The beautiful Pass of Killiecrankie in Perthshire did not charm the army of government soldiers marching north in the summer of 1689. 

This narrow forested gully was like the neck of a wine bottle, and as they approached they must have felt uneasy. Once in this confined space, they were in danger of being cornered. 

And so it proved. In the space of half an hour, on the evening of July 27, around 1,200 of these troops were slaughtered by Jacobites in combat and countless more were killed as they fled. The Jacobites, meanwhile, lost around 800 men.

The Battle of Killiecrankie was the opening salvo in the Jacobite cause. The government army, under General Hugh Mackay, was intent on thwarting Scottish and Irish supporters of James VII and II, under the command of Bonnie Dundee, or John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount of Dundee. 

It had already been a turbulent year, following the Glorious Revolution that saw the Catholic James turfed off the throne in favour of his Protestant nephew William of Orange, who was married to his daughter. 

James must have smarted over the treachery of a relative he had trusted – who was by all accounts so unattractive it’s astonishing that Mary could be persuaded to have him. 

Yet even though Bonnie Dundee was felled, the resounding victory in Perthshire augured well for James’s return to the throne. 

Today, the A9 runs across part of the plateau where the two armies met. Very regrettably, some of the area was smothered when the road was first built, like a tarmac re-enactment of Pompeii. 

Now, however, plans by Transport Scotland to further widen the route at this point, as part of its dualling process, has caused serious outcry. 

Those who recognise the significance of this, the first major military engagement of the Jacobite movement, are appalled at the prospect of yet more of the site disappearing. Nor is it simply an outlying fringe of the field that is under threat. According to Dr Arran Johnston of the Scottish Battlefield Trust: “Our great concern is that the significance of the battlefield wasn’t given adequate weight when the decisions were being made as to how this route would be put together. 

“That means some of the areas where the most intense fighting took place right along the length of the Williamite battle line will be obliterated.”

Thanks to vocal opposition by organisations such as his, and the likes of Killiecrankie1689, a local public inquiry began in Pitlochry earlier this week into the proposed expansion of this part of the route. 

The £3 billion upgrading of the A9 between Perth and Inverness, one of the largest transport infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the country, is intended to save lives. The death and injury rate on this main artery to the Highlands is notorious, many collisions the result of impatience as traffic builds up on sections where overtaking is hazardous. 

The objective of the dualling exercise is entirely laudable and for the most part desirable. In fact, there’s an irony in protesters wishing the scene of so many bygone deaths to be commemorated while the aim of the development, which will cover the area with an estimated 30 million metric tonnes of building material, is to prevent further mortality. 

It is the sort of quandary that devotees of the Moral Maze would relish. Both parties clearly have right on their side. The problem is, whose position is more valid? And whose rights – the dead or the living –  should take precedence?

Some might not understand the fuss, believing that protecting life is far more important than preserving the past. The issue, though, isn’t necessarily an either-or dilemma. It must be possible – even if more expensive – to find an alternative solution to the widening of this relatively short section that does not obliterate a vital part of our national heritage.

Since the day the first sword came off a blacksmith’s anvil, Scotland has been bedevilled by war. In certain areas there have been so many clashes that, wherever you go, you can be sure a skeleton isn’t far away. I was brought up in East Lothian which, inch for inch, saw more conflict than almost any other region in Britain. Between the English Border and my home town of Dunbar, where two legendary clashes took place, and from Haddington to Prestonpans and Musselburgh, there are enough buried secrets to keep archaeologists and detectorists happy till doomsday.

Indeed, artefacts recovered from around Killiecrankie in 2016 include buttons, horseshoes, and musket shot, all helping to bring the day and its participants alive. Who knows what else lies beneath the path of the bigger, better A9.

Would you want to bulldozer over whatever remains of one of the most dramatic and pivotal periods of history, consigning it to oblivion? 

Across the centuries there have inevitably been hundreds of military encounters that were so unimportant they don’t need to be treated as sacrosanct, and can be safely consigned to the pages of history books. Otherwise no road or railway or football pitch could ever be constructed without a fuss. Some occasions, however, deserve better.  It was a chilling moment when planning permission was given for an executive housing estate on the edge of Culloden battlefield.

This was where, in 1746, the Jacobite dream that had looked so promising at Killiecrankie, finally died. In response to this particular act of desecration, historian Professor Sir Tom Devine commented: “Scotland has a wretched record in preserving its sacred battle sites.” 

As evidence is taken in the public inquiry into the road over Killiecrankie, there is a chance to make amends. The choice, as I see it, is between an expedient short-term view, and a longer, more imaginative perspective. Historians are always likely to argue for taking better care of the past, but so should we all.

The men – and women – who died at Killiecrankie were once as alive as we are. What they did that day made an indelible impact. If we constantly choose to place greater weight on today’s priorities than on honouring the high points of our history, then the string on which the memory of every age is strung – ours included – will one day break. “Tread carefully,” as W B Yeats almost wrote, “because you tread on my bones.”