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The Origins - Formation of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) - Between the Wars - World War II -
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The Battle of Dunkeld

The sermon by The Reverend James Harkness OBE QHC MA, Chaplain General to the Forces on the occassion of a Service to Commemorate the 300th Anniversary of the Battle of Dunkeld.

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As we gather in this ancient and hallowed place it is difficult to imagine the scene which con-fronted the citizens of Dunkeld three hundred years ago. For during the days between the 17th and the 21st of August 1689 this place wit-nessed events which must have caused much confusion, not a little anxiety, and, for many of the inhabitants, naked fear. All this was to be confirmed in the destruction of the city and their homes in what has become known as the Battle of Dunkeld.

The story is perhaps less well known than it deserves. For here, if not a major military feat of arms, there took place a decisive battle which was to determine the shape of Church and State in Scotland, and beyond.

For a moment let us reflect on those events. Some 25 days earlier at the Battle of Killiecrankie, a strong Highland army commanded by John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount of Dundee - eulogised in song and story as Bonnie Dundee - had achieved a notable victory in support of the deposed King James VII of Scot-land and II of England. The Government forces under General Mackay, loyal to the joint sovereigns William and Mary, were forced to retreat. The road to Perth and the south was open. But Dundee was dead and we may well speculate that had he lived there might have been a very different end to the campaign. Now, for reasons which are inexplicable, the victori-ous Jacobites commanded by a Colonel Can-non, after a short stay here in Dunkeld, did not exploit their success. Instead they retired to the north, presumably to enlist more men to their cause.

Into this desperate and dangerous situation those loyal to the crown decided to despatch to Dunkeld a force of some 800 to 1000 men - one that had only recently formed and was as yet untested in battle. These were the Cameronians. Three months before they had voluntarily raised a regiment to defend the new Government under William and Mary. This is what was said of them: ‘It was no ordinary regiment that was sent up. It consisted entirely of Covenanters so called after their first leader Richard Cameron who for nine years had been openly at war with the Gov-ernment, first of Charles II. and then of James VII’

[They were raised in Douglas, Lanarkshire on one day, 14 May 1689, ‘without beat of drum. The history of this famous regiment, disbanded on 14 May 1968, is to be found at]

By all accounts they were remarkable men but none more so than their commander, Lieuten-ant Colonel William Cleland. Still only 28 years of age, he had proved his personal bravery and military prowess at an early age. At Dunkeld he was to show his genius as a tactician and an inspiring leader - and all that in addi-tion to being a scholar and a poet. Not least he was a convinced Covenanter as all officers and men had to be in the regiment, determined to maintain the Presbyterian faith and discipline.

Arrival complete, preparations were begun. They encamped within the dykes enclosing Dunkeld House, the residence of the Marquis of Atholl. then standing just to the north of the Cathedral. We are told - for any Sabbatarians in our midst- that they spent Sunday morning digging trenches and strengthening the dykes, presumably after a service of worship. And then on Wednesday 21st August there was seen on the surrounding hills the Jacobite army of some five thousand men. The Cameronians were out-numbered by more than four to one.

The battle commenced, and how easy it must at first have seemed to the Jacobites as they looked down on their tiny force, in spite of all their attempts to create defensive works. We are told that the Cameronians were pushed back until only the Rectory and the Dean's house were in their hands other than the Cathedral Tower. All too soon William Cleland lay dead, and his second in command, Major Henderson, was mortally wounded. You might now have expected lesser men to collapse. But under Captain Munro, the third in command, they all rallied.

For long hours the battle raged until at last the Jacobites retreated in confusion. All attempts to persuade them to return to the fight were in vain -"They could fight against men," they said, "but it was not fit to fight anymore against devils". Such was the strength and the fortitude of the Cameronians. They had won in spite of the odds. But it had been a close run thing. They had been down to their last bullets. They had even resorted to stripping the lead from the roof of the old Dunkeld House in order to make more bullets - an activity which can hardly have endeared them later to the owner. But they had one more thing to do - and they did it - and that was ‘to praise God for so mirac-ulous a victory’.

However there was a price for Dunkeld. The carnage had been terrible. The city was shattered and burnt to the ground, other than the two houses held up by the regiment. The Cathedral, which provided a temporary sanctu-ary for those of the local populace who had not fled, had been devastated by fire.

When we recollect these events there is the danger that we romanticise both them and the personalities who figure so prominently. Some of this is seen in the way in which Bonnie Dundee has been presented as a dashing and romantic figure. That he had charisma is not in doubt. That he had leadership qualities is clear. But there is also the danger for us that we underplay the intellectual pragmatist and tactician who was William Cleland. In the same way Killiecrankie has been clouded with a vision of the noble Jacobite - which has tended to over-take the stem and austere Cameronian and Covenanter. Understandably. After all, we all love a romantic loser - especially a dead one - and through the eye of historical events sur-round potential disaster and threat with a myth of a romantic imagination.

But let us be clear: we are not here to reopen old wounds, especially of a tragic religious divide which has been with us since. Whatever our views or our feelings about these events three hundred years ago it remains true that a different result to the battle fought around, where we now stand, would have threatened the throne of William and Mary. The significance of the Battle of Dunkeld must not therefore be minimised. It was a landmark in the tortuous his-tory of this land of Scotland. It had a conspicu-ous result.

For from it springs the development of civil and religious freedom as we know it. Here too is part of the foundation of constitu-tional government which underpins our cher-ished liberties. Here too was laid the foundation of the national and established Church of this land, problematic though the future was still to be.

All of that is reason enough to remember the Battle of Dunkeld. But there is I believe some-thing more. For we are not merely commemorating events or eulogising personalities, but rather acknowledging the principles which have brought us here.

These are:

1. That Religious conviction rather than self interest must always be the dominant note. Of course it is difficult for us to under-- stand the rigidity and seeming lack of tolerance that was evident three hundred years ago. But religion was not to them a luxury or an added extra, as it has so easily become for us. Rather it was the very heart and meaning of life. And that is their message to us today.


2. Born of that same religious conviction was a selfless courage. Significantly, we are not here to commemorate incidents of personal courage - though there is plenty evidence of these - but rather the courage of a unique community of people called covenanters who had endured years of tyranny and suffering. Their courage is a challenge to us all, whether we agree with them or not, and especially as we try to live out our own Christian lives.

3. It was all a religious conviction which was inspired by faith. If we don't understand that then we understand nothing of what hap-pened here at Dunkeld. For it was the rock of faith which enabled them to stand against over-whelming odds. It enabled them to accept suf-fering, and if need be to die. And men don't do that for a fiction.

This is our inheritance. And so let me conclude with part of a prayer which was said here fifty years ago in very different circumstances, on the eve of the Second World War, but still rele-vant today:

‘Let us pray, that in these days, we shall all be not less clear in our recognition of what civil and religious freedom means; not less resolute in our determination to preserve it than were Colo-nel Cleland and his men three hundred years ago.’

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A copy of this sermon, presented by The Trustees of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), is placed here to commemorate the 320th Anniversary of the Battle of Dunkeld by kind permission of The Very Rev James Harkness KCVO CB OBE MA DD FRSA ChWStJ, Extra Chaplain to the Queen, and formerly Chaplain General to the Forces, 21 August 2009.

Further Information: The Battle of Dunkeld – Asssessment by Historic Scotland:
Click for detailed account on the Historic Scotland web site >>

Source: Published by the Regimental Trustees, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).

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