The Battle of Culloden — It’s Time to Rethink Britain’s Storied Triumph Over the Jacobites

The 1745 Battle of Culloden pitted the British army against a rebel Jacobite army in Scotland. For generations, the English likened it to a fight between civilization and barbarism. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The 1746 Battle of Culloden pitted British regulars against a rebel Jacobite army in Scotland. For generations, the English likened the April 16 clash, in which 15,000 men fought, to a struggle between civilization and barbarism. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Things have changed, but the popular image of Culloden remains: a battle lost by swords against muskets, by tribesmen fighting regulars, by absolute monarchy fighting constitutional authority.” 

By Murray Pittock

NO BATTLE OUT of living memory is remembered so falsely as Culloden.

For two-and-a-half centuries, British historiography has framed Jacobitism as primitive because of the threat it posed. Furthermore, the defeat of the Jacobites has contributed to a national narrative of foundational reconciliation and the development of the British Empire. Culloden was the summary site: the lieu de memoire on which was written the tabular contrast on which the British Empire was built.

British regulars repel an assault by Scottish Highlanders at Culloden. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Thin Red Line repels an assault by Scottish Highlanders at Culloden. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A Clash of Cultures?

A soldier of the British 8th Regiment of Foot. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The King’s Redcoats were well-equipped, armed with state-of-the-art muskets and professionally trained; the Scottish rebels, on the other hand, were seen as undisciplined sword-wielding tribal warriors. (Image source: WikiCommons)

British cultural memory recalls the battle as a struggle between the country’s constitutional, progressive and entirely civilized society and the backward and absolutist Jacobites.

The battle was also recalled as a sectarian clash; Protestant England versus Catholic Scotland. But more than that, Culloden was remembered as a contest between two distinct cultures: Britain’s being the embodiment of the Anglo-Saxon virtues of rationality and fairness versus the hot-blooded, emotional, even vengeful Scots (along with their French and Irish allies.)

Variations on this theme: the civilized ‘us’ versus the savage ‘them’ would be invoked wherever British colonial conflict erupted for the next 200 years. The correspondence between ‘tribal’ Scots and Native Americans was already embedded before Culloden and is alluded to in Benjamin West’s famous painting of The Death of Wolfe (1769). British military policy in Scotland after 1746 was also directly utilized in the Acadian deportations of native Francophones from Canada from the mid-1750s. In Ireland in 1798, British propaganda followed a very similar trajectory to that utilized against Scottish Jacobitism in 1745-46, down to the identification of ‘unnatural women’ transgressing gender roles. For John Buchan in the early 20th century, black South African patriotism was equated with Jacobitism, while the soldiers of Scottish regiments (still wearing kilts in the British Army into the 20th century) were often used as frontline troops in colonial wars with the sometimes unsubtle message that they represented what their adversaries (when tamed and domesticated into Empire) might become.

Scottish soldiers in the First World War march to the front. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Scottish soldiers in the First World War march to the front. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Culloden Reconsidered

Things have changed, but the popular image of Culloden remains: a battle lost by swords against muskets, by tribesmen fighting regulars, by absolute monarchy fighting constitutional authority. It is a powerful story.

A Highland warrior. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A Highland warrior ready for battle. (Image source: WikiCommons)

It is also false. In Culloden (Oxford University Press) I bring together for the first time the archival research I have carried out on the composition and supply of the Jacobite army and the battlefield archaeology which has taken place on Culloden. The effect of flanking cavalry on an overextended infantry formation with little effective reserve was a constant in warfare for centuries, and it is the key to Culloden. Culloden as it happened is in fact much more interesting than Culloden as it is remembered.

It has long been argued that the ‘field of battle was ill-chosen, which gave the Duke of Cumberland great advantages, especially in his cannon and horse’. This interpretation originates in a dispute between the advocates of Lord George Murray, the Prince’s lieutenant-general, and John Sullivan, quartermaster and adjutant general and a respected French regular. The field of battle has always been held to be a poor choice, evidence of the military incompetence of the Jacobite leadership and the tribalism of its forces (for example the allegation that the MacDonalds so resented being positioned on the left rather than the right that they fought without enthusiasm). Culloden for the first time explores all four battle sites selected by the Jacobite command: the first, rejected by Sullivan, at Dalcross Castle; the second, selected by Murray but utterly unsuitable for the defence of Inverness, near Daviot; the third, selected by Sullivan, a kilometre away from Inverness than the final site, and less visible to the British fleet than the final site; and the last, on which the battle was fought after a hasty deployment following a failed night attack.

A romanticized depiction of Jacobites. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A romanticized depiction of Jacobites. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Jacobite army on the day of battle comprised the following units. From the Highlands came MacDonell of Glengarry’s 1st and 2nd battalions, which were regular enough to have grenadier companies; MacDonald of Keppoch’s, Clanranald’s, MacLean’s, MacLachlan’s, Mackintosh’s, Stewart of Ardsheal’s,. Lochiel’s 1st and 2nd battalions and Chisholm’s; from round Inverness the 1st battalion of Lovat’s, and the 2nd that arrived during the battle but took no part in the fighting. From modern Aberdeenshire came Stoneywood’s, Bannerman’s, Monaltrie’s, Glenbuchat’s, Frendraught’s and Balmoral’s; from Angus the two battalions of Ogilvy’s, the Forfarshire Regiment; from Perthshire the Atholl Brigade and the Perthshire Horse; from Edinburgh, John Roy Stewart’s; from Fife, the Lothians and central Scotland, Balmerino’s and Elcho’s Life Guards, Bagot’s Hussars and Kilmarnock’s Foot Guards. From the Scottish troops in the French services came the Écossais Royal, and from Louis XV’s Irish forces, the Irish picquets and Fitzjames’s Horse.  Grante’s Artillery provided support: once in possession of 85 guns, now the Jacobites had only just over a dozen. All this is well enough known, but has not stopped generations of historian and popular representation portraying the Jacobites as a ‘Highland’ army, though the army’s orders were given in English, and its own use of the term ‘Highland’ was to signify its patriotic upholding of true Scottish values, not its status as a Gaelic tribal force.

A map of the battle. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A map of the battlefield. (Image source: WikiCommons)

At Culloden, the major problems the Jacobites faced were tactical, not tribal.  They were outnumbered two to one; they had little effective reserve; their cavalry-though it screened well — was also woefully deficient in point of numbers set against the British forces. The National Trust for Scotland site covers a smaller footprint than it did for the combatants, which has had the effect of reinforcing interpretations which marginalize or ignore the central role played by cavalry action.

The initial artillery exchange lasted for about nine minutes or so—just possibly a little longer. Some 30 to 90 rounds were fired from the British Army’s cannon. When Barrel’s on the British front was broken by the Jacobite advance, the breach was narrow and, forming twenty or thirty deep to push through, they could not bring fire to bear over a wide enough front. In a three-minute struggle, five or six volleys from Sempill’s, Ligonier’s, and Bligh’s sent a huge volume of ball into both the remnants of Barrel’s (underestimation of British casualties may have been in part due to ‘friendly fire’ deaths, which seen also to have been inflicted by coehorn mortar fire) and the Jacobite front, halting the charge. The Jacobites returned fire heavily: multiple ball holes were reported in the clothing of at least one British officer. As recent battlefield archaeology has demonstrated, the Jacobites fired more ball per man than the British: isolated firefights on the flanks, forming into square to screen the retreat, and the volleying of relatively intact units such as Ogilvy’s all played their part. Retreating Jacobite battalions, disorganized by the ground, visibility, canister and musketry, were however swept aside by a dragoon pincer movement once the cavalry screen on the right gave way.

The defeated Jacobites marh

The defeated Jacobites march home following Culloden. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Culloden was always going to be a difficult battle for the Jacobites to win, but the improvised nature of the final site for deployment, the lack of a reserve and enough cavalry to build on the protection offered by the obstacles on their flanks, and the strength of the British cavalry and their use late in the battle (not too early, as at Prestonpans and Falkirk) made all the difference. But in remembering that correctly, we should also remember that the British army’s most effective weapons that day in 1746 were blades not bullets; that Cumberland had changed normal British volley fire practice; and that the experience of 1745-46 led to a revision of British military regulations in 1748 because of how close run the contest had been. In fact, regiments such as Ogilvie’s escaped the field by firing in a disciplined fashion (probably using French tactics) against pursuing dragoons with swords. What was a military engagement — in many ways quite a conventional one — won by superior numbers, cavalry advantage, better supply and more rested soldiers, became a foundational myth of the British Empire’s values and its destined triumph over more ‘primitive’ societies. As the reason for the myth disappears, so should the myth itself.

The beheading of the rebel Scottish leaders. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Scottish leaders are beheaded before a crowd of Londoners at Tower Hill. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Setting the Record Straight

It is time we remember Culloden for what it was: On Culloden Moor on April 16, 1746, what was in some ways the last Scottish army—constructed so, paid so, and drilled so—with its Franco-Irish and Scoto-French allies, sought to restore Charles Edward’s father to a multi-kingdom monarchy run on confederal lines more aligned to European politics than colonial struggle. They were in many essentials a regular army. Outnumbered but not outgunned, cavalry proved their downfall. It was not British ball that brought down kilted swordsmen as much as British dragoon blades that cut down Jacobite musketeers.


Professor Murray Pittock is the author of the book Culloden, published by Oxford University Press, and is Bradley Professor and Pro Vice-Principal at the University of Glasgow, and one of the leading scholars of Jacobitism and Romanticism globally. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the Royal Historical Society and has won or been nominated or shortlisted for fifteen literary prizes internationally.

1 comment for “The Battle of Culloden — It’s Time to Rethink Britain’s Storied Triumph Over the Jacobites

  1. steve byrne
    4 April, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    This is the most appalling crap I have ever read about Culloden! (and I have read quite a bit) and quite misleading in places. For example – Heavy mortars! go to the museum and see for yourself the size of the guns used – small even by the standards of the time. Once again history written with eyes blinded by misplaced romanticism and a warping of facts to fit their own prejudices. Quite simply on the day the rebel army was out-gunned and out fought by an army better lead and organised and who didn’t run from the highland charge as they were supposed to do (and had done before). Such writing gives no credit to the soldiers on either side who had to do the fighting and dying. And in the end the Stuarts were useless kings – wanting a multi kingdom monarchy run on confederal lines – don’t make me laugh. You’re trying to make it out like he wanted some sort of for-runner to the EU. Charkes Edwards ambition was ultimately to be king of England, and likely an absolutist one at that. If he could have landed in England as he hoped he would have done that. He couldn’t and so tried Scotland instead. The rest as they say, is history and a sad one at that.
    To anyone reading this I suggest they read Stuart Reids “Like Hungry Wolves” a good account of the grim day at Culloden.

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