It was 27th July 1689 and Donald MacBean was standing on a slippery outcrop of rock with the sun going down and the shouts of pursuit close behind. The cries of his dead and dying comrades rang in his ears above the sound of the fast swirling waters of the River Garry thundering through the gorge at his feet. He knew there was no turning back and he could see from the bodies of men drowned below that the waters swollen from rain could not be forded.
The day had begun so differently. Donald MacBean had set out from Dunkeld, a soldier in a force of 3,500 government troops loyal to the Protestant King William under the command of the Highland General Hugh Mackay of Scourie on a march northwards to Inverness in pursuit of the Jacobites, supporters of the Catholic King James, and led by John Graham of Claverhouse , known as ‘Bonnie Dundee’. Dundee, a charismatic leader and experienced soldier had already succeeded in raising an army of nearly 2,500 men by the afternoon of the 27th July with more Highlanders on their way when news reached him Government troops were entering the pass of Killiecrankie a few miles south of his position at Blair Castle. The pass was of strategic importance controlling the north south route through the Highlands and despite having inferior numbers Dundee set out to engage the Government army and halt their advance northwards.
By late afternoon Dundee’s troops were drawn up in a commanding position on the higher ground to the north of the pass, but with the sun in their eyes the Jacobites held firm biding their time against the enemies fire. At 7 o’clock Dundee gave the order to advance and his Highlanders dropped their plaids and haversacks before charging the enemy. So fast and ferocious was the Highlanders’ charge with broadsword and targe that many of Mackays troops were unable to fix the new plug bayonets to their muskets to repel the onslaught. The Government troops were routed and took flight pursued by the victorious Jacobites. It was thus that with dusk approaching Donald MacBean found himself standing high on a rock staring down at the River Garry roaring to his front and with the enemy shrieking at his back.
In his own words, “I went above the Pass, where I met with another water very deep; it was about 18 foot over betwixt two rocks. I resolved to jump it, so I laid down my gun and bat and jumped, and lost one of my shoes in the jump. Many of our men were lost in that water.”
Donald MacBean survived the day but the losses on both sides were heavy. Upwards of 2,000 Government troops were killed including General Mackay’s brother and Brigadier Barthold Balfour, with the Jacobites losing a third of their number. Their leader Bonny Dundee was fatally wounded and carried away to Blair Castle where he lies buried at St Brides Kirk.
Victory was short lived for the Jacobite cause. Within a month on 21st August 1689 an army of 5,000 Jacobites was defeated at the Battle or Seige of Dunkeld by a defending Government force of 1200 menled by Colonel William Cleland. Although losses were small the fighting lasted for 16 hours before the Highlanders withdrew and melted away. They were heard to mutter; “They could fight against men, but it was not fit to fight any more against devils”.
PS. If you wish to visit the area there is an excellent visitor centre at Killiecrankie run by the National Trust for Scotland.