The Legend Behind Sir Walter Scott's "The Bonnets o' Bonnie Dundee"
by Regina Jeffers
I am currently researching anything and everything Scottish. Being of Scottish descent, this is important to me, but I am also looking for those special “gems” one might add to a story line. Recently, I discovered the “legend” of John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, and John Brown, also known as the Christian Carrier, a Protestant Covenanter from Priesthill. Here is what we do know as facts regarding both men.
Between 1638 and 1688, Scotland was in an almost constant state of civil unrest. Many people refused to accept the Royal decree, which stated that the King was the head of the church. When those who refused this decree signed a Covenant, stating that Jesus Christ was the true head of the church, death warrants were issued for the offenders.
The Covenanters were flushed out and hunted down. Any Covenanter, regardless of social class or gender or age, was murdered on the spot – often without trial or evidence.
John Graham of Claverhouse (1648-1689), 1st Viscount Dundee (a title bestowed upon him by James VII), was a Scottish nobleman and professional soldier. He was best known for leading the first Jacobite uprising in 1689. He was the eldest son of Sir William Graham and Lady Madeline Carnegie and was educated at St. Andrews in the 1660s.
Graham’s military career began in the French army of Louis XIV. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Seneff in Belgium (1674), where he reputedly saved the life of the Prince of Orange.
When Graham returned to Scotland in 1678, he was commissioned into Charles II’s army and assigned the task of suppressing conventicles, seditious Presbyterian meetings. His zealousness earned him the nickname of “Bluidy Clavers.”
Graham had a meteoric rise to fame. After a decisive victory at the Battle of Bothwell Brig, Charles II made him the Provost of Dundee and appointed Graham to the Scottish Privy Council.
In 1689, a Scottish convention decided that James VII had abdicated the throne and the Scottish crown should be awarded to William and Mary. Graham objected vehemently. Eventually, he fled to Edinburgh to gather an army at Blair Castle in support of James VII.
Graham was buried in a vault underneath St. Bridge’s Kirk on the grounds of Blair Castle.
John Brown’s cottage home, a few miles from Muirkirk in Ayrshire, Scotland, was the center for a society of Covenanters.
As a staunch supporter of the House of Stewart, it was Graham’s responsibility to hunt down Scottish Covenanters. In this role, Graham was often called the “Devil’s servant,” for he was ruthless. In 1685, Graham executed John Brown outside the man’s house and in the presence of Brown’s wife, Isabel, and the man’s two children. Brown had refused to swear not to take up arms against the king and to take the Oath of Abjuration. Unnerving Graham’s men, Brown had shown great courage before the firing squad. Their hesitation led Graham to do the job himself.
However, before the Battle of Killiecrankie, the legend says that a grim visitor came to Graham. The bloody apparition pointed to Claverhouse and said, “Remember Brown of Priesthill!” At the battle the next day, Claverhouse’s forces were outnumbered three to one by the governmental troops. The Jacobites won the day, but at the cost of Graham’s life. He is said to have died while sitting against a standing stone in a field near Killiecrankie. That stone has become known as Claverhouse’s Stone. One must imagine how Claverhouse must have felt that day riding into battle against such odds and with a “curse” hanging over his head. Later, Graham’s story became the subject of a song written by Sir Walter Scott.
“The Bonnets o’ Bonnie Dundee”
1. Tae the lairds i’ convention t’was Claverhouse spoke
E’er the Kings crown go down, there’ll be crowd to be broke;
Then let each cavalier who loves honour and rae
Come follow the bonnets o’ bonnie Dundee.
Chorus: Come fill up my cup, come fill up my can,
Saddle my horses and call out my men.
And it’s Ho! for the west port and let us gae free,
And we’ll follow the bonnets o’ bonnie Dundee.
2. Dundee he is mounted, he rides doon the street,
The bells they ring backwards, the drums they are beat,
But the Provost, (douce man!), says; Just e’en let him be
For the toon is well ride of that de’il o’ Dundee.
3. There are hills beyond Pentland and lands beyond Forth,
Be there lairds i’ the south, there are chiefs i’ the north!
There are brave Duniewassals, three thousand times three
Will cry “Hoy!” for the bonnets o’ bonnie Dundee.
4. Then awa’ tae the hills, tae the lea, tae the rocks
E’er I own a usurper, I’ll couch wi’ the fox!
Then tremble, false Whigs, in the midst o’ your glee