An often misunderstood battle that changed Scotland

The battle of Culloden, which took place on the 16th April 1746 was possibly the most significant event in Scottish history. It was certainly the beginning of the end for the Highland way of life, and it set the scene for the destruction of the clan structure and for the awful clearances that were to follow.

It finally brought to an end the last vestiges of paternalism felt by the clan chiefs, many of whom were now weighed down with aristocratic titles and ideas of southern royal court grandeur. It ushered in the rise of the landed gentry-cum-chiefs who saw the clansmen, their kinsmen and distant blood relatives, as a financial drain on their estates, and they were quick to replace them with sheep. Such displacement of the clansmen was accomplished with a dreadful brutality and callousness, and a total disregard for the ancient bonds of blood and loyalty. 

It was in effect the culmination of the concept of Enclosure which had begun in earnest in England during the 18th century. This entailed the enclosing of common land and pasture by private landowners for their own benefit and the ejection of the small peasantry from the land. The process of enclosure was often accomplished by force and was in turn met with bloody resistance by the peasants, but to no avail. It has been said that an impetus for this sudden upsurge in Enclosure was to force the peasantry into the towns and cities, so as to provide a plentiful  and cheap workforce, to meet the growing labour demands of the Industrial Revolution.

At this time the movement also enclosed a large proportion of the common pastures in the lowlands of Scotland, restricting commons to rough pasture in mountainous areas and in relatively small parts of the lowlands. This was the beginning of the Lowland Clearances, that almost forgotten episode of misery and despair in Scottish history that preceded the infamous Highland Clearances.

The cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie was almost lost before it even began. The French fleet along with its French troops that had been assembled to assist him, was wrecked in port by foul weather. The two ships that came with him to Scotland were intercepted and attacked by a British warship. As a consequence, the one carrying arms and ammunition was so badly damaged that it had to limp back to France. Despite all these bad omens Prince Charles pressed ahead and raised his standard at Glenfinnan, to the less than enthusiastic support of his sympathisers, and the bulk of the Highland Clans. He was actually advised to go away again.

Glenfinnan - on a cold and brooding day

The reality of the situation was that a United Kingdom would never willingly accept a Catholic monarchy, certainly not one which had the means to perpetuate itself, and the Stewarts were a fertile breed indeed. King George was English speaking, unlike his father, and was a popular monarch. 

After beheading a Stewart king over the division of power in the United Kingdom, Parliament would not stand for the imposition of divine rule - which is how the Stewarts viewed the institution of monarchy. The country had thankfully moved on from the concept of kings ruling by a divine right from God. It was a country on the cusp of Empire and greatness. It was a country that had abolished the evil of slavery a decade or so before, and was embracing the birth of a new age.

A Jacobite victory in 1746 would have possibly led to another all engulfing civil war. A civil conflict just as ruinous and damaging as the one that occurred a hundred years before, and one which would have seen foreign armies in action on British soil. In retrospect it would have also strangled the British Empire at birth and the history of the world would have been very different indeed.

Click here for pictures of the Culloden battlefield

The Highlanders were loyal to their chiefs and so followed the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie but they were also recruited by threat and intimidation by their Clan Chiefs. The Clans that rose were swayed by a sense of old loyalty for the Stewart/Stuart monarchy. To the Stewarts, the loyal Highlanders were merely a useful tool which they could use to re-establish themselves as the crowned heads of a United Kingdom.

A victorious Stewart monarch would not have sat on a throne in Scotland. Like all other Scottish monarchs of a United Kingdom since 1603, he would have headed straight to London and become comfortably settled in the foppish ways of the southern royal court, once again ruling Scotland by decree.

The Manchester Regiment

On the retreat out of England, the Manchester Regiment (English Jacobite volunteers) that the Prince had raised as he crossed the border on his way south, were left to defend Carlisle Castle. This was an impossible task given the circumstances. Twenty four officers and men of this formation who were taken prisoner were later hanged for treason, the largest amount of men from any single regiment. So much for the concern the gallant Prince had for those who elected to follow him.

The Manchester Regiment should have retreated into Scotland with the rest of the Jacobite army as Carlisle was a lost cause by then. It was their Colonel, Francis Towneley who insisted on remaining with his regiment in Carlisle, it was a de-facto act of suicide in which his men were included.

The resounding defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden was not seen as a disaster by all Scotsmen. Indeed, the Protestant Kirk and the English-speaking Lowlanders had much to gain from the final destruction of the Jacobite cause. As did the men of Clan Campbell, who aided and abetted 'Butcher' Cumberland and his forces, in his terror of the Highlands in the weeks following the battle.

The ragged retreat of the decimated Jacobite forces from Culloden

Perhaps the most shameful episode of Culloden was Bonnie Prince Charlie fleeing from the field of battle, where he had remained far to the rear surrounded by a French cavalry escort. His parting words were that the remnants of his army should 'fend for themselves'. As he fled the field in great haste, he had the stinging words of Lord Elcho, who commanded his Life Guards, ringing in his ears - ''Run, you cowardly Italian!'' - Bonnie Prince Charlie had been born and raised in Italy and spoke Italian as his first language. His English was passable and he spoke no Gaelic.

Bonnie Prince Charlie managed to evade capture by the Hanoverian forces and was able to flee back to France. He took solace in numerous love affairs and heavy drinking. The Pope had recognized his father James III/VIII as the legitimate King of England, Scotland and Ireland but upon James's death in 1766, he did not extend such recognition to his son.

The Prince thereafter relocated to Rome and then to Florence in 1774, where he used the title Count of Albany as an alias. He eventually returned to Rome where he died on the 31st January 1788. His body now rests in St. Peters Basilica in the Vatican, along with those of his brother and father.

Drummossie Moor - Culloden - A lonely and haunting place

The death of the clan and the Gael

The Lowland Scots saw many colonial and trade opportunities to be had from a United Kingdom with a stable government, and they were to be a major driving force behind colonial expansion and the building of the British Empire over the next century.  

Lowland sheep farmers at the behest of certain clan chiefs and the notorious Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, were also to be a major driving force behind the expulsion of the Gael from the Highlands over the coming decades. Their brutality will long live in the memory of the Gael.

Culloden lead directly to the blotting out of Gaelic culture and the Gaelic language in the Highlands. The later forced removals of the population to the coastal fringe, the metropolitan cities of the Lowlands and to the colonies, ensured that there would be no rebellious revivals in Scotland. It is only in recent times that Scots have developed a true sense of self once again, with the political rise of the Scottish National Party, and their avowed aim of full independence from the UK.

Perhaps the most shocking consequence of Culloden was the rapid collapse of the ancient clan system. A system destroyed by the clan chiefs themselves so they could grow rich on meat and wool. Clan chiefs at a stroke became aristocratic land owners, whilst at the same time, the ordinary clansmen were betrayed and cast into homelessness, poverty, starvation and emigration.

The real tragedy is that many of the clans did not rally to the lost cause of the Stewarts in 1745, but the rebellion ensured that they too suffered the brutal consequences of its defeat. The Stewarts were a ticking timebomb for the Highlanders, and when the final explosion came they were utterly consumed by the ensuing maelstrom.

An interesting point here is that those chiefs who managed to escape to France, still sent agents to collect rents from their impoverished clansmen, even though their lands had been made forfeit. The callous arrogance and cheek of these clan chiefs is absolutely astounding.

If the rising of 1745 had never happened, it is very likely that Gaelic culture and the Highland way of life would have survived in one form or another. There would have been no banning of the Gaelic language or of the tartan but Enclosure would have eventually happened, just as it did elsewhere in Great Britain.

Not all Jacobites were Scots

As a post script to all this - those unfortunate English recruits in the Manchester Regiment taken prisoner at Carlisle suffered a dreadful incarceration. By Lot, a selection were taken to stand trial for being a part of the rebellion. The sentence they received was horrific in the extreme. Their punishment was to be that of being Hung, Drawn and Quartered. This sanction for treason was not withdrawn from the statute books until 1814, a remarkably late date for such a barbaric form of state retribution for miscreants. This is what the Judge decreed should be the fate of the Jacobite volunteers of the Manchester Regiment.

" Let the several prisoners return to the gaol from whence they came; and from thence they must be drawn to the place of execution; and when they come there they must be severally hanged by the neck, but not till they be dead, for thy must be cut down alive; then their bowels must be taken out and burned before their faces; then their heads must be severed from their bodies, and their bodies severally divided into four quarters; and these must be at the King's disposal."

Hung, Drawn and Quartered
 The dreadful fate of some of the Manchester Regiment

The 1745 Rising was never a war between the Scots and the English, as there were Scots and English in both armies. It was about which monarch would sit on the throne of a United Kingdom in London. Neither contender for the crown cared very much for the common man of either nation, except that they were useful cannon and bayonet fodder for their dynastic ambitions.

No romance in war 

There is no romance about Culloden for there is never anything romantic about the reality of death in battle, especially a battle fought in earlier centuries. Round shot and Grape inflicted terrible injuries as did the Musket, Bayonet and Broadsword. Medical care for the wounded was basic and minimal, and a wound, even a minor one, was often fatal. The soldiers of King George's army were often brutalised. Discipline was harsh and floggings and hangings were common. Food was in short supply and often rancid. Conditions were better in the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie, at least in terms of discipline, but still a world away from what a soldier would expect today. 

Inexperience, pig-headedness and poor leadership by the young Stewart Prince lead to the crushing defeat at Culloden. Lord George Murray advised against standing at Culloden, a place not suited to the mostly Highland army and to the famous Highland Charge. He was over-ruled and his great military experience was ignored by the Bonnie Prince. The rest sadly, is now history. 

For those wishing to delve more deeply into Culloden and its aftermath, we would heartily recommend reading 'Culloden' by John Prebble. It is possibly the most objective book of its kind.


Battlefield Britain - Culloden - The making of the programme

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ęCopyright - James of Glencarr