The Battle of Culloden 1746.

Culloden by Morier. Royal Collection

This is a Dramatic reconstruction of the General course of events that occurred on Culloden Moor 271 years ago.

Spring had come late to the Highlands. Across the slate grey waters of the Moray Firth snow caps coated the peaks of the distant mountains beyond the Black Isle. By midday on the 16th of April 1746 a cold westerly wind was blowing an icy shower of sleet over two armies standing on an upland plateau formed by the valley of the River Nairn and the ground sloping down to the Firth. For the most part it was a common stretch of grazing land, dotted with some crofters cottages, five miles east of Inverness, and forming part of the Culloden estate that abutted the larger Drumossie Moore which stretched south and west towards Nairn. Long trunk lines of red marked one army while the other, a line of dark and varied tartans blended with the grass and heather.

The Jacobites had been standing there for some hours, slowly mustering their scattered forces until there was 5,250 of them. Sleet numbing their hands and faces, and iron shot mowing lanes through their tight packed ranks. Their own artillery, 12 silent guns standing silent almost from the time their first shots had passed over Lord Bury’s head 9-15 minutes before and were of no use to anyone. The messenger carrying the orders to charge from Prince Charles lay dead behind the line, a testimony to the Royal artillery having to fire high in order to play on their targets. The ground was too wet for ricochet.

In the rear on a small knoll that was attracting a good deal of fire, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Jacobite claimant to the throne of the three kingdoms, watched dumbfounded as his men stood and died. Another messenger was summoned to bring them word. But the highlanders disliked being sitting targets. The men of Lady Mackintosh’s Regiment, like the entire Highland army were sleep deprived and their stomach’s grumbled for want of food, they had had little but hard tack biscuit and water after an abortive night march on The Duke of Cumberland’s 7,800 man army at Nairn during the night of the 15th. With a sudden cry they began running forwards.

“Chlanna nan con thigibh a so’s gheibh sibh feoil!” Donald Cameron of Lochiel had seen the centre charge. He tossed his plaid across his shoulder, drew his claymore from its sheath and yelled the clan war cry above the discharges of the British guns. The words left his mouth, his sword punched the air, his piper blew life into the bag of the great war pipe under his arm and began to play an ancient battle anthem that got the blood of the clansmen racing, then followed by his standard of gold and red bars he lead his clan to the charge.

With a roar the Cameron’s gave a howl and made a break for the enemy. They rushed forwards along the side of the Culwhiniac enclosure on the right flank of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s line, straight towards the ribbon of red standing several hundred yards to their front thinly veiled by a quarter of an hours worth of cannon smoke.

In a blink of an eye the Jacobite front line divided itself into three distinct masses of tightly packed clansmen who with terrible concentration fixed themselves on course to smash into the Prince Duke’s line standing at its closest 600 yards away, bayonets fixed and muskets loaded, silent under their bright colours, arms tucked inside their wide lapels to keep the wet from dampening their firing pans.

Splashing through lochans and bogs that sucked the shoes from their feet the highland line hurled itself forward, blue bonnets pulled determinedly down over their brows, heads bent and targes up in front of their faces. Muskets were loaded, and those that had bayonets lowered them towards the enemy, the front rank men cocking their pistols and fusils as they ran, ready to give the traditional volley before going in hand to hand, just like at Prestonpans. But they’d had surprise and dry ground on their side in 1745.

The opposing lines at Culloden by Sandby. Royal Collection.

At five hundred yards Cumberland’s blue coated gunners, standing on mats of heather to stop their pieces from sinking into the wet ground, switched to canister shot and wheeled their pieces back into position after the last recoil. The ventsman of each gun held his gloved thumb firmly over the touch-hole as the barrel was scoured, cleaned and the charge rammed home, then at the word “prepare to fire”, they all stepped back and the gunner blew on his linstock so that the ember glowed. Above the roar of their own voices he clansmen heard the high singsong English voices yell “Fire!”

An invisible hand emanating from those hollow sounding thumps wiped gaping holes in the dark charging masses, like a man wiping condensation from a fogged up window. The rear ranks of highlanders now saw daylight to their front as the men blocking their view were cut down and matted the ground before them with their bodies. Checked but for a moment they rushed unthinking over the remains of brother, father, cousin and uncle with the light of battle fury flooding their eyes.
Though many men had impatiently thrown down their firelocks, midway across the moor the centre and right opened a ragged fire that merely brought a few crisp calls of “To the centre close step!” from the faceless wall in front of them, and the last charge continued.

Four guns firing canister opened wide lanes in the attacking formations. By the time they got close enough to hurt, 300 men, mostly of clan Cameron were out of action. At 50 yards, in between the artillery blasts, they heard the series of orders, meaningless to a Gaelic ear, rise from the well rested and fed redcoats. Yet a roll of drums and a harsh sharp rattling sound on the wind coupled with the odd flash of dead watery sun on steel was universal in its menace. “Have a care!” the first rank sank to its knees and the third rank took a pace to their left so now every musket had a full field of fire “Make Ready!” the drums rolled and the muskets rose so the locks were level with the soldiers lips and back to half cock came the hammers “Prepare to give fire”.

From the charging ranks all the highlanders could see through the shifting smoke and blowing sleet was the line flinch as the redcoats put their weight on their forefoot and levelled their muskets. Thousands of hammers were now pulled to full cock, now was the time to blink hard and pray. In the deadly pause, the bagpipes, the rush of the wind, all seemed to become encompassing, and the bloodthirsty war cries of their ancestors lifted above the cannons roar.

A moment later as the next salvo of canister blasts wiped families to atoms the order came “Give!” The word fire was lost amidst the almighty rattle and roar of musketry which drowned out all but the drumbeat. More clansmen, up to 100 of them, where thrown onto the damp ground of the moor. The briefest of yellow flashes from 1,000 muskets licked along their British front and the red line disappeared in its own smoke.

Now all the highlanders could see as they rushed yelling and screaming into the cloud were the rows of black buttoned white gaiters growing out of the grass, disembodied as the smoke built up upon itself with each volley. “Reload!” The world had became a slow motion nothingness full of anger and fear, they dove into the smoke bank that carried with it the tinge of blind death and the rattle of steel ramrods ceased.

King’s Colour of Barrel’s 4th Foot (The King’s Own). National Museums of Scotland.

The foreign orders came again, af point blank range, and a matter of 20 seconds later “Make Ready!” It mixed with the final crescendo of artillery, the clans ran out of the smoke of one volley only to be enfolded another, this time in the teeth “Give-Fire!”. Another 100 tumbled to the earth. As they fell the heather and moss took on a life of its own. The wounded kicked and writhed amongst the still dead, those who yet had not lost the battle fury urged on the living, or stumbled up and staggered onwards to fall a few paces closer to the enemy.

The officers had taken the brunt of the first volleys. Cameron of Locheil, gallant, gentle and loyal Lochiel was down, his ankles shattered by canister, he lay on the cold soaking ground, claymore upraised calling on his children to fight bravely and to go onwards. In the centre the middle group had encountered a span of oozing bog. The ground of the moor was deceptive in its flatness. A slight elevation ran like a spine through the middle of the field and curved towards the British left flank. The lower ground was therefore liable to become waterlogged due to drainage. Encountering this bog, which extended and widened across the low ground in front of the Jacobite centre and left and flailed by platoon volleys that lashed them from the other side at the appalling speed of three rounds a minute, Lady Mackintosh’s regiment swerved right. They followed the incline which lead them onto the firmer ground that Lord George’s battalions were crossing and slammed into the left flank of the Appin Stewart’s. Penning all against the men already running along the Culwhiniac enclosure, accidentally creating an irresistible force of dark plaided bodies pale screaming faces, and blue bobbing bonnets.

Cries of “Close! Close! Claymore!” rose ecstatically into the torn sky. The men standing in the front ranks saw the broadswords rise and realised it would come down to their bayonets. The tumult was drowned momentarily by the final discharge of canister and that final close range volley from 4th and 37th foot, who then braced grimly for the impact.

“Battalion, prepare to charge Bayonets!” the crisp order rolled out from the centre of both regiments, the muskets swept up like the close pricks of a hedgehog, up stood the first rank, with muddied knees and white knuckles. The call was “To the right oblique. Charge-Bayonets!” Along the left flank over 600 Brown Bess firelocks were instantly shortened and the men took up the manual posture “Charge your bayonet breast high”. Placing the buttplate of the musket into the palm of the right hand, and the left hand grasping hold near the swell of the stock at the same time the weapon was raised laterally to chest level so the bayonet seemed to project out from the shoulder. Every man then braced, leaning slightly forewords and taking a step back with the right foot. With perhaps a sharp “Huzzah!”, the line took up the altered bayonet stance that the Duke had I nstructed them to adopt when faced with the highland charge. A few seconds later the clash came.

“Stand fast the fourth. Push your bayonets!” The clansmen came screaming through the smoke, powder smeared and mad in the eyes, yelling for the death of their foes “Run ye dogs run!”. 500 highlanders had been shot down by this point alone. The redcoats were confident and took a firm lunging step, thrusting with their weapons, the front rank of bayonets buried themselves deep in between Highland ribs.

With the front prickles of the red beast suitably covered and writhing the second wave was on them, lapping around their flanks and overturning the guns, and instantly all order went out the window. The front rank was a mass of slipping, stabbing, yelling men falling and fighting over a multi coloured carpet of dead. It was close desperate and brutal with no time for mercy. Claymore’s circled evilly in the dark sky and came cleaving down, slicing their way forwards, cutting left and right, dirks and spiked shields stabbed and evicerated, yet the redcoats held on grimly, lunging out as they where taught, stabbing through the ribs under the sword arm, then punching the useless weight away and battering clansmen down with their musket butts. But the highlanders had muskets too and it soon became clear that no bayonet drill ever invented was going to repulse this attack.

Appin Stewart Regiment closes on the British line. Painting by the Author.

Lord Mark Kerr, captain of the 4th’s Grenadiers had fulfilled his duty as an officer by showing the rank and file how to die, coolly stepping forwards as his men began to give ground, and with expert timing fixating a highland officer through the throat with his spontoon. A moment later he was almost cut to pieces as he struggled to retrieve his point. The Lieutenant Colonel, standing at his regulation post between his colours, came tumbling back through his milling, ranks minus his sword hand while the brave ensign took his colours to earth with him being cut about as he lay on the ground. The union flags wavered, fell and stumbled back, the saltire’s floated on.

More and more Jacobites were now slamming into the two regiments, steel and screams were high above the volleying that was now coming from the right. They ran up, hesitated as they looked for an opening and plunged in, battering bayonets away and slicing the owners in two before being skewered by the fallen man’s comrade. No regiment could take such medieval punishment for so long and not face annihilation, not a single bayonet of Barrel’s Regiment was left unbent or stained to the muzzle with blood.

Slashing, cutting and hewing in the tradition of his ancestors each Clansman hacked and stabbed with all his skill and might until green grass and grey sky appeared through the centre of the Kings Own. Who still did not break but wheeled aside like a double door, begrimed and smeared the Jacobites scented victory and stumbled through the widening arms of Barrels regiment with frenzied cheering, the red and gold colour’s of the Cameron’s flew onwards next to the Appin’s gold Cross, shot riven but proud, they were about to turn the British flank and win the battle.

“Refuse the flank!” was the cry from the 37th regiment as 4th snapped in two. The front rank charged bayonets breast high while the rear ranks continued to load and fire, still their left flank was terribly mauled. The Highlanders poured through to the wild but steady shriek of the pipes. As the mass of clansmen cut their way to glory, Lieutenant General Lord George Murray had lost his horse, he as wigless and powder stained, as he hurried back to bring up the French Regular infantry to exploit the breach.

Meanwhile highlandmen were rushed onwards, pell mell, past the first British line, tasting victory and gunpowder as one. A great ball of seemingly unstoppable, slashing, death . From rear of the British army Coehearn mortars thumped unseen and exploded in puffs of white smoke overhead, spraying both sides with shards of metal, killing both highlander and redcoat indiscriminately.

Colour carried by the Appin Stewarts at Culloden. National Museums of Scotland.

Staggering through the shredded hole of redcoats the clansmen now enemy battalions moving in dense unshaken lines to their front and left. Thousands of were redcoats marching steadily, towards them, extending and separating to negotiate crofts and difficult terrain to the beat of drums. The resurgence of hoarse war cries was met by orders of manoeuvre and fire as General Huske brought up the second line to plug the gap as the mortars exploded overhead.

The officers had died, now the Sergeants showed the men how to fight. Bobbing forests of shining muskets stopped dead and dropped to the present. Levelled halberds told them where to halt, the drums and calm orders told them it was time to shoot. The first volley checked the already staggered charge, men fell like leaves in an autumn gale, they came on yet, but where lashed with another volley and another and another. The red monster formed a great horseshoe of flashing muskets that played upon the dwindling mass of clansmen with terrible destruction.

Lively yellow flame flickered along the lines against the unnatural darkness caused by the smoke. So intense was the speed in which the rounds were pumped into the yelling mass of smoke, for no human form could be seen through the dense cloud, that it sounded like the steady repeating roar of breakers crashing successively against an embankment.

A dull moan of defeat was heard above the cries of the wounded as the core of Highlanders, having done all that was humanly possible recoiled and began to flood back over their dead relatives towards their own line. The golden saltire of Appin was passed from hand to hand until it was torn from its pole and smuggled off the field. Redcoats found themselves being struck by rocks, hurled in impotence by the retreating clans.

Up on the left of the Highland line the Clan Donald didn’t even make contact, due to the strange slant of the Jacobite line and the subtle slope of the ground, they had further to run, boggier and more exposed ground to cover and they were in a strop because they had been persuaded to surrender the right flank to the Athollmen. Mortified at the inactivity of his clan while the Mackintosh’s and Cameron’s charged, old Macdonald of Keppoch rushed out alone accompanied by a handful of officers, against the men of the Royals and Pulteney’s not far from where the Prince Duke was himself posted.

“My God, my God!” he cried turning to his immobile clan “Have the men of my Clan deserted me!” the words barley left his mouth before a volley from the enemy crushed out. A bullet shattered his right arm, but he continued onwards nevertheless. The Royals and neighbouring regiments were observed to barely take their firelocks from their shoulders, so quick and consistent was their fire. Macdonald staggered into the next volley and fell with a bullet lodged in his chest. Though they at times resented the old man, the shamed and infuriated Macdonald’s now charged crying “Donald! Donald!”

The clan Donald’s fierce reputation was practically the only weapon it used that day as the mire of the left flank checked their impetus and left them with only their targes to protect them from the platoon volleys of the Guards that lashed them with a continuous stutter of volley’s for the whole battle, losing but a few injured to odd musket and pistol shots, these men where left to be carried away by the regimental women, who were distributing water to the powder parched throats of their men.

When Cumberland saw the clan Donald begin to turn about and begin walking off the field, word had already reached him that the crisis on the left had been weathered. The volleying had turned to a fizzing rattle as Huske’s men advanced to turn retreat into rout, Cumberland turned to his Aides de Camp and ordered the dragoons to advance.

As the trumpets sounded walk march drums sounded along the line and cheers broke out as the Prince rode the ranks which then stepped off with charged bayonets, stabbing the heather as they marched, convinced that the Highlanders would have done the same to them where the positions reversed.

British Dragoons charge at the end of the battle of Culloden. Pencil on paper by the author.

The only pipes heard now where those of the Macdonalds and the other came from behind the Culwhiniac enclosure. 4 Companies of Highlanders under command of Ballimore of the 64th had broken down the enclosure walls even before the first gun had been fired. General Hawley’s dragoons had passed through them and were already in the rear of the Jacobite, barely held at arms distance by Lord Elcho.

From this criminally unguarded position the Militia and Regulars had enfiladed the flank of the Jacobite right as they charged. Now as they came streaming past the Campbell’s heaped more injury on their ancient foes by breaking yet more of the old wall down, and yelling their war-cry “Cruachan!” made bruising sallies into the horde of fugitives.

The fighting along the wall was of the bitterest nature and the Jacobite Clansman fought back tenaciously. Small knots of highlanders from both sides plugging the gaps and fought to the last. Ballimore himself fell mortally wounded, and in the rubble of one of the breaches, Major Ghillies MacBean of Lady Mackintosh’s Regiment sold his life dearly. “Save the brave man!” yelled someone as the Militia closed for the kill but no one heeded the gallant plea, MacBean was killed and fell amongst the many he had cut down.

The battle was now beyond retrieval, the wounded Lochiel was carried away by members of his clan, and Prince Charles was lead from the field to stop him throwing himself into the fray and dying with his men. Now the dragoons of the foul mouthed iron hearted General Hawley, who was eager for some revenge for his defeat at Falkirk the year before, drew swords and moved forwards with the chink of bridle chains and the slurp of bog-mud, to cut the Jacobite retreat.

On the right the sight of the mounted redcoat’s brandishing their swords was too much and save for the courageous Macdonalds, eager perhaps to make up for their poor showing, who kept their order the entire right wing of the Prince’s army was thrown into rout, while on the left the pursuers came across the three formed regiments of the French Ecossais du Roi & Irish Picqets who stood with the grandly named Footguard’s of Lord Kilmarnock.

At the same time Hawley’s dragoons crossed the ravine that separated them from Lord Elcho’s refused flank. But the Jacobites scattered as soon as they were charged, yet nevertheless had kept the retreat open long enough for many to escape while the volleys of the French and Scottish regulars kept the infantry back until one by one the, Footguards, and then the Irish picquets broke, leaving the bluecoats of the Drummond’s Ecossais du Roi alone to surrender on favourable terms as the British cavalry got behind them. These were more generous than most Jacobite’s were to see that day during the harrowing pursuit to Inverness.

British casualty reports put losses as 59 dead and over 200 wounded. No accurate record of Jacobite losses was kept, and estimates range from 1,500 to as high as 2,000 casualties, not including substantial amounts of prisoners. About 750 were counted as directly dead on the field.

In the months that followed the destruction of the highland army news began filtering down to the English newspapers of terrible atrocities committed by the army suppressing the Jacobite Rebels in Scotland. At first news of the victory at Culloden was greeted with much celebration by supporters of the current King. The year before the situation could not have looked bleaker, George I himself had left London in preparation to escape as the Highland Army marched victoriously on the Derby, and the French massed troops ready to cross the channel should they be successful. Spirits were understandably high in the Hanoverian camp. Yet the outrage caused by the reports of the atrocities committed by the army, and fuelled by the opposition party in Whitehall, who branded Cumberland “Butcher” was felt even at the time and echoes still resonate today.

It was said that no British army had ever acted so disgracefully, the dark tales of murder, rape pillage and persecution visited on the defenceless population of the highlands fill this period of the campaign. Yet to be fair it is clear that the legends of wholesale massacre over exaggerate the atrocities. Prince Charles disbanded his army and fled. Those who had followed him suffered with their families as their culture was decimated by restrictive laws and harsh military occupation. The stigma of this dark day is such that not a single regiment that fought the Jacobites on the 16th of April 1746 and repelled the highland charge with such courage and resolution have ever been allowed to use Culloden as a battle honour, for in the deeds enacted in its shadow, no honour could be found.

The battle and the doomed cause is at once a poignant legend and a festering sore resting just under the skin of Scotland today, as it is the most recent and visible evidence of Gaelic resistance and British forcible conquest. Even though the popular picture of Scots vs English misses the point that it was more ancient Highland versus new Britain, with undertones of the old Catholic Protestant rivalry, the field of Culloden, loaded with as much atmosphere as the ground is loaded with the the dead, is not a place you can visit today without feeling strong emotions one way or the other.

It is a place were on a quiet day, when the wind howls from the west and blows the sleet and rain across the overgrown tufts of quivering heather, you can just about hear the sounds of the last Highland charge being blown endlessly along with it.
Sources:
The 45′. Christopher Duffy.
Jacobites. Jacqueline Riding.
Culloden. John Prebble.
Culloden. Stuart Reid.
Culloden. Peter Harrington.
Like Hungry Wolves. Stuart Reid.
The Highland Jacobite Army. Stuart Reid.
Highland Clansman. Stuart Reid.
British Redcoat (1). Stuart Reid.
No Quarter Given. Muster Roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s army.
The Making of the British Army. Allan Mallinson.

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