10 Myths about the Battle of Culloden.

Culloden by Morier.

Here are ten common misconceptions about the last major battle fought on British soil.

1. The highlanders were all swordsmen.
The basic facts are that from 750 dead bodies directly found on Culloden battlefield only 190 broadswords could be discovered as opposed to 2,320 muskets. It was indeed commonly accepted that a fully armed highlander should carry, dirk, pistol, musket, targe and sword, and both the Prince’s quartermasters and those supplying the government highland regiments sought to make this a reality. Indeed Charles sailed from France with 1,500 Muskets and 1,800 swords a parity of arms that suggests an attempt to regulate the troops under his command. All of this goes to say that the highland army probably had more muskets than swords, and that doesn’t even begin to factor in the French and lowland Scottish regiments equipped as conventional infantry in the second line.

2. Bayonets won the battle: This aspect of the British victory is commonly touted as the decisive factor but it just isn’t the case. A witness reported that the men of Barrell’s and Munro’s regiments killed one or two men each with their bayonets. But some quick mathematics quickly makes this seem very dubious. Barrell’s numbered just over 300 men, supposing the estimate is correct that means this regiment alone accounted for 3-600 enemy casualties with just their bayonets. This doesn’t tally. Nor does the historical record. Cumberland instructed his infantry to stab into the body of the man opposing the soldier to his right. This proved effective at first but in fact while it blunted the Jacobite charge it neither stopped it nor repelled it. The Clans cut clean through the centre of Barrell’s and was stopped by the concentrated firepower of the second line.

3. No Prisoners: Cumberland’s orders of the day were to give no Quarter to the pretenders troops. In subsequent centuries the image of British soldiers mercilessly skewering wounded highlanders as they advanced is one that has stuck. Though bear in mind all pursuits tend to be quite merciless. However it’s not quite accurate that prisoners were not taken on the field or on the road to Inverness. 154 “Rebel” prisoners and 222 French were recorded as being taken into custody, Cumberland writing on the 17th put the number 24hours later at 600. Indeed the cellars and jails of the town were soon full of Jacobite prisoners, some of whom were wounded, which rather more precludes the idea that all the wounded were instantly massacred. Nevertheless their fate was the fate of rebels and thus the mercy was hollow.

4. The Cowardly Prince.
Another rip roaring wheeze (And one I got fed as a kid) is the one where Bonnie Prince Charlie ran away before the battle ended. Although he would abandon his men at Ruthven, at Culloden he had to be restrained from throwing himself into the fray. The brutal speed with which his cause was lost on the Moor makes it seem like Charlie scarpered early, but recall that realistic estimates of the fighting, discounting the artillery bombardment when the Prince was still on the field, put the duration at somewhere just over 25 minutes. When the Clans were repelled, Charles was rallying broken troops of the second line, it was a downright necessity to get Charles off the field to escape the closing British Dragoons. O’Sullivan told captain Shea of the Prince’s escort, “Yu see all is going to pot. Yu can be of no great succour, so before a general deroute wch will soon be, Seize upon the Prince & take him off…” thus was Charlie removed from the field.

5. The field was not suitable for Highlanders.
This myth mostly comes from Lord George Murray, Jacobite Lt. General who said the field inordinately favoured the British cavalry and artillery and was ill suited to Highlanders due to its open plain flatness. However it’s hard to see why. Firstly the Clans had fought and won on much flatter ground at Prestonpans. Secondly the British cavalry were actually unable to charge until the Jacobites had broken due to the uneven and boggy state of the Moor. Likewise the government artillery were unable to be as effective as usual because the ground was too soft to make the roundshot ricochet. What made Culloden Moore unsuitable was the blatant and unimaginative Jacobite plan, mixed with the boggy state of the field.

6. Most Jacobite Casualties occurred during the Government artillery bombardment.
The contribution of the Royal Artillery in provoking the highland charge cannot be underestimated, but their killing effectiveness as been grossly overestimated. Because the ground was so wet the cannonballs wouldn’t bounce like they were supposed to. Although they did cause casualties they didn’t start becoming deadly until the Clans charged and they switched to canister shot. Although authors like Prebble estimated 30 minutes of unanswered cannon fire inflicting hundreds of casualties, modern authors like Reid put the bombardment at 9-15 minutes and further calculates 90-150 casualties.

7. The Jacobites were all Highlanders.
Only half of the Jacobite Army was made up of clan regiments. The other half was composed of lowlanders such as Lord Ogilvie’s Regiment and Lord Kilmarnock’s Footguards and the French regular troops of the Royal Ecossais, Irish Picquets and Fitzjames’ Horse. There were even remnants of English units integrated in the army, plus deserters from the regular British army who would face no mercy if caught in arms against their former masters.

8. The MacDonalds didn’t charge.
It’s legendary that the three MacDonald Regiments on the left flank failed to engage the enemy with much vigour and indeed never closed with the British. While it’s true that they did not strike a blow it isn’t true that they didn’t charge. The story goes that they were in a snit about Lord George allocating the right flank to the Atholl battalions and refused to obey orders. However in reality they stubbornly refused to redeploy when the Jacobite line was moved closer to the longitude of the Culwhiniac enclosure, thus accounting for the strange skewed nature of the Jacobite line. When the main charge went in, the clan Donald also charged but they had further to run and encountered knee deep bogs that impeded their impetuous and thus when met with the steady platoon volleys of the Royals and Pulteney’s regiments were checked and forced to withdraw by the movement of the enemy cavalry.

9. Cumberland’s army was English.
Just as the Jacobite Army was not all highlanders, Cumberland’s army was not all British. Indeed King George’s army had never been all English. The Duke commanded an army British in makeup and indeed in organisation. 4 of the Government regiments were notionally Scottish to begin with and it has long been a theory that there were more Scots fighting against Charlie than with him. We should also beware of thinking only lowlanders supported King George, 3 independent militia companies of Campbell’s were under the command of Colin Campbell of Ballimore who also commanded his own regular highland company of the 64th Highlanders, amongst these troops were officers drawn from the regular 43rd Highlanders (The Black Watch).

10. The war was over after Culloden.
The Jacobite cause had been dealt a devastating blow at Culloden. The scale of the defeat was great on many levels. Yet an estimated 1-2,000 men had not even been present on the field, arms, money and munitions was to arrive in Scotland from France soon after. The Frasers main force had not actually arrived, and enough of the army had escaped to gather 4,000 or so men at Ruthven on the 17th, all of whom felt it was possible to continue the fight. While it seems impossible that the effects of Culloden could have been reversed, French assistance though unrealistic was never off the table, the fight in military terms was by no means over either and given Cumberland’s harsh actions in pacifying the highlands it isn’t out of the question to think that the butcher might have driven more men to Charlie’s standard if he had stayed to fight on.

Gregory Fremont Barnes, The Jacobite Rebllion 1745-1746.
Murray Pittock. Great Battles: Culloden.

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.

3 Replies to “10 Myths about the Battle of Culloden.”

  1. One thing everyone has ignored down the ages is that both sides were littered with deserters, many of whom were in the pay of the army to which they deserted. They carried essential information, the most important of which I intend to show in the book I have started writing. The story about Cumberland ordering his men to bayonet the enemy to their right is false. (it may have been a con to confuse the Highlanders) as it forgets the fact that the Highlanders had more left handers than any other army in the world and thus these men would have sliced unopposed through the Hanoverians.

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