History Comes to Life
You may have heard references to the Battle at Culloden your whole life, or just recently learned about it through Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books and tv series. If it’s the former, you very likely have Scots blood. If it’s the latter, welcome to our world! It is a fact that the Outlander books and television series have dramatically increased tourism in Scotland, especially to locations like Culloden that were prominently featured.
The Battle of Culloden was fought here on Drummossie Moor on April 16, 1746, between the Jacobite supporters of the Stuarts, and British forces supporting the Hanoverian King George. In less than an hour, 1,600 men were killed. Of those roughly 1,500 were Jacobites.
It was a bright clear day in September when we arrived at the battlefield. Getting there from Inverness is relatively straightforward. There are regular bus runs, many tours that include this as a stop, and it is close enough to Inverness to take a cab. While there is a fee to tour the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre, the battlefield itself is free to anybody who wants to visit.
Tip: The Clava Cairns and Standing Stones are very nearby. If you want to visit them as well you may want to plan both sites for the same day.
Culloden may evoke romantic imagery or sorrowful thoughts of the events that occurred in these fields. When we arrived, my mood was somber. I was there to learn more about the history and honor those who lived and died here. This writing is focused on our experiences during this visit.
Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre
The National Trust for Scotland has an excellent visitor centre with artifacts, displays, films, audio, and frequent reenactments and presentations. I strongly recommend taking the time to go through the visitor centre. The whole Culloden story is told in an innovative and interactive way. While in the visitor centre, we saw 3-D text projected on glass screens, read original letters that were written in Charles Edward Stuart’s own hand, listened to immersive sound in exhibits, saw regalia from the battle within glass cases and finally, watched a brutal re-enactment video which was projected all around us. There’s even a GPS enabled audio tour. It’s also a great place to wait out a rain shower, browse the gift shop, or have a cup of tea and a bite of lunch.
The whole experience was designed to provide the perspectives of both sides of the battle, with the same timeline providing insights from across the battle lines. You can walk in the front doors not knowing anything about Culloden, but giving the exhibits the time they deserve, you’ll leave with a much deeper understanding of the battle itself, as well as the political, military, and civilian climates of that time.
Jacobite blue and Government red flags are positioned across the battlefield itself, marking the troop positions. Paths are laid out with small benches, information boards, markers, maps, and descriptive text along the way.
It’s not unusual to see a bagpiper at Culloden Battlefield today, but after the Battle of Culloden, pipers were considered guilty by association. As the Government saw it, no Highland regiment would have marched without a piper and some even considered the bagpipes an instrument of war.
The first thing I noticed when we arrived at the battlefield was the stone wall leading up to the visitor centre entrance. Culloden is spelled out in both English and the Gaelic. Between these spellings, bright red and blue lines are placed, to signify the battle lines of the Government and Jacobite troops.
Just next to the Culloden sign is the saying, again in both languages, “Our blood is still our fathers, And ours the valour of their hearts…”
Another wall made of Caithness slate runs down the side of the centre itself. This wall was created to represent the men who lost their lives here in 1746. As you look down the length of the wall, you can see some wall stones protrude from the smooth surface. Fifty stones represent the Government men recorded as fallen at Culloden. There is a smooth break and then a section of wall with 1,500 stones extending from it, representing the Jacobite lives lost in the battle.
The Well of the Dead
A plaque by the Well reads, “Here died Alasdair MacGillivray of Dunmaglass, Commander of the Clan Chattan regiment, with many other Jacobite troops.”
The body of Alexander MacGillivray of Dunmaglass, the leader of Clan Chattan, was found here. Alexander MacGillivray led his men on such a ferocious charge that he broke through the first line of defense of Cumberland’s army before being killed.
Once we made our way through the visitor centre, we ventured out to the fields. There were a few footpaths that ran alongside the battle lines held by both sides. Stone markers, carved with sparse details, indicate the locations of the mass graves and burial sites of the fallen.
It’s important to note that many more clans than those inscribed on the stones joined the ranks of Bonnie Prince Charlie. In addition to the Scottish clans, there were French and Irish Brigade soldiers.
The markers on the battlefield were put in place in 1881, some 130 years after the battle. This entire site is a war grave. Wherever you stand could be the site of a death or burial.
The stones were placed to commemorate the clans and government troops graves but are largely symbolic rather than actually marking a designated site for a particular clan burial.
Another stone refers to the “English” dead. Many in the Duke of Cumberland’s army were actually Lowland Scots. This rising was, after all, a Civil War. In fact, the Government army was not an English Army, it was made of men from Scotland, Wales, and England, so was a British Army.
Erected in 1881, the Memorial Cairn is the largest monument on Culloden Battlefield and is situated approximately halfway between the Jacobite and Government lines.
The inscription on the cairn reads, “The Battle of Culloden was fought on this moor, 16th April 1746. The graves of the gallant Highlanders who fought for Scotland & Prince Charlie are marked by the names of their clans.”
Old Leanach Cottage stands on the grounds of Culloden Battlefield in the highlands of Scotland, near Inverness. It is believed to have been built in the early 1700s century, meaning it was there and likely played a part in the 1746 Battle of Culloden.
Maps dating from the mid-1700s show the existence of a house with two outbuildings at approximately the same location of Leanach Cottage. The first available map is Finlayson’s map from 1746, which was meant to illustrate the movement of the armies during the battle of Culloden and therefore fails to mention the name of the building. General William Roy’s Map from 1747-55 shows several structures in this area, among them one called “Little Lionach,” which was situated in the same place as Old Leanach Cottage.
A plaque near the cottage reads, “16 April 1746, Leanach Cottage – After charging, the Jacobites clashed fiercely with the government’s left wing. The government second line moved around the buildings here in support, forcing the Jacobites to retreat.”
The cottage that stands here now was built on the site of farm buildings shown on almost every contemporary battle map of Culloden. A cannonball is said to have been recovered from the turf wall of the building more than a hundred years ago.
In the years following the Battle of Culloden, many Highlanders were hunted down, killed, lost lands and titles, and were transported to the colonies, or left of their own accord to start a new life free from persecution. Being of Scottish descent, experiencing Culloden Battlefield made an indelible, emotional impression on us.
The following quote has always rung true to me, but even more so while at Culloden.
“The mark of a Scot of all classes [is that] he … remembers and cherishes the memory of his forebears, good or bad; and there burns alive in him a sense of identity with the dead even to the twentieth generation.” – Robert Louis Stevenson