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Culloden Battlefield has plenty of atmosphere. A great visit

Culloden Battlefield saw the last battle on Scottish soil. Not Scots v English, but a civil war. Great on-site visitor centre. A Highland must-see.

Culloden Battlefield

As well as Culloden Battlefield, the National Trust for Scotland look after a range of properties in Scotland, from humble homes to grand castles. (They lean towards grand castles.) They also own wild land and historic sites, of which Culloden Battlefield is probably the best known.

They are a conservation and heritage charity and are supported by members. Basically, right now, times are tough and castles are expensive to maintain. This is another reason why you should include their Culloden Battlefield visitor centre on any Inverness visit. For interpretation, for a learning experience, for an insight into how Scotland stood in the mid-18th century, the National Trust for Scotland have really delivered quality here.

Culloden Battlefield is, strictly speaking, a war grave.

Culloden Battlefield is, strictly speaking, a war grave.

The Memorial Cairn on the battlefield of Culloden. It was erected in 1881 by Duncan Forbes of Culloden in memory of the fallen Jacobites.

The Memorial Cairn on the battlefield of Culloden. It was erected in 1881 by Duncan Forbes of Culloden in memory of the fallen Jacobites.

Culloden Battlefield - War Grave

If you know next to nothing about Culloden Battlefield at the beginning, you’ll probably be brought up short when you see the site is actually a war grave and not just an afternoon’s diversion.

Last time I was there, the Redcoat giving the talk picked me out to help demonstrate how to handle a musket if you were a nervous soldier. That was fun – but, if you want to, you can study quite hard as you make your way by information panels, audio texts, artefacts, sound tableaux, plus the audio-visual that plays on all four walls of a room and re-enacts the battle in all its slashing, smoky, blood-soaked grimness. Then there are more artefacts, plus material recovered from the battlefield and a very illuminating kind of large table on which the battle is played out diagrammatically, almost like a computer game. (The NTS describe it as an ‘animated battle table’.) Incidentally, In such an atmospheric place, it’s not surprising that there are several ghost stories about Culloden. There a link at the foot of the page.

Battle tactics at Culloden – dealing with the Highland charge

Here is  a slightly bloodthirsty aside from my own schooldays. I remember at school my history teacher, chalky gown flowing like a Highland plaid, demonstrating General Cumberland’s plan for his regular soldiers to deal with the previously unstoppable Highland charge. I want you to imagine this...

You are a government soldier. On the Culloden Battlefield there is a line of hairy and ferocious Highlanders yelling and screaming as they ran towards you. Swords are upraised in their right hands; targes (round leather shields) are held out in front with the left arm. You have fired your musket, made a few gaps perhaps, but haven’t time to re-load so you are going to hold the bayonet out in front, instinctively, while thinking that maybe the navy would have been a better career choice after all...

Culloden Moor, looking south.

Culloden Moor, looking south.

(Above) A general view of the battlefield, looking south, on a grey, slightly sleety spring day. The battle was fought in similar weather conditions. The object in the foreground is a marker or memorial to the Clan Mackintosh dead, one of several clan memorials on the site.

Wait, what about those grim-looking Highlanders, swords upraised, roaring towards you? Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK, because General Cumberland had seen Highlanders in action before – probably the 42nd Regiment of Foot at the Battle of Fontenoy (in Belgium) when they were on the brave but losing Hanoverian side against the French – so he knew the Highlanders’ preferred tactics. In a close quarter encounter, they took the bayonet thrust on their targe, turned it aside and cut down with their sword. The result was spectacularly messy.

The story goes that he instructed his men not to thrust the bayonet at the Highlander in front but to the Highlander immediately to their right – in effect, underneath the upraised sword arm. (This naturally assumes that the soldier immediately to your left simultaneously deals with the Highlander directly in front of you. Because this opposing wild clansman is intent upon opening you up like a haggis on Burns Night. Yes, the history class that day was a great success and we must have practised for hours in the playground.)

Leanach cottage on the battlefield - 30 Jacobites were said to have been burnt in here. The cottage was inhabited until 1912.

Leanach cottage on the battlefield - 30 Jacobites were said to have been burnt in here. The cottage was inhabited until 1912.

The Culloden Battlefield Visit

I mulled over all this while strolling on the battle field – the real thing that lies windswept and open beyond the displays. Only in retrospect did I realise that I was lucky to be getting any Scottish history lessons at all. And I recalled that, as a cheeky young pupil, I pointed out to the teacher that the tactic could not have worked against left-handed Highlanders and that it assumed that the two lines met at the same moment.

I can’t vouch for the frequency of left handers at the Culloden Battlefield but one of the vivid impressions from the way the battle-site events are portrayed is the indecision and hesitation on the part of the Jacobite commanding officers under Prince Charles. When the Highland charge came it was ragged and uneven, with only the right wing making impact. Outgunned and out-manoeuvred, it was all over for the Jacobites pretty quickly.

The Brutal Aftermath of Culloden

The visitor centre displays make much of the brutal aftermath, after Bonnie Price Charlie had been led off the field. The wounded in the field were bayoneted where they lay. Even locals who had wondered out from Inverness for the entertainment were butchered on the road by government forces instructed to spare no-one in their hunt for the Prince. But even in the midst of carnage and reprisal, there was obviously time for a bit of souvenir hunting, as a government volunteer afterwards wrote that after the battle ‘Inverness became a wonderful exchange for an odd variety of Merchandize.’

The Clan Donald grave marker. Johanna's maternal ancestors are from the this clan.

The Clan Donald grave marker. Johanna's maternal ancestors are from the this clan.

Talking of which, there is a very good shop in the visitor centre (and a café). And such artefacts in the main displays! A ticket to see the trial of Lord Lovat, a Jacobite leader, in London. (He was executed.) A letter in French from Bonnie Prince Charlie himself to King Louis of France, asking for more money. And a load of other interesting stuff. Browsing here is just the way to spend a wet afternoon.

Culloden - a Scotland must see

I remember the ‘original’ visitor centre as quite an emotional place. The NTS have avoided sentimentality of the ‘Wae’s Me for Prince Chairlie’ sort with this impressive offering, instead offering a fascinating analysis of the significance of the last battle fought on Scottish soil. It’s a Scotland ‘must see’.

The tartans worn at the battle by both sides, many historians point out, could not be used to distinguish friend from foe in the field. Instead that was done by badges – hence the famous ‘white cockade’ of the Jacobites. Find out more about tartan on the what is tartan link below. Or follow this link for more on Bonnie Prince Charlie.  The reference to Culloden ghost stories is on that link.

So, did the National Trust for Scotland get it just right with the interpretation and the visitor experience at Culloden? Yes. Can the same be said for their even newer visitor centre that deals with the Battle of Bannockburn? Follow that link for our thoughts on that one.

As you will probably visit Culloden if you visit Inverness - best take a look at our dedicated 48 hours in Inverness page. And down at the other end (the Fort William end) of the Great Glen there's a super walk to the High Bridge that also played its part in the story of the Jacobites and Prince Charles Edward Stuart.