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The Battle of Culloden Moor

276 years ago, in the early afternoon of Saturday the 16th of April 1746, the Jacobite army under Prince Charles Edward Stuart stood upon Culloden Moor facing a British army sent to destroy it. In the space of about 40 minutes, the Duke of Cumberland had succeeded.

The years that followed transformed the way of life of the Highlands; ending forever the ancient clan system, depopulating the land and all but erasing their culture. For that reason, the battle of Culloden is imbued with myth and legend in a way that few others are.

So who was actually involved? What really happened?

We’ll start with the two armies.

The Jacobites

We imagine the typical Jacobite as a romantic figure. A Highlander, festooned with weapons, loyal to his clan chief, to the divine right of kings, and to a way of living by the land, in marked contrast to the burgeoning industrial society of the remainder of the British Isles. To an extent, this is correct, the Highland army that was led south to Prestonpans, the opening battle of the '45, was comprised of such men, although there were many others besides.

The stereotype of the Jacobite soldier, with his broadsword, targe and brace of pistols, is a fair depiction of a Highland tacksman – a sort of upper-middle-class landholder. Subordinate to the clan chiefs, tacksmen had tenure of substantial tracks of land which were in turn sublet to ordinary clansmen. In Highland warfare, the well-off, and consequently well-armed, tacksmen formed the front rank in the line of battle. Behind them came their more numerous sub-tenants who would be lucky if they could afford a sword. Behind them, the cottars; landless men little more than serfs and generally destitute. And so these lines carried mostly farming equipment like axes into battles.

A substantial proportion of the the Highlanders were therefore fighting, not necessarily out of any particular love for the Stuarts, but out of feudal obligation. Still others were pressed into service with threats of violence directed at their families and what little property they might have. Similar threats were levelled throughout the lowlands once the Jacobites had control of Scotland.

It wasn't all coercion though! The Act of Union in 1707 was deeply unpopular in wide swathes of the country and nationalist volunteers flocked to the Jacobite banner. There was also a religious element, although not the one that might be expected. The catholic Prince attracted many Episcopalian volunteers who saw in the restoration of the Stuarts a chance to neuter the overbearing authority of the Presbyterian Kirk. By the time of Culloden, there was also a substantial number of "French" troops in the Prince's service. These were professional soldiers in the service of the French king, comprising of Scottish and Irish exiles.

Although dressed, as far as was possible, in tartan plaid, in an effort to imbue the whole army with the terrifying mystique of the Highlanders, the army at Culloden was comprised of a high proportion of lowlanders and principally armed as conventional regular armies of the time. A clue as to the proportion of their armament is provided by the ratio of weapons recovered from the field after the battle: 2,320 muskets, but only 192 broadswords.

The Hanoverians

Four of Cumberland's sixteen infantry battalions at Culloden were Scottish. Of the notionally English battalions routed at Prestonpans, something like half the officers and men were Scottish. In time, more Scots joined Hanoverian units than joined in the Prince's rebellion. It's important to emphasise then, that characterising the '45 as a Scotttish vs. English affair is entirely wrong.

But what sort of Scots embraced the Hanoverian monarchy and union with England? In short, the opposite of those who embraced Jacobitism. Presbyterians were in no hurry to see a catholic back on the throne. The Act of Union had brought with it trading access to England's colonies and a hitherto unimagined prosperity in the lowlands. The most cursory inspection of Glasgow's street names shows where the wealth came from that eventually made it "the second city of the Empire". Little wonder then, that Glaswegians flocked enthusiastically to newly raised loyalist corps.

Of course, there also existed amongst the regular army the kind of coercion to which the more unfortunate Jacobites were subjected. The British army of the 18th century was not averse to "pressing" men into service and petty, and not so petty, criminals were frequently impressed by magistrates.

Now for The Battle Itself

The Jacobite army, following their victory at Falkirk in January, retired north to Inverness. There they assembled a substantial store of oatmeal necessary to feed the army. Cumberland advanced along the Moray coast from Aberdeenshire, crossing the Spey unopposed on the 12th of April. Having missed the chance to contest a difficult river crossing, the Jacobites now found themselves with some 9,000 government troops bearing down on Inverness and their own forces dispersed.

The courses of action available to them were as follows:-

1. Concentrate the army and fight Cumberland before Inverness.

2. Fight on more optimal ground to the south of the River Nairn, leaving an open road to Inverness and the army's supplies.

3. Disperse to the hills and wage a guerrilla campaign.

Option three is often offered as a "what they should have done" but the subsequent repression in the Highlands shows that this is not a practical suggestion. Rebel clans could simply have been defeated in detail (via divide and conquer by the Hanoverians) and the country laid waste so that it was incapable of supporting even the native population – let alone an army over and above that.

Option two was favoured by Lord George Murray. It would allow the 2000 odd men scattered throughout the Highlands on the hunt for food to rejoin the army and offer battle in more advantageous circumstances. Leaving the road open to Inverness is not necessarily the open goal it appears. Cumberland's objective was to destroy the Jacobites and free his army to rejoin the war on the continent. It's not at all implausible that he would have ignored Inverness and followed the Jacobites into their trap. However, the Prince, and his other officers were of the opinion that abandoning Inverness – and their supplies there - would have the appearance of a defeat which would almost certainly mean an end to the French support that would be so necessary if they were to go back on the offensive.

A council of war having therefore settled on option one, Murray made a fateful proposition. Rather than delay so that the remainder of the army cold rejoin them, they should seek to repeat the success of Prestonpans by launching a surprise night attack. The great strength of the British army was in its discipline and its ability to deliver more effective, and just plain more, firepower than any other army in the world. A pell-mell hand to hand fight in the darkness would nullify this advantage and give an opportunity for a decisive victory.

It was a farce.

Quite simply, none of the Jacobite command were prepared for the complications of night marching. No one thought of the obvious problems; it was dark. Obstacles took an ages to cross and wide gaps opened between units and the fog only made things worse. Delay compounded upon delay and eventually the decision was taken to abandon the attack and to return to the vicinity of Culloden Park.

The Jacobites, who had expected a battle on the 15th, had spent the day on Culloden Moor without any food being brought up from Inverness. They had then spent an exhausting and disappointing night while pointlessly marching and countermarching. Reaching Culloden once again, many carried on to Inverness in search of their first food in more than a day. The remainder collapsed into sleep.

A matter of hours later, Cumberland's army had advanced from the direction of Nairn and both sides deployed for battle.

They arranged themselves as follows;

Map of the Battle of Culloden by "Celtus" on Wikipedia.

The initial position of the Jacobite army is depicted in light blue.

The Jacobite army was deployed across the spine of the moor. Their left flank was anchored on the tall stone walls of Culloden Park, beyond which the ground slopes away gently to the Moray Firth. Their right was anchored on the stone walls of the Culwhiniac enclosure. The ground beyond this slopes steeply to the River Nairn. The Inverness to Nairn road runs along the crest of the ridge. From the Jacobite perspective, the ground to the right of this road is comparatively level and dry. To the left however, the ground falls away and becomes very boggy.

Lord George Murray, on the right flank, then makes an adjustment. Seeing the turf walls of the Leanach enclosure to his front, sticking out into the moor beyond the walls of Culwhiniac, he realised his men won't have room to manoeuvre round it without interfering with the rest of the line. He therefore moves his men forward along the walls of the enclosure and forms them into columns that are six ranks deep as opposed to the three they were originally deployed in. The remainder of the line, seeing this move, aligns itself with this new position which is shown in dark blue on the map.

The MacDonalds on the left stay where they are, to avoid giving up the cover of the walls of Culloden Park. This slanting of the line, combined with Murray halving the frontage of his division, causes gaps to open up. These are promptly filled by General Sullivan using units from the second line (look for the arrows moving the second line forwards). There is now a greater proportion of the army in the first line than was intended.

Cumberland, seeing this move, supposes that the Jacobites are intending to charge obliquely and focus their attack on his right. He therefore reinforces and extends that flank with units from his second and third lines along with his dragoons. About this time, a small force of Campbells on the Hanoverian left makes gaps in the walls of the Culwhiniac enclosure to allow General Hawley (yes, Hangman Hawley, famous from the Battle of Falkirk) to pass through with his dragoons.

Looking to the arrows on the red side in left, you can see the cavalry move to a position to threaten the rear-right of the Jacobite army but are blocked by Jacobite infantry from the second line and the small numbers of Jacobite cavalry. A standoff ensues on this flank which lasts until the collapse of the Jacobite centre.

Around 1pm, or shortly after, the Jacobite cannon open the engagement. After firing something like two rounds apiece the government guns return fire. The pounding received by the Jacobites being forced to stand for an hour under the merciless government artillery has passed into legend but the reality appears to have been far different: For a start, the Jacobite guns, though inexpertly handled, were certainly inflicting casualties of their own – the returns of casualties from government second and third line battalions who were not otherwise engaged is testament to this. The government guns had the combined disadvantages of firing uphill and with the wind at their backs. The added difficulty in judging the angle of impact caused by the hill along with the fall of shot being obscured by their own gunsmoke made aiming next to impossible and Jacobite sources make reference to a great number of enemy cannonballs passing quite far overhead. This cannonade, reported as lasting an hour in the press shortly after, was recorded by eyewitnesses as lasting somewhere between 9 and 15 minutes.

Then the Jacobite infantry charged.

Who charged first is probably a question that will forever remain unanswered, but the important fact is that, rather than charging perpendicular to the direction of the altered front line, the Jacobite infantry charged for the nearest Hanoverian units, i.e. in a direction that corresponds with their original positions before Murray shifted the line.

An ordered, deliberate, Highland charge is not a mad screaming assault. Properly, you advance in close order at a deliberate pace to within musket shot. Taunt, harass with small arms fire and then, upon receiving the opening volley, preferably flinging yourself flat, you leap up, throw down your guns, and close as rapidly as possible. This negates the advantage that regular troops inevitably have in their rate of fire.

With the best will in the world, nobody encumbered with weapons can sprint between 500 and 700 meters over boggy ground and expect to arrive in a condition to fight, yet this is apparently what the Jacobite army attempted to do. Having never been compelled to stand under artillery fire before, the understandable urge was to close the distance as fast as possible, but this had a fatal effect upon the cohesion necessary to succeed in hand-to-hand fighting. Government witnesses recount the Jacobite line coalescing into three giant wedges. The largest by far was on the Jacobite right. Murray's men had the least distance to cover and the driest ground but the speed of their advance caused them to break up and they were still compelled to veer towards the centre by the Leanach walls. Those units in the centre, astride the Inverness to Nairn road, veered to the right. Whether this was simply because they were following the line of the road, or deliberately avoiding the bog to the left of it is unclear, but, it channelled them into the great Jacobite mass forming on their right.

You might imagine that seeing a great cloud of Highlanders perhaps thirty men deep, swarming towards you would cause you to turn tail and run but the men of Barrell's and Munro's regiments on the Hanoverian left were made of sterner stuff. Barrell's was one of the regiments that had acquitted itself well at Falkirk; fending off attacks and leaving the field in good order. They reckoned they could do the same again.

They might also have been encouraged by the government cannon now playing canister shot amongst the charging Jacobites. Witnesses remark upon the effectiveness of this weapon, essentially turning the cannon into a giant shotgun. Witnesses stated that great lanes were opened in the charging masses, and that even at 300 yards each discharge of canister from the government guns was downing dozens of men, a number which only increased as they closed the range.

Soon, the Jacobite mass on the right came within musket range. A man of Munro's regiment describes giving them one volley at about 60 yards and then another "in their teeth". If that was as much as they managed, and the subsequent ranks of Highlanders armed with broadsword and targe then fell upon them, then surely a great slaughter of the Hanoverian troops must have immediately resulted? Sadly, those Highland gentlemen in the front ranks had suffered grievously from the cannister and musketry so those Jacobites who reached the government lines were more than likely the ones in the lines behind, armed with musket and bayonet, crudely made Lochaber axes, and even farming implements. The hand-to-hand fighting that ensued, desperate and bloody though it was, was not a foregone conclusion in favour of the Jacobites.

In short order though, Barrell's regiment, assailed by the full weight of the Atholl brigade and Lochiel's brigade, took substantial casualties and started to give ground. General Huske, commanding the Hanoverian second line, however, was aware of the danger and moved units up to envelop the position formerly occupied by Barrell's in a horseshoe shape. This greatest mass of Jacobites pressed into this void and was met with a murderous crossfire. The government regiments, adopting an innovation developed at Falkirk, fired one volley. The front rank then levelled their bayonets, fending off any Jacobites who might reach them, all while the second and third lines kept up as rapid a fire as possible. Even a conservative estimate of the effect of the fire at this stage of the battle, credits it with killing something like 700 Jacobites in perhaps as little as two minutes. This was absolutely devastating.

Unsurprisingly, flayed by shots from three sides with the dead in places laying four deep, the Jacobite right broke and ran. The centre, and the left, who, contending with the far boggier ground there, never succeeded in reaching the government lines, saw this collapse and ran themselves.

A spirited rearguard action was fought by the nominally French regulars in the second line, and some formed units guarding the flank against Hawley managed to make their escape to rally at Ruthven Barracks two days later. The bulk of the army however, fled in disarray down the Inverness road, the government dragoons in hot pursuit, and, in accordance with the practice of the day, offering little in the way of quarter.


The memory of Culloden is inextricably linked to the Acts of Proscription, the Heritable Jurisdictions Act and the grinding, relentless, and sometimes pitilessly cruel clearances that plagued the Highlands for the next century.

The loss of Culloden, the failure of this last Highland rebellion resulted, ultimately in the ending of the old Highland way of life. It's for this reason that Culloden is remembered as perhaps the most significant battle in Scottish history.

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