Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 56

WHEN the Viscount of Dundee retired, as I told you, from the city of Edinburgh, the Convention, in consequence of the intercourse which he had held, contrary to their order, with the Duke of Gordon, an intercommuned Catholic, sent him a summons to appear before them, and answer to an accusation to that effect. But Dundee excused himself on account of his lady’s dangerous illness, and his own personal danger from the Cameronians. In the mean time King James, with forces furnished him by the French King, had arrived in Ireland, and, welcomed by the numerous Catholics, had made himself master of that fine kingdom, excepting only the province of Ulster, where the Protestants of English and Scottish descent offered a gallant and desperate resistance. But in spite of such partial opposition as the north of Ireland could make, James felt so confident, that, by his Secretary Melfort, he wrote letters to the Viscount Dundee, and to the Earl of Balcarras, Dundee’s intimate friend, and a steady adherent of the exiled monarch, encouraging them to gather together his faithful subjects, and make a stand for his interest, and promising them the support of a considerable body of forces from Ireland, with a supply of arms and ammunition. So high were the hopes entertained by Lord Melfort, that, in letters addressed to some of his friends, he expressed, in the most imprudent manner, his purpose of improving to the uttermost the triumph which he did not doubt to obtain. “We dealt too leniently with our enemies,” he said, “ when we were in power, and possessed means of crushing them. But now, when they shall be once more conquered by us, and subjected once more to our authority, we will reduce them to hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

These letters falling into the hands of the Convention, excited the utmost indignation. The Duke of Hamilton and others, who conceived themselves particularly aimed at, became more decided than ever to support King William’s government, since they had no mercy to expect from King James and his vindictive counsellors. A military force was despatched to arrest Balcarras and Dundee. They succeeded in seizing the first of these noblemen; but Dundee being surrounded by a strong body-guard, and residing in a country where many of the gentlemen were Jacobites, the party sent to arrest him were afraid to attempt the execution of their commission. He remained, therefore, at his own castle of Dudhope, near Dundee, where he had an opportunity of corresponding with the Highland chiefs, and with the northern gentlemen, who were generally disposed to Episcopacy, and favourable to the cause of King James.

Of the same name with the great Marquis of Montrose, boasting the same devoted loyalty, and a character as enterprising, with judgment superior to that of his illustrious prototype, Dundee is said to have replied to those who, on the day of his memorable retreat, asked him whither he went, “That he was going wherever the spirit of Montrose should conduct him.” His whole mind was now bent upon realizing this chivalrous boast. His habits were naturally prudent and economical; but while others kept their wealth as far as possible out of the reach of the revolutionary storm, Dundee liberally expended for the cause of his old master the treasures which he had amassed in his service. His arguments, his largesses, the high influence of his character among the Highland chiefs, whose admiration of Ian Dhu Cean, or Black John the Warrior, was no way diminished by the merciless exploits which had procured him in the Low country the name of the Bloody Clavers, united with their own predilection in favour of James, and their habitual love of war, to dispose them to a general insurrection. Some of the clans, however, had, as usual, existing feuds amongst themselves, which Dundee was obliged to assist in composing, before he could unite them all in the cause of the dethroned monarch.

I will give you an account of one of those feuds, which, I believe, led to the last considerable clan-battle fought in the Highlands. There had been, for a great many years, much debate, and some skirmishing, betwixt MacIntosh of Moy, the chief of that ancient surname, and a tribe of MacDonalds, called MacDonalds of Keppoch. The MacIntoshes had claims of an ancient date upon the district of glen Roy (now famous for the phenomenon called the parallel roads), and the neighbouring valley of Glenspean. MacIntosh had his right to these lands expressed in written grants from the Crown, but Keppoch was in actual possession of the property. “When asked upon what charters he founded his claim, MacDonald replied, that he held his lands, not by a sheep’s skin, but by the sword; and his clan, an uncommonly bold and hardy race, were ready to support his boast. Several proposals having been in vain made to accommodate this matter, MacIntosh resolved to proceed to open force, and possess himself of the disputed territory. He therefore displayed the yellow banner, which was the badge of his family, raised his clan and marched towards Keppoch, being assisted by an independent company of soldiers, raised for the service of Government, and commanded by Captain MacKenzie of Suddie. It does not appear by what interest this formidable auxiliary force was procured, but probably by an order from the Privy Council.

On their arrival at Keppoch, MacIntosh found his rival’s house deserted, and imagining himself in possession of victory, even without a combat, he employed many workmen, whom he had brought with him for that purpose, to construct a castle, or fort, on a precipitous bank overhanging the river Roy, where the vestiges of his operations are still to be seen. The work was speedily interrupted, by tidings that the MacDonalds of Keppoch, assisted by their kindred tribes of Glengarry and Glencoe, had assembled, and that they were lying on their arms, in great numbers, in a narrow glen behind the ridge of hills which rises to the north-east of Keppoch, the sloping declivity of which is called Mullroy. Their purpose was to attack MacIntosh at daybreak; but that chief determined to anticipate their design, and assembling his clan, marched towards his enemy before the first peep of dawn. The rival clan, with their chief, Coll of Keppoch, were equally ready for the conflict; and, in the grey light of the morning, when the MacIntoshes had nearly surmounted the heights of Mullroy, the MacDonalds appeared in possession of the upper ridge, and a battle instantly commenced.

A lad who had lately run away from his master, a tobacco-spinner in Inverness, and had enlisted in Suddie’s independent company, gives the following account of the action. “ The MacDonalds came down the hill upon us, without either shoe, stocking, or bonnet on their heads; they gave a shout, and then the fire began on both sides, and continued a hot dispute for an hour (which made me wish I had been spinning tobacco). Then they broke in upon us with sword and target, and Lochaber-axes, which obliged us to give way. Seeing my captain severely wounded, and a great many men lying with heads cloven on every side, and having never witnessed the like before, I was sadly affrighted. At length a Highlandman attacked me with sword and target, and cut my wooden-handled bayonet out of the muzzle of my gun. I then clubbed my gun, and gave him a stroke with it, which made the but-end to fly off, and seeing the Highlandmen come fast down upon me, I took to my heels, and ran thirty miles before I looked behind me, taking every person whom I saw or met for my enemy.” Many, better used to such scenes, fled as far and fast as Donald MacBane, the tobacco-spinner’s apprentice. The gentleman who bore MacIntosh’s standard, being a special object of pursuit, saved himself and the sacred deposit by a wonderful exertion. At a place where the river Roy flows between two precipitous rocks, which approach each other over the torrent, he hazarded a desperate leap where no enemy dared follow him, and bore off his charge in safety.

It is said by tradition, that the MacIntoshes fought with much bravery, and that the contest was decided by the desperation of a half-crazed man, called “ the red-haired Bo-man,” or cow-herd, whom Keppoch had not summoned to the fight, but who came thither, uncalled, with a club on his shoulder. This man, being wounded by a shot, was so much incensed with the pain, that he darted forward into the thickest of the MacIntoshes, calling out, “ They fly, they fly! upon them, upon them!” The boldness he displayed, and the strokes he dealt with his unusual weapon, caused the first impression on the array of the enemies of his chief.

MacDonald was very unwilling to injure any of the government soldiers, yet Suddie, their commander, received his death wound. He was brave, and well armed with carabine, pistols, and a halberd or half-pike. This officer came in front of a cadet of Keppoch, called MacDonald of Tullich, and by a shot aimed at him, killed one of his brothers, and then rushed on with his pike. Notwithstanding this deep provocation, Tullich, sensible of the pretext which the death of a captain under Government would give against his clan, called out more than once, “ Avoid me-avoid me.”-” The MacDonald was never born that I would shun,” replied the MacKenzie, pressing on with his pike. On which Tullich hurled at his head a pistol, which he had before discharged. The blow took effect, the skull was fractured, and MacKenzie died shortly after, as his soldiers were carrying him to Inverness.

MacIntosh himself was taken by his rival, who, in his esteem, was only an insurgent vassal. When the captive heard the MacDonalds greeting their chieftain with shouts of “ Lord of Keppoch! Lord of Keppoch!” he addressed him boldly, saying, “ You are as far from being lord of the lands of Keppoch at this moment, as you have been all your life.”-” Never mind,” answered the victorious chieftain, with much good-humour, “ we’ll enjoy the good weather while it lasts.” Accordingly, the victory of his tribe is still recorded in the pipe-tune, called, “ MacDonald took the brae on them.”

Some turn of fortune seemed about to take place immediately after the battle; for before the MacDonalds had collected their scattered forces, the war-pipes were again heard, and a fresh body of Highlanders appeared advancing towards Keppoch, in the direction of Garvamoor. This unexpected apparition was owing to one of those sudden changes of sentiment by which men in the earlier stages of society are often influenced. The advancing party was the clan of Macpherson, members, like the MacIntoshes, of the confederacy called the Clan Chattan, but who, disputing with them the precedence in that body, were alternately their friends or enemies, as the recollection of former kindnesses, or ancient quarrels, prevailed. On this occasion the MacPhersons had not accompanied MacIntosh to the field, there being some discord betwixt the tribes at the time; but when they heard of MacIntosh’s defeat, they could not reconcile it with their honour, to suffer so important a member of the Clan Chattan to remain captive with the MacDonalds. They advanced, therefore, in order of battle, and sent Keppoch a flag of truce, to demand that MacIntosh should be delivered to them.

The chief of Keppoch, though victorious, was in no condition for a fresh contest, and therefore surrendered his prisoner, who was much more mortified by finding himself in the hands of the MacPhersons, than rejoiced in escaping from those of his conqueror Keppoch.

So predominant was his sense of humiliation, that when the MacPhersons proposed to conduct him to Cluny, the seat of their chief, he resisted at first in fair terms, and when the visit was urged upon him, he threatened to pierce his bosom with his own dirk, if they should persevere in compelling him to visit Cluny in his present situation. The MacPhersons were generous, and escorted him to his own estates. The issue of the conflict at Mullroy, so mortifying to the conquered chief, was also followed with disastrous consequences to the victor.

The resistance offered to the royal troops, and the death of MacKenzie of Suddie, who commanded them, together with the defeat of MacIntosh, who had the forms at least of the law on his side, gave effect to his complaint to the Privy Council. Letters of fire and sword, as they were called, that is, a commission to burn and destroy the country and lands of an offending chieftain, or district, were issued against Coll MacDonald of Keppoch. Sixty dragoons, and two hundred of the foot guards, were detached into Glenroy and Glenspean, with orders to destroy man, woman, and child, and lay waste Keppoch’s estates. Keppoch himself was for a time obliged to fly, but a wealthy kinsman purchased his peace by a large crick, or fine. We shall presently find him engaged in a conflict, where the destiny, not of two barren glens, but of a fair kingdom, seemed to depend upon the issue.

This brings us back to Dundee, who, in spring 1689, received Intelligence that General MacKay, an officer intrusted by King William with the command of the forces in Scotland, was marching against him at the head of an army of regular troops. MacKay was a man of courage, sense, and experience, but rather entitled to the praise of a good officer than an able general, and better qualified to obey the orders of an intelligent commander, than penetrate into, encounter, and defeat, the schemes of such an active spirit as Dundee. Of this there was an instance in the very beginning of the conflict, when Mackay advanced towards Dudhope castle, with the hope of coming upon his antagonist at unawares; but Dundee was not to be taken by surprise. Marching with a hundred and fifty horse to the town of Inverness, he found MacDonald of Keppoch at the head of several hundred Highlanders, blockading the place, on account of the citizens having taking part with MacIntosh against his clan. Dundee offered his mediation, and persuaded the magistrates to gratify Keppoch with the sum of two thousand dollars, for payment of which he granted his own bond in security. He manifested his influence over the minds of the mountain chiefs still more, by prevailing on Keppoch, though smarting under the injuries he had sustained, by the letters of fire and sword issued against him by King James’s Government, to join him with his clan, for the purpose of restoring that monarch to the throne.

Thus reinforced, but still far inferior in numbers to his opponent MacKay, Dundee, by a rapid movement, surprised the town of Perth. He seized what public treasure he found in the hands of the receiver of taxes, saying that he would plunder no private person, but thought it was fair to take the King’s money for the King’s service. He dispersed, at the same time, two troops of horse, newly raised by Government, seized their horses and accoutrements, and made prisoners their commanding officers, the Lairds of Pollock and of Blair.

After this exploit, Dundee retreated into the Highlands to recruit his little army, to wait fur a body of three thousand men, whom he expected from Ireland, and to seek a suitable time for forwarding the explosion of a conspiracy, which had been formed in a regiment of dragoons now serving in MacKay’s army, but which he had himself commanded before the Revolution. Both the officers and men of this regiment were willing to return to the command of their old leader, and the allegiance of their former King. Creichton, an officer in the regiment, the same whose attack on a conventicle I formerly told you of, was the chief conductor of this conspiracy. It was discovered by MacKay just when it was on the point of taking effect, and when the event, with such an enemy as Dundee in his vicinity, must have been destruction to his army. MacKay cautiously disguised his knowledge of the plot, until he was joined by strong reinforcements, which enabled him to seize upon the principal conspirators, and disarm and disband their inferior accomplices.

The Privy Council had a great inclination to make an example, which should discourage such practices in future; and Captain Creichton, being the chief agent, a stranger, and without friends or intercessors, was selected for the purpose of being hanged, as a warning to others. But Dundee did not desert his old comrade. He sent a message to the Lords of the Privy Council, saying, that if they hurt a hair of Creichton’s head, he would in the way of reprisal cut his prisoners, the lairds of Pollock and Blair, joint from joint, and send them to Edinburgh, packed up in hampers. The Council were alarmed on receiving this intimation. The Duke of Hamilton reminded them, that they all knew Dundee so well that they could not doubt his being as good as his word, and that the gentlemen in his hands were too nearly allied to several of the Council to be endangered on account of Creichton. These remonstrances saved Creichton’s life.

A good deal of marching, countermarching, and occasional skirmishing, ensued between Dundee and MacKay, during which an incident is said to have occurred strongly indicative of the character of the former. A young man had joined Dundee’s army, the son of one of his old and intimate friends. He was employed upon some reconnoitring service, in which, a skirmish taking place, the new recruit’s heart failed him, and he fairly fled out of the fray. Dundee covered his dishonour, by pretending that he himself had despatched him to the rear upon a message of importance. He then sent for the youth to speak with him in private. “ Young man,” he said, “ I have saved your honour; but I must needs tell you, that you have chosen a trade for which you are constitutionally unfit. It is not perhaps your fault, but rather your misfortune, that you do not possess the strength of nerves necessary to encounter the dangers of battle. Return to your father — I will find an excuse for your doing so with honour — and I will besides put you in the way of doing King James’s cause effectual service, without personally engaging in the war.”

The young gentleman, penetrated with a sense of the deepest shame, threw himself at Ins General’s feet, and protested that his failure in duty was only the effect of a momentary weakness, the recollection of which should be effaced by his future conduct, and entreated Dundee, for the love he bore his father, to give him at least a chance of regaining his reputation. Dundee still endeavoured to dissuade him from remaining with the army, but as he continued urgent to be admitted to a second trial, he reluctantly gave way to his request. “ But remember,” he said, “ that if your heart fails you a second time, you must die. The cause I am engaged in is a desperate one, and I can permit no man to serve under me who is not prepared to fight to the last. My own life, and those of all others who serve under me, are unsparingly devoted to the cause of King James; and death must be his lot who shows an example of cowardice.”

The unfortunate young man embraced, with seeming eagerness, this stern proposal. But In the next skirmish in which he was engaged, his constitutional timidity again prevailed. He turned his horse to fly, when Dundee, coming up to him, only said, “ The son of your father is too good a man to be consigned to the provost-marshal;” and without another word, he shot him through the head with his pistol, with a sternness and inflexibility of purpose, resembling the stoicism of the ancient Romans.

Circumstances began now to render Dundee desirous of trying the chance of battle, which he had hitherto avoided. The Marquis of Athole, who had vacillated more than once during the progress of the Revolution, now abandoned entirely the cause of King James, and sent his son, Lord Murray, into Athole, to raise the clans of that country, Stewarts, Robertsons, Fergussons, and others, who were accustomed to follow the family of Athole in war, from respect to the Marquis’s rank and power, though they were not his patriarchal subjects or clansmen. One of these gentlemen, Stewart of Boquhan, although dependent on the Marquis, was resolved not to obey him through his versatile changes of politics. Having been placed in possession of the strong castle of Blair, a fortress belonging to the Marquis, which commands the most important pass into the Northern Highlands, Stewart refused to surrender it to Lord Murray, and declared he held it. for King James, by order of the Viscount of Dundee. Lord Murray, finding his father’s own house thus defended against him, sent the tidings to General MacKay, who assembled about three thousand foot, and two troops of horse, and advanced with all haste into Athole, determined to besiege Blair, and to fight Dundee, should he march to its relief.

At this critical period, Lord Murray had assembled about eight hundred Athole Highlanders, of the clans already named, who were brought together under pretence of preserving the peace of the country. Many of them, however, began to suspect the purpose of Lord Murray to join MacKay; and recollecting that it was under Montrose’s command, and in the cause of the Stewarts, that their fathers had gained their fame, they resolved they would not be diverted from the same course of loyalty, as they esteemed it. They, therefore, let Lord Murray know, that if it was his intention to join Dundee, they would all follow him to the death; but if he proposed to embrace the side of King William, they would presently leave him. Lord Murray answered with threats of that vengeance which a feudal lord could take upon disobedient vassals, when his men, setting his threats at defiance, ran to the river, and filling their bonnets with water, drank King James’s health, and left the standard of the Marquis to a man — a singular defection among the Highlanders of that period, who usually followed to the field their immediate superior, with much indifference concerning the side of politics which he was pleased to embrace.

These tidings came to Dundee, with the information that MacKay had reached Dunkeld, with the purpose of reducing Blair, and punishing the Athole gentlemen for their desertion of the standard of their chief. About the same time, General Cannon joined the Viscount, with the reinforcement so long expected from Ireland; but they amounted to only three hundred men, instead of as many thousands, and were totally destitute of money and provisions, both of which were to have been sent with them. Nevertheless, Dundee resolved to preserve the castle of Blair, so important as a key to the Northern Highlands, and marched to protect it with a body of about two thousand Highlanders, with whom he occupied the upper and northern extremity of the pass between Dunkeld and Blair.

In this celebrated defile, called the Pass of Killiecrankie, the road runs for several miles along the banks of a furious river, called the Garrey, which rages below, amongst cataracts and water-falls which the eye can scarcely discern, while a series of precipices and wooded mountains rise on the other hand; the road itself is the only mode of access through the glen, and along the valley which lies at its northern extremity. The path was then much more inaccessible than at the present day, as it ran close to the bed of the river, and was narrower and more rudely formed.

A defile of such difficulty was capable of being defended to the last extremity by a small number against a considerable army; and considering how well adapted his followers were for such mountain warfare, many of the Highland chiefs were of opinion, that Dundee ought to content himself with guarding the pass against MacKay’s superior army, until a rendezvous, which they had appointed, should assemble a stronger force of their countrymen. But Dundee was of a different opinion, and resolved to suffer MacKay to march through the pass without opposition, and then to fight him in the open valley, at the northern extremity. He chose this bold measure, both because it promised a decisive result to the combat which his ardent temper desired; and also because he preferred fighting MacKay before that General was joined by a considerable body of English horse who were expected, and of whom the Highlanders had at that time some dread.

On the 17th June, 1689, General MacKay with his troops entered the pass, which, to their astonishment, they found unoccupied by the enemy. His forces were partly English and Dutch regiments, who, with many of the Lowland Scots themselves, were struck with awe, and even fear, at finding themselves introduced by such a magnificent, and, at the same time, formidable avenue, to the presence of their enemies, the inhabitants of these tremendous mountains, into whose recesses they were penetrating. But besides the effect produced on their minds by the magnificence of natural scenery, to which they were wholly unaccustomed, the consideration must have hung heavy on them, that if a general of Dundee’s talents suffered them to march unopposed through a pass so difficult, it must be because he was conscious of possessing strength sufficient to attack and destroy them at the further extremity, when their only retreat would lie through the narrow and perilous path by which they were now advancing.

Mid-day was past ere MacKay’s men were extricated from the defile, when their general drew them up in one line three deep, without any reserve, along the southern extremity of the narrow valley into which the pass opens. A hill on the north side of the valley, covered with dwarf trees and bushes, formed the position of Dundee’s army, which, divided into columns, formed by the different clans, was greatly outflanked by MacKay’s troops.

The armies shouted when they came in sight of each other; but the enthusiasm of MacKay’s soldiers being damped by the circumstances we have observed, their military shout made but a dull and sullen sound compared to the yell of the Highlanders, which rung far and shrill from all the hills around them. Sir Evan Cameron of Lochiel, of whom I formerly gave you some anecdotes, called on those around him to attend to this circumstance, saying, that in all his battles he observed victory had ever been on the side of those whose shout before joining seemed most sprightly and confident. It was accounted a less favourable augury by some of the old Highlanders, that Dundee at this moment, to render his person less distinguishable, put on a sad-coloured buff-coat above the scarlet cassock and bright cuirass, in which he had hitherto appeared.

It was some time ere Dundee had completed his preparations for the assault which he meditated, and only a few dropping shots were exchanged, while, in order to prevent the risk of being outflanked, he increased the intervals between the columns with which he designed to charge, insomuch that he had scarce men enough left in the centre. About an hour before sunset, he sent word to Mackay that he was about to attack him, and gave the signal to charge.

The Highlanders stript themselves to their shirts and doublets, threw away every thing that could impede the fury of their onset, and then put themselves in motion, accompanying with a dreadful yell the discordant sound of their war-pipes. As they advanced, the clansmen fired their pieces, each column thus pouring in a well-aimed though irregular volley, when, throwing down their fusees, without waiting to reload, they drew their swords, and, increasing their pace to the utmost speed, pierced through and broke the thin line which was opposed to them, and profited by their superior activity and the nature of their weapons to make a great havoc among the regular troops. When thus mingled with each other, hand to hand, the advantages of superior discipline on the part of the Lowland soldier were lost-Agility and strength were on the side of the mountaineers. Some accounts of the battle give a terrific account of the blows struck by the Highlanders, which cleft heads down to the breast, cut steel headpieces asunder as nightcaps, and slashed through pikes like willows. Two of MacKay’s English regiments in the centre stood fast, the interval between the attacking columns being so great that none were placed opposite to them. The rest of King William’s army were totally routed and driven headlong into the river.

Dundee himself, contrary to the advice of the Highland chiefs, was in front of the battle, and fatally conspicuous. By a desperate attack he possessed himself of MacKay’s artillery, and then led his handful of cavalry, about fifty men, against two troops of horse, which fled without fighting. Observing the stand made by the two English regiments already mentioned, he galloped towards the clan of MacDonald, and was in the act of bringing them to the charge, with his right arm elevated, as if pointing the way to victory, when he was struck by a bullet beneath the arm-pit, where he was unprotected by his cuirass.1 He tried to ride on, but being unable to keep the saddle, fell mortally wounded, and died in the course of the night.

It was impossible for a victory to be more complete than that gained by the Highlanders at Killiecrankie. The cannon, baggage, and stores of MacKay’s army, fell into their hands. The two regiments which kept their ground suffered so much in their attempt to retreat through the pass, now occupied by the Athole-men, in their rear, that they might be considered as destroyed. Two thousand of Mackay’s army were killed or taken, and the General himself escaped with difficulty to Stirling, at the head of a few horse. The Highlanders, whose dense columns, as they came down to the attack, underwent three successive volleys from MacKay’s line, had eight hundred men slain.

But all other losses were unimportant compared to that of Dundee, with whom were forfeited all the fruits of that bloody victory. MacKay, when he found himself free from pursuit, declared his conviction that his opponent had fallen in the battle. And such was the opinion of Dundee’s talents and courage, and the general sense of the peculiar crisis at which his death took place, that the common people of the low country cannot, even now, be persuaded that he died an ordinary death. They say, that a servant of his own, shocked at the severities which, if triumphant, his master was likely to accomplish against the Presbyterians, and giving way to the popular prejudice of his having a charm against the effect of lead balls, shot him, in the tumult of the battle, with a silver button taken from his livery coat. The Jacobites, and Episcopal party, on the other hand, lamented the deceased victor as the last of the Scots, the last of the Grahams, and the last of all that was great in his native country.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00