The Battle of Culloden which took place on April 16th, 1746, was the final and climactic clash of the Jacobite Rising of 1745, resulting in complete English victory and the disbanding and defeat of the Jacobite cause entirely. Losses for the Jacobite army were tremendous and lopsided, and those who did survive were driven into exile as the English Crown set about destroying the Highland way of life and culture- a form of ethnic cleansing that still reverberates through the centuries to this day.
The Jacobite army that fought at Culloden was flush with victory after the battles of Prestonpans and Falkirk Muir, especially the former as the Highland Charge proved as shockingly effective against British Regulars as it had been in the previous century and had imbued the Jacobite army with a fearful mystique as a result. This army had even invaded England proper and captured of the town of Derby in the winter of 45’, but ultimately was forced to retreat back to Scotland after the promised “rallying to the cause” did not materialize. Still, the Jacobite army, at over 8000 strong, was a force to be reckoned with as it moved back north into Scotland with various English armies following cautiously in its wake.
What that Jacobite army could not have predicted, however, was that the winter of 1745/46 would prove to be a difficult one which would cause the desertion of many a Highlander back to his home. That, and not only were the forces the English sending against them better led than the ones defeated at Prestonpans, but those forces were also trained in a new bayonet technique. Incorporating the newly designed socket-bayonet which allowed the firing of the musket while fixed, this new bayonet drill would prove the undoing of the fearsome Highland Charge at the Battle of Culloden that spring. All of this coupled with a tactical blunder on the very night before the battle, which seriously weakened the Jacobite army and exhausted its ranks, made the Battle of Culloden a complete disaster for both the Jacobite army and its cause.
I have walked over and though many battlefields thus far in my life; Stirling Bridge, Plains of Abraham, Cowpens, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Verdun, and Omaha Beach to name a few. Yet the Culloden battlefield caused a tightness in my chest the moment I stepped through the visitor center doors that I had never quite felt before, and I felt a force laying a heavy hand on my shoulders that seemed to want to pull me down into the long grass and bury me there. It is powerful. It is savagely beautiful. It is painfully small for all of the blood that was shed there. Tactically there wasn’t much to the battle itself, the field dictating terms sort of speak as the opposing forces arrayed frontally in the midst of a stone wall and deceptively boggy ground. The Park Service has planted flag poles flying the colors of the opposing forces so that as one walks the field they can visualize where the forces were at the start of the clash.
I had the wonderful opportunity to meet a Jacobite Highland infantry reenactor at Urquhart Castle the week before visiting Culloden, and he showed me among other things the fearsome method of the Highland Charge. With broadsword, targe, and dirk, he ominously described the Highland warrior as a “threshing machine” as he crashed into and then waded through a line of opposing infantry. This “threshing machine” assault would churn into a line of opposing infantry, causing it to falter and begin to flee as cohesion evaporated and casualties mounted. Unable to reload in time nor defend themselves properly in tight ranks, most infantrymen chose to run for their lives rather than be mowed down like standing wheat. That is, until a combination of training and the socket-bayonet gave the English army at Culloden the tools it needed to withstand and repulse the fearsome Highland charge. At Culloden the charge was poorly timed and executed due to fatigue and mounting Jacobite casualties from the well-handled English artillery, the result being that when it crashed into the opposing English lines it did so feebly and was beaten back at a horrible loss.
As a United States Civil War reenactor, and a Confederate one at that, I felt a sort of connection to the Jacobite cause as I walked the Culloden battlefield. In the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate forces were mostly victorious until the Battle of Gettysburg, during which they launched an all-out frontal assault known as Pickett’s Charge and were repulsed with great loss by the Union lines. That repulse is often referred to as the “Confederacy’s High Water Mark”, as with the loss of the Battle of Gettysburg the Confederacy would never again invade the north and would eventually be ground down and defeated less than two years later. Similarly, the Highland Charge at Culloden was the “High Water Mark” of sorts for the Jacobite cause, the repulse of which spelled the end of the Jacobite Rising and the Highland way of life.
I cannot recommend strongly enough that you visit the Culloden Battlefield. It is simple and stark, uncluttered save for a few forlorn grave markers, a thatched-roof home that was present for the battle, and the famous burial cairn. If that wasn’t enough, as an added bonus the visitor center is marvelous and well-staffed. It features an extremely informative walk through, an incredible short film on a unique surround screen, and even the opportunity to handle period correct weaponry. What a powerful, educational, and humbling experience.
R. E. Weston