Culloden Battlefield marks the site of the Battle of Culloden, a huge defeat for the Jacobites in their 1745 rebellion against the government armies. A significant number of Scottish tribes were involved in the conflict on one side or the other, so if you have any Scottish blood, the odds are that someone from your clan was on the battlefield that day.
Let’s start with a brief history lesson. The Stuart royal line which had ruled Scotland since the 14th century were exiled in 1688 but retained many supporters within Scotland from folk who resented England’s interference with the line of succession. The name ‘Jacobite’ comes from James II and VII (II of England, VII of Scotland), the first exiled king. The Battle of Culloden was the final battle in the second Jacobite uprising, the rebellion undertaken by James’ grandson Charles Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. It took place on 16 April 1746 and was a terrible defeat for the Jacobite troops.
The Highland army’s charge was over boggy terrain under constant fire from the government army’s muskets. The left flank had boggier ground to cover and made much slower progress than the right, skewing the Jacobite front lines. Some of the Jacobites made it to the government front lines and fought fiercely, but it was not enough to break the government lines. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Jacobites were killed in a battle that lasted barely an hour. By contrast the government forces lost less than 300 men. Bonnie Prince Charlie managed to escape the battlefield and flee back to France. As well as being a bloody defeat for the Jacobite cause, the defeat at Culloden marked the death throes of the clan system in Scotland, for clans on both sides of the battle.
Got all that? Good. There’s not much point visiting the site without a bit of background, although there are plenty of information points scattered around that will give you details on the battle. The site itself is basically a field, with grave markers where various clans are buried and flags that mark where the government and Jacobite front lines would have been. The terrain is drier than it would have been at the time as the bog has been drained since 1746, but the caretakers are trying to get it to revert back to how it would have been at the time of the battle.
The entrance to the site is near the government front lines so it doesn’t drop you right in the deep end of morbidity. This is a good spot to read up a bit on the background of the battle if you don’t know much about it, and if you like, climb to the top of the visitors’ center to get a view of the whole battlefield. There are markers showing where various clans on the government side would have been situated on the front lines.
As you move towards the Jacobite front lines you’ll find a series of grave markers and a monument to the dead highlanders. The dead were all buried in mass graves, but most of them were grouped so that they were buried with their clan. Some of the markers are for ‘unknown’ but most have their clan name engraved so you can find your clan’s marker if you know the right name.
I find the spot where the Atholl Highlanders are buried near the main monument. I had read about the division of the Murray clan during this conflict on my visit to Blair Castle. James, the 2nd Duke of Atholl was a government loyalist but his brother Lord George Murray and most of the Atholl Highlanders fought for the Jacobite cause. It’s so easy to read statements like that while you’re standing in a nice castle and not think too much about the deaths that are involved. History has a habit of turning horrific events into statistics and dry words on a page. It’s quite sobering to stand at the place where so many of them would have died and be confronted with the reality of it all.
Once you get to the Jacobite lines you’ll find a series of markers for where various clans would have stood on the front lines and how many men they brought to the cause. Again, it’s interesting to find where your clan would have been. There’s also a lot of information points that go into the details of the battle. Not the politics and statistics of it but descriptions of the conditions, where the Jacobites were fired on, the rates they were dying at, the desperation on the front lines. They were charging through a bog under constant fire with their friends dying rapidly around them. It’s a hellish picture but really shows you how bloody the battle was that was fought there so many years ago. I feel immensely sorry for the men who died here and slightly bitter towards Bonnie Prince Charlie who got them all into such a horrible mess and then got to run away back to France when it all went awry.
I’m really glad that I made the trip to Culloden. It’s a sombre place, and is probably more interesting if you have family ties with the fallen, but it’s definitely worth a visit if you want a picture of what the battle would have been like or just want to pay your respects. It’s easy to read about what happened, but it’s so different actually being there, seeing the terrain, knowing that you’re standing right where the bloody battle took place.
LIstening to: Hells Ditch – The Pogues