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Heritage and Culture

The Battle of Culloden

The Battle of Culloden
By Kirsty McIntyre

It's the most recognisable of Scottish symbols, but one dark day in April 1746 nearly wiped tartan out completely. The Battle of Culloden saw the climax of the doomed Jacobite rebellion, led by "Bonnie Prince Charlie" Stewart against the British government.

Despite success in battles at Prestonpans and Falkirk, by the time they grouped near Inverness the exhausted Jacobite army were struggling with cold, hunger and low spirits. In contrast, the British troops were well fed and rested - even holding a party in honour of the Duke of Cumberland's 25th birthday the night before the battle. A planned surprise raid on the British troops during the party failed as many soldiers abandoned the mission to search for food, while darkness and rough terrain hindered the rest.

Aware of the challenges facing the Jacobite soldiers, on the morning on April 16th General Lord George Murray made a last-ditch attempt to convince Prince Charles that the moor would be highly advantageous to Cumberland's troops. He argued that the flat open ground would leave the Jacobites open to heavy artillery fire, which proved to be exactly what happened.

When the battle commenced, the Jacobite army was forced to charge after British cannons decimated their lines with rounds of grapeshot. Boggy ground and the overall lie of the land left them at the mercy of the British, and the Highlanders who did make it to the government lines found themselves outnumbers in brutal hand to hand combat.

The battle was over in under an hour. In that time, around 1250 Jacobites were killed on the battlefield, with a similar number wounded and nearly 400 prisoners taken. In contrast, the government troops lost only 50 men. The aftermath of the battle proved to be just as devastating for the Jacobites, as those who had survived were either captured or executed. Those who managed to escape were ruthlessly hunted as the government tried - and ultimately succeeded - to bring Scotland in line, culturally and politically, with the rest of the country.

Subsequently, Culloden was the end of the already declining Highlander way of life. The British government banned the wearing of tartan and stripped the clan chiefs of their estates and legal powers. Bonnie Prince Charlie was forced to flee to France via Skye, disguised as a woman to avoid being caught by the British government - a trip that inspired the famous Skye Boat Song.

The battlefield on Culloden Moor has been preserved, in the face of increasing modernisation of the surrounding area, by the National Trust for Scotland. A memorial cairn has been built on the site, and simple headstones have been placed to mark the locations of the clan graves. Visitors are free to walk amongst the gravestones, looking for the place their own clansmen lie, or tracing the lines where the Jacobites and government troops lined up before the last battle ever fought on British soil.