The battle of Culloden was fought 275 years ago, on 16 April, 1746. While the date of the battle may not be as well known as 1066 or 1314, the battlefield itself, just outside Inverness, is an important tourist destination. Apart from this year’s being a major anniversary, Frances Owen asks, why and how should Culloden be remembered?
Part of its significance is that the engagement between the British (or government, or Hanoverian; so many terms used when discussing the 1745 Rising are loaded) army, led by the Duke of Cumberland, and the Jacobite army, under Prince Charles Edward Stuart, on Drummossie Moor was the last pitched battle fought by regular troops on British soil.
In 45 devastating minutes, it also effectively ended any hopes of restoring the Stuart dynasty to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, though neither side seemed to think this at the time.
But 1745 was more than a dynastic struggle. The Jacobites, until recently often regarded merely as anachronistic supporters of absolute monarchy and/or a dying way of life, had been a real, and lasting, threat to the 1707 Union of Parliaments, to national stability, and to Hanoverian Britain’s more aggressive global expansion, funded by the Bank of England and the national debt.
This is borne out by the brutality of Cumberland’s retaliations after the battle, designed to be not only punishments but to end the possibility of any further Jacobite rising, ever. As the Duke said: “I tremble for fear that this vile spot [the Gaelic-speaking Highlands] may still be the ruin of this island and our family.”
More officially, Parliament passed a number of Acts designed to disarm the Highlands and strip clan chiefs of their powers. And the threat lingered; as late as in 1788 – by a twist of fate, a fortnight after Charles Edward had died on the other side of the world – Arthur Phillip, the first governor of the penal colony of New South Wales, had to swear that he “abjured allegiance” to the exiled Stuart family.
It could even be argued that the Jacobites’ defeat at Culloden gave a green light to Britain’s global dominance in the following century. At any rate, it was much more significant than the inevitable end to a rash (if romantic) venture involving a European princeling and his savage (if romantic) Highland followers – as it has often been portrayed.
Remembering the battle
And way the battle has been interpreted is changing. Older, entrenched views are being challenged, often in light of new archival and archaeological evidence.
The battlefield itself, which played a large part in the Jacobites’ defeat, wasn’t, as has often been claimed, chosen by Charles and his adjutant and quartermaster general, John O’Sullivan against the advice of Lord George Murray, the Jacobite general. Instead, it was where Charles’s army had no option but to fight, being surprised on the morning of 16 April by the approaching government troops after returning from an unsuccessful night foray against Cumberland’s camp.
As historians such as Murray Pittock and Jacqueline Riding have pointed out, this wan’t a fight between government redcoats using muskets and Jacobite Highlanders armed with sword and targe, as contemporary and later images (see above) imply. The Jacobite army was by now made up of Lowland Scots, some English volunteers, and French and Irish professional soldiers as well as Highland clansmen. And, as has often been pointed out, there were Highland and Lowland soldiers in the British army.
Prince Charles’s men had been well drilled in the months of the campaign and were themselves armed with muskets. And archaeological evidence has found more shot fired by the Jacobite side than by the government troops.
These are just some examples of the myths told and retold, often unquestioningly. It’s worth thinking why “Culloden has been so systematically misremembered as a battle” over the past 275 years, to use Murray Pittock’s words. It’s not hard to understand that the victors wrote history to belittle their defeated enemies. A rabble of kilted primitives led by an incompetent and effeminate ‘pretended Prince of Wales’ could never have conquered the well-armed and disciplined British troops; the Jacobites were no threat, an irrelevance, they implied (though at the same time we know that the government in London took the Jacobite challenge very seriously). Progress and civilisation (preferably British, of course) were inevitable.
Another, more insidious, reason for portraying the Jacobites as alien-looking, badly-armed savages with questionable loyalties who preferred outdated ways of life to progress, order and the British way of life emerges, though; othering them.
These were tribal, uncivilised people who dressed outlandishly, spoke a foreign tongue and opposed British rule (and on British soil, too!); so they could – should – be treated like rebellious natives in the colonies. And, by extension, just as the Jacobite savages were conquered, tamed and put to good use in the ranks of the British army, so could the primitive people of other countries.
Once safely neutralised, the Jacobites were romanticised. The Bonnie Prince and his childlike, yet warlike, Highlanders swirled through the mists of the late 18th century and well into the 20th, peaking in the 19th with Balmoral, tartan and tourism.
Culloden is the third-biggest tourist attraction in Scotland. In 2019, the visitor centre had 209,011 visits, with about the same number going to the battlefield alone. It has a place in the memories of people around the world, with its “special sense of place” and the connection many feel with the dead who fell there.
Books and films have helped, of course; the publication of John Prebble’s Culloden in 1961 and Peter Watkins’s 1963 film of the same name, based largely on the book, repeated some of the myths we’ve looked at. But they raised awareness of the battle and the site and drew more people to see it. The National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which owns and runs what we think of now as the battle site, rebuilt its visitor centre several times to meet both the rising demand and the need for (changing) interpretations of Culloden. They also oversee the changing appearance of the land, which was partly planted with trees within living memory, and hope to restore it to something nearer the moor of 1746. And they look after the well-known memorial cairn and ‘clan’ graves.
In recent years, the NTS has been struggling to meet visitor demand. The popularity of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books and the TV series of the same name have caused a surge in the number of people going to Culloden (while, unfortunately, popularising some of the myths about the 1745 Rising; but they’re fiction, after all). The Fraser clan grave had to be fenced off to stop the ground around it being worn away by Outlander fans.
And it’s not just books and films which draw people. Many believe they have ancestors who fought at the battle; others want to pay their respects to the fallen who lie buried all over the battlefield; and, for some, the battle is still a part of almost living memory, stories passed down through the generations about it.
But Covid restrictions brought a stop to visitors to the centre and drastically cut the number walking around the site. This is a blow for NTS income, but has given the moor a chance to recover. And it may also give the pause and reassessment needed to knit together the academic research, conservation and money-raising tourism that the battlefield – and by extension the memory of Culloden – needs.
Since 1926, and every year until the pandemic, the Gaelic Society of Inverness has held a commemoration service at the cairn on the Saturday nearest the anniversary of the battle. This year, together with the NTS, it’s taking the service online, together with a series of talks and an afternoon conference about the future of the battle site. Culloden 275 takes place on Saturday, 17 April and there may still be tickets left.
The need for a clear vision for the future of Culloden is urgent. It’s not widely known that the NTS only owns about a third of the area of the 1746 battlefield and, with pressure rising for housing in the Inverness area, developers have been applying for permission to build on land which was fought on 275 years ago. In some cases, this includes where the fallen were buried. The latest planning application was only rejected in February this year; and it’s going to be appealed.
On the day of the 275th anniversary, the NTS issued a manifesto calling “for battlefield landscapes to be afforded the same protections as other historic sites”. It has also asked members of the Scottish Parliament to support Culloden’s application for UNESCO Word Heritage Site status. Let’s hope that these moves help Culloden to be remembered, with respect, for many more years.
Frances Owen is editor of Historia. She has studied the Jacobite movement for a number of years and worked on a BBC Scotland series about Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s escape after Culloden. She is the co-author of A Rebel Hand: Nicholas Delaney of 1798. Frances is one of the judges for the 2021 HWA Gold Crown Awards.
Christopher Duffy: Fight for a Throne: The Jacobite ’45 Reconsidered (2015)
Frank McLynn: Charles Edward Stuart (1988)
Murray Pittock: Culloden (2016)
Tony Pollard (ed): Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle (2009)
Diana Preston: The Road to Culloden Moor (1995)
Jacqueline Riding: Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion (2017)
Easily accessible online:
10 things you (probably) didn’t know about Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites
The Battle of Culloden – new research dispels three long-held myths
University of Glasgow video about Murray Pittock’s Culloden
National Trust for Scotland video Battle of Culloden: the Jacobites’ last stand
Photo of Culloden Moor by Herbert Frank: via Flickr
The Battle of Culloden April 16 1746, coloured line engraving by Luke Sullivan after A Heckel: National Army Museum
The Battle of Culloden by David Morier, 1746: via Wikimedia
Sawney in the Bog-house, anti-Highlander print, 1745: © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Photo of ‘clan’ grave on Culloden battlefield by Herbert Frank: via Flickr
People attending the 2019 anniversary service: with thanks to the Gaelic Society of Inverness