Killiecrankie: haunted by memories

Pitlochry 86A few miles to the north-west of Pitlochry is a beautiful glen known as the Pass of Killiecrankie.   Here, the River Garry flows through a steep-sided gorge, foaming and roaring between narrow straits and then broadening into a dark green ribbon fringed with woods of beech, birch, oak and hazel.

In spring, the forest floor is studded with wood anemones and primroses, and warblers pour out their songs overhead.  On clear autumn days, wisps of freezing mist rise from the treetops, and the last remaining leaves tumble out of a blue sky.

Hard though it is to imagine, this idyllic spot was once the scene of a dreadful battle where at least two thousand men lost their lives.

Pitlochry 43 (1)In 1688, James II of England (and VII of Scotland) had been replaced by William of Orange.  The staunchly Catholic James had made himself so unpopular that Parliament officially invited William to invade – a daring proposition by any standards – and he set sail from Holland with his army, landing in Brixham and meeting very little resistance.  James fled to the Continent, leaving his throne still warm for the new Protestant king.

In Scotland, loyalties were bitterly divided between William and James.   The Stewart dynasty, represented by James, was not going down without a fight.  Sometimes, it was not just clans but families that were torn apart as fathers and sons took up arms and prepared to do battle against each other.

Hugh Mackay of Scourie (unknown artist)
Hugh Mackay of Scourie (unknown artist)


The Commander-in-Chief of William’s forces in Scotland was Hugh Mackay of Scourie.  Mackay was, in fact, a Highlander, and many Highlanders had thrown themselves behind the Jacobite cause;   but Mackay had served as General of the Scots Brigade in Holland. He was a Calvinist, and he had a Dutch wife.  His decision cannot have been an easy one.

Mackay greatly admired the courage of the Highlanders, describing them as ‘absolutely the best untrained troops in Scotland’;   he tried hard to recruit them to William’s side, but very few allowed themselves to be persuaded.


John Graham of Claverhouse by Peter Lely
John Graham of Claverhouse (‘Bonnie Dundee’) by Peter Lely

At the head of the Jacobite rebels was John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee, who was known to his men simply as ‘Bonnie Dundee’.

Ironically, Dundee was a Lowlander, and the men under his command were largely Highlanders.  At least 240 of them belonged to clan Cameron, having rallied around their Chief, Ewen Cameron of Lochiel.

A terrifying premonition

The night before the battle, Dundee was woken by a loud clap of thunder.  He sat up in his tent, and saw a spectre with a gruesome wound in his head.   The ghost raised a pointing hand and advised him to “Remember Brown of Priesthill.”   Dundee knew who Brown of Priesthill was:  a Covenanter, stubborn but courageous, whose execution Dundee had ordered a few years before.

Dundee was shaken, and questioned his guards to see if they had noticed an intruder, but no explanation was forthcoming.   However, it was indeed a premonition of doom, as Dundee would die the next day at Killiecrankie.


Blair Castle
Blair Castle

The spark came in July 1689 when Blair Castle in Perthshire was seized for the Jacobites by the Duke of Atholl’s own factor.  Hugh Mackay knew he must re-capture the castle at all costs, but an ever-growing contingent of Highlanders was moving down from the hills to block his path.

Mackay hurried north, taking with him about 3,500 foot soldiers and two troops of cavalry.  Dundee had amassed 1,800 men, but many clansmen had not yet arrived, and Ewen Cameron sent his eldest son to muster more support in the western regions of Morvern, Sunart and Ardnamurchan.


Pitlochry 85Despite being seriously outnumbered, the Highlanders had two great advantages:  they knew the geography of the landscape, and they were hardened to the steep and rocky terrain.   Most, in fact, would be fighting barefoot.

The opposing armies closed together on 27th July at the Pass of Killiecrankie.   The Jacobites were occupying a hilltop vantage point, looking down at the Government troops in the valley below;   but the sun was shining in their faces, and despite the men’s impatience they waited until seven o’clock in the evening before making a move.

When Dundee gave the signal to advance, two thousand ‘wild Highlanders’ poured down the hillside in a terrifying and deafening onslaught.   Mackay’s troops put up a brief resistance before they turned and fled.  That should have been the end of it, but their path of retreat was cut off by the steep-sided gorge, and the battle soon turned into a massacre.

Two thousand Government soldiers were either killed or captured, but a third of the Jacobite men were also killed, including Bonnie Dundee himself.  Ewen Cameron of Lochiel survived the action, and he lived to the ripe old age of 89.


Knowing that the day was lost, a Government soldier by the name of Donald McBane took his life in his hands and leapt 18 feet across the river in his bid to get away.  The point at which he chose to leap is still marked and remembered;   it was an incredible feat, especially as the rocks would be damp and slippery with moss.   Here is an extract from McBane’s autobiography, which was published in 1728:

Pitlochry CW 54“At last they cast away their musquets, drew their broadswords, and advanced furiously upon us, and were in the middle of us before we could fire three shots a-piece;  broke us, and obliged us to retreat.  Some fled to the water, and some other way;  (we were for most part new men.)  I fled to the baggage, and took a horse, in order to ride the water – there follows me a Highlandman with sword and targe [shield], in order to take the horse, and kill myself.  You’d laugh to see how he and I scampered about.  I kept always the horse between him and me;  at length he drew his pistol, and I fled;  he fired after me.  I went above the pass, where I met with another water, very deep.  It was 18 foot over, betwixt two rocks.  I resolved to jump it;  so I laid down my gun and hat and jumped, and lost one of my shoes in the jump.  Many of our men were lost in that water, and at the pass.  The enemy pursuing hard, I made the best of my way to Dunkel [Dunkeld] where I stayed until what of our men was left came up;  then every one went to his respective regiment.”

Pitlochry 65


After the battle, the Jacobite forces found themselves much depleted and bereft of their leader;   but they swept south to Dunkeld, confident of another victory.   Here, however, they met their match at the hands of the Government forces, and on 21st August the Jacobite armies were scattered and defeated.

In terms of the first Jacobite uprising, the Battle of Killiecrankie was a victory that would inspire poets for centuries to come;  but the cause was still lost, and it would be another 25 years before the next generation of eager young men gathered under the banner of James Francis Edward Stuart, the son of James II.

Haunting memories…

Killiecrankie 18It is said that once a location has witnessed so much death it never forgets…”   (Cavan Scott, Countryfile)

It would seem that, at least for some visitors, the brutal conflict that took place at Killiecrankie can still be experienced at first hand.

Some people have reported seeing soldiers marching as if to battle, while others have witnessed an eerie red glow.   One woman claims to have seen a replay of the action, and another believed she was seeing the bodies of dead English officers around her feet, as she was picnicking in the gorge.

Interestingly, most of the experiences have occurred on or around 27th July, the anniversary of the battle.

The most blood-curdling story comes from the BBC’s Countryfile website.  An alarming apparition of a young woman wanders around the bodies, robbing them of valuables.  But beware – she will give chase if she catches sight of you, and if she lays a finger on you, you’ll be dead within a year!

Killiecrankie autumn (1)Visiting Killiecrankie

Killiecrankie is managed by the National Trust for Scotland.  The woodland walks are open daily, all year round, and there is no admission fee.  It’s particularly beautiful in autumn, when the woodlands that flank the gorge turn vibrant shades of gold, bronze and crimson.  Take a look at this post on The Hazel Tree to find out more!

The Visitor Centre has a bookshop and café (seasonal opening – check the NTS website for full details).  



Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf

Dunkeld CathedralAfter Killiecrankie…

You might also like to read about Dunkeld Cathedral, bravely defended by government forces as the whole town went up in flames…

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  • Rachel

    Fantastic article. I’m very interested in Scottish history, especially after reading the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon about a WW2 nurse who steps into a stone circle and ends up in 1743 Jacobite Scotland – if you haven’t read them already, I highly recommend them. They are doing a 16 part TV series of the books now, to be aired this summer. It’s Jamie and Claire brought to life!

    http://www.starz.com/videos/embed/379 Here is the trailer if it tickles your fancy =]

  • Anny

    I really enjoyed this Jo, I’d heard of Killiecrankie, but didn’t know any details until now. We spent years holidaying in Scourie so that was another interesting link for me. Looks like a very spooky place – especially in this weather. Excellent read – thank you.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you very much, Anny! I didn’t know much about Killiecrankie either, before we visited, but I was fascinated by the stories attached to it. It didn’t feel spooky when we were walking there – just very quiet and peaceful. Scourie is a place I want to visit – I’ve heard there are lots of lovely rock formations around those parts!

  • Ash

    A wonderful article even if it does highlight so much death & pain in the past. Definately worth a visit. Again, no need for me to buy that guide book!

    • Jo Woolf

      So many beautiful places in Scotland have an underlying story of suffering and hardship – you could just put a pin in a map, and you’d find more! Thank you – very glad you enjoyed it.

  • Mike Howe

    That is a brilliant post Jo, beautifully written and presented, the photos are wonderful. I knew some of that history but not all. It’s good that the violence of the past has been replaced by deep, tranquil beauty

    • Jo Woolf

      That’s very kind of you, Mike – thank you! 🙂 It was a discovery for me, too, as I knew very little about Killiecrankie before our visit. The woods do have a very tranquil feeling, with the constant sound of the river way below. Challenging for photos, because the lighting is very difficult (as the Jacobites would probably have agreed!)

  • tearoomdelights

    It’s surprising to me that so many people have had spooky experiences here, although given the history it shouldn’t surprise me at all. I think of it as a peaceful place, which it is now, apart from the tourists in summer. Perhaps I should go there around the end of July and see if I get a different impression. Lovely photographs, I especially like the iced trees second from last.

    • Jo Woolf

      It is surprising when you think that all these experiences have taken place in the daytime, and when the place must have been quite busy.. I thought it was very peaceful, too, though the autumn twilight did give it a feeling of sadness. I’m pretty sure if you visit somewhere like this hoping for a spooky experience, it won’t happen – it’s when you’re not expecting it that it takes you by surprise!
      Thank you – we had fun with the photography, though getting nice shots of the river was difficult because most of it was in deep shadow.

  • blosslyn

    Very interesting and quite fascinating when you start researching, which is have the fun. Lovely photos, which are difficult this time of year, those shadows can cause havoc 🙂

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Lynne! Yes, I did enjoy finding out about this place. Not the most obvious time of year for photos, with bare trees, but they have their own beauty, especially in the frost. The shadows, as you say, were a nightmare! In midwinter I think the gorge is in shadow most of the day.

      • blosslyn

        You are quite right trees are beautiful in every cycle that they go through and they can look so very different in each one. By the way I meant half the fun, I have had a bad day at work, I have been on the PC non stop and my eyes are only just focusing again 🙂 but I guess you knew what I meant 🙂

  • Carmen Mandel

    Another fine piece of writing and history, Jo. The weather has always been challenging for the people of these lands and it shows in how events unfold. Beautiful captures. I love wintry scenes and the shadows. The dark gorge is spectacular! 🙂

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Carmen! I didn’t think there would be so much to tell about Killiecrankie, but the story was just so interesting. Yes, the weather has always posed some severe challenges! It makes you realise how hardy the men were, who camped on long fighting campaigns with little but a tartan plaid to wrap themselves in. The shadows in the gorge were a challenge, but they resulted in some quite dark and dramatic photos.

  • Hank.

    Beautiful, Jo! So much of Scotland is at turns lovely and wistful. So many Highlanders losing their lives for one cause or another…its a wonder anyone survived at all. Thanks for all the touching stories, and for bringing us with you!

    • Jo Woolf

      You’re right, Hank – that’s what makes Scotland so beautiful, I think. It really is a wonder that the families survived so much hardship. I’m very glad you enjoyed the story, and thank you!

  • Dave

    I had no love affair with history in school, but if I had been introduced to writers passionate about the past of their homelands, like you are, I believe the love would have rubbed off on me. Thanks for making this story so meaningful and full of life for me.

    • Jo Woolf

      That is so nice of you to say so, Dave! That’s precisely my own memory of classroom history, too – my real interest came a lot later. Thank you very much for your lovely comment!

      • Dave

        I would like to add a Hazel Tree link to my high school student’s blog, if you don’t mind, and to my own. I’m trying to offer them so more “passionate” perspectives on their school subjects, and you touch on so many good ones.

      • Dave

        Thank you so much, Jo. We live way out, above the Arctic Circle, in a little village and we have so few printed resources. But we do have the internet. Yes! I’ll pass along your blog address to the social studies teacher as well.

      • Dave

        My personal one has been up a long time, but the kid’s journalism blog and photo blogs are in the making. When we go public, I’ll send you a password.

      • Jo Woolf

        That’s kind of you – please don’t feel obliged, but I would be interested to see it. Meanwhile I know I’m going to enjoy your blog, too! 🙂

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