The Battle of Culloden

It’s easy to look back on the events of 270 years ago (April 16, 1746) as a romantic - almost Shakespearean - epilogue to the story of the Scottish Highlanders. It was on that date, on Drumossie Moor, that history witnessed the last of the great Highland Charges. Known today as the Battle of Culloden, two cousins steered their armies into the last pitched battle on British soil. Intent on restoring his family to the throne, Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) had landed in Scotland with little more than a hope, but had gained success beyond imagination. Facing him on that cold, wintry day was William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, who had marched north with a plan to stop the Young Pretender.

The Battle of Culloden was the culmination of months of daring maneuvers and - to be straightforwardly honest - one of the unlikeliest combinations of bravado and luck in military history. The story of Scotland would be incomplete without a healthy discussion of Culloden, and the battle on that barren, Scottish moor has been featured in everything from pure history books, to an overwhelming number of romance novels. Even today, in 2016, the Outlander television series, involving time travel, partially revolves around the event.

There is still relevance to this battle, and I offer five items of interest as my contribution to the remembrance of those who fought and died at Culloden.

1. The Battle of Culloden was the final battle of the last Jacobite Uprising (those who supported James Stuart as king). The uprising was a convoluted event, and was equal parts religious war, civil war, internecine war, and with a dose of vendetta thrown in. The Jacobite Army was primarily Highland Scots, but also had Englishmen, and Irishmen in the service of France, alongside them. The Jacobites were primarily Catholic, though Bonnie Prince Charlie seemed not to make an issue of that, and gladly accepted Protestants into his army. In fact, Flora MacDonald, who would later become famous because of her assistance to Charles, was a lifelong Presbyterian. The men under the Duke of Cumberland were primarily English, but also consisted of Scots, both Highland and Lowland. As with any civil war, the potential for irony was alway present, and this was no exception. Lady Anne MacKintosh raised men to fight for the Prince, while her husband belonged to a pro-government group. Earlier in the uprising, her husband, Captain Angus MacKintosh, was captured and paroled to her, proclaiming her a colonel. William Boyd, the Earl of Kilmarnock, had “gone for the Prince”, while his son had remained loyal to King George. Captured at Culloden, the Earl was spotted by his son, who noticed that his father had lost his hat. He stepped forward to offer him his own, though it was not long used, the earl being beheaded for treason at the Tower of London later that year.

2. While Bonnie Prince Charlie ordered the men in his army to wear their plaids for the Battle of Culloden, many struggle with the misconception that one might have identified the clans of the soldiers by the patterns of their tartans. In fact, the assignation of particular patterns with specific family names is a relatively modern invention, and was not in place in 1746. The men would, no doubt, sometimes wear similar plaids, but only because they purchased their cloth in the same geographical area, and often from the same manufacturer. After the battle, the wearing of plaid was banned for anyone not serving with a British military unit, such as the Black Watch. The wearing of the plaid once again became popular because of the romance that grew from the story of the Scots, and the ban was finally lifted about 35 years after the battle.
Bonnie Prince Charlie

3. The flags on the Scottish side were varied, with many containing Latin inscriptions, and others readily identifiable only as to particular clans. While a considerable number carried the Saint Andrews Cross with blue and a white or yellow saltires, others were distinct enough to have been confusing on the battlefield. The flag initially raised by Bonnie Prince Charlie was red, with a white square inside it, and there was at least one instance of a white flag with a red saltire. Other flags on the field likely had other differences from what we typically think of, when we think of Scotland’s Saltire. Sadly, after the battle, most captured Scottish flags were sent to Edinburgh, where they were burned by the hangman. Descriptions were recorded, thankfully, but they were usually brief and incomplete, or implied a knowledge of someone who had seen them in person. Only a few Scottish flags remain in existence from that day.

Jacobite Flag
4. Before Culloden, the Prince and his Highlanders had raked up a series of victories, including Prestonpans and Falkirk, and had marched as far south as Derby, in England. Historians still debate whether the Jacobites might have been able to take London. But Prince Charles was not a military mind, and his success is largely attributable to boldness and determination, and the fierceness and audacity of the Highlanders in his ranks. William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, was a military man, and had actually been recalled from France, as the rebellion back home kept progressing. His intense planning was a large part of his success at Culloden, as it meant that he stepped onto that field with superior cannon, cavalry, and well-fed men with superior numbers. Sadly, for the Scots, Drumossie Moor was a terrible choice for the Highland way of fighting, and the end result was almost a given, even before the battle started. But, once again, there is an irony. Culloden was the only battle that Prince Charlie ever lost, and it was the only battle that the Duke of Cumberland ever won.

5. Losing a war is always misery for the defeated, but Culloden spelled disaster that might not have been imagined. In fact, immediate and intense action was taken against the Highlanders, to the extent that even those Scots who had fought for the government were negatively affected. Plaids were banned, lands were seized, the clan legal system was broken, and government troops were stationed throughout Scotland. The Highland Clearances would later follow, and over decades they effected a substantial destruction of the clan system. Note, though, that as soon as the battle had ended, the vitriol began. Men and children were reportedly killed by rampaging British troops, and the prisoners in Inverness were released, and replaced with Scots. Scottish royals were carried to London, and ordinary Scots were subject to death for treason, and often were sent away to British colonies. It’s said that in the aftermath of the battle, that the Duke of Cumberland ordered Lieutenant Colonel James Wolfe to shoot an injured Highlander, an order which Wolfe would not obey. Another soldier did kill the man, and Wolfe went forward with a better reputation among the Scotsmen. Thirteen years later, Wolfe, as a commanding British general, would lie dying on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, with Scotsmen fighting alongside him. William Augustus, through a mixture of politics and propaganda, was soon to see his name carried from that of a hero, to a common sobriquet: Butcher Cumberland.

The battlefield at Culloden is well preserved, and today is covered by heather and shrubs, in a contrast to that day in 1746. One is still able to stand on the field, and imagine the Highlanders awaiting the signal to charge: Claymore! While many visit Inverness for the quaint town and a chance to search Loch Ness for the monster, many more would do well to travel a few miles to discover that the more poignant story lies upon Drumossie Moor. There, the stones mark the death of the clans, and of a spirit that may never be seen again.

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