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: exclusive 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.