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A walk around... Dunkeld

Updated Tuesday, 27th October 2009

Few battles changed the course of Scottish history as the Battle of Dunkeld did in 1689. Find out how and why it happened with the Dunkeld audio walk.

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Welcome to a walk around 17th century Dunkeld – and a story of a little-remembered battle that helped to shape Scotland into the country it is today. In this little village, a massively outnumbered Cameronian regiment found themselves facing the might of the Jacobite army. The events that transpired changed Dunkeld - and Scotland - forever.


Copyright The Open University


Neil Oliver: Welcome to a walk around the Perthshire town of Dunkeld. Nestling below tree covered hills on the banks of the River Tay, the town is today a peaceful spot, popular with day trippers. If you’re listening to this audio guide, perhaps you’re one such visitor, attracted by the famous cathedral and the historic buildings of the town. But on today’s walk, we’re going to reveal a hidden element of Dunkeld’s history, the story of a violent and desperate battle which took place here three hundred and twenty years ago.

As guides, we have four experts who will take us back to the 17th Century. Before taking this step back in time, make sure you have a map of the town with you and the details of this walk. Along the way, you’ll hear the following sound to indicate where you should press pause before walking to the next stopping point and pressing play again.

Point 1: Telford Bridge

Our walk starts on the bridge which carries the road into Dunkeld from the south connecting the town to the Victorian village of Birnam. In 1689, the year of the Battle of Dunkeld, this bridge over the Tay was not here, instead there was a ford in front of the Cathedral, and where today you look onto parkland, then you would have been peering towards a much busier scene. Historian Louise Yeoman and, first, Alison Reed.

Alison Reed: Well, we’re standing here in front of the bridge, which is a Telford bridge of the 18th Century, but before that the ford at Dunkeld was much more important for the crossing of the river, and if we’re looking up towards the Cathedral what we’d see is a range of houses and buildings which belonged to the Cathedral and were occupied by the clergy and ancillary staff who serviced the Cathedral, and behind that would have been the original village and town of Dunkeld, as opposed to the Dunkeld of today, which stretches away behind us parallel to the current bridge and heading due north. So the whole orientation of Dunkeld as we see it now is different to what it would have been in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Louise Yeoman: You need to think of Dunkeld in the 17th Century as being that bit more to the west of Dunkeld as you see today. You’d come in over this 18th Century bridge, and if you look down the side of the bridge, you know, you’ll perhaps on a nice day see people sitting out, lots of pretty trees. But if you’d come here in the 17th Century, you would have been seeing a tiny little Scots burgh over by the Cathedral where there was a ford across the river and there’d be sort of various people and horses and livestock crossing over and going up into the Highlands, because this was a main route up into the Highlands from Perth.

Neil: The picture painted there is still a gentle one, yet the peace of this little gateway town was about to be shattered by a battle that was to prove pivotal for Scotland.

Alison: The Battle of Dunkeld in 21st August 1689 is almost completely unknown to the Scottish population or beyond, and yet by its very existence it turned the course of Scottish history and has basically made the country that we know today.

Louise: You’re hearing the clash of garden chairs today with somebody pruning one of the ornamental bushes, but here in 1689, you’d have heard the clash of swords on halberds, you would have heard volleys of musketry; this small area was becoming engulfed in a firestorm of shot and vicious hand to hand fighting.

Neil: Head now into Dunkeld itself, to the centre of the town. When you hear the beep in a moment, press pause and press play again when you reach the Atholl Memorial Fountain at the end of the High Street. As you walk, take a look at the buildings around you; the traditional architecture for which Dunkeld is celebrated.

Point 2: Market Cross

You’re now standing in the marketplace of the town, which we think is where the market square has always been. Much of Dunkeld today is maintained by the National Trust, who helped restore the houses all around you. Yet extraordinarily, these buildings are all relatively new. Although the first settlement of Dunkeld dates back to 730AD, there is little here from the years before 1689. Archaeologist Kirsty Owen, from Historic Scotland.

Kirsty Owen: Dunkeld is an 18th Century Scottish town, complete in its entirety, a place where you can go and get a sense of 18th Century Scotland. You can see these quaint whitewashed buildings and get an idea of what this town would have been like. It’s a veneer that’s been placed over Dunkeld’s slightly bloodier and slightly less well acknowledged past.

Louise: Look around you and you’ve got absolutely picture perfect whitewashed harled houses; it’s just the epitome of a really pretty, pretty little burgh. But if you came back here, in 1689, you would be coming to an absolutely devastated, burned out, ground zero after this battle which just destroyed everything of the town. What you see around you is all rebuilt after this battle which destroyed Dunkeld.

Neil: The Battle of Dunkeld was a confrontation between two sides allied to different churches and crowns. Stationed here in the town was Lord Angus’s regiment, better known by their nickname “the Cameronians”, who were part of the Government army. And marching from the Highlands to meet them were the Jacobites; rebels with a very deeply held cause. Historian Mark Jardine.

Mark Jardine: Well, this was really a clash between two sides with two very different visions of what Scotland could be. On the one side were the Jacobites. Now they were the supporters of King James VII and II of England, so they were loyal to Scotland’s ancient line in Kingship, and they wished to see a Scotland which was Episcopal, which is generally tolerant of some other denominations but not extreme Protestants. And on the other side were the Cameronians. Now, the Cameronians wanted to change Scotland into a Presbyterian country, and they wanted to defend that revolution and make sure that the Jacobites never got back into power. So, you can see that both sides had some degree of ideological commitment, and in a sense trapped in the middle was the little town of Dunkeld, which lies right on the sort of mouth of the Highlands, almost right on the sort of boundary fault between the Episcopal north and the sort of Presbyterian south.

Neil: This story started in the year before the battle when William of Orange, the Protestant ruler of the United Provinces, modern day Holland, came to England. His plan was to overthrow the Catholic King James II of England and VII of Scotland at the request of English nobles and clergy, but the Scots had always been loyal to their old Stuart Kings, and the nation found itself split between people loyal to James and those who welcomed the prospect of a new ruler. Alison Reed from Glasgow Museums takes up the tale.

Alison: So, William arrives in England. He’s not been invited by the Scots. The Scots Government then has the decision, what do we do about this? Do we go along with our English colleagues and say, “Yes, we want William as our monarch because he’s Protestant and will secure the church that we want,” or “Do we stick with the hereditary dynasty of the Stuarts?” So a national convention is called in Edinburgh to discuss and debate this, and it very quickly starts to fracture, and you can see that there are people going in both directions. The charismatic leader of James’s cause, Graham of Claverhouse, leaves Edinburgh and heads north, and the expectation is that he’s going to raise an army for James.

Neil: And so, under the command of Graham of Claverhouse, also known as Viscount Dundee, Bonnie Dundee, a movement began which was to become a legendary part of Scottish history, the Jacobites. This was their first rising. In response, the Government in Edinburgh gathered regiments sympathetic to William of Orange and moved north.

Alison: The two armies come together at Killiecrankie in July 1689. Claverhouse is an experienced military operator, and he uses the Highland troops to their best advantage, sweeping down a hillside into a much larger Scots Government army, commanded by General Mackay, and he routs that army; army of four thousand – blown to the winds. Handful of people actually make it away from there, the numbers that regather of the Scots Government army after that is about four hundred, about 10% of the figure that actually attended the battle. So James’s army, taken by Graham of Claverhouse, has won a stunning victory for his cause. But, in the moment of the end of the victory Claverhouse takes a bullet in the chest and dies of his wounds.

Neil: The Battle of Killiecrankie, about fifteen miles to the north of Dunkeld, was a massive success for the Jacobites, and clearly the opposite for the Government forces. But after the death of Dundee, both sides found themselves in need of direction. Mark Jardine.

Mark: Killiecrankie had been a disaster for the Government forces. It had knocked, destroyed their army; it had given all the advantages to the Jacobites. But in a sense then, they had lost their leader at their glorious hour. Now, risings in the 17th Century were all about momentum, whichever side could get to Edinburgh first and seize the city more or less would get control of Scotland. So, it was all very much up in the air in the summer of 1689, and it could have gone either way, but Dunkeld became the point at which it changed.

Neil: If you look now to the north east, you’ll see an archway in the wall, tucked between the church and the tourist office. Head through the archway into a park that lies behind the Cathedral; Point 3 is in the middle of that park.

Point 3: Historic Scotland parkland

Take a look around you, at the small mound on your right, the higher hills in front of you and on the left, Dunkeld Cathedral. In 1689, as now, the Cathedral was partly in ruins, its nave unroofed, and only its eastern end in use as a church. But the surroundings of the Cathedral would have been completely different. Kirsty Owen from Historic Scotland, who maintain the Cathedral site.

Kirsty: Well, we’ve just walked out away from the centre of Dunkeld through a small door onto a lovely green space. As you walk through here up the path, you can see the Cathedral starkly in front of you through the trees and the remains of some parkland around the outside of it, most of which dates to the 18th and 19th Century. Now, standing here you get a very false impression of the setting of the ruined cathedral and how it would have probably appeared in the late 17th Century. So, many of the trees that you see wouldn’t have been here; it would have been a much more open space.

Now, around the Cathedral itself there would have been the remains of many of the buildings that would have been associated with the medieval cathedral, such as canons’ houses and possibly other buildings such as granaries, all in varying states of preservation. Around the actual Cathedral itself, there would have been a wall. We’re not entirely sure of the height of it because what we have are illustrations from the 18th and 19th Century which show it before it was demolished, but it would have been clearly a site that could have been defended.

Neil: Now move a little further along the path. Directly behind the Cathedral, to your right, is a field, probably dotted with grazing sheep. In 1689, this was the site of another building which loomed on Dunkeld’s skyline; the mansion of the Marquis of Atholl.

Kirsty: Well, we’re looking across to an open field of pasture, which would have been the location of Dunkeld House. Dunkeld House was a mansion that was built in the late 17th Century, or I should say rebuilt because it had actually been destroyed once already, by William Bruce, a very eminent Scottish architect who built things like Falkland House, which is still standing. The house was directly across from the Cathedral ruins and was set within its own parkland. There would have been the house itself, a very grand building with chimneys rising up into the air, I mean quite a big stately home really, which is quite surprising considering it was actually only built in a relatively few years, it was quite a new structure.

Neil: It was to this Dunkeld that a newly formed regiment was sent. In the weeks and months following the declaration of William as ruler, the Government had put a call out for volunteers of staunch Presbyterian background to back up the existing Scots army. Among those who answered the call were a radical religious group; the Cameronians. In the aftermath of the disastrous defeat at Killiecrankie, they were ordered to take up arms and march to Dunkeld.

Mark: When the Cameronian regiment arrived here, they obviously realised they were in the heart of hostile terrain to say the least. They were a long way from home, they were surrounded by Jacobites, and they set up camp in the Atholl’s house, out there in the field. Now probably, most of the villagers made a run for it as soon as the Cameronian regiment appeared, because the Cameronians had quite a fearsome reputation, not for military efficiency but for religious zealotry, and that meant that they probably terrified the local people into running away, and they probably almost certainly terrified the local minister to take flight, so they probably came to quite a deserted town.

Neil: This was the Cameronians first serious action. Government forces had not acquitted themselves well so far, but these were men of a different kind.

Mark: The Cameronians were very zealous Presbyterians from the South West of Scotland, and this was their moment. They had been formed into a regiment at Douglas in Lanarkshire, in April, and they found themselves marching around defending bits of the Highlands, and they were sort of sent here to Dunkeld very much as a sort of stop gap kind of protection measure against the Jacobites, but I don’t think anyone really expected them to be here and faced with a battle.

Alison: Most of the men who would have volunteered would have been farmers and small time tradesmen and merchants in the South West of Scotland. A handful of them would have had active military experience of one sort or another. William Cleland, who was the Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment, had been one of the officers in charge at the skirmish at Drumclog in 1679, and so a handful of them would have had some military experience but no formal military training. They had not been trained as professional soldiers; they were basically people with pitchforks, a handful of guns, a bit of supplies from the Government and a great deal of faith in their own capacity.

Neil: No matter how great that faith, the Cameronians did not expect to be left without reinforcements. What happens next is a tale of what the Cameronians suspected was conspiracy, but as Louise Yeoman and Alison Reed explain was most likely cock up.

Alison: The Cameronians arrived here on a Saturday night and encamped around Atholl House. They were reinforced a couple of days later by some dragoons, some horse soldiers, who were sent up from Perth, and they head out, and on the day before the actual battle they come into some skirmishing with some of the Jacobite troops further up in the hills to the north. And then, the horse soldiers get drawn back, orders come from them to leave Dunkeld, to head back to Perth to regroup with what the rest of the army is doing down there, and the Cameronian troops suddenly find themselves in an evening, on their own, abandoned.

Louise: The Cameronians come here on the 17th, but the action is not here when they come. The action is all up in Aberdeenshire. Nobody expects the Jacobite army! It’s on the 20th that the news comes that the Jacobite army has given Mackay, the Government general, the slip; they’ve marched down, they are coming here. Now, at that point the Cameronians have been sent some cavalry, but then the cavalry get withdrawn to Perth. The Government commander in Perth has panicked, he’s withdrawn the cavalry, but in a supreme cock up he hasn’t realised that he’s in charge of the Cameronians.

He thinks another Government commanding officer is going to recall the Cameronians, but that officer is waiting on our man at Perth to give the order – the order never comes! And the Cameronians suddenly find themselves in what they call an open and useless place, and they know the full force of the Jacobite army is coming, and at that point there’s mutiny! These people can see what is coming; they can see they are in a trap! It’s only the grit and steel of the officers, men like William Cleland to say they will fight there, they will die there, they stiffen the resolve of the men to stay here and fight, but it’s a terrible situation.

Neil: Take a moment once again to look around you, and just imagine yourself as a 17th Century Cameronian soldier stationed in the mansion house. Just looking, it’s easy to get a real sense of how trapped the Cameronians must have felt. With the fast flowing Tay to the south, and surrounded by hills, Dunkeld was a town from which there was no escape. Louise Yeoman.

Louise: So when morning comes on the 21st of August 1689, it’s an absolutely terrifying morning, because first light reveals the Jacobite army on all those hills behind us, you can see their baggage train stretching out towards the west. Suddenly this is the point where the Cameronians know what they’ve gotten themselves into, and this tiny little, you can almost call it a stockade, they’re going to have to take on that charge.

Neil: But alongside his anxious soldiers, the Cameronians commanding officer William Cleland was also surveying this landscape. He had to come up with a plan that would galvanise his men and prevent a massacre. Historian Mark Jardine.

Mark: William Cleland was an officer with quite a lot of continental experience. So when he came here he obviously realised the tremendous danger of them being encircled and the Jacobites falling upon them, and what he realised was the one thing he didn’t want to do was what the Government army had done at Killiecrankie, which was basically stand out in the open and then let the Jacobites charge down on you. So, he must have looked around Dunkeld and thought, “I can maybe do something with this place.” By barricading bits of the town up, by sending forces out in front of his actual main defensive position to slow down their charge, stop their momentum, because if you can stop their momentum you stand a chance.

Neil: On your right now is a small hill, Stanley Hill. This is Point 4 on your walk. Make your way now to the top of it. There is a choice of paths which will take you there from its base.

Point 4: Stanley Hill

You should now be on the wooded summit of Stanley Hill. This little mound was here in 1689, and it was here that the battle really began.

Alison: Stanley Hill was the site of the first action of the day, and on the far side of this hill, that was where the first bunch of Cameronians encountered the first bunch of Jacobites. Jacobites following their traditional pattern of firing one round from their guns, throwing the guns aside and then heaving in with their claymores and charging on the hill. They were also supported by cavalry, and so the skirmish lasted for a period of time which was fairly short, and then the Cameronians, following the instructions of Cleland, withdrew back from the outposts.

Louise: Cleland had stationed Captain Hay and some of his men up here on Stanley Hill to try and break some of the impact of the Jacobite attack. Now, the attack here came from the MacLeans, and they sent about a hundred of their men using armour, which was quite rare at this stage, helmets, back and breast, and it was this special force that came in to take this position, covered by the rest of their regiment putting up musket fire. Now, the Cameronian defenders were not going to stay here and die to the last man, they were going to pull back into Dunkeld House.

Neil: It did not take long for the battle to consume the entire town. Let’s move on now to the fifth point of the walk. Head down the hill, back into the park and through the gate into the Cathedral grounds. Walk past the Cathedral, right down to the river bank.

Point 5: Cathedral grounds; riverside

You have just walked north to south across the battlefield. Yet, while you’ve walked over green parkland, the Cameronian and Jacobite soldiers would have had far more to negotiate. Archaeologist Kirsty Owen.

Kirsty: Well, as we stand here, next to the river and with the Cathedral behind us, it’s a very tranquil location, very park like, you look around and you can see people eating their picnics. There are ducks waddling across the grass. It’s a very deceptive scene. What would have been here in the late 17th Century would have been a very much more cluttered landscape. There would have been the remains of a bridge much closer to us than the Telford bridge, almost immediately in front, which would have provided access to possibly roads or cobbled tracks leading around the Cathedral precinct buildings. Behind us, between the Cathedral and the river, there would have been the remains of probably a series of canons’ houses, nothing more than really cells I would imagine, say about, well in excess of about twenty, probably between twenty and thirty of these little small buildings between us and the Cathedral. Just off to the left of us, nearest the Cathedral tower, probably would have been the remains of an Episcopal Palace. We know this from illustrations from the 17th and 18th Century which show the remains of a tower that was used as a prison at one point as well, so may still have had sporadic use in the late 17th Century.

Alison: We’re standing now at the river, and if I were to turn around and pick up a pine cone from one of the trees here, I could probably lob it at the Cathedral and hit it, we’re that close. So you can see that behind the Cathedral, it’s only about another hundred yards from there to where the end of the Atholl Mansion would have been. So the area that the fighting was taking place in was incredibly small and incredibly cluttered with buildings, with gardens, with fences, with different dykes and ways of interrupting and breaking up the flow of action, and it would have been very, very hand to hand and very, very man on man.

Neil: As the morning wore on, the fighting got more and more bloody, and it seems that the Cameronians fears of being trapped were becoming reality. But they kept fighting.

Mark: Once the battle had started, the Cameronians found that they had to retreat back and back towards the buildings around the Cathedral and Dunkeld House. So the space that they had, the little pocket of territory that they held, was slowly closing in on them. So now they knew they were completely hemmed in.

Louise: So the Jacobites are pushing back Cleland’s outpost, so sure they’re going to win they’ve actually sent their cavalry across the river to cut off any retreat, to kill the Cameronians who they’re sure are going to flee. But the Cameronians are not fleeing; they’re retiring back in towards Dunkeld House, towards the Cathedral, and now the Appin-Stuarts charge across this southern side into the houses, fighting house to house with the Cameronians.

Neil: The viciousness of this combat, such close fighting and musket fire, made a mark, quite literally. Head now to the easternmost wall of the Cathedral.

Point 6: Dunkeld Cathedral; east gable

The Cathedral and Dunkeld House were central to the battle. As you stand by the east gable now, take a look up at the wall of the church. Historic Scotland’s Kirsty Owen.

Kirsty: Immediately in front of you if you stare at the east end of the church, you can see what might possibly be traces of the battle, small traces that remind us of what happened here. There are little pock marks in the pinkish stone of the church, which are said to be possibly shot marks from the battle. So, I mean it’s never been entirely confirmed, but I’d like to think that’s what they are.

Neil: Now turn around and look out through the gates towards the village. Put yourself in the place of the soldiers facing that musket fire.

Louise: So this is the east end of the Cathedral, looking up onto a marvellous complicated stained glass window tracery, but when you stand here the real sense is of compression. I’m looking up to the hills, I’m thinking of the Jacobite army pushing down from these hills, pushing the Cameronian men back to the cross, back to this cathedral. This little pocket of fighting men is getting pushed in closer and closer and closer. You’d be hearing the noise of the battle, you’d be hearing shots ringing out because there are Highland snipers now in these houses, and those snipers are about to make a terrible mark on this battle.

Mark: The Highland snipers and the general melee at the barricades took quite a toll on the Cameronian officers in charge of the whole operation here. William Cleland was shot through the head pretty early on in the battle after about an hour of fighting. Now the loss of their most experienced commander was only compounded by the fact that their other experienced continental officer was also shot, so they’d lost both of their main leading officers. The Jacobites were in the houses. There were people being shot at, hacked at, halberds, it was pushing and shoving. It was getting very ugly in back gardens, over dykes, you name it, it was all happening. And now it really came down to the men’s sheer determination to survive.

Neil: It’s said that William Cleland, wounded by shots to his head and liver, tried to drag himself into a house so that his men would not see him die. When the battle was over, he was buried within the unroofed nave of Dunkeld Cathedral. That’s Point 7 on your walk, so head along right to the other side of the building and step inside.

Point 7: Cleland's grave

Look along the grave slabs that line the wall of the nave. Cleland’s is an unassuming grey chunk of stone. Historian Mark Jardine.

Mark: We’ll come into the ruined cathedral now, and we’re at the west end now. Next to a small door here, just there on the left hand side as you face out the way, is the very low grave of William Cleland, the colonel in charge of the Cameronian regiment. Cleland had certainly put his mark on this battle; he’d probably saved his men from complete destruction so far. He’d got them to the point at which they were at least holding out and hadn’t been swept away by the Jacobite charge. He was a young man when he died, I think he was 28. He was a poet of some repute, not great repute but some repute, and he’d studied law at Leiden. So he was a man, very much a renaissance man; hardly the image you have of a Presbyterian fanatic. But, he met his end here.

Neil: From its formation in 1689 to its disbandment in 1966, William Cleland remained a hero of the Cameronian regiment. Alison Reed was formerly a curator at the Cameronian Regimental Museum.

Alison: Cleland had been very critical to the formation of the regiment from the very start. He was the driving force in actually ensuring the regiment was raised when it was and was raised at Douglas in Lanarkshire, and was their first commanding officer, and the importance of that for the regiment is maintained not just in the gravestone here in the west end of the Cathedral but in a memorial plaque which is up in the east end of the choir inside the actual cathedral church itself, which was erected by the regiment at a much later date. And the sword of Cleland, which was taken from this battlefield, is still one of the most cherished items in the Cameronian collection and is on display in the regimental museum in Hamilton.

Neil: It’s also worth glancing to the left at the grave next to Cleland’s. He rests beside an unexpected neighbour.

Louise: If you look at his gravestone here, you see the small gravestone has a wreath of paper poppies in front of it. It’s right next to a rather interesting Jacobite gravestone; the gravestone of a descendent, of an illegitimate child of Charles Edward Stuart, Count Roehenstart, who died in a stagecoach accident near Dunkeld. So here we have an icon of the Jacobite line right next to poor Cleland.

Neil: It’s only a matter of a few steps to the next point on your walk. Head through the small exit in front of you and then through the door immediately on your right into the tower.

Point 8: Cathedral tower

Mounted on the wall beside the door is another slab, but carved into that is an inscription which had all our experts wondering.

Mark: You see, it almost looks like graffiti doesn’t it?

Louise: Yeah.

Mark: That’s remarkable.

Louise: That’s graffiti.

Mark: So it sort of says IG 1689, and that could be JG because it’s just the way monumental inscriptions work, but it definitely looks like it’s from the time. Now who IG was, now there’s a question, anybody got any ideas who IG was?

Louise: It could be anyone, but you have to recall that as well as the Cameronians in the town, after the battle there was an occupying force, the Campbells, Argyll’s regiment, and they went in for a lot of vandalism here. So, I mean it could be graffiti, it could be just some soldier from any of the regiments who were here.

Mark: Yeah, or it could be in fact a member of the Cameronians, I suppose, you know, someone, maybe one of their brethren just decided to put his name on the grave slab to mark someone who’d fallen in battle.

Neil: Leaving the Cathedral grounds now, it’s time to go through the main gates and stop by the very first house on the street outside.

Point 9: Old rectory house

You should now be outside the old rectory house. As the plaque on its fence reveals, it has been much modified over the years, but archaeologist Kirsty Owen can point us towards some of its secrets.

Kirsty: We’re standing in front of the old rectory house. It’s a whitewashed frontage which looks in place with all the other buildings that are in front of you, all of the other 18th Century buildings that make up the quaint modern village of Dunkeld. Now, if you look at this building it appears very symmetrical. There are some nice 18th Century sash and case windows, a lovely pitched Scots slate roof, and you wouldn’t think it was any different from any of the other buildings that you can see in front of you. It’s only when you walk around the back of the building and you see the bare masonry that you can see the remains of what might possibly be a window or a door, or possibly both at one point in time of its history, you can actually imagine that this might have been a much earlier building. There’s a gorgeous timber lintel that’s possibly survived from the medieval building, and this is one of the few traces that we have of the domestic buildings of medieval Dunkeld.

Neil: It was from within this house that some of the Cameronian soldiers faced the Jacobites as the fighting wore on. As men fell all around, the final desperate stage of the battle began.

Alison: So where are you? Things are looking pretty dire. Your senior officers have been killed, you’re being pushed back and back into a smaller area. You started the day with maybe six hundred, seven hundred Cameronians against a Jacobite army of up to four thousand. They’re still out there and you’re getting less and less. So what can you do to try and rebalance the odds a bit? Well, what they decide to do is to go back on the attack using nature in a sense because they use fire, and the Cameronians put lighted faggots on the end of their pikes and go through the town, and the houses that are being occupied by the Jacobites, they set fire to the thatch roofs, and if they can they lock the doors to actually lock the Jacobites in - so instant confusion amongst the Jacobites.

Their cohesion is broken, their concentration and their momentum is broken. People are, as you would expect, panicking like mad. They’re trapped in buildings, they could burn to death, and many of them do. There’s smoke, there’s noise, there’s a complete pause at the point at which they’d been driving forward, because this new factor is going to be completely out of control. In fact, by the end of the day it’s said that everything other than three buildings, including the one we’re now standing in front of, the old rectory building, have been reduced to the ground by the fire.

Neil: Today, the old rectory is the only house of the pre-battle town of Dunkeld left standing. We know just how horrific the devastation was from eyewitness accounts collected from officers who took part in the battle.

Narrator: “The Lieutenant Colonel being dead, the command fell to Captain Munro, and finding the soldiers galled in several places by the enemy’s shot from the houses, he sent out small parties of pike men with burning faggots upon the points of their pikes who fired the houses, and when they found keys in the doors, locked them and burned all within, which raised a hideous noise from those wretches in the fire. There were sixteen of them burned in one house, and the whole houses were burned down, except three, wherein some of the regiment were advantageously posted.”

Neil: It was a turning point. From being hopelessly outnumbered, by sheer force of will the Cameronians were holding out against the might of the Jacobite army. Mark Jardine.

Mark: The Jacobites were certainly in deep trouble now. They were sort of disheartened. They seemed to view that they were fighting against madmen and devils, and I mean there’s absolutely desperate defence by the Cameronian regiment here, and slowly it seemed by about eleven o’clock that the Jacobites had run out of impetus, and they had withdrawn back. Now at this point the Cameronians were dangerously low on powder, had run out of shot, they were frankly facing the end, and they fully expected that the Jacobites would be back.

Louise: To their amazement, just when they thought they were going to have to make a desperate suicidal last stand in Dunkeld House, the Cameronians saw the Jacobites draw back and draw off. They couldn’t believe they were just going away, so they immediately went out to try and refortify, to try and rebuild dykes, to drag seating out of the Cathedral to try and make better barricades. They really thought the Jacobites would be coming back. But they didn’t. And then there was thanksgiving, prayers, singing of psalms; they felt that a miracle had occurred.

Neil: So desperate were the Cameronians that they had even been melting down lead from the roof of Dunkeld House to make musket balls for ammunition. In the course of a morning the entire town was shattered, but now, after hours of fighting, the Battle of Dunkeld was over. Go now back to the rear gate of the Cathedral and walk along the path that runs between the Cathedral and the site of the old Atholl House, past the larch trees, travelling in a westerly direction away from the town.

Point 10: Larch Walk

You can choose to follow this path for as far as you wish. It leads to the viewpoint of King’s Seat, about a twenty minute walk away. A similar path away from Dunkeld may well have been taken by the beleaguered, retreating Jacobites. As you set off on this last stage of your walk through history, let our historians explain why the battle which took place here was so significant.

Mark: The Jacobites had failed in their attack on Dunkeld, and among the men, among the ordinary foot soldiers, they were quite dispirited by this attack. They thought they’d been fighting devils basically. They just couldn’t get these people out of this town, and their officers couldn’t really encourage them back, and their officers had basically lost their prestige because they’d not managed to sort of sweep all before them. So, in effect, the Jacobites decided to give up and go away and retreat back into the hills and perhaps fight another day. But they’d lost all momentum, and this is where Dunkeld really matters; the whole rising, the whole possibility of striking to Edinburgh, that was all gone.

Neil: The demoralised Jacobite army headed back to their homes for the harvest season, and locals who had fled the land around Dunkeld returned, keen to play down any part they had played in the uprising, accepting that the tide had turned and seeking to reconcile themselves with the winning side. As the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland slowed down, the goal they were fighting for – King James’s restoration to the Crown – had lost its drive, fortifying the revolution which William had set in place.

Louise: The battle really knocked the stuffing out of the Jacobite cause. There were at least three hundred dead. So this would have been an absolute killing field in front of us, and the result of all that death was that William held Scotland. He did not have to come up with a large army, retake the country in an even more bitter, even more bloody civil war, and if that had happened would Scotland have gone into union with England? It’s hard to tell. It could have made a very, very big difference. It also brings to mind for me one of my favourite lines of 17th Century poetry: “Death, thou art slave to fate and chance, to kings and desperate men” - well here were the desperate men.

Neil: Dunkeld was not the end for the Jacobite movement. Armies would be raised again in 1715 and 1745, but it was this battle and the sheer bloody-mindedness of the Cameronians which had secured a new Scotland and determined the path our nation’s history would take.

This audio walk was made in collaboration with the Open University. Further information and other walks can be found at

You might like to print out directions for the walk before you get started.

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