The battle of Culloden of 1746 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.
Here’s your guide to the historic battle – from seven common myths about Culloden to an exploration of the battlefield…
- Battle of Culloden: a quick guide
- Battle of Culloden: mythbusting
- The Culloden battlefield: everything you need to know
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…
The battle of Culloden was a dynastic conflict between the Stuarts and the Hanoverians – MYTH
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.
The battle of Culloden was fought between a modern army and the Highland clans – MYTH
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.
The battle of Culloden was fought between Catholics and Protestants – MYTH
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.
The battle of Culloden was a victory of muskets over swords – MYTH
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.
The battle of Culloden was fought on a badly chosen site, and this was the fault of Charles Edward Stuart and his Irish officers – MYTH
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.
The battle of Culloden was fought to end a British civil war – MYTH
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.
The battle of Culloden was a defeat for Scottish nationalism – MYTH
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 one of the leading scholars of Jacobitism and Romanticism. He is the author of Great Battles: Culloden (Oxford University Press, 2016)
Julian Humphrys visits Culloden’s evocative battlefield and a fort that was built to subdue the highlands after the battle
If battles really are, as Winston Churchill once said, “the punctuation marks of history”, then Culloden has to be one of its full stops. For the brief but bloody battle fought on this bleak moorland on a bitterly cold day in April 1746 marked the end of Jacobite ambitions of reclaiming the British crown for the Stuarts.
Since the 1930s much of this evocative battlefield has been in the care of the National Trust for Scotland and in recent years much has been done to restore the site to the way it was at the time.
Culloden battlefield: audio guide
Flags mark the positions of the two armies, and you get a good sense of how the uneven and in places boggy ground affected the fighting. Hand-held audio-visual guides available from the splendid new visitor centre use GPS to determine your position on the battlefield before delivering the relevant information.
Enter the visitor centre and, unless your eye is caught by one of the costumed interpreters who put on daily living history presentations here, the first exhibit you’ll probably see are the splendidly-named Great Pipes of Baleshare.
According to family history the pipes were played at Culloden not, as you’d expect, by one of Prince Charlie’s highlanders but by a piper in the government army – a reminder that Culloden was not just a simple battle between English and Scots. French and Irish fought for the Jacobites while thousands of Scots, highlanders as well as lowlanders, fought on the government side.
The centre’s displays tell the story of the build-up to the battle and conclude with a 360‑degree film that puts you at the centre of the fighting.
I finished my day by making the short drive up the road to Fort George, one of the finest 18th‑century fortifications in Europe. It occupies a spectacular position, on a promontory jutting out into the Moray Firth, and was built after Culloden as part of a concerted government effort to ensure that the highland clans could never again rise up in support of the exiled Stuarts.
By the time it was completed in 1769 the Jacobite threat had evaporated but the fort continued in use as a recruiting and training base and still functions today as a working army barracks.
Visiting Culloden: what to look out for
Although a road was built across the battlefield in 1835, attempts have been made by the National Trust for Scotland to restore the parts of the site in their care to how they would have appeared to participants in the battle.
Archaeological investigations, including the use of metal detectors to recover musket balls and other battlefield debris, have pinpointed the spots where the heaviest fighting took place. It seems that the Jacobites were using muskets in greater numbers than was first thought, while the recovery of heavy iron shell fragments shows that the government army fired mortars in a bid to halt the onrushing Jacobites.
Interactive ‘character stations’ tell the story of individuals who witnessed or were involved in the battle, while an animated ‘battle table’ shows how events on the day unfolded. The 200 exhibits on display include a sword seized from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s baggage.
Research had shown that the previous visitor centre actually stood where part of the government army had been drawn up, so the new building has been built in a less conspicuous spot a little further away from the action. Its roof offers an excellent viewpoint from which to take in the battlefield.
Headstones bearing the names of the clans who fought in the battle mark where the Jacobite dead, of which there were over a thousand, were buried by local people. Many were identified by their clan badge, a plant sprig worn in their bonnet. The exact site of the graves of the government dead is still unknown.
This 20-foot-high memorial cairn was erected by Duncan Forbes in 1881. Forbes was the owner of Culloden House (now a luxury hotel), which had been in the hands of his family since the 17th century, and was the descendant of a key figure on the government side in 1746.
Well of the Dead
The stone marks the place where Alexander MacGillivray of Dunmaglass fell leading Clan Chattan.
Traditionally this marks the spot where the Duke of Cumberland, the commander of the government army, directed the battle.
This heather-thatched cottage sits on the Culloden battle site and has been restored several times since the clash.
Culwhiniac Enclosure Wall
The National Trust for Scotland have rebuilt this section of wall to mark the approximate position of the Culwhiniac Enclosure on the right flank of the Jacobite line. The Argyll militia tore down part of the wall to enable government cavalry to pass through and threaten the Jacobite rear, and then fired on the retreating Jacobites as they passed by.
This is one of Europe’s finest 18th‑century fortifications. Walk the extensive ramparts and enjoy the spectacular views of the Moray Firth (don’t forget to look out for dolphins) and visit the Highlanders’ Regimental Museum (see above).
You can also explore recreated 18th and 19th‑century barrack rooms, inspect the fort’s ammunition magazine and priceless collection of 18th‑century weaponry, and visit the garrison chapel with its flags, galleries, and triple-decker pulpit.
Highlanders’ Regimental Museum
Housed in one of the fort’s 18th-century buildings, the museum tells the story of the historic regiments that make up today’s highlanders. It displays items from regiments such as the Queen’s Own Highlanders, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and the Lovat Scouts.
Travel information: Culloden battlefield and visitor centre are off the B9006, eight miles east of Inverness. Fort George is ten miles north of the battlefield, also off the B9006.
Julian Humphrys is a British military history expert and author