This past week was the anniversary of the Battle of Dunkeld, 21st August 1689. This was the Cameronian Regiment’s first engagement. You can read about it here.
The Cameronian regiment were raised from the ranks of the Covenanters at the end of the persecution in 1689, taking their name from the Rev Richard Cameron. Their first engagement was at the Battle of Dunkeld and the man who was in charge of them at that time was Lieutenant Colonel William Cleland.
With the arrival of William of Orange and Queen Mary at the Glorious Revolution, Claverhouse, who had been a persecutor of the Covenanters, moved north and gathered an army from Jacobite Clans who supported the deposed King James VII. Claverhouse and his Jacobite army gained a victory over the government troops at the Battle of Killiecrankie on the 27th of July 1689, however Claverhouse himself was killed in this battle.
Shocked by this Jacobite victory and fearing they would move south, the authorities in Edinburgh asked William Cleland to move north with the newly formed Cameronian regiment and to hold onto Dunkeld at all costs.
Dunkeld was not a walled city therefore Cleland and his troops took up defensive positions in the Cathedral and the nearby Dunkeld House.
On Wednesday the 21st of August 1689, a Jacobite Army numbering between 4000 – 5000 men appeared on the hills overlooking Dunkeld. The Cameronians numbered only 800.
The Jacobites attacked with their traditional, and usually very effective, Highland charge yet were repeatedly driven back by the Cameronians who used pikes and halberts. As the Jacobites attacked from all sides brutal street fighting ensued, and due to lack of numbers the Cameronians withdrew from the town into a defensive area around the Cathedral and Dunkeld house. Civilians from the town who had not fled were brought with them for their own safety.
As the day continued, the Jacobites posted snipers in some houses in the town, causing real problems for the defenders. In response, the Cameronians sent men out to torch the thatched roofs of the houses, which burnt all but 3 of the houses on the town.
With the day closing and the attacks continuing, the situation looked grim for the Cameronians. Their powder was running low and they were forced to strip lead from the cathedral roof for ammunition. However, as they prepared to make a last stand the Jacobites called off the attack and retreated. They claimed that they “could fight against men, but were not fit any more to fight against devils.”
The Cameronians had succeeded. The Jacobites left behind over 300 of their dead, and carried away many more wounded. The Cameronian losses were relatively light in comparison, with less than 50 killed. A worship service was held in the cathedral to give thanks to God for sustaining them.
Sadly Lieutenant Colonel William Cleland was killed within the first hour of the battle. He was was in front of Dunkeld house encouraging his men of the good cause in which they were engaged that day when he was struck by a musket ball to the head and liver. He somehow managed to walk away and tried to enter the house so as not to die in front of his men and discourage them. He dropped dead before he reached the door, he was 28 years of age. He is buried in the Cathedral.
He had been a native to Lanarkshire, before studying at the university in St Andrews. Afterwards he threw in his lot with the Covenanters and was at both Drumclog and Bothwell Bridge. He excelled in bravery at both engagements. He now lies buried in the nave of Dunkeld Cathedral, where his men fought courageously against overwhelming odds.