7 myths about the battle of Culloden busted

In the centuries since it was fought, compelling but often misleading myths have come to surround the 1746 battle of Culloden, the last ever battle to be fought on British soil. Historian Murray Pittock busts seven common myths about the final confrontation of the 1745 Jacobite Rising…

Battle of Culloden. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The last ever battle to be fought on British soil, the 1746 battle of Culloden was the final confrontation of the 1745 Jacobite Rising – an attempt to reinstate a Stuart monarch on the throne of Britain – and is today considered one of the most significant clashes in British history. It saw a Hanoverian government army led by the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II, go head-to-head with the forces of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, in a battle that lasted less than an hour.


But, says expert Murray Pittock, in the centuries since it was fought, compelling but often misleading myths have come to surround the battle of Culloden. Here, the author of Great Battles: Culloden busts seven of the most notable…


Myth: The battle of Culloden was a dynastic conflict between the Stuarts and the Hanoverians

Culloden is often seen as the final defeat of the Stuart dynasty’s doomed attempts to regain the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, which they had lost in 1688–91. In fact, the Scottish Jacobites who fought in Culloden and earlier risings were strongly motivated by opposition to the Union of 1707 (The Acts of Union, passed by the English and Scottish Parliaments in 1707, led to the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain on 1 May of that year). In the days of Charles I and James VII and II, no more than 3,000 fought with the Marquis of Montrose (royalists) and Viscount Dundee (Jacobites) to defend or restore the Stuart king.

In 1715, some 22,000 fought for the Jacobites, and in 1745 about 11-12,000 Scots were still prepared to take up arms. The big upward shift in Jacobite support came as a result of wide opposition to the Union of 1707, and Jacobite recruitment stressed this.


Myth: The battle of Culloden was fought between a modern army and the Highland clans

The description of the Jacobite forces as a ‘Highland army’ was an allusion to the patriotic qualities of northern Scotland rather than a description of the background of its soldiers.

The Jacobite army at Culloden was organised along regimental lines, with the regiments normally named after their commanders, as was still the case in the British army at the time. They were drilled using a mixture of French and British tactics and they had a large amount of artillery (much reduced at Culloden, owing to transport difficulties). The battle of Culloden had to be fought because the Jacobite army needed to protect Inverness, its last major supply depot. As it was, supplies were low. Charles’s army was too large and too conventionally organised to fight a guerilla war, and would have broken up if this had been attempted. Nor was it a ‘clan’ army: many of its units were from the Scottish lowlands, as well as Irish and Scottish soldiers in the French service, and some English volunteers (including a soap boiler from Herefordshire).

Indeed, at Culloden some of the most effective units were not Highland ones: the Forfarshire Regiment held its shape and retired in good order; most of the men made it home safely to Angus. And some of the bravest actions of the battle were carried out by Lord Lewis Gordon’s brigade from Aberdeen and Banff, Lord John Drummond’s Royal Scots in the French service and Viscount Strathallan’s Perthshire Horse. Army orders were given in English, not Gaelic.

A stone memorial marking where the battle of Culloden took place. (RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)
A stone memorial marking where the battle of Culloden took place. (RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)

Myth: The battle of Culloden was fought between Catholics and Protestants

Statistically, the most likely recruit for the Jacobite army was from the north east of Scotland and an adherent of the Scottish Episcopal Church, which was roughly equivalent to the Church of England. Episcopalians supported the Stuarts because they believed that if they were restored, Presbyterianism would be disestablished in Scotland. Most of the Highlanders who fought for the Stuarts were Episcopalian too.

Though there were a number of Catholics, these were a minority of the army, and a small minority once the Scottish and Irish troops in the French service are excluded.


Myth: The battle of Culloden was a victory of muskets over swords

This is one of the foundational myths of the battle, and accounts for why the clash has such importance in British history. From the 1740s onwards, the conflict has been presented as the inevitable victory of modern Britain over backward Scotland. Although we think (wrongly) of the Jacobites as Highlanders rather than Lowlanders (thanks to the creation of these categories in the 19th century), in the 18th century Scots in general were typically depicted wearing the kilt in political cartoons and satires. So initially Culloden was seen as a victory over all “rebellious Scots” (as the National Anthem put it, in a verse now no longer sung).

In fact, the Jacobite army at Culloden was heavily armed with French and Spanish muskets, as well as captured British ‘Brown Bess’ Land Pattern muskets. The diameter of the musket ball is slightly smaller in the French and Spanish guns, so it is easy to tell these apart (Brown Bess was 19mm with a 17.5mm ball and French/Spanish patterns were 17.5mm with a 16.5mm ball). It appears that the Jacobites fired many rounds at close quarters with the British front line (one British officer had six musket balls through his coat alone) to dislodge the British from flanking positions, and likewise to slow down the British cavalry advance in the final stages of the battle. Because British cavalry and dragoons (mounted infantry) typically used swords rather than guns as they attacked, the battle can be more accurately described as a victory for British swords over Jacobite muskets than the other way round.


Myth: The battle of Culloden was fought on a badly chosen site, and this was the fault of Charles Edward Stuart and his Irish officers

Three sites were scouted in the 48 hours leading up to the battle. The first was at Dalcross Castle, which John Sullivan, the Irish adjutant and quartermaster general, rejected, because the distance across the ravine would have been too small to protect the Jacobite army from British musket fire from the other side.

The second was on the south side of the Nairn, chosen by Lord George Murray. This was poor ground, did not protect the road to Inverness and was vulnerable to British mortar fire from the other side of the river. It is clear that this site was a prelude to retreat and the dissolution of the army, because it was not an effective battle site.

The third site was about 1km east of where the battle was eventually fought, and John Sullivan drew up the army there on 15 April. It was on higher and less boggy ground than the final battlefield, and both wings of the army could see each other, which they could not in the next day’s sleet and rain. No one ‘chose’ the site of the battle on Drummossie Moor as a preference: it was the line closest to headquarters at Culloden House which could defend the road to Inverness.

Many of those soldiers who were asleep after the failed night attack on the 15th had retreated to the grounds of Culloden House, and there was little time to form them up as the British Army approached on the morning of the battle.

Charles Edward Stuart, by William Mosman, 1750. Oil on canvas. (National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)
Charles Edward Stuart, by William Mosman, 1750. Oil on canvas. (National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)

Myth: The battle of Culloden was fought to end a British civil war

The Jacobite army was constructed and paid on the lines of the pre-Union Scottish army. Its officers described themselves as fighting the English, and French officers serving with the Jacobites saw matters in this light also, describing the conflict in Scotland vs England terms, as did many in England. Although many Scots fought against the Jacobites (though many less than joined them, and there were more deserters from the British Army to the Jacobites than vice versa), this was equally true in the wars of Wallace and Bruce, and in the American and Irish wars of independence.



Myth: The battle of Culloden was a defeat for Scottish nationalism

The Jacobite leadership was not ‘nationalist’ in the modern sense. The Stuarts wished to be restored to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland and to be kings in London, but the Britain they and their supporters conceived was very different from the one that developed in the 18th century. Instead, there would have been a more confederal multi-kingdom monarchy, with capitals and parliaments in Edinburgh and Dublin (Dublin still had a parliament at this time, of course).

A Stuart Scotland would probably have been ‘independent’ and have had its own army, but would likely not have had much room to pursue a separate foreign policy from London. In this sense, it would have been in a position close to that enjoyed by the British Empire’s dominions, such as Canada and Australia, in the 19th century.


Murray Pittock is Bradley Professor and Pro Vice-Principal at the University of Glasgow, and one of the leading scholars of Jacobitism and Romanticism globally. His latest book is Great Battles: Culloden (Oxford University Press, 2016). His other works include The Myth of the Jacobite Clans and The Invention of Scotland

This article was first published on History Extra in April 2017