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Culloden: why truth about battle for Britain lay hidden for three centuries

The Battle of Culloden of 1746, where British troops defeated the Scottish Jacobite army for the final time near Inverness, has long been mis-represented for political purposes. The Jacobites’ struggle to restore the deposed Stuart dynasty to the British throne was a major threat to the success of a single centralised Britain. Yet for several centuries, historians presented the Jacobites as kilted primitives.

Culloden also saw the beginning of a national narrative about reconciling England and its “less developed” peripheries – a mission that would soon also be applied to more remote peoples to justify expanding the British Empire. Benjamin West’s famous painting of The Death of General Wolfe (1770), which depicted not Culloden but the Battle of Quebec of 1759 between Britain and France, is an early example of how this was done.

It pictures a curious Native American observing the British general’s dignified death. Behind the man in green uniform stands Simon Fraser, chief of the Clan Fraser, who had fought for the Jacobites on the opposite side to Wolfe at Culloden (and was not in fact at Quebec). The message is plain: Fraser has been integrated into the dignity of the British imperium, as the Native American will be, too.

The Death of General Wolfe. Wikmedia

It is no coincidence that this idea of Jacobite primitives has been contested since 1970 as imperial Britain has become more fragmented and Scottish nationalism has risen. Yet the popular image of the Jacobites at Culloden remains. Arguably no battle is remembered so powerfully and so falsely. Peter Watkins’ 1964 film Culloden demonstrates the enduring power of this vision, in which modern British guns supposedly brought down kilted swordsmen.

British statists and romantic Scottish patriots have both drawn on the same image: dirty, badly-armed savages sacrificing themselves for the Italian princeling, Bonnie Prince Charlie (or Prince Charles), yet get credit for nobly defending an ancient way of life. As I have demonstrated in my new book on the battle, Culloden as it happened is in fact much more interesting than Culloden as it is remembered.

What really happened

On Culloden Moor on April 16 1746 arguably the last Scottish army sought to restore Prince Charles’ father James to a multi-kingdom monarchy more aligned to European politics than colonial struggle.

Forget any idea of Highland clans against British regiments. The Jacobites were heavily armed with muskets and formed into conventional regiments. They were drilled according to French conventions and some British army practice and fought next to Franco-Irish and Scoto-French allies. They possessed numerous artillery pieces and fired more balls per man than the British.

On the other hand, they had no more than 200 mounted men; the British had almost four times as many. Once the Jacobite frontline failed to break the British front at more than one point, their reinforcements were readily disrupted by British cavalry and dragoons on the wings, and the ensuing disorder led to collapse. The British benefited from using their cavalry late, having learned from the battles of Prestonpans and Falkirk.

The Jacobite army also only numbered about 5,000, barely a third its maximum strength in the rising of 1745-46 and several thousand fewer than the British. It fought Culloden in spite of these numbers partly because it was a regular army and unsuited to a guerrilla campaign. Culloden was always going to be difficult for the Jacobites to win, but this manpower shortage – combined with the lack of cavalry – was critical. That was what made it possible for the British dragoon blades to cut down the Jacobite musketeers.

Charles Stuart: the Young Pretender. Wikimedia

The Jacobites are also usually accused of choosing the wrong battlefield. The Irish quartermaster and Jacobite adjutant general John Sullivan gets blamed for persuading Prince Charles to choose boggy, flat terrain, which did not play to the army’s strengths.

Some historians argue that the error was not listening to an alternative suggestion by the prince’s lieutenant-general, Lord George Murray. But while it is true that Sullivan vetoed several other sites, one of which at least was Murray’s choice, neither made sense.

The best site was chosen by Sullivan 1km east of the final battle line. Its only disadvantage was that it was very visible to the Royal Navy in the Moray Firth. This delayed the Jacobites’ night attack on April 15 and in the subsequent confusion they ended up deployed further west than intended. In that sense, no-one “chose” the final battlefield.

Civil war or conquest?

Until the 1960s, Culloden was seen as the final battle in an Anglo-Scottish conflict. It was the precursor to the Highlands becoming the last part of Scotland to be fully incorporated into Great Britain, the British Empire and, most importantly, the British army. This helped underline the sense of Jacobites as aliens: Gaelic-speaking Catholics in an English-speaking Protestant country (never mind that all Jacobite military orders were in English).

But the rise of modern Scottish nationalism made the idea of an Anglo-Scottish battle uncomfortable. Jacobitism has nationalist implications nowadays. Since the 1960s, there has been a determined effort by British historians to present Culloden as the final battle in a civil war. “British army” is often supplanted by “government troops” or “Hanoverians”, despite being more British by some distance than the force commanded by Wellington at Waterloo.

Jacobite re-enactment. Rob Eaglesfield, CC BY-SA

Culloden was of course a civil war, as was the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21 or the American War of Independence. But every national struggle divides its nation, and the Jacobite Rising of 1745-46 was certainly a fight for a Scottish nation, too. Ending the Anglo-Scottish union of 1707 to restore the Stuarts’ multi-kingdom monarchy was a key Jacobite war aim.

So not only is the “primitives” narrative wrong and not only was the battle quite different to the memory, but Culloden was the final significant defeat of a Scottish alternative to the British state. The irony is that a federal British Isles under a single crown, which had existed between 1603 and 1707 and is effectively what the Jacobites wanted, is closer to where we are today than the victors of Culloden could ever have imagined.

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