Culloden in 1746 was the last major battle fought on British soil. The battle itself is a story, and begins at Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel where the ‘young pretender’, (Bonnie Prince Charlie), was rowed ashore from exile to lay (legitimate) claim to the English throne in 1745. The clans rose and came into Glenfinnan.
With his numbers swelling the young pretender headed south with his ‘Jacobite’ army. Along the way they fought and won a succession of minor battles as northern English cities fell. In this pre-social media day the Jacobites wouldn’t have been aware that reinforcements were being assembled for them in France to threaten London from the south. Neither would they have known that the Welsh were heading east to meet up with them. By now the position of the English throne was looking tenuous. It was at this time that the English national anthem, ‘God Save the King’ was penned. Opinion ranges as to whether it was sung as a patriotic rallying call, or whether it wasn’t in actual fact a satirical ditty; God Save the King, because only he can etc. In any event, an original verse (no longer in use perhaps not surprisingly) contained the following;
Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
May by thy mighty aid,
May he sedition hush,
and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King.
The Jacobite advance got as far south as the city of Derby, and then turned around. An English double-agent in the Jacobite camp had persuaded the prince that a large army barred their way and strategic retreat was the most prudent course of action to avoid an action. The English army didn’t exist, but it brought the crown precious time.
The Jacobites arrived back in Glasgow on Christmas day, dishevelled and poorly provisioned. By now the English had assembled an army and started to come north. They met on April 16th, 1746, on an open windswept moor outside of Inverness; Culloden, and “upon this field was Scotland lost”.
A giant stone cairn stands in the middle of the battlefield
Photo credit by Shadowgate under CC by S.A 2.0
The previous night the Jacobites had attempted to surprise the English in camp at sleep, but their midnight advance got broken up by a snow storm however and failed. When they assembled the next day they were tired and drained. Amazingly they’d also acquiesced to fight on open terrain where the English held the advantage of cannon and cavalry. The fearsome ‘clan charge’ could be negated at range on Culloden moor.
The weather was foul, cold, and bitter back in 1746. Culloden today is one of the few places where you actually garner an enhanced experience if the elements do turn against you a bit. The battlefield is relatively small and very easily walked around on a series of well marked paths. It has extensive views across the Moray Firth, but it is probably the short distance between the government lines (red flags) and the Jacobite lines (blue flags) that perhaps brings this home making Culloden one of the most atmospheric theatres in Scotland. There is such a thing as contrived tourism and phoney history. This one is real and raw though.
A red flag marks a government ‘English’ position. The original Old Leanach Cottage is seen to the left, whilst the visitors centre is in the background
At Prestonpans a year earlier the ‘clan charge’ had routed an English army. Here in lay the Jacobites chances of victory. Up close hand-to-hand the Highland Scot was formidable. With a crashing claymore sword, and deadly dirk (dagger – that in truth looks like a mini sword) and a shield to deflect bayonet lunches, they could make light work of an English red-coat. At Culloden however the clan charge broke down. Hidden in the middle of the field was a bog. It caused the Jacobite centre swerve and a traffic jam to develop on the right flank. The English could pour fire into this concentration of men. In addition, the English had also been able to give fire from a perimeter wall to the flank behind a stonewall that was small enough to cover, and tall enough to prevent any easy hand-to-hand action. They used it devastating effect as the Jacobite were cut down by fire from the front and flanks
One of the most interesting things about the field is that the order of battle is known. You can walk around most of it armed with a good knowledge that is surprisingly easy to pick-up from the excellent visitors centre. You can stand in the positions from which people fought and died, and actually know who was there all those centuries before you. The story is well told, and if we were honest, we think it makes Culloden the most spooky and atmospheric place in Scotland.
The Jacobite line
The story isn’t over however. After the defeat came the pursuit of Bonnie Prince Charlie across the Highlands as immortalised in the children’s lullaby ‘Speed Bonnie Boat’. Eventually his escape was narrowly affected by Scotland’s original heroine, Flora MacDonald, who rowed the cornered prince ‘Over the Sea to Skye’
Chorus: Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.
Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclouds rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.
Though the waves leap,so soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.
Many’s the lad fought on that day,
Well the Claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead in Culloden’s field.
Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again
The final piece in the jigsaw is told through the last verse. Defeat heralded the start of the ‘Highland clearances’. Jacobites, and those believed to be sympathetic, were systematically exiled to the ‘New World’ which is how places like Nova Scotia came into being etc
(left) There is always something a little bit unnerving about a grave that reads “here the Chief of the Clan MacGillvray Fell” (as in on this spot). Culloden has that habit of coming to life
(right) The headstone to the Clan Mackintosh
© Copyright image Julian Paren (MacGillvray – left)
© Copyright Ian Taylor (Mackintosh right)
Both images licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Terms of licence [CLICK].
This trip is extremely easy to complete from Inverness. Indeed, Castle Stuart golf course almost borders the Culloden battlefield. Outside of the Highlands, this day-trip is only really viable from Gleneagles.