The legacy of Culloden, the last pitched battle on British soil

275 years ago Jacobite forces fought the British Army on a remote moorland in Scotland in a clash that might have changed the course of history. Had victory fallen differently, there would arguably have been no American Revolution.

Published 27 Apr 2021, 13:03 BST
Stones supposedly marking the places where Jacobite clans fell are scattered across the battlefield of Culloden ...

Stones supposedly marking the places where Jacobite clans fell are scattered across the battlefield of Culloden Moor, Inverness-shire. 

Photograph by Karl Normington / Alamy

“The moor was covered with blood; and our men, what with killing the enemy, dabbling their feet in blood, and splashing it about one another, looked like butchers.”

The Scots Magazine of 16 April 1746 did not pull its punches in its account of the Battle of Culloden, published in the immediate aftermath of the battle. No quarter had been asked for or given on this bleak moorland, and the bloodshed continued beyond the battlefield.

“The Duke’s troops pursued the Rebels and slaughtered them from Culloden along the four-mile road back to Inverness. Those Rebels who were wounded were left by the Duke on the battlefield for two days, then the few still alive were killed,” said the Scots Magazine.

In barely 30 minutes, about 1,600 soldiers lay dead on this remote, boggy site, close to Inverness. Yet 275 years this month since the last pitched battle on British soil, the echoes of the Jacobite defeat at Culloden are still audible in British and European politics, while the romantic legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the head of the Jacobite forces at Culloden, remains as gilded.

Charles Edward Stuart, to give the prince his fuller name, was born in Rome in 1719, eldest son of the exiled James III and VIII of England and Scotland respectively. James’s own father, James II and VII, had been denied his legitimate claim to the British crown in 1688, largely on the grounds of his Catholicism. This led to the accession of William and Mary in the so-called Glorious Revolution. But the Stuart claims to the crown persisted in continental Europe, fostered by a Jacobite community that had different objectives.

“The Irish Jacobites wanted more Catholic land rights, votes for Catholics and greater powers to the Dublin parliament, and they would accept a Stuart sovereign in pursuit of those goals, especially a Catholic sovereign,” says Professor Murray Pittock of the University of Glasgow and Scottish history advisor and board member to the National Trust of Scotland.

“In barely 30 minutes, about 1,600 soldiers lay dead on this remote, boggy site, close to Inverness.”

Interestingly, most of the Scottish Jacobite recruits were Episcopalian and believed that a Stuart monarchy would disestablish the Presbyterian church in Scotland.

A divided union

“Both the Scottish and Irish Jacobites had a very much more positive view of European powers and looked to Europe,” adds Pittock, “which wasn’t true of English Jacobites, who didn’t like foreigners and didn’t like the City of London with its national debt, stock and bond markets and the rise of urban mercantile values.”

Where all the Jacobites found consensus was in their desire for a confederal, multi-kingdom monarchy, with a single king ruling the three independent kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, similar to the arrangements that existed between 1660 and 1688, with royal capitals in London, Edinburgh and Dublin.

By 1745, in his mid twenties and living in exile, Charles Edward Stuart had become frustrated at the lack of French attempts to restore his father, James, to the British throne. So the prince decided to raise his own army (probably with tacit French support), landing on the Isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in July 1745, with an entourage of just seven. Blessed with abundant charisma, the prince rapidly recruited troops among Highland clans and enjoyed early military success at Fort William. By September he had occupied Edinburgh, and he following month he issued a declaration, terminating the 1707 Union between England and Scotland and declaring the British Parliament ‘illegal’.

A ‘redcoat officer’ and a Jacobite clansman in a re-enactment of a battle on the site of Culloden, 2007. The battle itself was brutal and swift, lasting less than 30 minutes. Today the remote battlefield outside of Inverness is the most visited in Britain.   

Photograph by Epic Scotland Ltd / Alamy

Four hundred miles to the south, in London, the House of Lords dismissed his claims as being, “of the utmost arrogance and insolent affronts to the honour of the British nation, in supposing that His Majesty’s subjects are capable of being imposed upon, seduced, or terrified by false and opprobrious invectives, insidious promises, or vain and impotent menaces.”

But Charles Edward Stuart maintained his military momentum, marching south and recording notable victories over forces loyal to King George II at Prestonpans and Carlisle, before reaching Derby in December. Denied the support of French and English Jacobites, Charles was persuaded not to march on London, but to return to his Highland stronghold, in a move that with the benefit of hindsight probably cost his Rising any chance of success, despite subsequent victories at Falkirk, Inverurie and Inverness.

Given time to raise and train soldiers, by the spring of 1746, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, son of George II, had advanced into Scotland at the head of a larger, better resourced and better trained British Army to suppress the insurgents.

Final destination

The two armies were irresistibly drawn to each other, eventually squaring up at Culloden, about four miles outside Inverness, on 16 April 1746. On one side stood about 5,000 Jacobite troops, many of them hungry and wearied after a failed night-time raid – which had been designed to take the 9,000-strong British Army by surprise.

The moorland was no designated battlefield, but the well-prepared British forces manoeuvred into a strategically better position, from where Cumberland’s cannons were able to bombard Jacobite lines, firstly with roundshot, followed by grapeshot. When Charles Edward Stuart gave the order for his troops to attack, the boggy ground and a headwind that drove rain, hail and snow into their faces, undermined the effectiveness of the Jacobite’s blood-curdling tactic, the ‘Highland Charge’.

“Essentially, the Highlanders would fire one volley, throw down their muskets, and behind the smoke screen, charge the English lines in small groups with their swords and targets, in an attempt to break the lines,” writes Wendy Annette Stallard.

The Duke of Cumberland had trained his troops to resist the Highland Charge with a new tactic of standing firm and bayoneting the exposed side of the soldier to the right, rather than engaging the soldier directly in front. Moreover, the British infantry were three lines deep, so that when the Highlanders breached the first line they faced the fire of the second line and could penetrate no further.

“The Jacobites were outnumbered almost two-to-one and overwhelmed by cavalry,” says Murray Pittock. “The British Army had a significant force of Dragoons and Light Horse, and the fundamental action of the battle saw an envelopment by the mobile parts of the British Forces, as well as the failed frontal attack by the Jacobites.”

“What cutting and slicing there was.”

A Jacobite eye-witness, Donald Mackay, later recalled: “The morning was cold and stormy as we stood on the battlefield - snow and rain blowing against us. Before long we saw the red soldiers, in battle formation, in front of us and although the day was wild and wet we could see the red coats of the soldiers and the blue tartan of the Campbells in our presence. The battle began and the pellets came at us like hail-stones. The big guns were thundering and causing frightful break up among us, but we ran forward and - oh dear! oh dear! - what cutting and slicing there was. The dead lay on all sides and the cries of pain of the wounded rang in our ears. You could see a riderless horse running and jumping as if mad.”

A monument standing six metres high was built in 1881 – one of many that scatter the moor in memory of those who fell. 

Photograph by National Trust for Scotland

In under an hour, the decisive rout had left about 1,500 of Prince Charles Edward’s troops dead, while Cumberland’s casualties numbered about 50 dead and 250 wounded.

A global legacy

The British Army’s success at Culloden had far-reaching ramifications, not merely for the future relationship between England and Scotland, but also for world events; imagining a Jacobite victory raises one of the great ‘what if’ questions of history.

“The British Empire, in terms of the shape it took from the late 18th century onwards, is significantly a legacy of Culloden. In a way it was a battle between two versions of Great Britain, and the one that won is the one we have today,” says Murray Pittock.

“Although it was a battle involving relatively few combatants, in which the fighting took a relatively short time, it did change the face of British and global history. Had the Rising succeeded it’s very likely there would have been a much greater rapprochement with France. This would have meant that it was unlikely that the final existential conflict between British and French imperial interests in the Seven Years’ War, from 1756 to 1763 would have occurred. And because those interests included British control of Canada, it would have made the American Revolution less likely. In addition, it would not have weakened the French state to the extent that the French Revolution came about.”

The old and the new: the Leanach Cottage (left) was built around the time of the battle of Culloden and served as the site's informal first visitor centre. The present visitor centre contains relics and interactive maps of the theatre of battle.  

Photograph by National Trust for Scotland

Putting ‘what ifs’ to one side, what actually happened was a British military occupation of Scotland, the construction of the expensive and impregnable Fort George on the shores of the Moray Firth, followed swiftly by the astute incorporation of Jacobite soldiers into the British Army. This assimilation of Highland rebels into the royal army sowed the seeds for the subsequent trajectory of British military success in French North America, India, the Napoleonic Wars and into the Victorian era.

Charles Edward Stuart eventually fled to France with a bounty of £30,000 on his head. He refused to lead any subsequent Jacobite uprisings against the English without the support of foreign troops, having been deeply affected by the extent of suffering during and after Culloden. But his glamour as the charismatic Bonnie Prince Charlie persisted, and there’s a compelling case that Scotland’s global brand of tartan, clans and the Highlands can be traced back to the Jacobite iconography of the Rising.

In the eyes of Murray Pittock, “Charles was arrogant, haughty, courteous, strategically strong, tactically weak, charismatic in pursuit of success, prone to illness, violence and drunkenness in the face of failure; he was also deeply and widely loved as a young man, in his own day a celebrity, before his lifetime of disappointment.”

Culloden remains the most visited battlefield in Britain, despite its remote location, attracting tens of thousands more visitors than the Battle of Hastings 1066 site, including large numbers from overseas. Commemorative stones at the Culloden visitor centre acknowledge donations by clan associations from around the world, highlighting the geographical spread of the Scottish diaspora, due in no small part to the important role played by Scots in the armies of the British Empire.

The formal monument at Culloden was only erected in 1881, 135 years after the battle –a six-metre tall stone cairn standing proud of the moor and bearing the inscription: “The Battle of Culloden was fought on this moor 16th April, 1746. The graves of the Gallant Highlanders who fought for Scotland and Prince Charlie are marked by the names of their clans.” Around the marshy site, grave markers commemorate the fallen, while phalanxes of flags snap in the breeze, indicating the lines occupied by the opposing forces prior to the battle.

A fight of a different nature is now underway to conserve as much of the battlefield as possible from the encroachment of development. “Although National Trust Scotland has kept on buying more land, it’s very easy to forget that the battle extended over an area two to three times the current site which is managed. So the threat is to the areas immediately outside the NTS’s control, but still central to the battle.” says Murray Pittock.

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