The last battle fought on British soil took place on 16 April 1746 at Culloden, a few miles outside Inverness. Here, the Jacobite rebels led by “Bonnie Prince Charlie” were defeated by the Government Army. A large part of the battlefield is owned by the Scottish National Trust and they have allowed the landscape to revert back to something like it would have looked at the time of the battle. They’ve also constructed a state of the art Visitor Centre which opened in April 2008. It was an obvious place to visit during my recent trip to Inverness.
There’s a lot of myths surrounding Culloden – the “glorious” rebellion of the Jacobites and the “last stand of the clans” in particular. But the Jacobite uprising really has to be seen in it it’s proper context as part of the wider struggle for hegemony taking place between the European powers.
The Jacobites were bankrolled by the Catholic States (France and Spain) who used them as a way of attacking the British in their own backyard. If victorious, the Jacobites would have been beholden to their paymasters. The rebels were not a homogeneous movement. They were made up of various factions, each with their own agenda, uniting around James the Pretender as a convenient rallying point, but there wasn’t really a common cause. If the Jacobites had been successful and James became king it is likely that he would have tried to establish an absolute monarchy and many of the claims of the disparate groups would not have been achieved, probably leading to further struggles and civil war.
The myth about the clans is also false. There were highlanders on both sides. And the Government and Jacobites both employed foreign allies and mercenaries, reflecting the fact that this was part of the wider European struggle.
Walking around the battlefield it was clear why the Jacobites were so heavily defeated. The original plan was to catch the Government troops, who were camped in Nairn, a small town on the coast some 12 miles from Inverness where the Jacobites were based, by surprise by attacking during the night. But due to poor organisation the plan fell through and the Jacobites ended up gathering on the moor at Culloden where Bonnie Prince Charlie decided to give battle. It was a crazy decision as the terrain was not suited to the main tactic employed by the Jacobites – the “Highland charge”. When their troops charged at the Government forces they got bogged down and were cut to ribbons by musket and cannon fire and the bayonets of the Government troops.
Here’s Billy Connolly’s take on the Jacobites and Culloden – including his “re-enactment” of the battle
Today the battlefield is a popular tourist attraction. There were American, Canadian, French and Italian visitors, and probably other nationalities, in the Visitor Centre and exploring the while I was there.
There are a number of memorials to fallen Highlanders and a large memorial cairn erected by the former landowner in 1881.
There’s one small monument to the fallen Government troops.
My English National Trust Membership allowed me free entry into the Visitor Centre, although it would have been worth paying the entry fee. It was excellent, employing new technology as well as the traditional style exhibits to tell the story of the battle and its wider context. There was an “immersion theatre” where visitors are surrounded by screens displaying images from a re-enaction of the battle, which made it seem like you were in the middle of a melee. I also liked the animated battle table which gave a birds eye view of the movements on the battlefield. They also provided an audio guide for the battlefield which used GPS technology to activate the relevant section of the commentary as you reached the various waypoints.
In many ways, the best part of the visit was walking around the battlefield on a cold, wet, windy May morning. It gave me something of a feel of what it must have been like for the troops on the day of the battle.