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Issue 12 - A bloody end to an uprising

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


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A bloody end to an uprising

Culloden stands out as a defining moment in Scottish history. James Irvine Robertson looks back

There have been far bloodier battlefields than the nondescript stretch of moorland a few miles east of Inverness called Culloden.

But stand there amid the flapping banners from where the Highlanders began their final charge towards the immaculate lines of redcoats and even the most hard-boiled is affected by the atmosphere of melancholy and wasted heroism.

Not only brave men died there, but one of the richest and most ancient cultures of Europe.

The Rising of 1745 came about when Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of the last Stuart king of Great Britain, landed in the western Highlands in July to raise an army to reclaim what he saw as his rightful throne.

About half the clans joined him because their honour demanded it. Their forbears had been fighting for his family, off and on, for a century. But to most Scots Charles and his alarming, tartan-clad savages were anachronisms.

The Industrial Revolution was stirring; the foundations of parliamentary democracy were being forged and the concept of returning to an absolute, Catholic monarchy was absurd.

Charles’s army came within 150 miles of the capital before the authorities organised themselves to counter it.

Prince Charles’s cousin, the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II and an experienced general, was given overall command of some 10 times the number of troops as the rebels. The ultimate result was never in doubt but not until the 16th April 1746 did the redcoats finally confront the rebels in the last battle to be fought on British soil.

By then morale had all but collapsed amongst the Prince’s followers. They had been retreating for four months; the men were starving and their generals were arguing.

The site chosen by them for the battle perfectly suited the redcoats rather than the Highlanders - flat with clear fields of fire for musket and artillery. The moorland was also rough and boggy which would hamper the charge which was the rebels most potent weapon.

The government had an army of 9,000 men. They had marched leisurely up the east coast amply supplied by the Royal Navy which had shadowed their advance and now had a view of the battlefield from the waters of the Moray Firth, a couple of miles to the north.

The rebels could only muster half that number. Most were without sleep having marched all night across country in an abortive attempt to surprise their enemy in camp before dawn.

Many of the Highlanders stumbling back across the tussocks and heather collapsed exhausted in the lea of walls and barns and were sometimes bayoneted by the redcoats later in the day whilst still asleep. So the men were cold, tired and hungry.

The common feeling seems to have been a desire just to get the whole business over. The Rising had surely failed. After the battle they would either be dead or could go home.

Both sides were drawn up by mid-morning about 600 yards apart. Sleety snow was spitting hard from the east into the faces of the Prince’s men who stood in their clan regiments with their chieftains to the fore.

The opening artillery exchanges began in early afternoon, the far superior government cannon quickly silencing the enemy and tearing gaps in the lines of the Highlanders who had never faced such fire.

This initial cannonade may have lasted as little as 10 minutes before the rebels charged. Firing their muskets far beyond range and casting them aside, the men unsheathed their claymores and sped for the lines of redcoats whose white leggings were visible beneath the powder smoke.

On the extreme right the attackers were constricted by a wall. On the left they were slowed by soft and marshy ground. The charge became compressed.

The government guns were now transformed into giant shotguns spraying out canister, clusters of lead musket balls which tore great channels through the attackers. Then the infantry began their drilled volleys of musketry.

Perhaps 700 clansmen died in the 90 seconds before the attack drove home on the two regiments on the left of their line. The first rank broke but the second held.

At the other side of the field, the Highlanders were still trying to negotiate the soft ground. They never did contact the enemy. On the right of the Prince’s line, the crush of men still trying to force their way towards the redcoats was now being raked by fire from the flank as well as the front.

Out of the estimate of 2,000 dead on the rebel side the majority died here. Today the massed graves of the clans still describe the tear drop shape of their killing ground.

The battle was over, having lasted half an hour. As the dragoons carved their way up the road to Inverness, the surviving rebels retreated and disbanded the following day.

Culloden was a brutal, inglorious engagement. The aftermath was worse. The Duke of Cumberland unleashed the redcoats to rape, steal and murder their away across the Highlands uncaring of the innocence or guilt of their victims.

Never again would the authorities allow the security of the state to be put at risk by an army which could erupt without warning from the mountains of the north.

The pitiless policy of cultural genocide effectively destroyed the ancient and unique way of life of the Gaels in Scotland. Its most authentic elements were carried to the New World by those transported after the Rising or later emigrations.

Thanks to Culloden many of today’s Highlanders must look to Cape Breton or Nova Scotia for their cultural roots.

1603 James VI of Scotland inherits the throne of England from Elizabeth I.
1688 The Glorious Revolution. The last Stuart king, James VII of Scotland & II of England, abandons the British throne to William of Orange.
1689 The Battle of Killiecrankie. Viscount Dundee leads the first uprising in an attempt to restore James to the throne but Dundee is killed at the moment of victory & the Rising collapses.
1708. James’s son sails to Scotland to exploit the unpopularity of the Treaty of Union which abolished the Scots parliament, but his nerve fails and he never lands.
1715 The first great Rising joined by most Scots which is defeated after the Battle of Sherffmuir.
1719 Battle of Glenshiel. The defeat of another attempted rebellion.
1745 The last Rising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie which ends at Culloden.

Visit: The Visitor Centre at Culloden operated by The National Trust for Scotland near Inverness.
Web: As befits one of the most tragic battles ever fought in Britain, Google brings up more than 97,000 sites on the web devoted to it. is recommended.