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A Soldier’s Tale - The Battle of Killiecrankie

Updated on February 9, 2017

Donald's dilemma

It is 27th July 1689 and Donald MacBean is standing on a slippery outcrop of rock above the River Garry. The sun is slowly sinking casting a reddish glow across the sky and the blood curdling shouts of pursuit are close behind. He can run no further.

The cries of his dead and dying comrades ring in his ears and the deafening roar of the river thunders beneath his feet. He stares at the dark waters below rain swirling through the rocky gorge and the bodies of those trying to cross being swept away. Donald knows there is no turning back.

The waters swollen from rain can not be forded and to save his life he must jump. But it is 18 feet to a wet rock on the other side.

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The day dawns

The day had begun so differently.

That morning Donald MacBean had set out from Dunkeld, a soldier in a force of 3,500 government troops loyal to the Protestant King William under the command of the Highland General Hugh Mackay of Scourie. They were marching northwards to Inverness in pursuit of the Jacobites supporters of the Catholic King James.

The leader of the Jacobites was John Graham of Claverhouse, ‘Bonnie Dundee’. Dundee was a popular and charismatic leader and an experienced soldier who had already raised an army of nearly 2,500 men and was waiting for more Highlanders to join him.

It was afternoon on the 27th July when news reached him that Government troops were entering the pass of Killiecrankie a few miles south of where he was positioned at Blair Castle.

The pass was considered to be of great strategic importance as it controlled the north/south route through the Highlands. So in an attempt to halt the enemy advance northwards Dundee set out, despite having inferior numbers, to engage the Government army.

By late afternoon Dundee had his troops drawn up in a commanding position on the higher ground to the north of the pass and despite the sun being in their eyes they were holding firm against enemy fire, biding their time and awaiting the moment.

At 7 o’clock that moment came and Dundee gave the order to his Highlanders to advance. In time honoured fashion the Highlanders dropped their plaids and haversacks and hurtled down the hillside in full cry to throw themselves upon the enemy.

This Highland charge with broadsword and targe was so sudden and fast that many of the Government troops had no time to draw and fix the new style plug bayonets to their muskets and repel this ferocious onslaught.

The Government troops were routed and they took to flight pursued by the victorious Jacobites, Donald MacBean among them. And so it was that with dusk approaching he found himself standing high on a rock staring down at the roaring River Garry to his front and the enemy shrieking at his back.

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The leap

Donald Macbean continues in his own words;-

“ length he drew his pistol, and I fled ; he fired after me.I went above the Pass, where I met with another water very deep; it was about 18 foot over betwixt two rocks. I resolved to jump it, so I laid down my gun and hat and jumped, and lost one of my shoes in the jump. Many of our men were lost in that water.”

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Aftermath of the battle

Donald MacBean made the leap and survived the day but the losses on both sides were heavy. Upwards of 2,000 Government troops were killed including General Mackay’s brother and Brigadier Barthold Balfour. The Jacobites lost a third of their number and their leader Bonny Dundee was fatally wounded and carried away to Blair Castle where he lies buried at St Brides Kirk.

The Jacobite victory was short lived. Less than a month later on 21st August 1689 an army of 5,000 Jacobites was defeated at the Battle or Seige of Dunkeld by a smaller defending force of 1200 Government troops led by Colonel William Cleland. Although losses on both sides were relatively small the fighting lasted for 16 hours before the Highlanders withdrew and melted away.

They were heard to mutter; “They could fight against men, but it was not fit to fight any more against devils”.

Location - how to get there

The Pass of Killiecrankie:
Killiecrankie, Pitlochry, Perth and Kinross PH16, UK

get directions

Killiecrankie Visitor Centre

The pass of Killiecrankie is in Perthshire off the main A9 trunk road to the north of Pitlochry and just south of Blair Atholl.

There is a free car park and Visitor Centre run by the The National Trust for Scotland which provides further information on the battle and surrounding area.

(see link below for opening times and details)

About the author

Antony was born in the small coastal town of Saltburn-by-the-sea, and lived in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire before returning to his native Yorkshire. He has spent his adult life in the north of England working for a UK Bank and two Government Agencies.

Now living in Yorkshire between the Dales and the Moors Antony enjoys writing and taking photographs. He has written and published two ebooks bringing together some of his short stories and humorous anecdotes, and been published in The Yorkshire Dalesman.

His interests include walking, photography, history, travel, reading books and watching cricket.

© 2014 Antony J Waller

Have you visited the area?

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    • Northern-Light profile imageAUTHOR

      Antony J Waller 

      4 years ago from North Yorkshire

      Thanks John. It's a great place to visit for a walk, especially in autumn with all the colours, and the history boards are most interesting to read.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 

      4 years ago from UK

      Some beautiful photos and a stirring story, well written


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