John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee is a man who seems to be a magnet for both withering criticism and astonishing praise. One sees “Bloody Clavers” as the worst persecutor of the godly since Saul of Tarsus; the other sees “Bonnie Dundee” as the most trustworthy gentleman of his time. It is difficult to see that the two sides are talking about the same soldier.
John Graham of Claverhouse was born in 1643. In 1672, Claverhouse was a soldier of fortune in the Dutch army of William, Prince of Orange. During the Battle of Seneffe, William’s horse was shot and he fell, with his enemies the French, close by him. Claverhouse dismounted and gave his horse to the Prince. As William rode away, Claverhouse covered his retreat.
Claverhouse returned to England with letters of commendation from William, and entered the service of King Charles II, who created an Independent Troop of Scottish Horse and gave the captaincy to Graham. His commander-in-chief was Lord Linlithgow. Linlithgow was charged with policing Scotland for the Covenanters. Covenanters were Presbyterians that signed the 1638 Solemn League and Covenant and met in fields (conventicles) instead of churches. Claverhouse was just one of Linlithgow’s captains of Horse (with Lord Airlie and Lord Home), and nothing higher.
One of Claverhouse’s first letters to his commanding officer contains this startling passage (17th century spelling is retained): Beseids that, my Lord, they tell me that the one end of the bridge of Dumbfrich is in Galaua, and that they may hold conventicles at our nose, we not dare to disspat them, seing our orders confines us to Dumfriche and Anandell.
A stunning letter: here is a man, said to have a vendetta against Presbyterians, being careful about whether the bridge is in his county or not.
Another of Claverhouse’s letters contains this interesting excerpt:
I was going to have sent in the other prisoners, but amongst them there is on Mr Francis Irwin, an old and infirm man, who is extreamly troubled with the gravelle, so that I will be forced to delay for five or six days.
Mr. Francis Irwin was a Covenanting preacher. Claverhouse apologizes to Linlithgow for delaying his journey because one of his prisoners—a preacher, no less--is sick and travel would be hard on him.
On June 1, 1679, Claverhouse and his cavalry, with some dragoons, were on the hunt for conventicles (meetings of Covenanters assembled in fields for church services). They dispersed one, capturing John King, a preacher. Continuing to march, Claverhouse ran into a huge conventicle at Drumclog. In his report to Linlithgow, Claverhouse says that only the armed men were there, having received word that he was coming. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Claverhouse fought, and was worsted. He fled to Glasgow as the Covenanters gathered up an army. At Glasgow, the Duke of Monmouth joined Claverhouse, and defeated the Covenanters at Bothwell Bridge.
Claverhouse resumed his work of policing Scotland for the Covenanters, but says to Lord Linlithgow (Whig in the passage means Covenanter):
"I am as sorry to see a man die, even a Whig, as any of themselves ; but when one dies justly, and for his own faults, and may save a hundred to fall in the like, I have no scruple."
Life would be fairly normal after this (but he married Lady Jean Cochrane, daughter of a staunch Covenanting family in 1684), until 1685, when Charles II died. He had no legitimate son to succeed him to the throne, so his Roman Catholic brother James II succeeded to the throne.
James II quickly passed the Act of Toleration, and in 1687, passed another Act of Toleration. The purpose of these two acts was to make life easier on all non-Anglicans in England.
Also in 1685, John Brown of Priesthill was killed. John Brown’s story varies among Covenanting authors. Wodrow states that Claverhouse shot John Brown with his own hand; and Walker says that six soldiers shot him. Who is right? Did Claverhouse shoot John Brown or did he not? Claverhouse himself says that “bullets and match in his house, and treasonable papers,” were found, in addition to a hidden dugout with swords and guns. (Note: for a better, more thorough analysis of John Brown, see the Appendix in Ayrton’s Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers)
In 1688, William of Orange (same one as from the Battle of Seneffe) landed in England to claim the throne in the name of his wife, Mary II. James II fled to France, but Claverhouse (now Viscount Dundee) raised an army in Scotland to hold the crown of Scotland for James.
General MacKay was dispatched against Dundee, and the two armies clashed at Killiecrankie. Dundee’s Highland clansmen swept away MacKay’s infantry, but John Graham was mortally wounded. He died, and the cause of James II in Scotland died with him. Even though Colonel Cannon took command of the army, he was crushed by MacKay at Cromdale.
He was, in his private life, rather parsimonious than profuse, and observed an exact economy in his family. But in the King's service he was liberal and generous to every person but himself, and freely bestowed his own money in buying provisions to his army : and to sum up his character in two words, he was a good Christian, an indulgent husband, an accomplished gentleman, an honest statesman, and a brave soldier" So says the grandson of Dundee’s companion Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, writing before 1737.
William Paget wrote “A New Examen of Certain Passages in Lord Macauley’s History”. He has this to say about Graham of Claverhouse:
“In days notorious for profligacy there was no stain on his domestic morality in an age infamous for the almost universal treachery of its public men, his fidelity was pure and inviolate. His worst enemies have never denied him the possession of the most undaunted courage and military genius of the highest order. He was generous, brave, and gentle, a cavalier "sans peur et sans reproche ;"
The Viscount and Viscountess of Dundee