Haunted Battlefields: The Ghosts of Killiecrankie

by JoHarrington

Next to Culloden, the Pass of Killiecrankie is seen as the most haunted battle site in Scotland. Jacobite soldiers and a ghoulish woman are still encountered there.

It was the birth of Jacobitism: an army of men unable, or unwilling, to give up on their king.

Down in England, King James had fled, not prepared to surrender his Catholicism for a crown. Over in Edinburgh, a convention of Scottish nobles and Parliament had voted to accept Westminster's choice of William of Orange as their monarch.

The Highlanders disagreed. On July 27th 1689, they met the forces of William and Mary in the Pass of Killiecrankie. It was a decisive victory for the Jacobites, but at what price?

Over a third of the Highland army lay dead on that battlefield, and their leader, Viscount Dundee, with them. Some say that they lie there still, screaming in agony at an endless dying.

When the Devil Came to Bonnie Dundee

On the eve of the Battle of Killiecrankie, John Graham, Viscount of Dundee, received a terrible visitor.

John Graham of Claverhouse, aka Viscount Dundee, was not having a great night's sleep.  It seemed inevitable that by tomorrow he would be in battle, and he was not ready.

Just four months before, he'd stormed out of the Parliament building in Edinburgh.

As far as he was concerned, his sworn monarch was James VII of Scotland (II in England). He was not having any Dutch pretender lord over his country for love nor money. Even if William of Orange was married to Princess Mary Stuart.

His defection had not been received lightly. The road leading to Dunhope Castle, his seat in Dundee, had been worn thin with messengers from Edinburgh. His return to the convention had been demanded with ever increasing threats.

Now they had sent an army after him.

Viscount Dundee had responded with a headlong gallop into the Highlands, where a gathering of the clans had promised support. But he'd dallied too long over his decisions. Most of the Highlanders had gone home again.

It was now the night of July 26th 1689 and a storm was raging outside his tent. For those who took heed of portents, the weather alone would have given them pause. Yet camped alongside him, on the slopes of Killiecrankie, were 1,800 Highlanders.  All that remained from the Gathering, two months previous.

Hugh MacKay, loyal to the Williamite monarchy, was marching this way with over 3,500 men. But the Jacobites had the landscape.

A particularly virulent crack of thunder startled Dundee into opening his eyes wide. Then his heart practically stopped at the sight at his door.

The towering figure had pulled aside his camp flap and stood drenched in the gloomy entrance. But it was not rain saturating this apparition. In the violence of the lightning that followed, Dundee saw too clearly the blood pouring from a gaping gash on the entity's forehead.

It raised its hand, transparent in the sodden night, and pointed a finger straight at Viscount Dundee. Its visage was terrifying, angry with betrayal, bitter with warning, as it intoned, "Remember Brown of Priesthill!"

Then it simply disappeared.  No backing out of the tent. No slow fading. Suddenly there was nothing where the vision had stood.

Dundee stared in horror, unable to move for long moments, shaken deeply to the core. He did recall the aforementioned John Brown. He'd been a Covenanter and a traitor to the crown, whom Dundee himself had ordered to be executed years ago.

Finally, he yelled for his guard. His men rushed in to find out what was the matter. They'd been outside all along, but none had seen the entity that entered the Viscount's tent.

There was no more sleep that night, but Dundee refused to surrender. Tomorrow he would meet the king's army at Killiecrankie. He would take whatever the devil could throw at him and he would win.

I Met the Devil and Dundee by J.M.T. Delannoie

Spectral Blood at the Battlefield of Killiecrankie

What is it that covers the foliage on the anniversary of the battle? It's easily identified, but that conclusion defies rationality.

Image: Death of Dundee at KilliecrankieMany battlefields have phenomena associated with the anniversary date. Killiecrankie battle site is no exception.

It's said that around 7pm, every July 27th, the grass of the Killiecrankie Pass turns blood red. Nor is this merely a trick of the setting sun.

Touch that grass and your hands come away stained with a sticky, crimson substance. There has been no killing there since 1689, but you would swear that the stuff on your fingers was blood.

In local lore, the source is clear. Killiecrankie was a battle fought at night. The Highlanders occupied the ridge, but MacKay's army had greater men and firepower down in the pass.

It would have been suicide to charge straight down into it, particularly since the two forces hadn't met until late afternoon. The sun was firmly in the eyes of the Jacobites, so they waited until it had sunk over the horizon before they charged.

Throughout the late afternoon, government guns shot upwards into the high ground. It wasn't entirely effective, as outcrops of rock protected the Highlanders above. However, men did fall. The occasional lucky musket ball did get through.

At seven o'clock, the order came to attack. The Jacobites had been ready for hours. They did not need telling twice. With a loud war cry, they raced down the slopes into the fixed lines of musket wielding Williamites.

Immediately MacKay ordered that the firing be stepped up.  Sitting ducks in that fierce Highland charge, many musket balls found their target now. The whole valley shook with cannon fire. A third of the entire Jacobite army fell screaming and were killed.

But the rest crashed into a suddenly disadvantaged government army. MacKay's men couldn't get their bayonets fixed in time. They were defenseless at close quarters.  The whole center collapsed into a melee of Jacobite swords and thousands tried to flee.

It was to no avail.  Two thousand Williamites died in the Pass of Killiecrankie, their bodies added to the 600 Jacobites killed in the charge. Counted amongst them was Viscount Dundee, who took a musket ball to the chest on the way down. 

This is the blood which locals swear still soaks the soil, every July 27th, seen by travelers unwary enough to be on the Pass.

The Braes of Killiecrankie by the Corries

Scots and English lyrics for The Braes of Killiecrankie can be found here.

A Visitation in the Night

Lord Balcarres of Colinsburgh should have been at Killiecrankie.

Like Viscount Dundee, he had opposed the forced abdication of their own King James, in favor of William and Mary.

But unlike his friend, Balcarres had been unable to flee his home in time, before government soldiers surrounded it. By July 1689, he was - to all extent and purposes - under house arrest.

On the night of July 27th 1689, not knowing that a battle had been fought at Killiecrankie, Balcarres was awoken from his sleep by a sound.

Standing alongside his bed was Viscount Dundee. Balcarres assumed it was a rescue and gushed out a triumphant greeting. But Dundee merely turned and walked away without a word.

Only then - confirmed when the news finally arrived - did Balcarres realize that his friend had been a ghost.

Location of the Killiecrankie Battle Site

Phantom Armies Clash at the Pass of Killiecrankie

The full story, in all its minutest detail, is told in Elliott O'Donnell's book. Here is a taster summary of a terrifying encounter.

Scottish Ghost Stories was first published in 1911. It contains a first hand account, as reported to author Elliot O'Donnell, of a tourist's own experiences in the Pass of Killiecrankie.

As a young woman, O'Donnell's eye-witness embarked upon an adventure. She went alone on a cycling and camping tour of the Scottish Highlands.

All was well until she entered the road above the Pass of Killiecrankie. There was a brief moment of trepidation, which seemed to come from nowhere. All instinct said to peddle out of there as fast as possible.

But she wasn't the sort of person to give into mere fancy. She stopped cycling and looked around instead. It was a beautiful location. She decided to set up camp for the night.

The second sign that something uncanny was occurring was the sound of a musket shot. The lady puzzled over it, scrambling onto a boulder outcrop to identify the source. From here, she had a good view of the pass beneath her. She saw nobody firing old weapons.

The disturbance came, not from below, but right up here with her. The woman heard footfalls on gravel and turned around. There was no gravel on this road. It was tarmacked completely, yet it was gravel she heard.

A large, frightened Highlander was hurtling towards her. She could see every detail, though she knew the man was not entirely real. The ashen face, with its horrific expression, appeared to glow, as if moonbeams were upon it.

Yet it was two in the afternoon, on a bright, glorious day.

The woman closed her eyes, sure that she was hallucinating. But she could still hear those running feet on gravel.  She opened them again. The Highlander had not gone away. It reached the cyclist and sped right past her, close enough to touch, had the cyclist dared. But the Highlander never acknowledged her, nor even seemed to see her.

Down in the pass came a second musket shot. The sound of it echoed from crags and the valley walls.  In the instant that it took the woman to swing around, reacting to the gunfire, the Highlander had gone.

Before her horrified vision, she saw the red coat army marching down in the bottom of the Killiecrankie Pass.  Thousands of them marching, several abreast, around an outcrop and out of view.

By now thoroughly spooked, the tourist decided it was time to go.  She grabbed her bicycle and made to mount it. But her foot touched against something seemingly solid.

She looked down. It was a red coat soldier moaning through a fatal wound. Nor was he alone. Suddenly the entire Pass seemed full of them. Bodies strewn amidst the greenery.  The Williamites vivid in scarlet.  The Highlanders clad in plaid.  All of them dying, screaming to her in their agony.

Rooted to the ground with shock, the woman could only watch.  Then she saw the girl.

Like so many before and since, she saw the girl.  And of all the horrors that she'd witnessed that day, this was the worst of all.

The Ghoul Girl of Killiecrankie

She is the most commonly sighted ghost of Killiecrankie. Unlike all of the others, she appears to be sentient.

As soon as she saw her, the cyclist's terror notched up another level. She found that she was literally petrified, straining with all her might for movement, but unable to shift an inch.

The newcomer was a young woman, with raven black hair, stepping into the carnage with a wicker basket over one arm.

Her dark eyes swept over the ghostly dead and dying. So much greed flashed in her expression. She took out a knife.

The cyclist wanted to scream at her to stop, but she couldn't utter a word. She was only ten feet away from her, yet the woman was forced to watch without intervention, as the girl plunged her knife into the heart of a dying red coat soldier. Nor was it a single blow. She wriggled her dagger about to ensure that he was dead.

Then she set about cutting the buttons from his uniform and collecting all that was valuable upon him. His fingers were severed for the rings.

On this occasion, she did not look at the cyclist.  The ghoulish female might as well have been one of the re-enactment ghosts festooning the field. But the woman had the sense that the girl knew she was there.

As she moved onto her next victim, closer still to the frozen cyclist, the woman's terror finally cut through the immobility. She lunged forward with such a force, that she lost her balance and tumbled at the ghoul girl's feet. She closed her eyes. She couldn't see. She shifted and scrambled to standing, opening her eyes only to grasp her bicycle.

Then she shuddered at the sight now before her. The whole Pass was emptied of its spirits. All appeared calm and sedate, like nothing had happened. The girl was gone and the stricken dead with her.

The cyclist did not wait around for an encore. She cycled as fast as she could, back the way she'd come. Highland trip over. She was going home.

However, she wasn't the only person to encounter the black-haired girl. Usually she is seen alone, without any of the bodies on the ground. Terrified tourists and locals alike take in her clothing and the knife, the wicker basket with its ghoulish crop of souvenirs. But moreover, they see her expression.

She looks at them and she smirks. She sees them. She comes towards them and they flee.  Everyone who has ever encountered her reports a sensation of utter panic. Something about her is more uncanny than the usual ghost. Personal danger hangs about her like a shroud.

For some, she is merely the sentient spirit of a Highland looter. Someone who entered the battlefield once the fighting was over, and took all that she could take. For others, she is the Cailleach Herself, and you are on her patch.

Killiecrankie Memorabilia on eBay

The Ghosts of Highland Soldiers on the Road

Motorists above the Pass of Killiecrankie are often entranced by the scenery. But sometimes the landscape holds more than they had anticipated.

Image: B8079 Through the Pass of KilliecrankieThe B8079 runs straight through the Killiecrankie Pass, leaving the A9 just three miles north of Pitlochry to do so.

Back in 1689, this was the spot where the Highland charge finally crashed into the government lines. This is where most of the slaughter occurred.

It's a beautiful road, if you can stand the fact that you may not always be alone upon it.

For centuries, people on horseback, or strolling along it, would sometimes encounter strange red lights. Like the glow of candle flames, they would drift across the track before them, or move along the slopes. 

That was the nicest paranormal phenomenon. Much more terrifying were the actual soldiers met there, often transformed from the red ghost candles. 

As the Victorian age brought English nobility traveling in their carriages through the Pass of Killiecrankie, the sightings became more frequent.

Some people arrived at their destinations faint with shock and fear. They swore that a ghostly army of Highlanders had pursued them all down the road. Nor did this behavior end with the coming of the car.

Motorists, even today, have been known to glance back in their rear view mirrors to find the spirits of Killiecrankie giving chase. Fortunately, with their foot on the accelerator, they can get away much, much faster.

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On April 16th 1746, the last pitched battle on British land took place on Drummossie Moor. Up to 2000 Jacobites lay dead, or injured and dying, in the heather. It was never over.
On Flodden field, in 1513, the largest battle ever fought between England and Scotland left up to 19,000 men dead. It remains perhaps the eeriest place in Britain.
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Gigantic white dogs, screeching hags taking to the air, rogue candles lighting the darkness and owls outside your window, all part of dying if you're Welsh.
Updated: 09/12/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 10/12/2013

Ah! That would explain it. I'm still noting the rich variety of whisky in memory. :)

frankbeswick on 10/12/2013

I did note the rich variety fo whisky, but I do not drink whisky very often.

JoHarrington on 10/12/2013

Same! Red Squirrel Campsite was so gorgeous! We got it out of the Cool Camping Scotland book. Did you check out the massive variety of whisky in the pub down the bottom of the slope? I most certainly did!

It was the hospitality angle which really made me shudder, when I first heard about it. You just don't do something like that. I mean in general terms, but definitely not when you've been offered a cup of tea!

frankbeswick on 10/12/2013

I stayed at Red Squirrel campsite, which is a pleasant little place by the river.

What strikes me, though, is that by highland standards the massacre of Glencoe was nothing out of the ordinary.It was the treachery that made it unacceptable. Clans attempting slaughter on other clans was common enough, but they were not supposed to accept hospitality before murdering their hosts. Much violence in Scotland was done by Scot on Scot, so there must be plenty of sites in Scotland where violence has been done.

JoHarrington on 10/11/2013

Shonna - Ooh! Would she be willing to talk about it now? If you asked her, now that you're older?

JoHarrington on 10/11/2013

Frank - I was just a mile or so away, down the river, from the village. I walked up there to stand at the memorial, then wandered around to the loch and back. It was incredibly beautiful but, like you, I felt nothing actually preternatural.

Shonna on 10/11/2013

Huh...my mother isn't particularly sensitive which is why I was curious - something there creeped her out but I don't know what, she won't talk about it. I wonder if she was there on the day or something...it's one of the rare times she brought it up to me.

frankbeswick on 10/11/2013

I also camped twice in Glencoe, and I did not feel or see anything ghostly, but we camped up the valley, some distance from the massacre site.

JoHarrington on 10/11/2013

I actually camped in Glencoe! It's a beautiful place, but nothing of particularly ghostly behavior left, despite the massacre. Glencoe's biggest psychic error was blind-siding me when it came to visiting Culloden shortly afterwards. -.-

Shonna on 10/11/2013

Really good one! Have you been to Glencoe yet? My mother was affected by that place - don't know that she's ever been to Killiecrankie - can't think of why she wouldn't, she's travelled all over the place there. She just said that Glencoe was the most haunted place she'd been to besides Culloden. I immediately thought of you LOL

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