Culloden: Crusher of Dreams

As I walked the Battlefield of Culloden in July 1997, passing through the stones that marked the positions of King George’s army and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland Clans, the day was warm and sunny with a gusty breeze blowing the white, broken clouds across a light blue sky. A day in stark difference to the 16th April 1746 when the Jacobites were here, facing sleet and rain driven by a cold north easterly wind.

Ever since Henry VIII’s break from the Church of Rome, 214 years earlier, English Monarchs and the Pope’s champions had engaged in a bloody tug-of-war to decide the religious fates of England, and subsequently Scotland. From Henry’s executions to “Bloody” Mary’s Martyrs (including Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury); from Catesby and Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot to William of Orange’s invitation to depose King James II, the upper echelons of society and clergy sought to dictate the common man’s route to Heaven. It would all be settled on Drumossie Moor, just south of Culloden House, on that cold, miserable April afternoon. The fate of the 3rd Jacobite Rebellion lay in the 500 yards that separated the Young Pretender’s Highland warriors and the Duke of Cumberland’s ranks of red and blue coats.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart (aka the Young Pretender, The Young Chevalier and in retrospect Bonnie Prince Charlie) had left Rome and arrived in Scotland in 1745, determined to restore his father – James Francis Stuart (son of King James II) – as King of England, Scotland and Ireland. His Jacobite army beat King George II’s forces at the Battle of Prestonpans, before heading for England. Carlisle fell after just five days of siege, and his victorious army marched through Lancaster, Preston and Manchester, all the way to Derby. After two days in Derby he realised the extra men he’d been promised – both English Jacobites and troops from the King of France – were not going to materialise, so he was forced to march his army back to Scotland.

Lost Portrait of Charles Edward Stuart.jpg

Charles Edward Stuart, 1745 Source: Wikipedia

In January 1746, it looked like the Bonnie Prince’s luck was about to change as his army once again beat Government forces at the Battle of Falkirk. However, this was to be a short-lived victory, as King George charged his 3rd son, the Duke of Cumberland, to destroy the Jacobite rebels. Cumberland had the advantage of using his time in Aberdeen to train his troops and the several Scottish regiments that fought against the Jacobite’s. It was time well spent, especially as it was to be the first full battle for the newly-formed Royal Regiment of Artillery. In contrast, the Jacobites were not as well prepared. On the eve before the battle the army attempted to make a surprise attack on Cumberland’s camp. This was a badly judged move, as it took longer than anticipated, and as a result the element of surprise was lost and they subsequently had to march back to Culloden, tired and starving.

The Jacobites resting hope was that Cumberland would not advance the next day, but to their ill-fate he did. Understanding Cumberland’s advantage, Prince Charles’ advisors begged him not to engage in full battle and instead to withdraw to a better site, however, Charles’ Stuart obstinacy held out and he decided today his Jacobite army would fight.

Panorama of the battlefield, circa 2007. Source: Wikipedia

And so, it was on this rainy and sleeting day that the two armies faced each other across the boggy ground. It was so wet that Col. Wolfe’s (Victor of Quebec, 1759) 8th Regt., protecting the left flank, was ankle-deep in water.

The Jacobite artillery opened fire at around 1pm, but they were no match for Cumberland’s heavy artillery, which had a devastating effect on the Clans ranks. Being pummelled by the English troops, the Jacobites awaited on an order to change, but it never came. As to why, it is speculated that perhaps Charles wanted Cumberland’s men to advance first, fearing his tired Clansmen’s ability to cross the bog. Whatever the decision, the Clan’s Officers were sick of their men being slaughtered and ordered the charge. The centre and right broke through the front line but they were slaughtered by the 2nd line. Wolfe’s flank-cover and the Campbell Militia, who also made holes in the stone wall, enabling the Dragoons to outflank the Clansmen. It was carnage. For some unknown reason, the MacDonalds left flank only advanced a short distance, paused and were then routed by Kingston’s Dragoons, as the centre and right of the Clans began to flee the field. Some Clansmen escaped across the River Nairn, others towards Inverness, hunted down by Cumberland’s cavalry and infantry. In around 40 minutes the Jacobites were defeated, losing around 1,000 men. Cumberland’s losses were said to be 364 men. 

Source: Authors own

Prince Charlie was escorted from the battlefield and spent the next 5 months hiding in the West Highlands, before making his escape to Skye, dressed as Flora Macdonald’s maid, Betty Burke.

     “Speed bonny boat, like a bird on the wing,

       “Onward”, the sailors cry,

      Carry the lad who was born to be King,

      Over the sea to Skye”

After just 14 months on British soil, the Young Pretender boarded the French Frigate, “L’Heureur”, and sailed to France. He later died in Rome, in 1788, aged 67.

The Battle of Culloden, on that miserable April day, was to be the third and last Jacobite Rebellion; and for everyone who wanted a Stuart King to sit on the throne of Scotland, Ireland and England it would forever be the crusher of dreams.

Featured image, The Battle of Culloden, oil on canvas, David Morier, 1746. [Source: Wikipedia]

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