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    The Battle of Culloden

    10 min read

    A battle that lasted under an hour changed the course of Scottish history and Highland culture forever.
    But how? And why?

    By Gill McMillan
    More by Gill

    What Actually Happened

    Culloden Battlefield today seems an unremarkable place, sitting on high ground just 5 miles from the Highland Capital, Inverness. But this windswept moor has an importance and a legacy far more influential than this location might suggest.

    It was here, on the 16th of April 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated and the Jacobite cause was finally crushed. Why here? Why then? What lead up to this, and what happened next? To answer these questions we need to go back further in time, around 100 years earlier.

    A bit of Jacobite history

    In 1603, Scotland and England had joined together under one king, an event known as the Union of the Crowns. The king as this time was James VI of Scotland/James 1st of England. He was from a line of Stuart kings. Bonnie Prince Charlie, or Charles Edward Stuart to use his given name, was born in 1720 and was the great-great-grandson of James VI/I. There’s more about him later. In Scotland, there had been a long line of kings all called James. The term Jacobite comes from the Latin Jacobus, for James.

    Meanwhile, the Stuart line continued after the death of James VI/I with his first-born son, Charles I. There was also a younger son who later became James VII/II. But when Charles I died in 1649, he was succeeded by his son & heir, Charles II. Both their reigns were at a time of social unrest, fuelled by a combination of constitutional argument, religious divides, political upheaval and financial disputes. This was a time of the Civil War, with the King’s Cavaliers against Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. Charles Ist was defeated and later beheaded. His son Charles II went into exile. After the triumphant Cromwell died, the English parliament reinstated Charles II as monarch but he had reduced powers.

    An issue was that he was married to a Catholic. The constitutional arguments and religious divides mentioned above partly stemmed from Charles I’s belief in The Devine Right of Kings. This was a commonly held belief amongst many monarchs that their power came directly from God, which meant that they could never be challenged. To do so was to challenge the wisdom of God himself. Bishops in the church hierarchy gave support to this idea, as they were appointed by the king. The whole system of kings and bishops mutually supporting one another was viewed as corrupt by many and Catholicism was viewed with suspicion. So a monarch could not be seen to be supporting Catholic ideals.

    The Scottish Protestants had embraced Presbyterianism whole-heartedly. This was a system of church teaching and governance that they could support, where Ministers were chosen by the people and Bishops were redundant. Any attempt by the monarch to dilute their faith or to restructure the Church north of the border by imposing bishops was firmly rejected by the Presbyterian Scots. In the Highlands, however, the Catholic faith was still strong.

    What was Bonnie Prince Charlie involvement?

    Well, on the death of Charles II, his brother, James, became James VII of Scotland/James II of England. But his reign was short-lived. Outwardly he was Anglican but he had Catholic sympathies. He tried to impose Catholicism on the United Kingdom. For this, he was deposed and exiled in 1688. He took his infant son, James Francis Stuart with him to live abroad. This infant would become Bonnie Prince Charlie’s father. But James VII also had 2 daughters. They were older, having been born to a previous wife. Mary was born in 1662 and Anne in 1665. Mary and Anne were raised as Protestants, while James Francis was Catholic. He was 26 years younger than his sister Mary. When James VII/II had been deposed, Mary, along with her husband William of Orange, were invited to come and rule together as joint monarchs. She ruled with her husband until she died in 1694.

    Mary’s father James VII/II died in exile in 1701. In the same year, there had been an English Act of Parliament, insisting that all future monarchs were Protestant. Anne was next in line, their brother James Francis having been side-lined as he was Catholic. Her reign was taken up with foreign interests and internal wrangling between the English and Scottish Parliaments. The separate Parliaments joined together in 1707, largely due to some wealthy Scots making a very poor investment abroad, which left the country bankrupt.

    The problem being…

    On Anne’s death in 1714, the crown went to the next Protestant Stuart, her second cousin, who was Elector of Hanover at the time. He came to Britain and was crowned King George 1st. His grandmother had been Elizabeth, a sister of James VII/II. So he was a Stuart but through the female line. The house of Hanover was now on the throne of the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, James Francis was still very much alive and wanted to claim the throne.

    There was a mood in some parts of the country where some powerful Catholic & Protestant families in Scotland, England and Ireland were thinking that a return to a Stuart on the throne would suit them better. They believed that James Francis was still the rightful heir and had a legitimate claim to be king.

    The start of the Jacobite uprisings

    The first Jacobite uprising began in Dundee, with Viscount Dundee (John Graham) in 1689. This was a year after James Francis’ father, James VII/II had been deposed. Government troops were sent north. They met at Killiecrankie, where the Jacobites won the battle, but Viscount Dundee was fatally wounded. Due to a lack of organisation, they didn’t capitalise on their success. This was an error that would repeat itself many times.

    The government were now alerted to the possibility of further unrest, so a plan was drawn up to improve the infrastructure in Scotland. Roads, bridges and barracks were built for troops to access remote areas. It was also a show of strength. Garrisoned soldiers were in place, ready to respond quickly should the need arise.

    Other rebellions broke out in 1715 and 1719 in support of James Francis Stuart. There were successes and defeats on both sides. Some clan chiefs who had supported the Jacobite cause had their lands confiscated and so were cautious of committing themselves again.

    James Francis lost heart, and his son, Charles Edward Stuart, stepped forward to claim the throne for the Stuarts once again. He landed on the west coast of Scotland and at Glenfinnan & raised his royal standard in July 1745.

    Glenfinnan monument

    The Glenfinnan Monument, marking where Bonnie Price Charlie raised his Standard and commemorating the lives lost in the Jacobite uprisings.

    The build-up to the battle

    There had previously been some support for Charlie from the Clan Chiefs who were willing to ‘come out’ and fight for him if he could raise French troops as well. Some did turn out for him but others advised him that this was a lost cause. It was felt that this was an issue long dead and advised him to return to France. They well knew there would be harsh consequences should this uprising fail. Some were also wary enough to consider who to back, based on the likely outcome. They would change sides depending on how the campaign progressed. It was a game of high stakes.

    Charlie did have the promise of backers and powerful ones at that. The French and Spanish had offered assistance in terms of arms, money and men. But they were fighting other wars elsewhere, so although some gold was sent, it arrived too late to really be of help. Nevertheless, the campaign gathered pace and an army amassed. The army travelled south, took Edinburgh by force and went on into England. Only days from London, they got to Derby, when they decided to turn back. They were far from a supply line and had a Hanovarian spy in their midst, who planted false stories of a large government army waiting close by. Retreat to fight another day was seen as the sensible option.

    What happened next?

    This army returned north, through the north of England at Carlisle and on to Glasgow, where they demanded supplies. The Jacobites still felt strong, receiving news of French reinforcements. They travelled to Stirling and kept moving north, back to their heartlands but, hungry, poorly equipped and tired, they were exhausted. They had been on the move for many months. The Government were now on full alert, taking this threat seriously. They hastened large numbers of troops north, led by the King’s son, the Duke of Cumberland. On the eve of battle, the Duke and his men camped at Nairn, North East of Culloden.

    culloden monument

    Photo Credit: Ben Thorburn

    Prince Charles, meanwhile, had made a rash decision to spring a surprise attack on the Duke. It was the Duke’s birthday and he knew his men would be eating and drinking, in other words, distracted. Against the advice of his officers, Charles insisted that his men walk to Nairn at night. These men were hungry and tired. The ground was hard going and they were at the mercy of indecisive leadership. By the time the order was given to walk, they arrived as the sun was coming up: too late for a surprise attack. So they had to then return to the chosen place for the battle. Even this was argued out amongst Charles’ officers, some thinking it an advantageous site, others not.

    The scene was set for the battle to come, the Battle of Culloden. Culloden was named after a house on the site where the Prince was staying. The moor itself is called Drummossie. Jacobite numbers were around 5,500 fighting men. The government side was nearer 7,500. The Duke had been planning and discussing strategy for weeks. The Prince didn’t have a plan – it seems he didn’t want to be dissuaded from engaging with the Duke and refused the advice to retreat to fight better another day.

    Which clans fought at the Battle of Culloden?

    The important point to remember – this was a battle between those who supported the notion of returning a Stuart King to the throne and those who didn’t. Scots, English and Irish fought on both sides. Sometimes clansmen fought their own fathers, brothers, and uncles. On the Jacobite side were, amongst others, Chisholms, MacLeods, MacLeans, Frasers, Farquarsons, Camerons and Gordons. There is a cairn on the battlefield to ‘Mixed Clans’, those buried together but whose numbers were few. The government side was boosted by Flemmings, Howards, Monros and many others. Certainly, English-speaking Lowland Scotland, including the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, were firmly on the government side. They saw Prince Charles as a puppet of the French court who had the nickname of The Young Pretender. His father before him had been The Old Pretender, each supported by Gaelic-speaking, uncouth ruffians from the Highlands.

    How long did the battle last?

    The battle of Culloden lasted for under an hour. In that time, approximately 1250 Jacobites were dead, almost as many were wounded and 376 were taken prisoner (those who were professional soldiers or who were worth a ransom). The government troops lost 50 men while around 300 were wounded. There is some controversy as to what happened next. The Prince, watching at a distance, was said to be in shock. The orders were given to the Duke’s men that ‘no quarter shall be given. And so the slaughter began, 5 miles of blood and bodies as the cavalry finished off wounded men. These orders were not official though. It seems that someone had inserted the clause to slaughter all.

    What happened after the Battle of Culloden?

    For weeks and months afterwards, the government troops unleashed terrible bloodletting on the Highland population, while they sought the Prince who had a bounty on his life of £30,000. But here’s the twist that turned him into a romantic hero: he fled, with a close bodyguard of a handful of loyal supporters, and evaded the troops for five months, crossing the Highlands and island-hopping. He was almost caught several times but each time, escaped. He was assisted on one occasion by Flora MacDonald, who famously rowed him to the Isle of Skye, he dressed as her maid. On modern maps, Prince Charlie’s Caves litter the landscape. Eventually, he was picked up by a French Navy ship on the West coast of Scotland. He never set foot in Scotland again and died an old man in Rome, 41 years later. But he was never given up.

    His supporters weren’t so fortunate. The Chiefs who had supported him were sought high and low. Many hid for years, only to finally give up and go into exile in France.

    Why was the Battle of Culloden important?

    The repercussions were far-reaching. The wearing of tartan, the playing of bagpipes and speaking of Gaelic were all banned. This was an insensitive move, as the banning of tartan also applied to those clans who had fought for the government. Many bagpipe tunes, centuries in evolving, were lost forever. Gaelic culture was seen as ‘backwards’ and has only relatively recently reclaimed its rightful place as a rich, valuable expression of a way of life.

    The Prince was, by all accounts, charismatic, handsome and flamboyant. Women of influence swooned and supported him. But charisma is no substitute for clear thinking and thorough planning. This was the last major battle fought on British Soil. It could be debated that the whole campaign was doomed from the beginning. Certainly, the horror of its blundering aftermath is what makes it such an important event and goes some way to explaining how a long shadow was cast. But with the reinstigation of the Scottish Parliament, this is a nation that has embraced its Highland culture and wants nothing more than to share it with the world.


    Photo Credit: Ben Thorburn

    Battle of Culloden FAQ

    When was the Battle of Culloden Read More

    History can sometimes have a habit of being difficult to pin dates to but in this case, the significance was to remain important till modern day.

    In answer to the commonly asked question, “when was the Battle of Culloden”; it was fought on the 16th April 1746.

    Did Bonnie Prince Charlie die at the Battle of Culloden? Read More

    Bonnie Prince Charlie did not die at the Battle of Culloden. After the battle, he fled. With a close bodyguard of a handful of loyal supporters, he evaded the troops for five months, crossing the Highlands and island-hopping. Eventually, he was picked up by a French Navy ship on the West coast of Scotland. He never set foot in Scotland again, and died an old man in Rome, 41 years later.

    Who won the Battle of Culloden? Read More

    The government troops won. 1250 Jacobites died at the battle, and almost as many were wounded with 376 taken prisoner (those who were professional soldiers or who were worth a ransom). The government troops lost 50 men while around 300 were wounded. Orders were given to the Duke’s men that ‘no quarter shall be given’. And so the slaughter began, 5 miles of blood and bodies as the cavalry finished off the wounded Jacobite men.

    How many Scots died at the Battle of Culloden? Read More

    It is said that 1250 Jacobites died at the battle, with many more in the bloody aftermath, whilst the government troops only lost 50.

    Where was the battle of Culloden filmed for Outlander? Read More

    The battle scene in Outlander was mostly filmed near Cumbernauld Glen, close to Glasgow.

    Battle of Culloden Video


    battle of culloden

    Culloden Visitor Centre, Photo Credit: VisitScotland



    Find out more about the author of this article, Gill McMillan at Hike Highlands.

    Meet the Author: Gill McMillan

    “As a child I skied in Glenshee and loved being outside. At 19 I started hill-walking and have happily worn out many pairs of boots since. I especially enjoy hill-walking, long-distance trails (the Camino de Santiago across Spain and the West Highland Way several times) and wild camping. For me, both personally and professionally, knowing something of the history, folklore and colourful characters of an area really brings the landscape alive. I really enjoy sharing these tales with other people and hearing their tales too.”

    View profileMore by Gill

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