Following the death of Bonnie Dundee at the Jacobite victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie on 27th July 1689, command of the Jacobites had passed to Colonel Alexander Cannon as opposed to the veteran sixty-year-old Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, one of the most formidable Highland chiefs. Cameron was so insulted he left, taking some of his clan with him. With the Scottish privy council preparing to leave Scotland in the wake of an expected Jacobite onslaught, the council ordered the newly formed Cameronian regiment under the command of the 27 year old Lieutenant Colonel William Cleland to move north from Perth and to hold onto Dunkeld at all costs.
Cleland ordered his troops to take up defensive positions in the cathedral and the nearby mansion of the Marquess of Atholl. The Jacobites, outnumbering the Cameronians four to one, led by Colonel Cannon advanced in their traditional charge, a sharp trot, a discharge of muskets and then a wild gallop with the sword – but in the narrow, winding streets there was no room for this type of Highland charge that succeeded in Killiecrankie, the Cameronian defenders repeatedly drove them back with pikes which proved to be excellent weapons at close quarters. Defence was hampered however, by attack from musketry in nearby houses, and in retaliation the Cameronians sent out a party ‘ with blazing fagots on the ends of long pikes’ to set fire to the dry thatch which roofed the buildings, they burned every house in Dunkeld except three, in which some of their own troops were posted, many Jacobites who had barricaded themselves into houses were locked in and burned alive.
Thus, for sixteen hours the battle raged, as gradually the Cameronians were forced back and having exhausted their ammuntion, the Cameronians are reported to have stripped lead from the roof of the Cathedral and the Atholl house, but at eleven o’clock that night depleted of energy and ammunition, the Highlanders decided to call it a day and withdrew, leaving 300 of their men dead or dying saying that ‘it could fight against men but was not fit to fight any more against devils’. Holes dating from the battle, caused by the strikes of musket balls, are still visible in the east gable of Dunkeld Cathedral.
William Cleland died heroically in the first hour of battle by taking one bullet in the liver and another in the head, before dragging himself out of sight so that his men would not see him so wounded; he lies buried in the nave of the Catherdral, beneath a simple stone bearing only his name.
The first Jacobite uprising in Scotland had effectively ended, though it continued in Ireland for a further two years.
The centre of Dunkeld we see today largely stems from the rebuilding of the town following its destruction in the battle.
Watch the BBC film the Battle of Dunkeld: http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/union_and_jacobites/the_battle_of_dunkeld/