Welcome to Culloden

Very few place names stir stronger emotions than Culloden. When Scots hear it they think of more than just a location: the moor in the north of Scotland just to the east of Inverness. They think of the death of an era, a noble world view and a civilisation. They think of a heroic last stand against vastly superior forces, of claymores, blood soaked tartan, of religion, nationhood and the price of modernity. The connection between Culloden and all of these images and ideas is remarkable, especially if we consider that the event which connects them to this moor lasted less than half an hour: the Battle of Culloden, 16th of April, 1746. No other event in the history of Scotland has come to mean so much to so many.


Commerative cairn at Culloden Battlefield

The story of Culloden begins with dynastic conflict between the house of Stuart and the house of Hanover. The house of Stuart had ascended to the Scottish throne with Robert II in 1371 and the English throne under James VI of Scotland and I of England in 1603. In 1688 the unpopularity of James VII/II, and his mix of Catholicism and despotism, prompted the so called ‘Glorious Revolution’ during which James fled to France having caught wind that his son-in-law, the Protestant William of Orange, had arrived in Devon with an army. And so under William II/III, the House of Hanover claimed the throne in a bloodless coup. Predictably, such a change could not come about without conflict and when it began it would only draw to a close 58 years later on Culloden Moor.

The first rebellion was in 1689 but similar uprisings would occur sporadically over the coming decades. These rebellions had two things in common. Firstly, the pre-eminence of Highlanders in the rebel forces; the Highland region was one area with a strong military tradition and widespread support for the Stuarts. Secondly, uprisings were hampered by lack of coordination. The Stuarts lived on in France, kept as political pawns by the French court, but did not participate in any real sense in the campaigns. Nonetheless, many of the Stuarts’ opponents took the Stuart threat seriously: the politics of the day was awash with conspiracy theories involving Stuart supporters.

At this time the term Jacobite was coined by those suspicious of Stuart sympathisers. It was a clever label: not only was it derived from the Latinised form of James, the traditional name of the Stuart kings, but also invoked the biblical Jacob, who had duped his family into naming him heir, in order to suggest doubt over the legitimacy of the Stuart claim. Despite (or perhaps because of ) its inherent bias the term has stuck.



The Cottage at Culloden - Field quarters used by government forces


If earlier rebellions failed because they lacked a focal point this changed when, in 1745, the Stuart king’s heir, Charles Edward Louis Philip Casimir Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, sailed into Glenfinnan with only a small entourage. Soon he had raised a sizeable army; within a month his forces had taken the Scottish capital. Within four months the army reached Derby, 120 miles from London, causing panic in the city. Here in Derby, in want of the reinforcements promised by the French and disappointed by the lack of English support, the commanders made the fateful decision to retreat. If Jacobite success had been against the odds before, their defeat was made virtually inevitable now that the superior forces of the government had been given time to marshal.

In retreat the 5000 strong army was hounded by an 8000 strong government force right into the heart of the Highlands at Inverness. The decision by the Jacobite commanders to stand and fight on Culloden Moor, 5 miles to the east, has to go down as one of the greatest shows of incompetence in military history. The Jacobites were not just outnumbered, outgunned, exhausted and malnourished but had marshalled their men on open ground: easy targets for the long range government artillery. Driven by bombardment into a wild attack of men who know they are about to die, they charged sword in hand and were mown down in less than half an hour, most without ever reaching the government lines. When the battle was over government troops went on a rampage, indiscriminately arresting or killing everyone they came across. Bonnie Prince Charlie was amongst those to escape.

The cost of this defeat is as difficult to calculate as it is to comprehend. No-one really knows how many died in battle, were butchered as they ran, died in prison, were executed or died on transports to the colonies. However high this number might be it seems likely that the cultural cost was higher still. In the centuries that followed a defenceless Highlands, an area that had been host to the government’s enemies, was shown no mercy. The culture and language of the Gaels were suppressed, the government turned a blind eye to the region’s famine, chieftains were aliened from their clans and emerged as ruthless landlords motivated by profit. As a result the Highlands were depopulated (or in effect, ethnically cleansed). At the same time the aggressive form of capitalism so evident in the Highlands was transforming Scotland as a whole.



Ruthven Barracks: built to help subdue the Highlands

The great irony of the aftermath of Culloden is that as Highland culture was being obliterated those symbols of that culture (kilts, tartan, bagpipes, etc) were being reinvented, largely by the writer Walter Scott, as symbols of the nation itself. This reinvention of Scottish culture underlies a search for a meaningful identity in the modern world as well as a profound lament not only for the loss of Highland society but also the sacrifices exacted by historical change. Of these things Culloden is the ultimate symbol; it is the reason why Culloden Moor will forever be such a haunting place.

* Today the National Trust for Scotland runs an excellent visitor centre at the site of the battle.