The Battle of Culloden

April 16, 2019

 

 

 

'Bonnie Prince Charles' had been waiting most of his life for the right time to fight for his throne. Prince William Duke of Cumberland, soon to be nicknamed 'The Butcher', had only waited four months for the right time to deny Bonnie Prince Charles that same right. He waited until a rainy day on 16th April 1745, one day after his 25th birthday, to pack up and move his well-rested army towards Culloden Moor.  

 

It would be the last battle on British soil and it would be catastrophic.    

 

Cumberland's father, George II, had been sitting firmly on the throne of England in the autumn of 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie set sail for Scotland from Italy. Everyone new George II loved a fight. If he wasn't fighting with the Spanish, he was fighting with his Prime Minister Robert Walpole or with his son Frederick. And there was no love lost between Frederick and his younger brother William either. By 1745, the people of England were getting thoroughly sick and tired of it all. 

 

Instead of fighting with his children, George should have been spending more time watching the Stuarts in Italy. James Francis Stuart and his son Charles were watching closely and making preparations to take back what they saw as rightfully theirs. James had already made his son his regent and invested him with the title of Charles III and by 1745, money had been raised with the help of France. Charles was basically an Italian who was challenging the Germans for the English throne with the help of the French.

 

When Charles set sail for Scotland, hoping for a warm welcome from the Highland clans once he’d landed, he must have been feeling more than a little nervous. With only two ships, it was always going to be difficult and he was going to need every bit of his charisma and leadership skills considering he only had seven companions with him as well.

 

Scotland can be bitterly cold in autumn but there is nowhere much colder than the small isolated island of Eriskay, north west of Scotland. If Charles had missed it, his next stop would have been Iceland. Today, ferries take 40 mins to cross the causeway to Barra, another equally isolated spot on the mainland, but for Charles, it would have taken him many days to make the crossing in the constant drenching rain.

 

When Charles landed, the sky was a steel grey and the winds were howling but despite the weather, and fortunately for him, he was to find that the Jacobites were in love with the past. They seemed to have forgotten about his father’s failed attempt years before and were still intent on bringing the Stuarts back home along with their divine right to rule. With support from the Highland clans, both Catholic and Protestant, Charles gathered a force large enough to march on to Edinburgh. By early November, with his father’s standard raised at Glenfinnan, Edinburgh surrendered to him.

 

The anxiety in the English court was palpable as news arrived that Charles had set up court at Holyrood Palace and had issued a public declaration. He’d stated that the Germans were engaging Britain in a personal, irrelevant foreign war that was a pointless drain on English money and that war was disrupting English trade. It wasn’t King George who was suffering, it was the English people and they’d had enough.

 

England was certainly listening. Everything Charles was saying was true. England was being run by barbaric foreigners who had no idea or care about the English people. Their king was spending so much time in Hanover. A satirical note had even been pinned to St James Palace decrying his absence. ‘Lost or strayed out of the house’ the note quipped and it had been read by thousands of people before George had it ripped down from the gates. They were certainly in full agreeance with Charles who then added, ‘who wanted to be ruled by a foreigner anyway?’ 

 

It was a clever way to run down the Germans to the British public and you can see how this touched a raw nerve. Even the new Prime Minister, William Pitt, had stated that they needed more self-confidence as a nation and that the Georgians were treating the country like a province of Hanover not the formidable country that it was. That statement certainly did not win him any favours with George.

 

As Charles marched south at the head of approximately 10,000 men, tension mounted even more in the English court. George was busting for a fight as usual and he was ready to leap onto his horse and lead the charge. Ever the diplomat, Pitt tactfully reminded George of his advancing age and eventually convinced him to leave the fight to his youngest and favourite son William since Frederick had stated he would have nothing to do with it all.

 

Frederick was well aware that his younger brother was in his father’s good books and even without the added aggravation, they were like chalk and cheese. Frederick was busy trying to impress on the English that he was a much more gentle person than his overweight, obnoxious, aggressive younger brother who had a penchant for picking fights and starting wars like their argumentative father. 

 

It was probably the final straw for George. He had been thinking recently about his will and this fresh declaration only served to annoy him even more. He already regarded Frederick as the ‘black sheep’ of the family, and even his mother once famously described him as "the greatest ass and the greatest liar … and the greatest beast in the whole world’, adding ‘and I heartily wish he were out of it". Frederick had just pushed George that one bit further to making a final decision. He came up with the idea to reshuffle the line of succession after his death by giving Frederick the role of Elector of Hanover while putting the crown of England firmly and squarely on the head of his favourite son William instead.

 

While the two brothers bickered endlessly with each other, as well as with their father, Charles was taking full advantage of the volatile situation and had been on the move again. He had taken Carlisle and Manchester comfortably and continued further on to Derby. But as he travelled further south, he found a totally unexpected and worrying lack of support for the Jacobites in England. 

 

We know now that Charles was 30 years too late in his attempt to take back his throne. Though no one could say they particularly liked the Hanoverians, George and his family were firmly established in England by then and no one seemed interested in yet another monumental change. Sure, the English disliked the Germans. They were boorish and cold and could barely speak the language. And they fought callously and endlessly with each other. But England had not been happy with the arrogance of the Stuarts either. They still remembered the many times that Charles I and Charles II, as well as his brother James II, had dissolved Parliament because they couldn't get their own way.

 

Perhaps England was spot-on in their observation because arrogance seems to have been Charles’ biggest downfall. Because of the lack of English support, Charles was given advice, good advice, from his colonels to return to Scotland to rethink their plans. Charles on the other hand didn’t want to return. By returning to Scotland, it would look like he was retreating and that was not his intention. It was so far from the actual truth it was laughable. He wanted England to know that he wasn’t afraid of a battle. That’s what he’d come for and that’s what was going to happen.

 

As adamant as he was, his council wouldn’t budge either. They’d heard that the English army was gathering force and as much as Charles tried to convince them that France was launching an invasion as well, no one wanted to listen.

  

In the end, Charles had no other choice but to reluctantly take the advice of his colonels and begin the long march back north. They withdrew on 6th December 1745, marching north through freezing snowstorms, taking whatever food and money they needed from the already cash-strapped towns. It was when they reached Glasgow that Charles’ army made their fateful and worst mistake. They threatened to ransack the city if they weren’t housed and fed. They even demanded all the boots and shoes of the townspeople of Dumfries since they’d worn their own out on the long trek. It wasn’t the way it should have been done and because of it, he lost even more valuable support from men who would have joined him willingly otherwise.

 

As Charles marched, George recalled William from Austria to act as his Commander at the head of the army to deal with the rebellion up north. By January, William had arrived in Scotland, taken control of the English army and made his first decision. They would wait out the cruel winter in Aberdeen until reinforcements from Prince Frederick of Hesse joined his rejuvenated army. 

 

Charles was ready for a fight but he should have listened to Commander Murray when he was told not to stop on the flat, marshy ground of Drumossie Moor, three miles south of Culloden. The terrain was bad enough but it wasn’t the only problem Murray was facing. His men were from Highland clans and they were basically wild, untrained ruffians fighting with pitchforks, scythes and axes. Only one-fifth of them had a sword. Even the colonels from the Macdonald clan considered their men to be uncontrollable.

 

On the evening of 15th April, while the government army was celebrating Cumberland's 25th birthday with two gallons of brandy for each regiment, Murray was planning a night attack on the government camp. His original plan was to carry out a surprise night attack on the government’s camp. They would set out at dusk and march to Nairn, 16 miles north of Inverness and as Murray attacked William’s rear, Charles would bring up the second line.

 

Unfortunately, there were countless delays and they only started out at 8pm, leaving Murray to lead the slow-going, exhausted army across the countryside in the dark. By the time the leading troop reached Culraick, it was one hour before dawn and Murray decided there was not enough time to mount a surprise attack. He sent another commander to inform Charles of the change of plan, but he missed Charles in the dark.

 

It ended up a disorganised shambles. In the darkness, while Murray led one-third of the Jacobite forces back to camp, the other two-thirds continued towards their original objective, unaware of the change in plan. Not long after the exhausted Jacobite forces made it back to Culloden, reports came in of the advancing government troops. By then, many of the Jacobite soldiers had dispersed in search of food, while others were asleep in ditches. Meanwhile, William’s rested army struck camp at about 5am and were well on their way to Culloden.

 

By 11am, both armies were within sight of each other with open moorland lying soggily between them. As the government forces steadily trudged across the moor in the driving rain, sleet blew into the faces of the already exhausted Jacobite army, hindering their progress even more.

 

Charles just didn’t stand a chance. Within an hour, any Jacobites who had not been shot were being butchered and run through with redcoat bayonets and any survivors left standing were simply dropping their weapons and running. It was the day the Jacobite cause bled to death on the marshes of Scotland and a day they would remember losing 1500 - 2000 loyal men. In striking contrast, William is reported to have lost only 50 Englishmen with 259 wounded, although a high proportion of those wounded would most likely have died of their wounds later on.

 

It was a relatively short battle but the significance cannot be underestimated. The story of Culloden represents the last stand of an ancient royal dynasty that could trace its ancestry back to the Dark Ages and quite simply, it was the end of an era for Scotland. 

 

Charles’ flight has become a romantic legend with songs and poems written to tell the sad story.  They tell of his escape, hiding in the moors of Scotland and criss-crossing the country for more than five months to evade capture. Many highlanders saw him and helped him, but none of them betrayed him for the £30,000 reward that had been offered, although heaven knows, they could have used the cash. The songs tell how Flora Macdonald helped Charles escape in a small boat dressed as a milkmaid over to the Isle of Skye in the hope of fleeing back to France.  They also tell of a heart wrenching longing for Charles to return to them one day. In their perhaps misguided loyalty, they had worshipped him and sacrificed their lives for his cause and they were so sure he would remember that fact and return.

 

He never did.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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