Battle of Killiecrankie

Almost immediately after the accession of James II in 1685, he violated the fundamental laws of the English constitution, and soon after was at war with his parliament. The breach widened, until at last, in 1688, seven of the leading politicians dispatched an invitation to Prince William, of Orange, to come, and occupy the English throne. Finding himself deserted by the army and other classes, James retired to France, but the following year came to Ireland with a small force, was defeated at the Boyne, July 1, 1690. The affairs of the dethroned monarch were ably upheld by James Graham, Viscount Dundee, in Scotland, who rallied the Highland clans and resisted the government of William and Mary.

Dundee possessed the confidence of the Highland clans, and he looked to them for support in his attempt to restore the exiled monarch. There are others who believed that the clans were not jealous of James, but were actuated largely by their hatred toward the house of Argyle (Clan Campbell). There was at that time in Scotland a deep schism between the western clans and the House of Argyle. The Lord of the Isles (Clan MacDonald) had been the powerhouse in the Highlands for hundreds of years. Most of the western clans were still allied with them. Clan Campbell adhered to the central government in London and its drive to modernize Scotland. Since Clan Campbell possessed loyalty to William, by default, the western clans were going to be for the deposed King James II.

Early in 1689, John set out for the Highlands, and around his standard, gathered the Camerons of Lochiel, Stewarts of Appin, MacDonalds of Glengarry and Glencoe, and the Clan Ranald, MacDonalds of Keppock, and the Macleans. In obedience to the summons, Sir John Maclean, immediately sent Hector Maclean of Lochbuie as his lieutenant-colonel, along with three hundred men, to join Dundee. On his march, Hector was attacked by five troops on horseback, sent by the enemy to intercept him, under command of the major of MacKay’s army. When the Macleans saw the enemy was upon them, they threw aside their loose garments and took position upon a ridge, called Knockbreck, in Badenoch and after a severe conflict, Lochbuie put the horse to flight and killed the commander, with the loss on the side of the Macleans’ of only one ensign and a few private soldiers. The action happened about daylight, and Lochbuie’s force was partly concealed by a highland fog. Dundee, alarmed by the furious firing to the northward of him, which was greatly increased by the echo of the mountains, gave a warning order to the rest of the clans to prepare to march to reinforce the Macleans. While they were preparing to march, Hector of Lochbuie at the head of his Maclean soldiers was seen exiting the hills and approaching the camp, driving before him a considerable number of prisoners, and laden with the spoil of war trophies. At the battle of Knockbreck, the first blood in Scotland was won for King James II by the Macleans.

Sir John Maclean continued to make preparations to join Dundee at the head of his clan, during which time he received intelligence that his friend MacNeill of Callechilly was surrounded in the Island of Gigha by English ships of war. He dispatched Sir Alexander Maclean of Otter to his assistance, who relieved MacNeill, with the loss of but one man. His preparations having been completed, Sir John marched to join Dundee, leaving the castle Duart well garrisoned, which was furiously assaulted during his absence by Sir George Rooke and the men-of-war under his command, which, without effect, withstood the cannonading for several days.

Circumstances conspired to make the Athol the seat of war, and around Blair Castle was where the first and last grand struggle of Dundee on behalf of James II was to be waged. Dundee had been eagerly awaiting a contingent of reinforcements from Ireland

The reinforcements arrived, but unfortunately, they proved to be only three hundred ill-fed, ill-armed, and ill-disciplined men under Colonel Cannon. A disappointed Dundee saw that his sole reliance was on his faithful Highlanders, who amounted to but little more than three thousand men, five hundred of whom were Macleans under Sir John. The continued possession of Blair Castle was a matter of great importance to Dundee, and as it was in danger of being assaulted by Lord Murray, a light party of Highlanders under Sir Alexander Maclean was sent to help defend it. Soon after it was ascertained that Government troops under MacKay were marching to Blair, this action made it necessary for Dundee to direct all his strength to that point.

While at Blair castle, Dundee learned that MacKay’s army had taken possession of the pass of Killiecrankie. He immediately dispatched Sir John Maclean, with a party of four hundred men, to reconnoiter; but being informed that the enemy was there in full force, he found it necessary to strengthen the Macleans with all the forces he had with him. Before engaging the enemy, he inquired fully into the nature of the ground and from the hill of Shierglas took a distance view of the foe. The two armies did not come together until the evening on July 27, 1689. The army of Dundee, about eighteen hundred strong, occupied the high grounds about Wizard house; MacKay’s, numbering about thirty-five hundred, stood upon a lower platform in the same range of hills. The right of Dundee was commanded by Sir John Maclean, composed of his clan and those of subordinate chieftains, divided into two battalions because confronted by two of MacKay’s regiments.

On the left was Sir Donald MacDonald’s regiment, commanded by his son and Sir Alexander Maclean. The main body was composed of the Clans of Lochiel, Glengarry, and Clan Ranald, with the Irish auxiliaries and a troop of horses commanded by Sir William Wallace. It was about eight o’clock when the clans made the infamous downhill charge. For the sake of lightness, they stripped almost to the kilt, stooped low, and holding their targes before their heads, they rushed swiftly upon the enemy, who were partially entrenched. When they were approximately 50 yards from the foe, they stopped a moment, fired, threw away their guns, and then flew headlong upon the enemy, using their claymores and Lochaber axes. Dundee seemed to be everywhere. He rode from clan to clan and animated them to action. MacKay’s army, by the sudden onslaught, was pierced in every part toward the left of its center. Within seven minutes, that wing was shattered and driven off by the Macleans, who chased some of them into the coils of Killiecrankie Pass, and others across the River Garry, where the greater part was slain. The left of the Highland army was not quite so successful; for the enemy, after sustaining the fury of the first attack forced the MacDonalds to retreat. The majority of the Macleans were now wholly engrossed in the pursuit and its concomitant attendants.

The chief, however, who seems to have been an uncommonly brave man, with a few gentlemen of his clan, made a wheel to the left; and joining with Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, they advanced briskly along the verge of the valley, and attacked the regiment in the flank. This movement of the Camerons and Macleans gave the MacDonalds time to rally, and that wing of the enemy, now attacked both in front and flank, was forced to retire. Few of the enemy who fled first made their escape, for those not cut down by the claymores of the Macleans were waylaid in the pass of Killiecrankie by the Athol men. The army of MacKay was almost annihilated; the wreck, consisting of about four hundred, reached Stirling the next day. The Highlanders’ loss was about eight hundred, including Dundee, their great commander.

The victory at Killiecrankie aroused the apathetic, who hastened to swell the ranks of the victorious army. But the death of Dundee was greater than a defeat in battle. The command now went to General Cannon, an old, inactive, and inexperienced man, who spoke no Gaelic. Cannon proved wholly unsuited in almost every respect and led the army from one disaster to another until it was totally ruined. He marched the army into Perth, and then to Aberdeen. Government forces had taken up a position at Dunkeld. Cannon tried to besiege it, although he lacked heavy siege equipment. The effort failed entirely, and in this action, Hector Maclean of Torrestan, of the family of Coll, and Hector Maclean, son of Kingerloch, were slain, and Sir Alexander Maclean had his leg broken. Several private soldiers with the name of Maclean were also killed and wounded.

This effectively ended the first Jacobite rising. A rising that had started out so promising with the Maclean victory at Knockbreck. That was followed by the overwhelming Jacobite victory at Killiecrankie. Rarely is the loss of one individual so cataclysmic to an organization that it almost completely loses its effectiveness. This was one of those times. If Dundee had not been killed in action, the loss of several dozen Macleans during the first Jacobite rising quite possibly would not have been in vain and the House of Stuart might still rule Great Britain.


  1. 1.   Maclean, J.P. A History of the Clan MacLean from Its First Settlement at Duard Castle, in the Isle of Mull, to the Present Period. Cincinnati: R. Clarke, 1889.

Article by John Mile, 15 February, 2018; released under the Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) Unported License. The battle is important for a number of reasons, including: – the first major engagement in the Jacobite rebellions – the first use of grenades in the UK (a fragment of a grenade was recovered during metal detecting undertaken for the television programme Two Men in a Trench in 2003) and – the first use of platoon firing in Britain. – The battle was won by the Jacobites in less than thirty minutes. – Government casualties were in excess of 1,200 whilst hundreds more were murdered in pursuit. – Mackay survived and arrived back in Stirling with the remnants of his army reduced to 500 men. – Jacobite casualties were around 1,000, most of whom had been killed in the initial volley, – Colonel Alexander Cannon, leader of the Irish Regiment, took command of the entire force.