Sunday 30 June 2024

The Battle of Culloden (16 April 1746)

Sixty years ago a visit to the Culloden battlefield would have meant following forest trails and trying to make sense of the seemingly random placement of inscribed boulders marking the mass burials of the clansmen killed during what was effectively, the final major battle involving regular troops on British soil. Venturing further through the trees, visitors would pause to admire a large memorial cairn built on the part of the battlefield where the dead lay the thickest. Both the cairn and the markers were laid in 1881 some 135 years after the battle had been fought. Happily, the trees were cleared in 1963, revealing a windswept moor virtually unchanged from that fateful day, 16th April 1746, when the Stuart cause came to an end in just an hour or so of bloody fighting.

The Culloden Cairn on Drumossie Moor

I had been told that the battlefield at Culloden is a moody atmospheric place where, if you listen carefully, you can hear the skirl of the bagpipes on the wind. Having driven up from Stirling, I was somewhat disappointed to find the visitor centre car park packed out with cars and coaches. It would seem that I would need to join the tourist throng and work my imagination a little harder than normal. Happily though, the visitors were all in the cafe, shop and exhibition space so as I ventured on to the moor, I found myself alone in a spectacularly evocative landscape. The start lines for both the Jacobite Army and Cumberland's troops are marked out with flags. To the south, blue flags for the former and to the north, red flags for the latter. I decided to walk the length of both and then explore the area in between where the now exposed 1881 cairn stands as an orientation point.

The Jacobite line and trail

Before I visited, I had read John Prebble's excellent book 'Culloden' (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1961). The Jacobite Army had reason to be optimistic despite the serried ranks of infantry and fearsome artillery layed out in front of them. The Highland Charge had proved to be highly effective in previous times, including just a year before at the Battle Of Falkirk. The clansmen would rush the opposing troops, absorbing the first volley of the defenders before crashing into the opposing lines and routing the remaining riflemen. It took a brave man to stand his ground in the face of such an onslaught. At Culloden, broken logistics had left the clansmen hungry and a failed night attack on Cumberland's Army in nearby Nairn had been aborted leaving Charles Stuart's troops frustrated and keen to 'finish the job'. 

The King's line and trail

Battlefield map 

In walking the battlefield, the reasons for the Jacobite failure are very evident. Firstly the opposing lines are not equidistant to each other. As can be seen from the map above the lines diverge on the east to west axis. The clansmen on the left would have a lot further to run than those on the right. The paths along the lines were dry when I visited but as I walked the line of attack conditions changed. Within a few yards, the ground surface changed to a watery quasi-swamp - quite difficult to reverse at speed. Not only would the clansmen on the left have further to charge but the ground would also be more difficult than where the lines were at their closest. History records that Stuart did not secure his right flank, and upon walking the ground it is easy to see how a flanking attack could have been prosecuted without much warning given the cover which would have been provided by the walls of the Leanach Enclosure (see map above).

Stone marking the start point of the Fraser Clan

Marker - Fraser burial pit

Following the lines, beneath each flag there is an inscribed slab recording the name of the unit that was deployed in that spot. By walking both sides, it is possible to see exactly where the various regiments and clans started the battle. From the Jacobite line I picked my way across the sodden ground towards the memorial cairn and came across the spot where the Frasers met their denouement - marked by an inscribed boulder. The vicious hand to hand fighting that produced the most casualties took place in the very centre of the battlefield. It is here that the ghosts of the highlanders linger profusely, at least that's how it seemed to me as I stood on this profoundly moving memorial site - the topography as it was in 1746. Pulling myself together I walked back to the superb visitor centre before heading off to explore other sites associated with the '45.

The ruins of Ruthven Barracks

A few miles to the south, lies Ruthven Barracks, one of four garrisons built under the orders of the Hanoverian government following the earlier Jacobite rising of 1715. The strongpoint served to defend three military roads built by Major-General Wade to Inverness, Perth and Fort Augustus. Prior to Culloden, in August 1745, twelve redcoats under the command of a Sergeant, had repelled an attack by 200 Jacobite highlanders. The garrison fell to the Jacobites in February 1746 and after Culloden remnants of the defeated Jacobite Army returned to Ruthven where they received their final instruction from Prince Charles Edward Stuart. 'Let every man seek his own safety in the best way he can'. Many did not survive the cruel retribution which followed on from Cumberland's decisive victory.

Monument to the Young Pretender at Glenfinnan

It had all seemed so different back in the summer of 1745 when Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender) returned from France to claim the crown. Encouraged by his first benefactor, Donald Cameron of Lochiel, on the 16th August 1745 Charles raised his standard at Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. Charles claimed the British throne in the name of his father, James Francis Edward Stuart - exiled after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Nowadays the spot is marked by a striking column built by a member of the Campbell Clan in 1815 - the figure of a highlander placed on top twenty years later. The setting is truly spectacular - befitting the drama, romance and tragedy that it represents.