By MacGregor Kennedy.
A mile north of Dufftown where Fiddich meets Dullan is Balvenie. On the west side stands Balvenie Castle on an eminence, readily seen from the A941. It was in times past called the ‘Castle of Mortlach’ and was the centre of the locality long before Dufftown was founded. Placed in a strategic and romantic position where the waters of Dullan and Fiddich conjoin, the fortification broods over the approaches up and down Glen Fiddich, denies the eastward passage from Glen Rinnes, down which the Dullan Water tumbles; and prohibits the eastward way through the narrow slack by Drummuir Castle to Glen Isla and the fat pickings of the eastern lowlands. It stands guard, forbye, on the old hill road over by Auchindoun to the Cabrach and Don, used by the murderous psychopath Edward I of England on his return from Elgin in the summer of 1296. He used it again in October of 1903 and stayed at Balvenie on that occasion on the sixth of the month,
Anciently the property of the de Moravia family, it came into the hands of the Comyns, passing into the hands of the Douglases and then the Stewarts who retained it until the 17th century when they sold it to Robert Innes of Innermarkie who was created a baronet in 1631. He suffered much in the Civil War period being a staunch loyalist. In 1687 Balvenie was sold to the up and coming Duffs.
The architecture of the castle mirrors its chequered career and changes of ownership, illustrating the development of the castle construction over a very lengthy period spanning the 13th, 15th and 17th century styles of work. From the outside of the courtyard the impression is of massive strength and great age. The curtain wall, reaching a height of 25 feet, is of the banded rubble masonry usual in Scotland at that period, the material being ready to hand and quarried out of the tremendous rock-cut ditch which encircles the pile. The wall encloses a large quadrangle which entered by an arched pend over which are the royal arms of the Ard Righ and the Stewarts of Atholl with the practical motto, Furth Fortuin & Fil thi Fatris. In the enclosure is the 15th century addition but this is shadowed by the 16th century house in which the Atholl s resided in style, with a bold round tower and a row of dows, more elegant by far than the fine stone hall with its pointed vault of the previous Douglas occupants.
Naturally, given its strategic importance, Balvenie has figured prominently in the history of Scotland and has sheltered many more agreeable visitors than the one previously mentioned, among them the Great Montrose who held a council of war there in 1645. Another with which the keep is associated Field Marshal Sir Alexander Leslie, first Earl of Leven, who was born within its walls, and who commanded the Covenanters after a distinguished career on the continent with, among others, Gustavus Adolphus, “the Protestant Lion of the North” with whom he served for thirty years and who knighted him in 1626. He compelled Wallenstein to raise the siege of Stralsund in 1628, was Governor of the Baltic District from 1628 till 1630 and engaged with the British contingent that aided Gustavas Adolphus in 1630-2. After fighting at Lutzen in 1632 he besieged and took Brandenburg in 1634.
On identifying himself with the Covenanters he directed the military operations in Scotland in 1638 and on being appointed Lt. General of the forces in Scotland he won Newburn in 1640. The following year he was created Earl of Leven and Lord Balgonie and by 1642 was general of the Scottish army in Ireland. 1643 saw him being sent to the assistance of the English parliament and was subsequently at Marston Moor the next year.
Sandy was in charge of Charles I at Newcastle in the period 1645-7. 1660 found him fighting for the Royalists at Dunbar and for his pains became a prisoner of the English parliament from 1661 until 1664.
Sandy Leslie’s distinguished kinsman, David Leslie, had an almost parallel military career, serving Gustavus as a military commander and Sandy as a major general in the Scottish army in 1643. He, too, was Marston Moor. This brilliant soldier defeated the great Montrose at Philiphaugh in 1645 but sadly was taken prisoner after Worcester in 1651 at which time he was commander of the army raised for Charles I. He was incarcerated in the Tower of London until 1660. The following year he was created Baron Newark.
The Covenanting times were a period of great turmoil in Scotland and provided Whig historians with a golden opportunity to confuse generations of Scottish school children in their loyalties. Killiecrankie is a classic example of the distortion of the facts of which these people were capable, representing it as a Hielan’ versus Lowlan’ stramash, as was their wont.
The commander of the rebels – and remember that’s what they were – at Killiecrankie was the famous Hugh MacKay of Scourie (1640?-1692). The General served abroad with transferring his services to the States General in that year coming the colonel of the Scots Dutch regiment in 1680. He was summoned to England to aid against Monmouth in 1683 and was a Privy Counsellor of Scotland. He subsequently returned to Holland and remained there on the recall of the regiment by James VIL. He commanded the Scottish and English forces in the expedition of William of Orange in 1688, being appointed commander in chiel of the forces in Scotland the next year, when he was defeated by [Viscount] Dundee at the Pass. Iain Dubh na Cathach, Bonnie Dundee, Bluidy Clavers – take your pick – was, of course, killed at Killiecrankie expiring with the grandiose sentiment on his lips, “Tis less the matte for me, seeing the day goes well for my Master”.
Saddened by the death of their leader but flushed with the victory, the lads pressed on to Dunkeld under General Cannon, their new commander. There they met a regiment of raw recruits that had been formed at Douglas a couple of months before and practically marched from there to the defence of Dunkeld. They called themselves the Cameronians and were commanded by a William Cleland who, as a boy, had fought at Drumclog and Bothwell Brig and was the one man Dundee had been chary of.
The Cameronian Regiment, on hearing that the opposition numbered some 5,000, took stock and being only 1,500 strong decided that is was within the bounds of possibility that their officers might bolt. To reassure them, Colonel Cleland ordered the horses to be killed. Appalled by this suggestion, the rankers insisted that all they required from their colonel was his pledge to stand by them, which was readily and sincerely given.
August 21 found the Royalist army ready to take Dunkeld in stride, the outposts of the town being easily overcome and the assailants swarming into the streets from every side. The kirk held out obstinately and the greater part of the regiment clected to make its stand behind a wall surrounding a house, the property of the Marquis of Atholl, the lead on the roof of which came in handy for the making of slugs as the ammunition ran out. The adjoining properties were crowded with the opposition who kept up a withering fire from the windows, killing Cleland and his successor, Major Henderson, upon whom the command had devolved. Captain Munro took over and continued the defence in the most spirited fashion while half the town blazed around the protagonists, the Cameronians swearing that if the enemy forced their way into the house they would burn it over their own and the enemy’s heads.
It never came to the kamekazi stakes for, after some hours of furious onslaught the Jacobites began to fall back and finally jalousing that enough was enough, stood not upon the order of their going but fled on those wings that fright alone can furnish. All the exhortations of Cannon could not prevail on them to return to the engagement.
Black John of the Battles is at rest in the Atholl vault of the ruined chapel of St. Bride at Old Blair. Cleland sleeps in the ruined nave of the cathedral of Dunkeld under a modest gravestone. A plaque in the choir recounts his fame and valour. He was in the great tradition of Scottish hero warriors, his poetic works being published posthumously.
Henderson and Munro were both of Gaelic speaking stock which is no surprise, of course, since at that time the Grants, Forbes, Lindsays, Frasers and Campbells were all Covenanters.
Think, dear traveller, on those stirring times when next you make your way to Grant’s Piping Championship at Blair Castle or when by the ingle you gently sip a glass of Balvenie.
• From the February 1984 Piping Times.