On the 16th of April 1746, the Jacobite army was defeated in the Battle of Culloden.
The Culloden battle site is an eerie and evocative place, which you will realise if you pay a visit. It’s a ‘bristling on the back of your neck’ kinda feeling, but there’s also something deeper. Perhaps this feeling is engendered by the sound of the wind in the heather as it rustles across the open moor. Perhaps the sensation is merely encouraged by the imagination, in turn enhanced by a knowledge of where you are and what took place there. You get a similar, inexplicable feeling, redolent of utter sadness, if you visit Ypres.
Really, the battle should be known as the Battle of Drummossie Moor, because that’s where it took place, but the naming of it is long since ‘done and dusted’. Culloden has the distinction of being the last full-scale mainland battle to take place on British soil and it had far reaching implications for Scotland. To some extent, it was the last stand of the Scots Royal dynasty, an ancient line referred to in the Declaration of Arbroath as ‘an uninterrupted succession of one hundred and thirteen Kings’. By the time of Culloden, you can add another thirteen Kings to the list, ending with James VII; fourteen, if you want to add the ‘Old Pretender’, who never made it to the throne, but on whose behalf the Jacobite army was fighting. The battle on Drummossie Moor was also the beginning of the end for Highland clan society – the end of an era for Scotland as suggested in these lines from Andrew Lang:
A wind that awoke on the moorland came sighing,
Like the voice of the heroes who perished in vain:
“Not for Tearlach alone the red claymore was plying,
But to win back the old world that comes not again.”
Most people believe the Battle of Culloden was another England versus Scotland affair, with the English winning on this occasion to gain some degree of revenge for Bannockburn – over 400 years earlier. Truly, this is a false interpretation, usually born out of ignorance of the political situation prevailing at the time. The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-6 was an attempt by the supporters of the man who would be King, the Old Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart, to overthrow the government and reign of George II, of Hannover, whose father was brought over to maintain the Protestant succession after the death of Queen Anne, in 1707. It was a rebellion and Culloden was a battle between opposing sides in a civil war.
Albeit the Jacobite Army was predominantly Scots in nature, there were French and Irish mercenaries, in addition to some English Jacobites, fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie and there were many Scots in the Hannoverian army at Culloden. There were MacDonalds and Appin Stewarts on the rebel side, and Campbells of Argyll – no surprises there – amongst the Scots on the Government side.
The Highland charge is what won the day at Falkirk and spooked the Lowland Regiments, the majority of which were routed on that occasion. Imagine yourself in the front rank of a Regiment facing a charging pack of claymore brandishing ‘hungry wolves’, as the Highlanders were described at Culloden. Now, imagine trying to bayonet the man immediately in front, when he beats away your rifle with the targe in his left hand and pokes you nicely between the ribs. That was the offensive technique employed by the Highlander and very effective it was against the standard defence.
At Aberdeen, in the weeks leading up to the battle, Cumberland caused his men to be repeatedly drilled in the art of defending against the man immediately to the right, ignoring the man in front, leaving him to the next man left in rank. Drilling has the effect of instilling discipline and it was the combination of discipline and coolness induced by practice that helped Cumberland’s army stand up to the charge. When it came to hand-to-hand fighting, this time they had the confidence and mental fortitude to face up to the fearsome charge. The preparedness and discipline at Culloden was a significant change from earlier battles at Falkirk and Prestonpans, when the Government forces were routed; embarrassed in fact.
In retrospect, the outcome of the battle on Drummossie Moor was probably determined well before it took place. Determined by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s poor judgment in engaging in battle. As the MacShimi, Lord Lovat, exclaimed, “None but a mad fool would have fought that day”. However, Charlie can perhaps be excused, to some extent. Prior to Culloden, Lord George Murray was the arbiter of military strategy and tactics and proved very capable in that regard. Now, here was the army that had advanced on London as far as Derby facing its ultimately decisive battle, effectively backed into a corner of Scotland seemingly with nowhere else to go. I can imagine Charlie saying, “You’ve led me down and up the country and I’ve followed your advice against my wishes to no avail. It’s about time I took charge or this grand scheme will come to nothing.”
Murray advised Charlie not to fight at Culloden, suggesting that the Jacobites pursue guerrilla tactics, which were so effective in the Highlands, and reassemble the army in the summer. Whether through desperation, pride, impatience or incompetence, or a combination of all four, Charlie chose to reject Murray’s advice. On a better day on another field, the Jacobite army could have won, however, that may only have prolonged the inevitable as its morale was declining, and the Highlanders were weary and hungry, if not starving. Charlie’s adventure did come to nothing as he narrowly evaded capture, eventually returning to France and unfortunate decline in a life of obscurity.
John Prebble’s book ‘Culloden’ is a ‘must read’ for anyone wanting to know more. What is clear is that on the day, the Jacobite army that had been decidedly victorious at Prestonpans and Falkirk was fighting on its reputation, rather than its capability. That was a fatal mistake that can be attributed to the last desperate act of the Prince on the heather. It wasn’t arrogance. Charlie simply refused to acknowledge that his highlanders were anything but immortal. By then, he was living out the screenplay for the only future he cared to contemplate. In any event, far too many clansmen came to grief on the Moor of Drummossie on that fateful April day. And what’s worse, the entire culture and society of those highland clansmen suffered a terrible fate as a consequence. Aye, whilst Tearlach went off on a brief hiking tour of the Highlands, before skulking awa back tae France. It’s a good job he ne’er came back again.