Scotland was a divided nation by the year 1689. The events leading up to the English Civil War had split Scotland across north and south: lowland vs. highland. The Lowlanders were largely Presbyterian Covenanters who had fought as Parliamentarians in the Civil War, and were defenders of the new protestant king William of Orange. The Highlanders were generally Episcopal or Roman Catholic and attempting to reinstate King James II as King of England and Scotland. The Battle of Dunkeld determined whether or not religious freedom would be a reality in Scotland.
The Lowlanders were Parliamentarians due to the political writings of John Knox and Samuel Rutherford who both favored royal restraint by the rule of law, and because the Stuart kings had not been tolerant of Presbyterianism in Scotland. Because of John Knox's Reformation in Scotland, the Kirk (church) took on a democratic, representative form of church government (called "Presbyterianism"). King Charles I knew that representation in the church would only lead to a Scottish outcry of political representation, and he was accordingly determined to stop the trend by instituting an Episcopal form of government over the Kirk (including royally-appointed bishops, archbishops, etc.). The Common Book of Prayer was also changed during this time to include High Anglican doctrines that were contrary to the Scottish Reformers' ideas. When Parliament went to war against the King in 1642, the Lowlander Covenanters naturally formed an alliance with Parliament, hoping the protestant Parliament would end the High Anglican seizure of the Kirk. Charles I, being force to surrender in 1646, surrendered to the Scottish army rather than to Parliament. The Scots offered him a treaty called the Newcastle Propositions, which would secure the legality of Scottish Reformed doctrine and church government through the Solemn League and Covenant. When Charles (rather unwisely) refused to sign, the Covenanters handed him over to Parliament in 1647 on the vital condition that Parliament wouldn't kill him (they wanted him to sign the Covenant; not die). Parliament in December of 1648 purged itself of the Presbyterian moderates, and on January 30, 1649 beheaded the King. The Covenanters had been betrayed by their own allies.
Years later, when Charles II ascended to the thrown, he didn't learn the lesson his father had payed for dearly. Charles II was even more brutal than Charles I when it came to the Scottish Kirk. He reinstated Anglicanism, and even when the Covenanters began worshiping in open fields to avoid the Anglican services, he sent swarms of dragoons to collect fines and break up the meetings. An incident involving an elderly Covenanter about to be tortured by dragoons incited a long expected Covenanter revolt in 1666. When the revolt was crushed, the leaders were tortured and executed, and even Covenanter women and children were murdered. This era has become know as "the killing times." The "killing times" ended when William of Orange took the thrown in the bloodless revolution of 1688. The Covenanters had finally won the right to worship as Presbyterians, and weren't about to see another Stuart king on the thrown for some time.
Covenanters weren't the only ones with martyrs. King Charles' ruthless murder by Parliament and phony trial boosted the Royalist cause. Loyalty to the Stuarts was unshakable to many, including a collection of Highlanders know as the Jacobites. The Jacobites were determined to reinstate the Stuarts back to the thrown (particularly James II). Bonnie Dundee led the Jacobites to victory at Killiecrankie in 1689, but perished himself in the battle. Inspired by the victory and determined to fulfill the mission of their dead leader, the Jacobites rushed to strike the Covenanter regiment at Dunkeld.
Raised on May 14, 1689 in Douglas Lanarkshire, the Covenanters formed the 26th Foot or Cameronian Regiment, named after the "lion of the covenant" Richard Cameron (1648-1660). Having no battle experience, the Cameronians were sent to defend the town of Dunkeld in August. They arrived on August 17th, and set about fortifying Dunkeld Cathedral and the Duke of Atholl's mansion the next day. No walls surrounded the city, so the Cathedral and mansion was all they had. Experts at the time believed the Covenanters would not be able to hold out here at Dunkeld against three thousand jubilant Highlanders. The Covenanters were probably going to die in overwhelming defeat just as they had done so many times during the "killing times." But that was ok; nothing new. By the 21st, the Jacobites had arrived and "crowded the hills" nearby.
Cameronian Lieutenant Colonel William Cleland (who later died in the battle), seeing the size of force opposing him, collected his men in three defensible areas: the Cathedral, the mansion, and the edge of the park. Jacobite Colonel Cannon charged in traditional fashion, with "a sharp trot, a discharge of firelocks and then a wild gallop with the sword on the men lining the dykes." The Cameronians brilliantly used pikes and halberts to fend off the invaders. These were the perfect weapons in such close quarters. However, the Highlanders began to hole up in nearby buildings and rain musket-balls into the Cameronians' exposed ranks. The Cameronians began fiercely firing back, and when they ran out of musket-balls (why is it that the good guys always seem to run out of those in all the stories?), they began tearing off the lead from the Cathedral roof (which was alright for them because they didn't believe in richly-decorated churches anyway). When that didn't seem to cut it, the Cameronians really started to get vicious. They sent out a party armed "with blazing fagots on the ends of long pikes," set the houses on fire, and barbarously closed the doors. Every house in Dunkeld was burned except the three that held Cameronian troops. Many Highlanders died, and at 11:00 p.m., they fled the city in full retreat. The Highland army said it "could fight against men but was not fit to fight any more against devils." The "devils" were now praising God for giving them the victory. Just a few months before, the Covenanters had been outlaws; now they were "saviours of the Reformation." Although relatively small in scale, the Battle of Dunkeld was a large leap in the history of freedom, and secured the liberty of Presbyterianism in Scotland until now: 320 years as of today. What Europe accomplish by bloodshed, America accomplished by pen through the Bill of Rights. An entire history of European warfare was enough of a warning to the Founders, who were all the more determined not to repeat the bloody history of Europe.
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