A Scottish Battles Lives On
Ghost Stories Killiecrankie Woodlands
Is a 300-year-old battle still being fought in this beautiful Perthshire glen?
In spring, the woodlands that line the steep sides of the Killiecrankie gorge are full of birdsong, as the old beech and oak trees burst into new leaf; and in summer, car-loads of visitors come to explore the lovely trails through the woods, perhaps picnicking by the River Garry or watching for red squirrels in the tall trees.
But in winter the place is not so busy; the frozen ground crunches under your footfall, and dark shadows linger all day in the depths of the gorge. Touched by hoar-frost, the trees turn a beautiful ghostly white, while dead leaves drift down out of a silent sky.
Here, on 27th July 1689, two armies met in bloody combat – and two thousand men lost their lives.
In 1689, Scotland was in turmoil. King James VII, a staunch Catholic, had been forced off the throne and replaced by William of Orange, who was a Protestant. In the Scottish Highlands, loyalties were divided: while some clans allied themselves with William, others supported the deposed King James, for which reason they were known as ‘Jacobites’. Feelings ran deep, and 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.
It all came to a head one July evening, when a contingent of 3,500 Government soldiers and two troops of cavalry commanded by Hugh Mackay of Scourie hurried north to intercept a much smaller band of Highlanders under James Graham of Claverhouse. The Jacobite Highlanders had just captured Blair Castle, and Mackay knew he must reclaim it at all costs.
The Highlanders, massed on a hilltop vantage point above the Killiecrankie glen, waited until sunset before they charged. Physically honed to the landscape, they covered the difficult terrain with strength and ease; in fact, many of them were barefooted. The Government forces, already spooked by the hostile territory, turned and fled.
But for the panicking Government soldiers there was nowhere to go. Finding themselves trapped against the steep gorge, one or two tried leaping across the river, but most faced certain death. The battle soon turned into a massacre.
It is said that once a landscape has witnessed this much death, it never forgets…
In the early 1900s the author Elliott O’Donnell recorded an experience that was recounted to him by a woman who had cycled through the glen. Delighted with the beautiful scenery, she decided to camp overnight on the roadside, and as night fell she wrapped herself up in her warm cape.
At two o’clock in the morning she awoke with an inexplicable sense of dread. In the darkness she could hear distant gunfire and drums, and the sound was drawing ever nearer. Trying to think rationally, she mustered enough courage to look around her, and then froze in fear:
“Racing towards me – as if not merely for his life, but his soul – came the figure of a Highlander. The wind rustling through his long dishevelled hair blew it completely over his forehead, narrowly missing his eyes, which were fixed ahead of him in a ghastly, agonised stare.”
Every detail of the soldier’s clothing was visible; she noticed his swordless scabbard, a torn coat seam, a broken shoe buckle. Strangely, she could hear stones scattering and crunching under his feet, although he appeared to be running along the hard surface of the road. She pinched herself, rubbed her eyes, even forced herself to call out. It made no difference.
But there was more to come:
“I then heard the loud rat-tat of drums, accompanied by the shrill voices of fifes and flutes, and at the farther end of the Pass, their arms glittering brightly in the silvery moonbeams, appeared a regiment of scarlet-clad soldiers. At the head rode a mounted officer, after him came the band, and then, four abreast, a long line of warriors; in their centre two ensigns, and on their flanks, officers and non-commissioned officers with swords and pikes; more mounted men bringing up the rear.”
None of them appeared to see her, for which she was thankful. She made an attempt to mount her bicycle and pedal away, but she felt a strange loss of energy in her body.
Then she stumbled upon a scene that filled her with horror. Bodies of dead and dying men lay everywhere, some with gruesome wounds. As she watched, an ash tree by the side of the road seemed to rustle and sway, and from it dropped the unearthly figure of a woman – a Highland girl with “raven black hair and the whitest of arms and feet”.
But instead of offering aid to the stricken soldiers, the girl went from one body to the next, mercilessly stripping them of buttons, epaulettes, gold lacing and jewelry, sometimes using a knife to hack off fingers with rings still attached, and placing her spoils in her basket. She didn’t hesitate to plunge her knife into the heart of any soldier who was still alive.
The woman cyclist stood rooted to the spot in terror; the Highland girl suddenly caught sight of her and rushed forward screaming, her blade ready to strike.
“This was the climax, my over strained nerves could stand no more, and ere the blow had time to descend, I pitched heavily forward and fell at her feet. When I recovered, every phantom had vanished…”
It would be easy to dismiss this story as a vivid nightmare, but the military details are exceptionally clear and precise.
Today, despite the popularity of Killiecrankie’s woodlands as a family attraction, some visitors still find themselves stepping unwittingly into the past. In broad daylight, apparitions of soldiers have been seen, either marching into battle or lying wounded and dead on the ground. Most of the reports occur around 27th July, the anniversary of the battle.
Extracts from “Scottish Ghost Stories” by E O’Donnell, 1912
Killiecrankie woodlands are three miles north of Pitlochry in Perthshire, Scotland. The woods are accessible all year, with waymarked trails through the woods. The area is rich in wildlife, and a bridge over the River Garry gives spectacular views of the gorge. The Visitor Centre and cafe are open from 1st April to 2nd November. Admission is free, but there is a pay-and-display car park.
More information: National Trust for Scotland
About the author:
Jo Woolf is a British writer with a keen interest in history and the natural world. She lives in Central Scotland and is never happier than when she’s wandering around the ruins of an ancient castle or pottering along a pebbly shore. Jo writes an online magazine called The Hazel Tree.
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