The Battle of Killiecrankie: how Jacobite Highlanders won a hollow victory

The Battle of Killiecrankie
The Battle of Killiecrankie, fought on 27 July in 1689, was the first major military action in the rebellions that became known as  the Jacobite Risings. 

Scotland’s catholic king, James VII (known as James II in England) had lost his crowns in 1688 to William III, a protestant, in the Glorious Revolution. James had a small core of supporters in Scotland but needed more numbers to bolster his return. 

His supporters were led by Viscount Dundee, who manoeuvred his small band of troops around Scotland to grow their numbers and create a Jacobite force. 

However, they were still lacking men and resources, so Dundee decided that a decisive victory over the government forces was the best way to build support quickly, so he looked for ways to engage the opposition.

In late July 1689 he saw his chance. 

Government forces, led by Major-General Mackay, were moving through Scotland with the aim of securing their lines of communication. Dundee saw that they would have to come through the Pass of Killiecrankie, a two-mile trail bordered by the River Garry and steep hills. 

Spotting the opportunity to ambush his enemy, he sent a small cavalry force to tempt Mackay in, and assembled the rest of his troops, many of whom were Catholics drawn from the Highlander clans, on the slopes above. 

Mackay took the bait. When he realised the trap, he responded by organising his men into lines of three, ready for the Jacobite advance. 

The Highlander tactics were simple. Fire one shot. Drop their musket for axes and swords. Charge downhill and smash into the government force. 

They suffered huge casualties as they advanced down the slope, with around 600 killed by government muskets. 

However, the government troops were using plug bayonets for the first time. This new technology removed the need for pikemen, but could only be fitted to the musket when the soldier had finished firing. 

The speed of attack, coupled with their inexperience of using the plug bayonet, left the government troops defenceless when the Highlanders arrived and many fled for their lives. 

Killiecrankie was an unexpected and stunning victory for the Jacobites, but Dundee's Highlander army suffered heavy casualties and he was killed in the final minutes. 

The victory did little to change the overall strategic position for the Jacobites, and the death of Dundee took away much of their drive. 

The Battle of Killiecrankie took place on 27 July 1689 and was the first military action of the Jacobite Risings. The rebellion would continue in fits and starts for years, but James’ supporters were never able to take advantage of this initial success.

Join the tour: To find out more about the fascinating period, you can join our specialist tour The Jacobite Risings, led by Barry Hilton, an expert on Scottish history and the Highland clans of the 17th and 18th centuries.

For the Jacobite Risings tour details

Picture credit:  Wikimedia Commons, the Battle of Killiecrankie taken from British Battles on Land and Sea, volume 1 (p. 393, 1873).