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    What Happened at 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

    The Battle of Culloden and Bonnie Prince Charlie

    Culloden Battlefield might seem an unremarkable place to the untrained eye today, sitting on high ground just 5 miles east of the Highland Capital, Inverness. Yet this windswept moor has an importance and a legacy far more influential than its location might suggest.

    It was here, on the 16th of April 1746, that 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, to around 100 years earlier.

    Take me to:

    A Short Jacobite History

    In 1603, Scotland and England were joined together under one king, an event known as the Union of the Crowns. The king was James VI of Scotland and I of England. He was from a line of Tudor Kings and Queens, and began the line of the Stuart monarchs. Bonnie Prince Charlie, or Charles Edward Stuart to use his given name, was born in 1720. He was the great-great-grandson of James VI/I. We’ll discuss him more later.

    Meanwhile, the Stuart line continued after the death of James VI/I with his son, Charles I. His reign was at a time of social unrest, fuelled by a combination of constitutional argument, religious divides, political upheaval and financial disputes. This was the time of the Civil War, with the Royalists against Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. Charles I was defeated and he was beheaded in 1649. His son, the future King Charles II, went into exile and did not return until the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

    Charles II was a popular monarch, but this did not mean that his rule was without challenges. One issue was that he married a Catholic, Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal. At a time of religious divide, and when the Protestants still held a lot of power in the country, Charles II navigated these difficult waters. He did so for most of his life before ultimately converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. Charles II was succeeded his younger brother, the Catholic James II of England and VII of Scotland.

    In Scotland, the Civil War had played out slightly differently, and many Scottish Protestants embraced Presbyterianism, a form of Christian church government based on rule by elders or presbyters. Catholic faith also retained a following in pockets of the country, particularly the Highlands.

    Who Was Bonnie Prince Charlie?

    On the death of Charles II, his younger brother became King James VII of Scotland and II of England. James’ reign was short-lived. While his personal Catholic beliefs were tolerated, James tried to impose Catholicism on the rest of his people. For this, he was forced into exile 1688, ending the reign of the last Catholic monarch of Britain. James took his infant son, James Francis Stuart, with him to the court of Louis XIV in France. This infant would become known as The Old Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s father.

    James VII/II also had two older daughters. Born to his first wife, Mary and Anne were raised as Protestants, while their younger half-brother James was Catholic. Mary married her cousin, William of Orange, who later invaded England and deposed James. As joint monarchs, Mary and William ruled from 1689.

    James VII/II died in exile in 1701, the same year as the Act of Settlement, designed to ensure Protestant succession to the throne. The following year, William died (Mary having died in 1694), leaving James’ other daughter Anne as queen of England, Scotland and Ireland. Mary and Anne’s brother, James, did not inherit the throne due to his Catholic faith. It was under Anne’s rule that the 1707 Acts of Union occurred, uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland together as Great Britain, and making Anne queen of Great Britain and Ireland.

    The problem was…

    On Anne’s death in 1714, the crown went to the next Protestant Stuart in line for the throne. This was Anne’s second cousin, George, who was the Elector of Hanover and who was crowned to become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland. George’s grandmother had been Elizabeth, a sister of King Charles I; George was a Stuart but through the female line. His coronation marked the beginning of the reign of the House of Hanover in Britain. Meanwhile, James Francis Stuart was still alive and wanted to claim what he saw as his rightful crown.

    James had support in some parts of Great Britain and Ireland. They believed a Stuart of the throne might be a better option than the Hanovers, and they supported James’ claim to the throne. These supporters would become known as Jacobites. The term, Jacobite, comes from the Latin Jacobus, for James.

    The start of the Jacobite uprisings

    The first Jacobite uprising began in 1689. This was a year after James Francis’ father, James VII/II, had been deposed. One of James’ key military leaders was a soldier called John Graham, 1st Viscount Dundee, and it was he who played a key part in this first rebellion. Graham raised the Royal Standard in Dundee, Scotland, in 1689, launching the first Jacobite Rising. The gathering Jacobite forces met with Government troops at Killiecrankie, in the heart of Scotland. While the Jacobite forces won, Graham was fatally wounded. His death, and the loss of his leadership, marked the beginning of the end for the rebellion.

    The British government were now alerted to the possibility of further unrest, and 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 1708, 1715 and 1719 in support of James Francis Stuart. There were successes and defeats on both sides. James Francis lost heart, but his son, Charles Edward Stuart, stepped forward to claim the throne for the Stuarts. In August 1745, The Young Pretender rowed up Loch Shiel to Glenfinnan, on the west coast of Scotland, and mustered loyal troops to begin a new campaign for the crown. George I had died in 1727, leaving the crown to his son, George II. The gathering at Glenfinnan marked the beginning of perhaps the best known of the Jacobite uprisings, one that would end with the last battle on mainland Britain in April 1746, the Battle of Culloden.

    Glenfinnan monument

    The Battle Approach

    Bonnie Prince Charlie continued to gain support from Scottish clan chiefs after raising his standard at Glenfinnan in August 1745, but many did so with the promise that there would be French troops fighting alongside them. While some clans did turn out in support, others advised Charles that his was a lost cause and he should return to the continent. Previous uprisings had shown there would be harsh consequences should the Bonnie Prince fail; this was a game of high stakes.

    The Young Pretender did have the promise of powerful support for his cause. Both the French and Spanish courts had offered assistance, from arms and men to money. However, they were both also fighting wars on other fronts. Nevertheless, the Jacobite cause gathered pace and an army was amassed. They travelled south, defeating the government forces at the Battle of Prestonpans in September 1745 before continuing on to occupy the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. By November, the Jacobite army had entered England. However, dispute amongst Bonnie Prince Charlie’s advisors meant that the Jacobite army did not capitalise on their successes. Despite reaching as far south as Derby, the army turned around rather than continue south to London.

    They decided to push north again to defend Inverness from attack by the government troops, now led by the Captain General of the British Army, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. The Duke of Cumberland was an enthusiastic military man, and the son of the then King of Great Britain, George II.

    What Happened Next?

    From Derby, the Jacobite army began the return journey north. After success at Falkirk in January 1746 and bolstered by news of French reinforcements, the army was optimistic. This began to change, with many wondering why they had turned around at Derby. Fractions were starting to show in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s leadership. They had been on the move for months and were being pursued by the British Army. Food was running very low for the Jacobite forces, and morale was mixed. On the eve of 15th April 1746, the Duke of Cumberland and his men were camped near Nairn, just 19 km/12 miles east of Culloden.

    culloden monument

    On the eve of the Battle of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie made a rash decision that would have devastating consequences. It was the Duke of Cumberland’s 25th birthday, and he rewarded his men with extra rations to celebrate. They would be eating, drinking and, crucially, distracted. With the Jacobites arguing amongst themselves, the Bonnie Prince insisted his army launch a surprise attack on Cumberland’s forces.

    The Jacobite leadership was indecisive. Their army was not at full force as some men had gone to Inverness for food while others had yet to arrive at the Jacobite camp. Poor ground conditions further hampered the planned attack. The group moved at different speeds as men got lost and succumbed to exhaustion and hunger.

    When the Jacobite army arrived at Cumberland’s camp, it was too close to daybreak for a surprise attack. They were forced to turn around and march back to the site of the battle. Today we know it as Culloden Moor, but in the 18th century, it was better known as Drumossie Moor.

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    What Happened After the Battle of Culloden?

    The aftermath of the Battle of Culloden was devasting for life in Scotland. The British government was determined to quash the Jacobite movement for good. Extra defences were built to defend against any future rebellion, Highlanders were forbidden from carrying weapons and the clan system was abolished. Clan chiefs had their lands forfeited, and many men were captured. These captured men were executed, exiled or conscripted into the British Army. With severe punishments imposed and stricter government control across the country, the rebellion was over for good.

    And what happened to the two leading figures in the Battle of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Duke of Cumberland?

    Charles Edward Stuart was escorted off the battlefield once his loss at Culloden was evident. He made his way to the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, where the people of Lewis would neither help nor betray him despite the £30,000 reward for his whereabouts. From here, the Young Pretender’s story is well known. For it was on his journey to Skye that Flora MacDonald helped him. Dressed as Flora’s maid and given the name Betty Burke, Bonnie Prince Charlie safely made the journey to Skye. The tale of his disguise and escape has sparked many romantic stories and a nursery rhyme that would become the theme song of a popular historical fiction tv series. In September 1746, Charles left Scotland for France before heading into exile in Rome. He died in Rome in January 1788, a broken and defeated man.

    Immediately following the Battle of Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland received a very different reception from the Bonnie Prince. He was lauded for his success at the battle. However, this quickly changed once his harsh handling of the wounded and innocent became apparent. He earned himself the nickname ‘Butcher’ and never won another battle.

    Why Was the Battle of Culloden Important?

    Culloden was the last pitched battle fought on British soil, but it is important for other reasons too. To prevent further rebellion, the government enforced strict rules and punishment on the people of Scotland, especially those in the Highlands.

    The 1746 ‘Dress Act’ was designed to secure peace in the Highlands and followed earlier Acts in 1716 and 1725 (remember, there had been earlier uprisings in 1715 and 1719). In this Act, wearing “Highland clothes… or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb” was banned for men who were not part of the British Forces. The British government clamped down on tartan and plaid use for coats because this was part of the uniform of a Jacobite officer. Dressing in the Highland style was also banned as they were seen to be more accountable for the rebellion. The punishment for being caught breaking these rules was imprisonment and, for a second offence, transportation. Highland Dress was banned under an Act that was not repealed until 1782, by which time the tradition of this style of everyday use had been lost in the Highlands of Scotland.

    It was not just the traditional dress that was lost but also the culture of Highland life. Over the course of the 1700s, life in the Highlands changed dramatically. It is important to remember that this affected those who fought on the government and the Jacobite sides.


    Battle of Culloden FAQs

    When Was the Battle of Culloden? Read More

    The Battle of Culloden was fought on the 16th of April 1746.

    How Long Did the Battle of Culloden Last? Read More

    The Battle of Culloden lasted under an hour. In that time, approximately 1,250 Jacobites were dead, with few wounded. The government force officially lost 50 men, with 259 wounded.

    While the battle was brief, the effects were felt for a long time after.

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

    Charles Edward Stuart did not die at the Battle of Culloden. He watched the battle from a safe distance and was escorted from the field once the loss became apparent. Five months after Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to France. He died in Rome in 1788.

    Who Won the Battle of Culloden? Read More

    The British government forces won the Battle of Culloden. They were better armed, trained and fed than the Jacobite army. The government soldiers quickly surrounded the Jacobite troops during the battle.

    Which Clans Fought at the Battle of Culloden? Read More

    A number of Scots fought at Culloden. On the Jacobite side, this included clans Maclean, Stewart of Appin, Mackintosh, MacDonald, and Fraser, as well as the Atholl Highlanders. On the government side, this included clans Sutherland, MacKay, Ross and Grant to name a few.

    It is important to remember that Culloden was not a battle of the Scottish against the English, but instead a complex campaign of religion, politics and beliefs. People from Scotland, England, Ireland and beyond fought on both sides. Clans were divided, and clansmen fought kin on opposite sides of the field.

    How Many Scots Died at the Battle of Culloden? Read More

    It is difficult to establish precisely how many Scots died during the battle. The Battle of Culloden was not the Scottish fighting against the English, and many men were buried in mass graves on the battlefield.

    It is estimated that 1250 Jacobites died at the Battle of Culloden. Officially, 50 government soldiers died at the battle.

    Where Was the Battle of Culloden Filmed for Outlander? Read More

    The reenactment of the Battle of Culloden for the tv series, Outlander, was primarily filmed in Scotland at Cumbernauld Glen, between Falkirk and 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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