The ‘bluidy’ battle of Killiecrankie: excavating the first Jacobite Rising

What can archaeological surveys of battlefields add to historical accounts of the fighting? Road improvements at Killiecrankie provided an opportunity to see how traces of fighting tallied with a commanding officer’s account of the clash, as Maureen Kilpatrick and Warren Bailie report.

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Journeying north up the A9 between Pitlochry and Blair Atholl in the Scottish Highlands, most travellers are unaware that they are driving through the centre of a battlefield. But if they were transported 327 years back in time, to their left they might have seen the red-coated line of a Government army and to the right three columns of charging Highlanders. Despite being divided by a major road, Killiecrankie is one of the best-preserved battlefields in Scotland. Archaeological fieldwork in 2015 revealed new evidence for the location of the fighting that saw a Jacobite army of Highlanders overwhelm a numerically superior Government force.

main image Re-enactment of a Highland charge during the annual Soldiers of Killiecrankie event (see box p.46). Despite it seeming to involve little more than a disorderly rush at the enemy, the charge required great discipline. During the battle such a charge smashed the left flank of the Government army.
Re-enactment of a Highland charge during the annual Soldiers of Killiecrankie event (see box p.46). Despite it seeming to involve little more than a disorderly rush at the enemy, the charge required great discipline. During the battle such a charge smashed the left flank of the Government army. Photo: NTS.

Came ye by Killicrankie, O?

Fought on 27 July 1689, the battle at Killiecrankie was the opening clash of the first Jacobite Rising, which followed the tumultuous events of 1688, when James VII (or James II of England) – the last Catholic King to reign over Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland – was ousted and replaced in England by the Protestant William of Orange and Queen Mary, James’s own daughter. In 1689, the Scottish Parliament voted to give the crown of Scotland to William and Mary. In response, John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, raised an army under the standard of James VII. Dundee’s army mainly comprised Scottish Highlanders, supported by a small force of Irish troops. To counter this, a Government army of Lowland Scottish, English, and Dutch forces was raised, led by Major General Hugh Mackay, who wrote an eye-witness account of the battle.

left The location of the Killiecrankie battlefield, with the modern A9 road passing directly between the former Jacobite and Government army positions at the opening of the engagement.
The location of the Killiecrankie battlefield, with the modern A9 road passing directly between the former Jacobite and Government army positions at the opening of the engagement. Photo: GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

The battle came at the end of a cat-and-mouse chase around the Highlands, as Mackay and Dundee each tried to gain an advantage over the other and bring their opponent to a decisive battle. In July 1689, both were heading for Blair Atholl to capture the castle there, which they intended to use as a base. ‘Bonnie Dundee’, as he was dubbed by Sir Walter Scott, or ‘Bluidy Clavers’ to his Covenanter enemies, was coming south with around 2,400 men, while Mackay was marching north with a much larger army of between 3,500 and 5,000 men. It was on the slopes of Creag Eallaich, at the Pass of Killiecrankie, a gorge formed by the River Garry on the key communications route into the Highlands from Perth to Inverness, that the two armies met.

The Jacobite army had arrived first and taken the higher ground, while the Government army were deployed across the base of the hill, either side of Urrard House. Once in position, the two armies spent several hours insulting each other, while Dundee apparently waited for the sun to go down so that it no longer shone in his soldiers’ eyes. During this period, the Government lines were harassed by Jacobite snipers firing from a building between the two lines. Mackay sent a party of men to dislodge them, which precipitated the main battle that evening. Shortly after the Government soldiers regained their own lines, the Jacobites attacked in three groups in a classic ‘Highland Charge’.

right Metal-detecting survey under way on the north-west side of the battlefield. The steep, naturally terraced ground would have provided the Jacobites with cover as they charged downhill. The density of finds suggests significant fighting in this area.
Metal-detecting survey under way on the north-west side of the battlefield. The steep, naturally terraced ground would have provided the Jacobites with cover as they charged downhill. The density of finds suggests significant fighting in this area. Photo: GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

The braes o’Killicrankie

Contrary to popular belief, a Highland Charge was not a chaotic, ill-disciplined mob riot, but instead required a high degree of discipline from men rushing into musket range. Speed was essential, so Highlanders often preferred to charge downhill over firm ground and remove clothing from their lower body, as at Killiecrankie. Clad only in their linen shirts, the Highlanders ran forwards, and once in effective musket range (about 60 yards) those with firearms would shoot; gun smoke from this would obscure their enemies’ aim. Firearms were then dropped and edged weapons drawn, whereupon the Highlanders made the final rush on the enemy line, yelling in Gaelic. Once within striking distance, a Highlander would attempt to take an opponent’s sword or bayonet point on his targe (the small round shield they bore), while lunging in low to deliver an upward thrust to their enemy’s torso. Indeed, it seems that once the Highlanders had reached the Government lines at Killiecrankie, their broadswords proved much more deadly than the plug-bayonets of the Government soldiers.

ABOVE A column of Government troops, as formed by re-enactors at Killiecrankie.
A column of Government troops, as formed by re-enactors at Killiecrankie. Photo: NTS.

In Mackay’s account, he noted that the left flank of his troops was able to fire no more than three volleys before the Jacobites smashed and scattered them. The right flank of his army inflicted much heavier fire on the opposing Jacobites, composed mainly of MacDonalds, who were slowed in their charge by field walls and buildings. The 40-strong Jacobite cavalry under Dundee himself, however, broke the right flank of the Government army. A brief rally from Mackay’s 100-strong cavalry was quickly ended as they realised that the infantry lines were collapsing. Government soldiers started to stream from the battlefield, with the Jacobites in pursuit. The rout of Government troops lasted for several miles and is particularly remembered for the celebrated escape of one Government soldier, Donald MacBane, who reputedly made the ‘Soldier’s Leap’ across the River Garry gorge. This site can be accessed from the National Trust for Scotland’s Killiecrankie Visitor Centre.

BELOW The terrain in the area where the right flank of the Jacobite army charged the left flank of the Government forces. According to Mackay, his men only got off three volleys before they were scattered by the Jacobites.
The terrain in the area where the right flank of the Jacobite army charged the left flank of the Government forces. According to Mackay, his men only got off three volleys before they were scattered by the Jacobites. Photo: GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

Visiting Killiecrankie

The Killiecrankie Visitor Centre lies on the edge of a magnificent wooded gorge, and tells the story both of the rich natural history of the Pass and of the battle. The Visitor Centre features ‘hands-on’ natural history exhibits, models, and maps of the battle. A series of walks begin from the Centre, including to the spot now known as Soldier’s Leap (pictured right), where one of the soldiers fleeing the Battle of Killiecrankie escaped by making a spectacular jump across the River Garry. The Visitor Centre is open 10am-5pm daily from Easter until the end of October.

The remnants of Mackay’s force retreated back through the Pass to Stirling, but his army had suffered heavily, taking around 2,000 casualties, mostly Lowland Scots. Dundee’s army had also been depleted, sustaining between 600 and 800 casualties. The most significant fatality to the Jacobites, however, was Dundee himself, who had been fatally wounded in the battle, leaving the cause with no effective leadership. This ultimately prevented the Jacobites from capitalising on their initial success, and without a clear successor the rising came to an end a year later, in 1691. William offered the Highland clans a pardon for an oath of allegiance. It was in the context of this that the infamous Massacre of Glencoe was committed.

Photo: GUARD Archaeology Ltd

There’s sour slaes on Athol braes

In order to inform the ongoing A9 dual carriageway design work in the Killiecrankie area, an archaeological metal-detecting survey was led by GUARD Archaeology to understand better the remains of the battlefield. The GUARD Archaeology team were aided by metal-detectorist volunteers from Detecting Scotland and the Scottish Artefact Recovery Group, as well as experts from the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow. The work was undertaken for Jacobs UK Limited on behalf of Transport Scotland.

In 2003, as part of the TV show Two Men in a Trench, a programme of archaeological works including metal-detecting, geophysical survey, excavation, and topographic survey had been carried out at Killiecrankie by Glasgow University. This recovered personal items such as buttons, as well as musket balls and a fragment of a hand grenade. Our new survey has recovered more personal and military finds dating to the 17th century and therefore likely to derive from the battle. By plotting the location of these artefacts alongside the 2003 material, the widespread nature of the fighting and areas of intense combat have been revealed.

The highest density of finds occurs in the central and, to a lesser degree, north-western areas of the survey. Fewer artefacts were recovered in the south-east portion. This comparative dearth of finds is likely to be due to the battle raging in the central and north-west sectors, which lead in the direction of the Government army objective at Blair Atholl. The battlefield was particularly steep in these areas, with natural terracing along the hillside providing cover for the Jacobite troops as they charged down the hill at dusk, towards the Government soldiers. The recovery of artefacts such as musket, carbine, and pistol balls provides a glimpse of the route the soldiers took during the action, and possible areas of close combat where personal items such as buttons and buckles were lost and trodden into the mud.

BELOW The distribution of finds recovered from Killiecrankie. Note the concentration in the vicinity of Urrard House.
The distribution of finds recovered from Killiecrankie. Note the concentration in the vicinity of Urrard House. Photo: GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

Most of the recovered munitions lay to the north of the A9 on comparatively level ground. The presence of pistol balls suggests close-quarters fighting there, as the effective range of a pistol was only 25-30m; carbines and pistols were mostly used by cavalry, although pistols were also carried by officers. The lead used to make this shot is a very soft, malleable metal with a melting point of only 327°C. When a lead ball is fired the velocity and temperature further soften the metal, resulting in a projectile that can easily deform, and sometimes completely lose its shape, becoming a ‘splatter’. Many of the munitions recovered at Killiecrankie bore such scars: some were noticeably dented, while others had flattened on impact.

The low melting properties of lead were an advantage in the field, though, as shot could be manufactured over a domestic fire. Once molten, the lead would be poured into a two-part cavity mould. After the metal had solidified, the excess along the mould seam was trimmed off. Traces of this extra metal are still observable on one of the pistol shots, suggesting that rather than being fired it was dropped during the confusion of battle. Part of the support for a 17th-century sword belt was also recovered during the most recent survey, but no other weaponry related items were found. This is not surprising, as the battlefield was undoubtedly scoured for anything that could be reused, recycled, or sold. So, as with almost every battlefield, only a fraction of the detritus survives today.

right & below The lead munitions recovered from the battlefield. Many bear traces of use: the two below were deformed on impact. far right This pistol shot retained traces of the excess metal formed when the ball was cast.
The lead munitions recovered from the battlefield. Many bear traces of use: the two below were deformed on impact.
Photos: GUARD Archaeology Ltd.
This pistol shot retained traces of the excess metal formed when the ball was cast.

Most of the recovered buttons were copper alloy and roughly circular in shape, with remnants of a pin at the rear, which fits with a 17th-century date. A pendant recovered from a field north of the Urrard House, in the central area of our survey, may also be 17th century, but comparable examples are being sought to confirm this. The harness boss recovered from the north-eastern edge of the battlefield also appears to belong to the correct period, although once again consulting comparanda should help to strengthen the association. Only four horseshoes that could be contemporary with the battle were recovered. During this period, horseshoes tended to be larger than previously, with nail holes piercing the full extent of the shoe. Three such horseshoe fragments were found relatively close together, north of Urrard House. According to Mackay, the cavalry moved downhill across these fields, which were not as steep as the terrain further to the north-west.

General Mackay was contemptuous of his experienced troops forming the Government left flank, whom he said barely fired a shot. Mackay describes these men fleeing the field, ‘so that in the twinkling of an eye… our men, as well as the enemy, were out of sight, being got doun pall mall to the river where our baggage stood’. The results of the 2003 survey support his account, with very little in the way of lead munitions recovered from the supposed area of the Jacobite right flank. During our survey, 58% of all the recovered projectiles came from the position of the Jacobite left flank, with only 32% found on the Jacobite right. Mackay also reported that the majority of the 800 Jacobite casualties were sustained on their left flank (that is, attacking the right flank of the Government force). All told, the documentary evidence suggests that the south-east portion of the battlefield should have a higher concentration of munitions than the north-west side, a conclusion thoroughly vindicated by the 2003 and 2015 results.

above The pendant (top left), horseshoe fragments (top centre and right), sword-belt support (bottom left) and buckle (bottom centre) found during the survey.
The pendant (top left), horseshoe fragments (top centre and right), sword-belt support (bottom left) and buckle (bottom centre) found during the survey. Photo: GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

The 2003 survey indicated, on the strength of targeted grids covering 4.84 hectares, that there was a higher incidence of munitions in the areas north, south, and east of Urrard House. The highest concentration lay directly north-north-east of this building, where 25 lead munitions were recovered from a 6,400m² area. During the 2003 survey, 14, 13, and five lead munitions were recovered from the areas to the east, south, and extreme south of Urrard House respectively, reinforcing the interpretation that fighting was concentrated around this residence. What could not be said in 2003, due to the more limited survey area, was that there are two clusters in this area leading north to south across the line of the A9. By pursuing even statistical coverage, our survey has shown that the distribution of munitions identified in this area in 2003 is real and not manufactured by targeted grids.

Below Metal-detectorists north of Urrard House. The survey confirmed that this is where some of the heaviest fighting took place, near Mackay’s right flank.
Metal-detectorists north of Urrard House. The survey confirmed that this is where some of the heaviest fighting took place, near Mackay’s right flank. Photo: GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

O fie, Mackay

In general, Mackay’s account appears to tally with the distribution of munitions and other artefacts revealed during the 2003 and 2015 surveys. Concentrations of munitions also occur southwards beyond Urrard House, perhaps tracing the path of retreat down the slope towards the River Garry, before the surviving Government soldiers fled to Stirling. Success at Killiecrankie proved a great inspiration to Scottish Jacobites, even though the death of Dundee deprived their cause of a leader. Today, the battle remains significant for highlighting the devastating effect of a Highland charge, and also ushering in the first of numerous technological and tactical developments in the fledgling British Army.

Soldiers of Killiecrankie

The Soldiers of Killiecrankie weekend usually takes place on the last weekend of July. This community-organised annual event has cavalry and infantry displays, battlefield tours, a living-history camp that gives a glimpse behind the scenes of the daily life of the 17th-century Government soldier. There are also many ‘period-sensitive’ events for the whole family, including traditional storytelling, waulking cloth (your chance to dress up in traditional highland clothing for men, women and children), stalls, food, traditional crafts, and other activities from targe- and sword-making for the youngsters, archery, golf, basket-weaving, battlefield horse-stunts, punishment through the ages, and the popular Saturday night family Battlefield Ceilidh. For further information, see www.SoldiersOfKilliecrankie.co.uk or contact: James Rattray at [email protected] or 01796 473335.

Photo: NTS.
Source
Maureen Kilpatrick is a Project Officer for GUARD Archaeology Limited.
Warren Bailie is a Project Manager for GUARD Archaeology Limited.