercy, and need expect none. Nothing remained but to fight.

Cleland skilfully posted parties in the Cathedral Steeple, and in the town. Throwing up ditches for a line of defence, he placed others behind the adjoining gardens and park, all having been done before seven in the morning.

General Cannon, leader of the opposing forces, despatched two troops to guard the ford on the Tay near the Cathedral in an endeavour to prevent the Cameronians escaping by water, whilst other troops were placed at the opposite end of the town.

The Jacobites were at first successful, forcing outposts and entering at four different points so that the battle raged throughout the town. At the Cross, Lieutenant Stewart, on the Cameronian side, held a barricade until he was killed, a heavy fire meanwhile being kept up from the Cathedral (which still shows bullet marks in the eastern gable).

The Highlanders crowded into all the neighbouring houses and poured a galling fire on the Cathedral and Atholl Mansion House garrisons. The struggle was one of the utmost ferocity, claymores and muskets, pikes and halberts exacted and paid heavy toll, so heavy indeed that it was suspected the Evil One himself was giving assistance. This suspicion is touched upon by Sir Walter Scott in "Guy Mannering." The novelist says that the Laird of Ellangowan, "Donohoe Bertram," took his grey gelding and joined Clavers at Killiecrankie. At the skirmish of Dunkeld, 1689, he was shot dead by a Cameronian with a silver button (being supposed to be proof from the Evil One against lead and steel), and his grave is still called "The Wicked Laird’s Lair".

Soon a heavy loss was sustained by the Cameronians. Their leader fell, wounded in two places, as he was encouraging his men "to do their duty and fear not." Bleeding, he bravely endeavoured to crawl out of sight into Dunkeld House, in the hope that his men might not observe him and thus be dispirited. The effort was not successful and he expired in the street, his body afterwards being laid to rest near the Tower, where a simple stone with date and name marks the spot.

Major Henderson took his place, only to be shot down in a few minutes. He was succeeded by Captain Munro, who dislodged the Highlanders by setting fire to the town. He sent pikemen with blazing faggots upon the points of their pikes, which they thrust into the thatched roofs of the houses occupied by the enemy. Thence ensued a terrible scene, and on that summer day, with the heather abloom on the surrounding hills, the unfortunate citizens of the little town nestling under the shadow of a building dedicated to the Prince of Peace, tasted to the full the horrors of war.

The following is quoted from Browne‘s "History of the Highlands" - "The whole town was in a conflagration, and the scene which it now presented was one of the most heartrending description. The din of war was no longer heard, but a more terrific sound had succeeded, from the wild shrieks and accents of despair which issued from the dense mass of smoke and flame which enveloped the unfortunate sufferers. The pikemen had locked the doors of such of the houses as had keys standing in them and the unhappy intruders, being thus cut off from escape, perished in the flames. No less than sixteen Highlanders were burnt to death in one house. With the exception of three houses, possessed by the Cameronians, the whole town was consumed." This sharp conflict had lasted for four hours altogether. The Cameronians were reduced nearly to their last flask of powder and were stripping lead from the roof of Dunkeld House, to cut into slugs, when the Highlanders retired, their ammunition done and no shelter obtainable in the ruined town. General Cannon attempted to persuade them to renew the attack, but they declined, saying "they were ready to fight with men, but would not again encounter devils!" The same idea is expressed in a Jacobite ballad, which thus concludes:

"You fought like devils, your only rivals,
When you were at Dunkeld, boys."

After hurling defiance at their retreating foes, the Cameronians showed their joy by singing Psalms. Macaulay says, "Then the drums struck up, the victorious Puritans threw their caps in the air, raised with one voice a psalm of triumph and thanksgiving and waved their colours—colours which were on that day unfurled for the first time in the face of an enemy."

History does not record if the unfortunate inhabitants took part in the rejoicings. Probably not, as they were burnt out and forced to shelter in the Cathedral. For them only remained ruined homes. In the "Life of Colonel Blackadder" there is also a stirring account of this encounter between Highlanders and Cameronians, sworn foes.

Thus ended one of the most disastrous days Dunkeld has seen. A new Dunkeld arose from the ruins, but different in aspect and different in position. It may even be considered that the town never regained its former prestige.

Dunkeld an Ancient City
Elizabeth Stewart
Dunkeld, 1926