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Issue 42 - Duke of Cumberland and the ‘45

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008


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Duke of Cumberland and the ‘45

James Irvine Robertson looks at the legacy of ‘Butcher' Cumberland and the Rising of 1745.

History is written by winners but, just occasionally, the losers can provide posterity with such a remarkably good story that the point of view of the victors can be obscured.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this in Scottish – and British – history is the ‘45 Rising and the Battle of Culloden where, the story goes, the gallant Highlanders fighting for the freedom of Scotland and led by Bonnie Prince Charlie were beaten by English redcoats and this led to the brutal destruction of the culture of the Gael. It is a wonderful, tragic tale that rings down the centuries and is one of the defining myths of the nation.

But turn over the coin and look at it another way. Look at it in the usual way, the winner’s way. Prince Charles Edward was a Stuart, a Roman Catholic. He believed in the divine right of kings and he was after the British throne. The Civil War of the 1640s was fought to place the authority of parliament above that of the sovereign. This dreadful conflict cost the lives of 20 per cent of the people of Ireland, six per cent of Scots and nearly four per cent of the English. Compare it to the American Civil War which claimed the lives of less than two per cent of the population.

A generation later in 1688, it looked as though the dictatorial power of Catholic Stuart monarchs might be re-imposed. In response, the parliaments of both Scotland and England endorsed the abdication of Prince Charles’s grandfather, King James VII of Scotland and II of Great Britain, and accepted the Protestant William of Orange, who was married to James’s daughter Mary, as their monarch. He was followed by Mary’s sister Queen Anne. On her death in 1714, George of Hanover, Anne’s closest Protestant relative and a descendant of James VI of Scotland and I of England through his daughter Elizabeth, was granted the throne.

But the senior Royal line of the Stuarts would not go away. The threat of its return became a shadow over the first half of the 18th century when Britain was involved in a titanic struggle against France, the most powerful state in Europe. Its monarchs sheltered, financed and encouraged the Stuart pretenders. Louis XIV and his successors knew that Britain could not commit all of its forces in war with France with the ever-present possibility of a Stuart arriving in Britain with French troops to challenge the Protestant succession.

In 1708, a French invasion fleet was within a few miles of Edinburgh before its admiral lost his nerve and his ships turned back. And in 1715 and 1719, the threat actually materialised. Arguably the Rising of 1715, when discontent with the Union of 1707 was at its height, had the support of the majority of Scots but otherwise only a minority ever wanted the Stuarts to return.

But return they did in the guise of Prince Charles Edward in 1745. By then the French had realised that the Stuarts and their chances of success at regaining the throne were not worth taking seriously, and Charles embarked for Britain without French support and without his father’s knowledge. He promised his supporters that a French army would join them, but it did not. He promised substantial support from Jacobites in England, but they never showed up, even when he was within a few days’ march of London. His Rising would have amounted to nothing had he not persuaded some of the Scottish clans to join him. He set up his standard in the Highlands, for the good reason that this was the only place in Great Britain that could provide him with an army.

The Highlands held a culture not dissimilar from the wilder regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan today. Warlords – clan chiefs – were in charge, with every man trained in the use of broadsword and musket rather than the modern Kalashnikov.

Charles’s army was defeated on Culloden Moor in the far reaches of the kingdom by a British army containing Highland clan contingents and Lowland Scots regiments, as well as English soldiers.

The Duke of Cumberland, third son of George II and the man on the spot, had the authority that comes from being 10 days away from communication with London. It was far from obvious that Culloden marked the end of the Rising and he was determined to stamp out the rebellion, and ensure that no future army could erupt from the Highlands to threaten the stability of the entire nation.

He did not go about it gently and history has awarded him considerable opprobrium for his methods. Many innocents suffered.

But modern times show that innocents always suffer in such circumstances.

Campaigns of pacification in our own age are little more gentle than that carried out by Cumberland and, unlike most modern attempts to ‘civilise’ recalcitrant peoples, his was entirely successful. His brutal suppression was followed by the proscriptive laws that curbed the power of the Highland chiefs and banned weaponry and the outward manifestations of the culture of the Gael. The legal ownership of land thereafter was vested in the chief providing that he supported the status quo.

The people became tenants, their duchas – their unwritten right to occupy and farm the land of their ancestors – became irrelevant. It brought the Highland population into step with the rest of the nation.

And the long term result? Highland culture was already under pressure before the ’45. The economic and agricultural developments that removed the land rights of so many peasant farmers in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe were already sweeping the Highlands. Even without the Rising, the decline of clan society was inevitable and, one suspects, that had the Rising not taken place, it might even have become little more than a quaint footnote of history.

But its spectacular death allowed it to enter legend. Within a couple of generations, the trappings of an extinct Highland culture had come to represent the whole nation. Go anywhere in the world today and people will know of Robert Burns, but otherwise Scotland means kilts, bagpipes, hills and heather. It could be argued that this final triumph of the Gael is thanks to the Duke of Cumberland, his victory at Culloden and the extraordinary romantic story that has been bequeathed to us.