Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:58 am
The Battle of Culloden, fought on 16th April 1746, was the last pitched battle fought on British soil. Like many battlefield sites, Culloden’s oozes an atmosphere of profound sadness, embroidered by its own mythology. It was a long time ago, but, even now, Culloden’s misleading myths can be powerful: this was the place where a way of life came to an end, where Catholic fought Protestant, where England and Scotland slugged it out, as they always had, and, maybe the biggest myth of all, where a noble cause perished. Some of the mythology has slipped into the realm of romance, which of course helps bring the tourists in, many of them seeking traces of their ancestors in the sludge of half-baked propaganda. It’s a pity that the truth is so often a victim. But Culloden was brutal. The real pity of it, of course, is the lives that it cost, including during the shameful barbarism that followed – and, frankly, that the battle happened at all. So how did it happen?
At its most fundamental, Culloden was about ‘who rules Britain’, a debate which had been ongoing, one way and another, since before the Civil Wars a century earlier. In the shorter term, the battle was the culmination of a rebellion that had begun the previous year, in 1745, when Charles Edward Stuart, known to posterity as Bonnie Prince Charlie, landed in Scotland and raised an army to challenge for the throne. The ’45, as the rebellion is called, was the last, and most serious, of several attempts to restore the Stuart monarchy, notably in 1689, 1715 and 1719, since King James II (VII of Scotland) had been unceremoniously booted off the throne for being a Catholic in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. The supporters of James, and his successors, were known as Jacobites, from Jacobus, the Latin for James. His Protestant replacements as joint monarchs were his daughter, Mary, and her husband William of Orange – who happened to be James’s nephew as well as his son in law. Parliament had also finally rejected the absolutist tendencies of the Stuarts; WilliamandMary were Britain’s first constitutional monarchs. After them, the throne passed to Mary’s sister, Anne, the last Stuart monarch. When Queen Anne died in 1714 with no children to succeed her, James Francis Edward Stuart, son of the deposed King James, could claim to do so by the traditional rules of primogeniture. But times had changed. The English Parliament’s Act of Settlement, which became law in 1701, stipulated that Catholics could not succeed to the throne. Thus, skipping 50 or so arguably better-placed claimants, the throne passed to the first breathing Protestant in line, the middle-aged, obscure, Elector of Hanover, who became King George I. Whatever faults he may have had, this was a monarch appointed by Parliament, not by God, reigning, but not ruling. By the time George was succeeded by his son, George II in 1727, this constitutional model of monarchy was established and the Hanoverian succession was secure.
The attempt to restore James II in 1689, and the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1719, all had the support of Britain’s enemies of the day, the French and Spanish, and need to be considered in a wider European context, rather than a narrower national one. The ’45, too, was a product of a far broader conflict, the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), which also pitched Britain against her old adversaries, France and Spain, and which ranged from mainland Europe to the Caribbean and North America. The French King, Louis XV, proposed an invasion of Britain which would, if successful, remove the Hanoverians, take Britain out of the war, and restore the grateful Catholic James Francis Edward Stuart to the throne; or, at the very least, it would tie up British troops in the attempt. The invasion was to be nominally led by James’s son and Regent, Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie; but the invasion was cancelled because the fleet was wrecked in a storm and, frustrated, the Prince decided to go it alone.
Jacobites were united in their purpose of removing the Hanoverian usurpers and restoring the Stuarts to the throne. There were English, Irish and Scottish Jacobites, but the 20-year old Prince decided to begin his rebellion in Scotland, and specifically the Highlands, where he felt assured of greater support. Scotland, after all, was the home of the Stuart kings, who had ruled there since 1371 – frequently at odds with the Highland clans, incidentally. By 1745, the spirit of Jacobitism was almost the stuff of legend, with toasts in specially decorated wine glasses to ‘the king over the water’ – Bonnie Prince Charlie’s father, the uncrowned James VIII, ‘the Pretender’ (to the throne) – later ‘the old Pretender’. Someday, my prince will come, like old King Arthur, galloping out of the hillside. The practice of passing the glass over the water jug during the loyal toast was witnessed in some Scottish army regiments well into the 20th century, so that people privately drank to the ‘king o’er the water’ in public, perpetuating Jacobite mythology long after the movement had died. Opposition to the Catholic Stuarts, and to Catholicism in general, has fed a view that Catholics were Jacobites, or at least that all Jacobites were Catholic. This is simply untrue. Scottish Episcopalians were Jacobites, as were other Protestants – including Bonnie Prince Charlie’s best commander, Lieutenant-General Lord George Murray. Equally, Catholics did not universally rise up and join the Jacobite banner.
The ’45 was not a nationalist rising, either. Many Scots, not least Scottish Presbyterians, were keenly opposed to it. But it is true that Jacobite support in Scotland included some who were against the 1707 Act of Union with England, the benefits of which were uneven. In Scotland, the profits of colonial trade were showing in towns like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Greenock, Ayr and Paisley, but some were being left behind – particularly in the less economically advanced Highlands, always different to the Lowlands, where rents had increased and where there was real hardship. Nor had the pre-union Scottish Parliament been consulted over the Act of Settlement. And no doubt there was some resentment, too, at a national parliament even further away than Edinburgh’s had been, and at what was seen as a degree of oppression with the construction of military roads and forts following the rebellion of 1715. Even so, there was little initial support for Charles’s venture in the Highlands; the chiefs of the MacDonalds of Sleat and the Macleods of Dunvegan refused to even meet him and at least one chief told him to go home. “Sir, I am come home,” he is famously said to have replied. Active backing from the clans could be ambivalent, was sometimes divided and often depended on self-interest. Even where there was sympathy for the Prince’s cause, it could be tempered with scepticism about any realistic chance of success. Many Jacobites, in England and Scotland, were happy to talk the talk over a glass or two, but would not risk losing what they had, including their necks, in a pointless rebellion. Then again, most people preferred life the way it was, at peace, or were at best indifferent to the Stuarts. The most Bonnie Prince Charlie commanded in his army is thought to have been in the region of 9,000. It says much for his personality and power of persuasion that he was able to carry as many with him as he did; and there is no doubt that his argument was always strengthened by the optimistic promise of French aid. Indeed, some see the ’45 in the context of a French sponsored attempt to remove the Protestant Hanoverians and replace them with the convenient Catholic Stuarts, who had undisputedly linked their cause with that of the French.
Finally, the historian Neil Oliver makes a convincing case for the support of the ‘have-nots’ amongst the Jacobites. Attached to every movement will be those who believe the Cause, whatever it is, will solve their problems, deliver a better tomorrow, or recover the wonderful past they believe they’ve lost through no fault of their own.
After raising the banner of rebellion at Glenfinnan in August 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie marched his small force east, taking Perth on 4th September and Edinburgh on 17th. Here he declared his father King James VIII at the Mercat Cross and, for the next six weeks, established himself at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. At the other end of the City, the great Edinburgh Castle remained loyal to the government. On 21st September, the Jacobites out-witted and defeated the only significant government force in Scotland at the time, at Prestonpans east of Edinburgh. The Hanoverian troops, many of them young and inexperienced, were overwhelmed by the savagery of the Highland charge, some 500 being cut down by broadsword and axe; the battle lasted 15 minutes. After an unsuccessful attempt to take the castle, on 3rd November Charles marched his army south, avoiding a government army at Newcastle and reaching Carlisle on 14th. The decision to move the army into England divided his commanders, many of whom believed the priority should be to secure their position in Scotland, restore the Scottish Parliament and wait for French help. Many, frankly, were not interested in England anyway. But the Prince was impatient, and more ambitious: convincing his followers that more volunteers would be gathered en route and that French aid would come, they pressed on. Sure enough, some 300 English Jacobites joined them in Manchester, but this was the only significant piece of recruitment as the rebel army, about 6,000 strong, swiftly made its way south. On 4th December, they reached Derby, just 130 miles from London, where another council of war took place. All the while, government forces were being recalled from Flanders and were gathering against them. Recruitment had been disappointing and there was no evidence that French help was forthcoming. Moreover, they believed a government army barred the road to the capital – in fact, this was misinformation fed to them by a government agent, Dudley Bradstreet. A sulking Prince was persuaded to reluctantly retrace his steps. In hot pursuit was a real government army commanded by the Jacobites’ nemesis, the Duke of Cumberland, youngest son of King George II.
The march north was inevitably a more subdued affair than the journey south had been. On 14th December, the rebels reached Kendal, in Westmoreland (Cumbria). Here, a skirmish resulted in the death of a Jacobite and a local cobbler. Legend has it that the Duke’s army was so close that, when he arrived in town, he slept in the same bed that the Prince had used the previous night and the owner had not had time to change the sheets. On 18th December, Cumberland’s advance party clashed with the Jacobite rearguard at Clifton, near Penrith – allegedly the last battle on English soil. Leaving the Manchester Regiment to garrison Carlisle Castle, the Jacobites pressed back on into Scotland, forcing Glasgow to reprovision them. In the Prince’s absence, the government had been busy throughout Scotland, raising more forces and deploying troops returned from the continental wars. Marching to Stirling, on 17th January, the Jacobites clashed with a government army at Falkirk Muir; the result was a second resounding victory for the rebels, who then pushed on to the Highlands, ending up at Inverness.
Eventually, winter out of the way, Cumberland’s army marched to meet the rebels, arriving in Nairn on 14th April. But, by this time, the Jacobites were not in good shape, short of money – and food. 15th April 1746 was Cumberland’s twenty-fifth birthday. Thinking the enemy troops would be dozy after a celebratory drop of strong drink, the Prince decided upon a surprise night attack. But Nairn was twelve miles away – it was asking a lot of tired, hungry, men – many of whom had already disappeared, looking for something to eat. The attempt went ahead anyway, but by two in the morning they were still four miles from the government camp and Lord George Murray, against the Prince’s wishes, called the attack off. The exhausted men returned the way they had come, many of them falling asleep on the way and missing the next day’s events entirely.
And so 16th April 1746, the somewhat bedraggled Jacobite army found itself on Drummossie Moor near Culloden House outside Inverness. It was a site chosen by the Prince, against the advice of his commanders, who considered the ground unsuitable for the Highland charge. Most accounts suggest that the Prince had about 5,500 troops, including units of French and Irish, under his command, outnumbered by the approaching government army by about 2,000. Other accounts put the numbers higher. However, counting the numbers against the regiments on a battle plan, provided by the National Trust for Scotland, suggests the numbers were more even – 6,508 for the government, 6,202 for the rebels. In any event, the government had more cavalry – possibly four times as many, more artillery and were fed and rested. Conversely, the Jacobites were weary – some were barely awake – and even the weather was against them, with a biting wind blowing icy rain into their faces across the bleak moor. Moreover, Cumberland had been training his troops to stand firm in the face of a Highland charge – including a new tactic of attacking the man to the right in close-quarter fighting, ramming the bayonet into the exposed body under the raised sword arm, and trusting that the man in front will be dealt with by the comrade on the left. The government army included battle-hardened troops from all over Britain, including Irish, Scots (Highlanders as well as Lowlanders) and Hessians (from Germany).
The battle commenced at around noon with an exchange of artillery fire. The Highlanders were under orders not to attack until given the word, but solid canon fire from the highly trained professional gunners facing them, followed by grapeshot – small metal balls packed into bags, which spread outwards when fired – caused dreadful carnage. They charged into rain at the red-uniformed soldiers about a quarter of a mile away, firing their muskets when in range before discarding them, and continuing rapidly with broadsword and targe (or target – a small round shield). Despite the poor ground, and despite the devastating Hanoverian bombardment and well-drilled musket fire, large numbers of Jacobite troops still managed to reach their opponents, where savage, almost medieval, hand-to-hand fighting took place. However, the Jacobites were out-flanked and out-fought. A dazed Prince watched his army fall apart. Then Cumberland ordered his dragoons in, who mercilessly cut down the fleeing Jacobites as the smoke cleared. It was all over in less than an hour. The Jacobites suffered about 2,500 casualties, of which about half were dead; the government army lost about 50 men killed and fewer than 300 wounded. However, it is not clear whether the rebel casualty figures include the appalling murder – and there is no other word for it – of virtually every man, woman or child the dragoons found on the road to Inverness, until they ran out of steam. On the battlefield, wounded clansmen were bayoneted or shot. So far as Cumberland was concerned, rebels were traitors and should be dealt with accordingly. Before the battle, he falsely claimed that Lord George Murray had issued a ‘no quarter’ order – a lie which he obviously believed would motivate his men to perform dreadful atrocities, though there were certainly some that turned away from such appalling butchery.
Unfortunately, it did not end there. Cumberland was understandably determined to eliminate any possibility of another Jacobite rising, but his methods earned him the appropriate sobriquet, ‘butcher’. These days, he would have been tried as a war criminal. Government troops spent the next few months ruthlessly terrorising the Highlands, killing indiscriminately, raping what the soldiers called ‘rebel bitches’, plundering, burning, destroying the means by which people lived. No one knows who many perished in this disgusting 18th century piece of barbarism and attempted ethnic cleansing. Hundreds were sentenced to slavery and deported. 120 were executed, though many of the commanders, and Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, escaped – but that’s another story.
It is said that the Highland way of life perished at Culloden. That’s not true; it was already changing, and doomed in the face of new economic realities. But Culloden certainly accelerated the process. One consequence of the changes was the Highland Clearances, the mass emigration of people from their traditional Highland lands and way of life, to the growing urban areas of Britain – like Glasgow – or further afield, to Britain’s colonies. The government’s draconian counter-insurgency tactics following Culloden included dismantling the clan system, outlawing tartans, the possession of arms, bagpipes – the attempted destruction of the Gaelic culture. They didn’t quite succeed in the latter – though Jacobitism would never threaten again – and, very soon, it would become government policy to recruit Highlanders into the army, where they would become Empire-builders and a fighting elite. The sons of those that fought with the Jacobites at the last battle distinguished themselves fighting Britain’s enemies in North America, and elsewhere.
The battlefield of Culloden has changed a lot over the years. Among other things, a road was driven over it and another part became a fir plantation. In the 19th century, a memorial cairn was built and markers placed on the traditional locations of mass graves. One of these incorrectly – and misleadingly – records ‘the field of the English’ – perpetuating the myth that an English army faced a Scots one on that fateful day. Another, dedicated to Clan Fraser, contains several floral tributes, in the belief that the fictional Jamie Fraser from the fantasy Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, actually fought there. The National Trust for Scotland has done an excellent job in recent times, trying to return the moor to its 1746 condition. Now, apparently, the site is threatened by a local authority inspired housing development; good grief! However, there is a swanky modern visitor centre which provides some very good historical perspective, explains the build-up to the battle and the battle itself. There is also a fairly terrifying audio-visual battle experience, various demonstrations, a large café and an extremely well-stocked tourist shop, which accommodates lovers of kitsch and fictional nostalgia as well as those with a genuine interest in the history. Overall, it is a bustling, impersonal, commercial, kind of place; you can’t help wondering what those that fought there would make of it all.
I have visited the battlefield several times, including once at dusk when imagination is open to cries from the past. I most recently visited in 2017 and, on impulse, attached myself to a guided tour. Our guide was a young French girl, which surprised me a little. Perhaps she was trying to make amends for Louis XV; I suppose, if anything, I was expecting a hairy, kilted, clansman. The guide’s knowledge was good, but she struggled with both language and presence. Eventually, I got bored with my fellow tourists asking stupid questions, mostly ones they would have known the answers to if they had been listening to the poor girl in the first place, and took off to traipse the battlefield on my own. Most people don’t venture too far from the burial markers, Leanach Cottage (probably used as a dressing station by the government army), or even the visitor centre, their pilgrimage to the Battlefield of Culloden being merely a tick in the tour box; been there, done that. Exploring on your own can provide the space a cluttered mind needs, with a companionable nod to other like-minded souls along the way. The battle lines are marked with red flags for government forces and blue for the rebels. Walking along and between them gives a sense of the scale and, perhaps, the event; for me, it was only thing to do.
I made my way back from the Jacobite lines toward the Government’s, where the Highlanders charged that cold April day almost three centuries ago. On my right was a reconstructed enclosure wall, which allowed the Jacobites to be out-flanked. I tried to imagine what it must have been like, running full pelt into coordinated grapeshot and disciplined musket fire, clutching a murderous slashing sword and shield, out of breath, wet – and probably terrified. And I suddenly got very angry with Bonnie Prince Charlie. To be fair, I’ve never been a fan and he’s not the only pillock in history to persuade people to follow a cause that, really, was never going to benefit anyone except its leaders. True, there are few just causes for any war, but the false glamour and romanticism of the Jacobites is irritating and defies credibilty. Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Maria Stuart, to give him his full name, was only in this for his own selfish, out-dated, ambitions and people died, needlessly, because of him. What happened after Culloden was unforgivable, but the Stuarts were obsolete and the ’45 was the last hurrah for feudalism in an 18th century Britain busy transforming itself into a modern state and economic powerhouse.
Visit Culloden for the history, and to respect those that died, but it is no shrine to any righteous cause.
Resisting the temptation of leaving you with a link to Freddie Mercury singing The Great Pretender, I will leave you with a clip of Flower of Scotland, one of Scotland’s unofficial national anthems. It is actually about the Scots’ victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314, but I defy anyone to remain unmoved by it.