WHEN I drew up my original list of ancient towns of Scotland there were clearly a few places I should have included but for whatever reason I left out. One such was Dunkeld, so I am putting that right today.

Regular readers will know I am writing about towns whose history has been thoroughly researched – history writers like myself depend on real historians for our facts – and today’s subject is no exception.

For instance, I have read actual eye-witness accounts of the Battle of Dunkeld in 1689, the most important day in the town’s history.

Dunkeld is certainly not the largest of the ancient towns, with a population of less than 1500. It is always linked to Birnam, the village that lies across the River Tayfrom Dunkeld.

As with so many of our ancient towns, the origins of Dunkeld are lost to prehistory. There is a dispute about the derivation of the name. Some say it comes from Dun Chailleann, the Gaelic for “fort of the Caledonians”, while others favour Dun-eldean, the fort of the Keledei or Culdees.

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I think the latter version makes more sense because there is little doubt that the Culdees, or servants of God, had a settlement at Dunkeld in the ninth century, which may have had a royal founder.

According to Alexander Mylne, a canon of the cathedral writing around 1575: “The church of Dunkeld was founded by Constantin, the son of Fergus, King of the Picts (810-820), that is, about 30 years before the union of the two nations.”

That union of the Scots of Dalriada and Picts under King Kenneth MacAlpin is usually dated to 843. Mylne recorded: “Constantin placed there ‘religious men who are popularly called Keledei, otherwise Colidei, that is, God worshippers, who, according to the rite of the Oriental church, had wives’. Their office was to ‘minister’, that is, to conduct the public worship of God.”

The Culdees of Dunkeld were chosen to host sacred relics from Iona when they were moved by MacAlpin to thwart Viking invaders. The traditional date of that move was 849-850, and the king authorised the building of a church on the site.

The “Apostles Stone”, a much-eroded cross slab in the cathedral museum, probably dates from that era. That the church at Dunkeld was dedicated to St Columba is proof to me of the Iona relics being moved to Dunkeld, though many of them were sent to Ireland for safekeeping.

Danish Vikings sailed up the Tay and attacked Dunkeld in 903, but the Culdees survived and around the turn of the millennium, their Abbott Crinan was both a secular and clerical lord of the area. He married the daughter of King Malcolm II, and from their son King Duncan I originated the House of Dunkeld which ruled over Scotland for most of the next three centuries.

With such royal connections it is no wonder that Dunkeld thrived as a religious centre, with the establishment of the cathedral as the centre of the diocese or see of Dunkeld, created as a bishopric by King David I who reigned from 1124-53 and transformed the governance of Scotland and the Scottish church. The cathedral is now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and the Church of Scotland.

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland recorded the development of the cathedral: “Although the ecclesiastical primacy of Dunkeld was subsequently transferred to St Andrews (by 943), some form of church community survived until the revival of the see by Alexander I (1107-24).

“Work on the present cathedral was not begun until the 13th century; the choir was completed in the 14th century and work extended to the nave in the 15th century. Between 1450-75, the west tower, the south porch and the chapter-house were all added. The see was declared void in 1571 and the roof was removed from the church, but in 1691 the choir was renovated for use as the parish church.

“Notable monuments within the cathedral include: a coped medieval graveslab; an effigy of Bishop William Sinclair (14th century); the tomb-chart and effigy believed to be of the Wolf of Badenoch (died 1406).”

This latter “gentleman” was Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, third son of King Robert II, who was given control of the north of Scotland by his father and proceeded to ravage the land and its people for his own benefit. He also burned Elgin Cathedral. There is little doubt that his effigy in the cathedral marks his tomb because of the simple reason that no other location claims him. The effigy was badly damaged and the cathedral was ravaged during the Reformation. This church, which had once been at the centre of Christianity in Scotland, was unroofed and its fine walls provided many stones for local builders.

It was still a formidable building, though, when a hugely crucial day in the history of Scotland and the United Kingdom arrived at Dunkeld soon after the Battle of Killiecrankie.

Led by John Graham – better known as Bonnie Dundee – an army of Highland clansmen and Irish troopers took up arms for James VII & II after the usurpation of his throne by William II (III of England) and Mary II in 1688.

On July 27, 1689, thanks mainly to the famous Highland Charge of the clansmen, the Jacobites won the Battle of Killiecrankie, though Dundee was killed in the one-sided fighting. General Hugh Mackay, commander of the government forces, ordered a retreat, but was able to re-organise his men – though that was going to take time. Had the Jacobites immediately marched on, the whole of Scotland would have lain at their mercy.

With Dundee dead, however, the various clan chiefs argued among themselves as to who was now in charge of the Jacobite army. Cameron of Lochiel should have taken command but his heart was not in it, and the Irish Colonel Alexander Cannon stepped up to lead.

They did not come south, not at first. Without Cameron of Lochiel and most of his men, the Jacobite chiefs knew they were too weak but with reinforcements, Cannon’s army eventually turned towards Perth, with Dunkeld en route.

Just one regiment stood in their way. The Privy Council had ordered the Earl of Angus’s regiment, the Cameronians, to occupy Dunkeld. They had 800 mainly raw recruits against a Jacobite force numbering perhaps 4000; all battle-hardened troops including cavalry.

Drawn largely from Covenanter ranks and led by one, Lieutenant-Colonel William Cleland, the fanatically Presbyterian Cameronians were well drilled if inexperienced. On Sunday, August 18, the regiment marched from Perth to occupy Dunkeld and promptly held a prayer service in the grounds of the cathedral. Many townspeople fled to Perth and elsewhere, but most of the population stayed and locked themselves away.

Cleland, the son of a gamekeeper, had been well-educated before becoming a professional soldier. He was also a poet who had once written “to die obscure must be a dismal fate”.

The Jacobite army gathered in the hills around Dunkeld and by the morning of Wednesday, August 21, were ready to attack. There being no town wall, Cleland had placed the bulk of his men in and around the two most heavily fortified buildings in Dunkeld – the Marquess of Atholl‘s house to the north side of the town, and the cathedral, nearer the River Tay.

At about 7am, Cannon ordered a single charge by all his men at once, the tactic that had worked so well at Killiecrankie. The Cameronians held at first, as the front row of clansmen could not swing their swords or axes, so great was the pressure from their own men behind them. Wholesale battle commenced and soon flames and smoke could be seen billowing up from the thatch of a house right at the edge of the town. The Cameronians retreated with great discipline to entrenched positions in front of the cathedral.

The Jacobites charged through the narrow streets but were met by the pikes and muskets of the Cameronians. Cleland was shot at point-blank range and died soon afterwards. His enraged men promptly set fire to the rest of the town’s thatched roofs.

In no time at all, bone-dry Dunkeld became an inferno, a vision of hell as flames shot up from houses, consuming roofs, furnishings and men alike in a roaring, thrashing conflagration. The Highlanders and their Irish allies made sortie after sortie towards the Cameronian positions. After hours of fighting, however, the defenders’ ammunition was running low.

They had just enough to withstand one last charge by the Jacobites, before the disheartened Highlanders turned and marched away. Urged to return to battle by Cannon and his officers, the clansmen are said to have replied that they were prepared to fight men, but not devils.

Not a single house except the Atholl House, the cathedral lodge and the minister’s manse still remained intact. Dunkeld had effectively ceased to exist. Around 40 Cameronian officers and men were dead, but the Jacobite army had lost an estimated 300 men with many more wounded.

The Battle of Dunkeld ended the 1689 rising and the stories of Cameronian bravery passed into legend. Had the Jacobite army won and made it to Perth, I have little doubt it could have conquered the whole of Scotland and the Union might never have happened – that is why the battle at Dunkeld was so important.

The burning of the town also gave the local people, led by the Duke of Atholl, the opportunity to rebuild Dunkeld completely. In the last few years of the 17th century and for most of the 18th century, the town took shape along the lines of a street plan that had been used prior to 1689.

The Duke insisted that the houses which had been burned down next to the cathedral should not be rebuilt, to preserve the views of the building which was now a parish of the Church of Scotland.

Dunkeld soon gained the reputation of being a “model town” and it became a “gateway to the Highlands” when tourism began in the late 18th century. One of those original “tourists” was Robert Burns who visited to meet the country’s most famous fiddler, Niel Gow.

The major infrastructure development in the town took place from 1805-09 when Thomas Telford designed and built the magnificent stone bridge that linked Dunkeld to Birnam.

One final curious incident about Dunkeld needs to be recounted, though I can find no explanation as to why it happened. Officially the last town to be created a royal burgh in Scotland was Campbeltown, decreed as such by King William II in 1700. Four years later his successor, Queen Anne, granted Dunkeld a charter as a royal burgh, and it would have been the last in Scotland, as the Act of Union in 1707 ended the creation of royal burghs in this country. Anyone know why Dunkeld never availed itself of the royal burgh status?

Again I ask that anyone who wants to promote their town for a column emails me at nationalhamish@gmail.com. Do keep the suggestions coming and if they meet my criteria I will certainly expand my list further.