Christmas 2020 was an odd one indeed. As my family and I were unable to travel, we decided to rent a log cabin for a few days before Christmas, just north of the town of Pitlochry in Perthshire. It was a stunning place, and the local walks were simply breath-taking.
Now, I’m a keen runner so I went out a number of times to explore the trails and roads of this magical environment. I took the path alongside the river Garry which passed through the village of Killicrankie. Soon, I encountered a plaque, commemorating the story of The Leaping Soldier. It immediately struck me as a very human and personal one. Upon my return, I researched it further and found that the story is known to us as the soldier in question told the tale to a writer in his later life. Briefly, this is what happened:
In 1689, a redcoat army was marching north – the very path on which I was running. A Jacobite army ambushed them by taking the high ground, and using their advantage in close combat. It was a massacre. One soldier, a certain Don McBean, fled for his life. He described how he was pursued and, at one point, was running round and round his horse to avoid being slain! He eventually reached Killicrankie where the path runs out. At that point, there is a deep gorge with a substantial distance between its banks. McBean literally leapt for his life and, against all odds, made it, losing a shoe in the process.
When one reads military history, it tends to be a compilation of statistics, tactical outcomes and long-term consequences. What struck me deeply about this tale was that I felt McBean’s fear. The story became something tangible. Although I am no military man, I could imagine vividly how terrifying it must have been for those poor men.
The battle is recorded in great detail by military historians. Using these sources, and Don McBean’s own account, I’ve created a song. Here are the words. Maybe later, I’ll include a video of a sung performance. I hope you enjoy it!
It was a golden summer’s morn, they took the Highland road,
In the strath between the peaks, where the river Garry flowed,
With the English to the left, and the Dutchmen to the right,
They were ready for the trek, and ready for the fight.
Five thousand troops they marched in red, an’ boldly did set forth,
Where the flank of Creag Eallich, stood looming to their North,
MacKay’s eye did catch a glint, ‘twas the Claymore broadsword’s wink,
Dundee’s men they lay in wait, engagement on the brink.
An’ soon the word did reach his ear, a trap it had been sprung,
His breath drew short, his heart beat fast, a dryness took his tongue,
Old Mackay, upon his mount, set files of three long ranks,
Then he rode to Urrard House, on the lower river banks.
Upon his word the air was filled, with volleys of murderous rounds,
Canon fire and musket, spewing battle’s deadly sounds,
A thousand men they did take down, fell sprawling to the ground,
But the Highland clans still charged, their foe they did surround.
The sun that sank behind them, cast the prophet’s blood red sky,
Beyond the smoke the piercing calls, of Jacobite battle-cry.
Weapons rendered useless, so they drew the bayonet,
As their friends were taken down, they broke an ice cold sweat.
A cruel but precious rumour claimed, a rout they could elude,
As John Dundee, he took a shot, and perished from his wound,
But soon they knew that all was lost, they had to save their skins,
So they fled south and they prayed, redemption from their sins.
And as the setting sun above, beheld this scene of woe,
The crimson sky, it lent its hue, to the river down below,
Broken spirits knelt and wept, for pity they did plead,
But no mercy would be shown, to death they did concede.
A thousand reds, they turned on heel, and ran for their dear lives,
Escape the frenzied warrior pack, their axes and their knives.
The cries of woe did haunt their ears, as the battle took its course
There old Don McBean was spared, shelterin’ by his horse.
As twilight slowly turned to dusk, he was hunted like a hare,
He took the Killicrankie path, seeking refuge there,
But at the pass the track did end, where the river rages deep,
Old Don had to make a choice, be slain or take a leap.
He dropped his hat, his gun and coat, a swordsman at his shoulder,
Hurled himself to the bleak abyss, where water dashed on boulder,
An’ time stood still, the hunters froze, to watch his body fall,
Though his shoe dropped to the depths, he grasped the riverbank wall.
He scrambled up, ne’er looking back, and ran for his poor soul,
To Dunkeld he swiftly fled, to live his only goal,
As the limbs of broken friends, were washed up on the grass,
Don was spared that grisly fate, at Killiecrankie Pass.