Pass of Killiecrankie

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Killiecrankie, Pass of, a contraction of the valley of the Garry on the western verge of Moulin parish, Perthshire, commencing near Killiecrankie or Aldgirnaig station (3 miles ESE of Blair Athole), and descending 1½ mile south-by-eastward to Garry Bridge (3 miles NNW of Pitlochry). With an elevation of between 400 and 300 feet, it is overhung on the E by Ben Vrackie (2757 feet); and huge Ben-y-Gloe (3671) rises conspicuously 8 miles NNE. Along its eastern slope, some way above the bed of the turbulent Garry, the smooth Great Highland Road, constructed by General Wade in 1732, ascends gently from the low country to the head of the defile; and between road and river the Highland Railway (1863) goes, clinging to the rock, in easy gradients, with only a few yards of tunnel. 'White villas,' says Lord Macaulay, 'peep from the birch forest; and on a fine summer's day there is scarcely a turn of the Pass at which may not be seen some angler casting his fly on the foam of the river, some artist sketching a pinnacle of rock, or some party of pleasure banqueting on the turf in the fretwork of shade and sunshine. But in the days of William III., Killiecrankie was mentioned with horror by the peaceful and industrious inhabitants of the Perthshire lowlands. It was deemed the most perilous of all those dark ravines through which the marauders of the hills were wont to sally forth. The sound, so musical to modern ears, of the river brawling round the mossy rocks and among the smooth pebbles, the dark masses of crag and verdure worthy of the pencil of Wilson, the fantastic peaks bathed, at sunrise and sunset, with light rich as that which glows on the canvas of Claude, suggested to our ancestors thoughts of murderous ambuscades and of bodies stripped, gashed, and abandoned to the birds of prey. The only path was narrow and rugged; a horse could with difficulty be led up; two men could hardly walk abreast; and, in some places, a traveller had great need of a steady eye and foot.' At the head of the Pass, near Killiecrankie station, on a diluvial plain of small extent, but level as a Dutch polder, was fought the celebrated battle of Killiecrankie, 27 July 1689. General Mackay, the leader of King William's forces, marched through the Pass on the morning of that day, at the head of 3000 infantry and nearly 1000 horse, and drew them up upon this level haugh. Early the same morning, Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, had arrived at Blair Castle (the object of contention), with one little troop of cavalry and 2500 foot, including '300 new-raised, naked, undisciplined Irishmen.' Instead of descending right down to meet the foe, he went up Glentilt, fetched a compass round the Hill of Lude, and made his appearance in battle order on the hill-side about the position of Urrard House. Mackay immediately pushed forward his main body to a terrace midway between his antagonist and the haugh, forming them there in battle-line three deep, with his cavalry in the rear, and leaving his baggage in the Pass. The two armies observed each other in silence till past 7, when, the midsummer sun having touched the western heights, Dundee's army broke simultaneously into motion, and came on at a slow trot down the hill. The Highlanders, who had dropped their plaids and spurned away their socks of untanned hide, and who resembled a body of wild savages more than a race of civilised men, advanced, according to their usual practice, with their bodies bent forward, so as to present the smallest possible surface to the fire of the enemy, the upper part of their bodies being covered by their targets. To discourage the Highlanders in their advance by keeping up a continual fire, Mackay had given instructions to his officers to commence firing by platoons, at the distance of a hundred paces; but this order was not attended to. The Highlanders having come close up, halted for a moment; then, having levelled and discharged their pistols, which did little execution, they set up a fearful yell, and rushed on the enemy sword in hand, before they had time to screw their bayonets on to the end of their muskets. In two minutes the battle was lost and won. The shock was too impetuous to be long resisted by men who, according to their own general, 'behaved, with the exception of Hasting's and Leven's regiments, like the vilest cowards in nature.' But even had these men been brave, their courage would scarce have availed them, as their arms were insufficient to parry off the tremendous strokes of the axes and the broad and double-edged swords of the Highlanders, who, with a single blow, either felled their opponents to the earth or struck off a limb from their bodies. At the same time with this overthrow of Mackay's infantry, and immediately under his own cye, there occurred a crash on his artillery and cavalry. At this critical moment Mackay, who was instantly surrounded by a crowd of Highlanders, anxious to disentangle his cavalry, so as to enable him to get them forward, called aloud to them to follow him, and, putting spurs to his horse, galloped through the enemy; but, with the exception of one servant, whose horse was shot under him, not a single horseman attempted to follow. When he had gone far enough to be out of the reach of immediate danger, he turned round to observe the state of matters; and to his infinite surprise he found that both armies had disappeared. To use his own expression, 'in the twinkling of an eye, in a manner, our men, as well as the enemy, were out of sight, being got down pell-mell to the river, where our baggage stood."All was over; and the mingled torrent of red-coats and tartans went raving down the valley to the gorge of Killiecrankie.' As Aytoun makes the victors say-

' Like a tempest down the ridges
Swept the hurricane of steel.
Rose the slogan of Macdonald,
Flash'd the broadsword of Lochiel!
Vainly sped the withering volley
'Mongst the foremost of our band;
On we poured until we met them,
Foot to foot, and hand to hand.
Horse and man went down like driftwood,
When the floods are black at Yule;
And their carcasses are whirling
In the Garry's deepest pool.
Horse and man went down before us;
Living foe there tarried none
On the field of Killiecrankie
When that stubborn fight was done.'

Mackay, with the remnants of Leven's and Hasting's regiments, hastened across the Garry, an d, collecting as many fugitives as he could, led them precipitately over the hills, and succeeded, after a perilous retreat, in conducting about 400 to Stirling. But had not his baggage at the foot of the battle-field arrested the attention of most of the victors, had not the ground over which he retreated been impracticable for pursuing horsemen, he might have been able to bring away scarce one man. If the importance of a victory is to be reckoned by the comparative numbers of the slain, and the brilliant achievements of the victors, the battle of Killiecrankie may well stand high in the list of military exploits. Considering the shortness of the combat, the loss on the side of Mackay was prodigious. No fewer than 2000 of his men were slain or captured, whilst Dundee's own loss was only 900. But as the importance of a victory, however splendid in itself, however distinguished by acts of individual prowess, can be appreciated only by its results, the battle of Killiecrankie, instead of forwarding King James's cause, was, by the death of Dundee, the precursor of that cause's ruin. 'At the beginning of the action he had taken his place in front of his little band of cavalry. He bade them follow him, and rode forward. But it seemed to be decreed that, on that day, the Lowland Scotch should in both armies appear to disadvantage. The horse hesitated, Dundee turned round, stood up in his stirrups, and, waving his hat, invited them to come on. As he lifted his arm, his cuirass rose, and exposed the lower part of his left side. A musket ball struck him; his horse sprang forward, and plunged into a cloud of smoke and dust, which hid from both armies the fall of the victorious general. A person named Johnson was near him, and caught him as he sank down from the saddle. "How goes the day ?" said Dundee. "Well for King James," answered Johnson; "but I am sorry for your Lordship." "If it is well for him," answered the dying man, "it matters the less for me." He never spoke again; but when, half an hour later, Lord Dunfermline and some other friends came to the spot, they thought they could still discern some faint remains of life. 'Wrapped in two plaids, his naked corpse was carried to Blair Castle; and in the Old Church of Blair, overshadowed by trees, they buried him. *-Ord. Sur., sh. 55, 1869. See Dunkeld; pp. 197, 207, of Dorothy Wordsworth's Tour in Scotland (1874); pp. 32, 35, 40, 167, of the Queen's Journal (ed. 1877); chap. xiii. of Macaulay's History of England (1855); Mark Napier's Life and Times of Claverhouse (3 vols. 1859-62); vol. i., pp. 365-378, of John S. Keltie's Scottish Highlands (1875); and vol. vii., pp. 371-385, of Dr Hill Burton's History of Scotland (ed. 1876).

* 'In Athole there has long been a tradition that, after has death in the inn at Blair, his body was deposited in the Old Church, now the burial place of the Dukes of Athole. in 1794 the back part of a steel cap or morion, such as was worn by officers in 1689, was recovered by General Robertson of Lude, which, with other portions of rusty armour found in the possession of some cairds or tinkers, was suspected to have been abstracted from the grave of Dundee; and on investigation such was sound to be the case. The fragment is now in possession of J. P. M'Inroy, Esq. of Lude, whilst Dundees corselet is preserved in the Castle of Blair. when, on the death of the sixth Duke in 1866, it was resolved to resume the use of the vault in the Old Church of Blair, which had ceased to be employed as the burial place of the Athole family for about a century. the unpaved soil was carefully turned over; and 27 skulls were discovered, but none that could be identified as that of Claverhouse '(epitome of an interesting article by Dr Arthur Anderson, C B. in Notes and Queri, s5 may 1875). Four queries suggest themselves (1) as to how Dundee's corpse came to be 'naked;' (2) as to his 'death in the inn at Blair;' (3) as to this fragment of a 'morion' and the 'hat' of Macaulay and Hill Burton; and (4) as to the latter's concluding touch of the 'restless and ambitious heart which has slept in this quiet spot amidst peasant dust.'

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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