The Truth Behind The Battle of Culloden

The Jacobite Rising of 1745 has long since been lauded as a clear-cut example of Hanoverian elitism. The Cliff Notes, romanticized, version of the Jacobite conflict which spanned 50+ years of Scottish history, tends to oversimplify things, and as the story has been told and retold down through the generations, opinions and third-hand accounts have now been cemented in many people’s minds as fact. The Battle of Culloden and the Highland Clearances that occurred shortly after this are a great example of a tall tale growing taller, and while I’m not going to touch on the Highland Clearances in this particular piece, let’s dive a little deeper into what we actually know about the Battle of Culloden and the events surrounding it.

In my previous blog “Notable Jacobites of Outlander”, I spoke of dissent in the ranks of Prince Charlie’s Jacobite officers. The most notable of these disagreements, was the ongoing power struggle between Lieutenant-General Lord George Murray, and Quartermaster John O’Sullivan. These two men DID NOT like one another. In fact, they rarely agreed on anything. So, it should come as no surprise that in the days leading up to the final battle of the Jacobite rebellions, Murray and O’Sullivan didn’t agree on how or where that battle should take place. Lord George was an advocate for the Clan Chiefs who wanted to retreat to the hills and fight where their men would have the advantage. O’Sullivan, didn’t want to turn tail and run, but rather stay where they were and fight — even if that meant facing the larger, more heavily armed British army on flat, open ground that gave them a greater advantage.

With Murray and O’Sullivan divided, it was up to  Prince Charles to decide, and he agreed with O’Sullivan. The Jacobites last stronghold was Inverness and it’s port, and Charlie felt that if they lost Inverness, there would be no turning back. In fact, the only reason Culloden Battlefield was a battlefield at all is because of its relative location to both the main road in and out of Inverness, and Culloden House which served as Jacobite Headquarters in the final days of the rebellion. Early on in the ‘45, the Highland Army had been an intimidating force, but after months of retreat and dwindling supply lines, Prince Charlie’s forces were on their last leg. This is the force that, expecting a confrontation on April 15th, stood on Culloden Moor for most of the day before Prince Charlie sanctioned his “Hail Mary”.

Word had reached the Scottish lines that the British were not planning to fight. Instead, they were encamped some 10 miles away celebrating the Duke of Cumberland’s birthday in Nairn. It was then that a plan was hatched. The Jacobite army would march by night to Nairn and ambush Cumberland’s troops under the cover of darkness with hopes of similar success to that at Prestonpans. However, the Highland army was starving, exhausted, and weather beaten so badly that Lord George had no choice but to turn the troops around when it became clear they would not make it to Nairn before sunrise when the element of surprise would be lost.

Many scholars argue that this particular misfire is one of the primary reasons the Jacobite Army was routed at Culloden. Charlie’s troops did not make it back to Drumossie until a mere two hours before the battle, and it is believed that those men who did make it back were only a portion of the Jacobites true number. It is estimated that several hundred men missed the battle completely because they left for Inverness in search of food or fell asleep in a ditch or outbuilding on the return trip from Nairn.

Photo Credit: The National Archives of Scotland

Between 4 – 5am on the morning of April 16, 1746, Cumberland and his troops began their march toward Culloden in five lines of three battalions each. The cavalry were positioned on the outside of the troops to protect both infantry and artillery as they approached the battlefield. While the British side of the lines had a total of 8,000 troops and 15 cannons, the final battle fought on British soil was not as lopsided as the stories would have you believe. In truth, Culloden was not a clash of swords versus guns. The “Highland Army” composed of 6,000 highland and lowland Scots, Irishmen, Englishmen, and a few French soldiers were armed with 12 cannons, along with French, Spanish, and English muskets — the English muskets having been seized in victory at previous battles of the ‘45 including Prestonpans and Falkirk.

At 10am British forces were spotted 4 kilometers from Drumossie Moor, and after receiving word that the enemy was advancing 3 kilometers out, they marched the rest of the way in battle formation. By 2pm the British had started bombarding the Scottish lines with round shot and grapeshot — an assault that lasted thirty minutes before Prince Charlie ordered his men to charge. While excavating Culloden as part of an archaeological dig, researchers found remnants of 18th century mortar bombs that could have taken out as many as 20 Jacobites in one fell swoop. With this in mind, as well as the fact that the moor was treacherous, boggy ground, it’s completely remarkable that Charlie’s forces made it to the enemy lines at all!

Round Shot vs. Grape Shot

When the Jacobites broke through British lines, a malay ensued that only lasted 46 minutes. The mighty Highland Army was routed primarily due to the British Army’s ability to adapt their fighting style. Cumberland, Cope, and other officers of His Majesty’s Royal Forces were able to identify a new way of attack that involved bayoneting the opponent of the man to your right while their side was exposed during sword play. All in all, 1,600 men were slain during the famed Battle of Culloden, and 1,500 of those men were Jacobites; many more were captured and/or killed in the days following the battle as they were hunted by “Butcher Billy” and his men across the Highlands.

The perception of the Battle of Culloden and, really, the entire Jacobite Rebellion period is a bit ironic when you take a step back and look at it. Most of the 1,500+ men killed at Culloden didn’t die for Charles Stuart or King James. Most of the men enlisted in the Highland Army were there in protest of The Acts of Union passed in 1707. All they wanted was for Scotland to be its own country with its own laws and its own government — a movement which has gained traction periodically in the last century, but has never succeeded. It was never really about Stuart versus Hanover — though that’s what history and word of mouth have certainly boiled it down to.

Today, Culloden Battlefield is protected by the National Trust of Scotland and is open to visitors year round. The majority of people who died on the moor that day are still interred there, and their sacrifice is commemorated by the cairn and clan stones marking the mass graves. In 2001, an archaeological excavation began on the field, and most of what has been found including musket balls, mortar fragments, belt buckles and buttons can be found in the Culloden Visitor Center nearby.

The Culloden Visitor Center is currently closed, but is scheduled to reopened on 17 February 2021. However, the Battlefield is always open to visitors, and for a modest fee of 11 GBP, you can visit on your next trip to Scotland. I, for one, can’t wait!

Until next time, Cheers!!


The University of Nottingham

Highland Titles

Historic UK

National Trust of Scotland

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5 Replies to “The Truth Behind The Battle of Culloden”

  1. Thank you, Chelsea. This is a great, concise, interesting article about the battle. So much of history can be confusing with all the details of the battle and names of leaders, but you manage to make it very understandable and easy to follow. Keep them coming!


    1. In general terms, you’re probably right, Roberta – History is written by the victors.
      However, in the case of the Jacobites, such is their romantic appeal to many – that history has been largely written by the losers!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Chelsea, I’m very impressed that you’ve attempted to describe the Battle of Culloden.

    It’s a very complex subject, even still bewildering for many Scots to understand – and the “truth” can sometimes be very hard to discern. Just a few observations below ………

    I agree with you that Culloden was fought to defend Inverness, the remaining logistic hub of the Jacobite army. And it was probably an unavoidable battle ……….

    By April 1746, Jacobite forces had become a relatively modern army, now largely equipped with musketry – although the fierce Highland charge still remained its characteristic signature. The Quartermaster, John O’Sullivan, is always portrayed as the villain-of-the-piece. However, he feared that if the army was allowed to disperse into the mountains, it would never be reconstituted as an effective, modern fighting force – and he may have been correct in that view.

    The abortive night-march to Nairn certainly exhausted the Jacobites – and no doubt played a part in the disastrous defeat. But maybe just as significant was the careless dispersal of Jacobite forces on other tasks by the high command. As a result, several thousand troops were still trying to get back to Inverness on the day of the battle – and the Jacobites were badly out-numbered.

    I think the British/Hanoverian army at Culloden often doesn’t receive enough attention. Remember this is a civil war – and Scots (including Highlanders) made up a significant element of that force, perhaps 20% or more. The most famous Scottish regiment, The Black Watch, fought in the ranks of the British army at Culloden.

    I feel the famous bayonet-drill of the British army is over-emphasised in accounts. Arguably, in the stress of close combat, it’s unlikely soldiers would have greatly used it. I believe the success of the British army on that day was due to relentless and disciplined musketry – and excellent leadership. But the battle wasn’t easy – and in the immediate aftermath, many British solders succumbed to their wounds. The Hanoverian death toll was about 300 men.

    From the viewpoint of the 21st century, I think it’s difficult to generalise about the motivation of the “Highland Army”.
    Certainly many in the Jacobite leadership were fighting for “Old Scotland” – lost in 1707 following “merger” negotiations between the ancient Kingdoms of Scotland and England. The new Kingdom of Great Britain was the outcome of the Act of Union. Scots elected members of parliament to the new British parliament in London – and a separate Scottish legal system (and separate national church) were enshrined in the Act of 1707.

    But we don’t know what the majority of ordinary Highlanders thought of all this – or if they even had a great appreciation about it. Because most left no written account – indeed many were illiterate. We do know, though, that clansmen had a medieval feudal obligation to their clan chief. And we also know there was a high desertion rate in Highland troops, which might suggest a lack of motivation to the cause – and poor morale.

    We also know that other Jacobites were fighting hard to defend the Scottish Episcopal Church, and hoped a Stuart restoration would lead to the disestablishment of the rival Presbyterianism.

    In the context of the 18th century, it’s important to stress that Highland culture was not Scottish culture.
    Indeed at the time of Culloden, many Scots in the commercial Lowlands thought of the Highlands as backward and a barrier to progress. Only long after the battle did Scotland adopt the kilt, tartan and bagpipes (etc) as a distinctive “national culture”. This was in response to a wave of nationalistic fervour sweeping across Europe in the 19th century. Highland dress and music gave Scots a somewhat “fake” – but certainly a new cool and iconic national identity. We’ve been milking it ever since ………. lol!

    Just to sum-up, many thanks for your very interesting blog – and I hope my musings give a slightly different perspective, but add to your enjoyment of Outlander.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The aspect so often missed in this campaign was that the French backing for the Jacobite cause (making use, as correctly pointed out, of the popular opposition – from both English-speaking and Gaelic-speaking communities in Scotland – to the Union of Parliaments of 1707) arose from the imperial rivalries between Britain (in effect a continuation of England with unaltered policies) and France in North America. In 1745, the New England colonists had just captured the French stronghold of Louisbourg, making the Jacobite Rising of that year a valuable second front from the French point of view. (By contrast, the major backer of the 1715 Jacobite was Spain.) The other aspect glossed over was not the Clearances, as you claim – an economic process that had already taken place in the Lowlands – but the deliberate plundering and despoliation of everything the occupying troops could find – crops, livestock, etc. – and the widespread rapes, murders, torture and reallocation of land ownership imposed by order of the Duke of Cumberland. Clearly, this was a genocidal policy (leading to the first, voluntary wave of emigration to North America), and there is evidence, as John Prebble points out, of commissions being resigned on the government side in protest. The accounts of prominent Jacobite leaders and poets seem to have remained all but invisible to British historians unable or unwilling to examine the historical sources in Gaelic and French, which has perhaps downplayed the significance of the French influence.


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