In 1688, in an act that was immediately hailed as a ‘Glorious Revolution’, Parliament and the overwhelmingly Protestant political nation deposed the Roman Catholic King James II. His arbitrary actions and fostering of a powerful standing army had appeared to presage the establishment of an absolute Catholic monarchy.
James’s Protestant daughters from his first marriage, Mary and Anne, reigned after him. But when Anne died in 1714 leaving no heirs, Parliament replaced the Stuart dynasty with their German cousins, the Hanoverians. The claims of James II’s Catholic son, James Francis Edward, the so-called ‘Old Pretender’, were ignored.
In 1708, 1715 and 1719, with either French or Spanish backing, the Old Pretender had attempted to raise the standard of revolt in Scotland, the home of his forefathers. But despite its continued unpopularity, by 1745 the Hanoverian dynasty appeared secure. Initially there was little alarm at the news that the Old Pretender’s son Prince Charles Edward, the ‘Young Pretender’, had landed in Scotland with a handful of followers and was gathering support amongst the highland clans. This changed rapidly when Charles Edward’s highland army defeated government troops at Prestonpans in September, occupied Edinburgh, and then in November entered England.
The 5,000-strong highland army marched as far south as Derby. However, it failed to gather English support and was confronted by converging armies made up of troops recalled from the British army fighting the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) on the continent. On 5 December it began to retreat back to Scotland.
After receiving French reinforcements the highlanders defeated the first government army sent against them at Falkirk (17 January 1746). But by the time the highland army was confronted by the Duke of Cumberland’s forces on Culloden Moor on 16 April, it was dispirited, poorly supplied and suffering heavy desertion.
Prince Charles Edward (1720-88), born and brought up in Italy, possessed virtually no military experience before arriving in Scotland. However, his army’s early victories convinced him that the ‘highland charge’, with broadsword in hand, was irresistible. In this he was at loggerheads with the best of his subordinate commanders, Lord George Murray, who knew better.
The highland army mustered only 5,000 men at Culloden; some 2,000 were on operations elsewhere. Its mounted arm was very weak and the motley collection of 12 cannon available was of different calibres and poorly served.
The British commander, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721-65), an enthusiastic soldier from a young age and known as the ‘martial boy’, was already Captain General of the British Army. He was considered an incipient military genius largely because of his bold conduct at Fontenoy a year before, a notable but glorious defeat at the hands of the French.
A strict disciplinarian, Cumberland restored the confidence of the army defeated by the highlanders at Falkirk, introducing a new bayonet drill to combat their use of sword and target (a small shield). His 9,000 men constituted a well-balanced force of horse and foot, supported by ten 3-pounder cannon and six mortars.
The highland army had attempted to launch a surprise attack the night before the battle, but delayed by men straggling in the search for food, it had not reached Cumberland’s camp by daybreak. It retreated to a field of battle five miles east of Inverness, Culloden Moor.
The battlefield was ill-chosen, as it afforded a clear field of fire to Cumberland’s artillery. The highlanders were cannonaded for nearly half an hour without effective reply. Orders to attack passed slowly down the highland army’s chaotic chain of command, but eventually the highlanders were unleashed and they charged across the 350 yards (320m) of ground separating them from the enemy.
On the left the MacDonalds never reached the British line, whereas the large highland regiment on the right, Clan Chattan, smashed into Barrell’s 4th and Munro’s 37th Foot with great force. They were repulsed after fierce hand-to-hand combat, only a few highlanders fighting their way through to make an unavailing attack on Cumberland’s second line.
At this point the cavalry of Cobham’s and Lord Mark Kerr’s regiments of dragoons and Kingston’s Light Horse began to work their way around the highlanders’ flanks, converting defeat into a rout. The pursuit extended all the way to Inverness: the actual fighting had lasted less than an hour.
The casualties of Cumberland’s army were 50 dead and 259 wounded. Prince Charles Edward’s army lost between 1,000 and 1,500 killed. There were few wounded, as Cumberland had drawn attention to captured orders of the enemy which suggested that they did not intend taking prisoners (the authenticity of these orders is disputed) and his men had taken the hint. Although the Young Pretender escaped the battlefield and, after many adventures, reached France, the Stuart cause was ruined forever.
Cumberland’s men harried the highlands, burning homes and driving off cattle. The British government determined to destroy the highland way of life, forbidding the wearing of highland dress, the carrying of weapons and passing laws against the clan system.
Cumberland himself, initially fêted for his victory (the flower ‘Sweet William’ was named after him, and Handel composed the oratorio ‘Judas Maccabeus’ in his honour), eventually saw the public mood turn against him. The excesses of his troops earned him the lasting nickname ‘The Butcher’. He never won another battle and resigned his command a few years later.
By restricting French interference at home, Culloden paved the way for global expansion. It also safeguarded the succession of the Protestant House of Hanover, ancestors of the present Queen. Culloden also united the nation in such a way that, nearly 270 years later, it is still the last battle to have been fought on British soil.
Only ten years after Culloden, highlanders were recruited in large numbers into the British Army to fight in Germany and North America. Although the harsh measures employed against the highlands culminated in the Clearances, by the time Sir Walter Scott was writing in the early 19th century, highland derring-do had become cloaked in romantic legend. King George IV, and later Queen Victoria, gave the royal seal of approval to all things emanating from the highlands of Scotland.
Today the battlefield of Culloden, preserved by the National Trust for Scotland, is a place of pilgrimage. The publication of John Prebble’s best-seller ‘Culloden’ (1961) led to an upsurge of interest, at the same time exploding the myth of Bonnie Prince Charlie. It reproached him for his lack of concern for the men of the highlands who sacrificed so much for him.
The Battle of Culloden was never one of England against Scotland. Taking into account the loyal clans, the regiments raised in support of the government in Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as the Scottish regiments of the British Army (three of which, the 1st, 21st and 25th Foot, fought at Culloden), ultimately there were more Scots in arms against Prince Charles Edward than there were for him.