The Jacobite Risings are often romantically depicted as a David and Goliath struggle between Highland Scots and an English dominated British Government, with the former’s tartan clad warriors clashing with the latter’s musket firing redcoats. However, the reality, as always, is more complicated. The support for the Jacobite cause alternatively grew and waned throughout the period, but it’s never likely to have gained the support of the majority of Scots. In fact it never even had the unanimous support of the Highland Clans and time and again we see Highlander fighting Highlander from opposite sides of the battlefield. Conversely, though less prevalent, the idea that every Englishman was an enthusiastic Williamite or Hanovarian is also false as, for example, we see from the ill-fated adventure of Charles Edward Stuart’s Manchester Regiment. The agency of individuals or groups cannot and should not be underplayed. We also see the intervention of foreign powers, with at various points French and Spanish troops fighting on the Jacobite side and Dutch and German troops on the Government’s, the latter able to draw on the resources of an increasingly global empire. Such complexities are the hallmark of civil conflict and it’s perhaps best to regard the Risings as such, Britain’s last civil wars.
The geography of the Pass of Killiecrankie is dominated by deeply incised gorge, through which flow the waters of the River Garry. It’s slopes are littered with crags and densely wooded and in the shade of the often snow-capped summits of the Cairngorm Mountains. The gorge provided a strategic bottleneck in the main route through the Highlands, a fact that was well recognised by the Jacobite commander, John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount of Dundee (also known as Bonny Dundee), who was camped with an army of some 3,000 men near Blair Castle, just to the north. Having heard that a government army of 4,000 foot, two troops of cavalry and three pieces of old artillery under General Hugh MacKay of Scourie was moving north from Stirling, Claverhouse moved his army to a ridge above the pass. As the government army moved through the gorge they were forced to climb uphill through woods to a position below the Jacobite’s ridge. For two hours the armies faced each other with the government artillery firing speculative shots. At 7pm, the setting sun blinding the west facing MacKay’s troops, Claverhouse ordered a charge and while the musket fire of the government lines caused much damage it failed to check the oncoming Jacobites. The government army was routed and their baggage train overcome, the Pass of Killiecrankie choked with fleeing men. MacKay made a last stand in which Claverhouse was killed, though it was not enough to prevent a Jacobite victory and the Williamite general was forced to retreat. Though Claverhouse’s death sent the rising in Scotland into terminal decline, the victory on the battlefield was complete, with around 2,000 government troops lying dead compared to just 600 Jacobites.
National Trust Scotland run a visitor centre at Killiecranckie, where you can find out about the battle and get information on walks around the gorge. It's open daily from April 1st to November 5th and entry is free. Find out more here:
LEGO Killiecrankie will next be on display as part of The Jacobite Risings: The Fight for Britain’s Throne at the Great Western Brick Show in Swindon on 7th and 8th October – why not come and see it for yourself?