On 16 April 1746 the last pitched battle fought on the British mainland took less than an hour to reach its bloody conclusion on what is now know as Culloden Moor. It was not, as often portrayed, a battle between the Scots and the English: large numbers of Scots fought on the Government side while the Jacobite army included French units and some English Jacobites. Rather it was the last chapter in a sporadic civil war for succession to the throne that had been under way since 1688 (see our Historical Timeline).
1688 was the year in which King James VII of Scotland and II of England was deposed in favour of William of Orange by a Protestant nobility fearful he was starting a Catholic dynasty. Efforts to restore the Jacobites to the throne had subsequently led to conflict in 1689, 1708, 1715, and in 1719 when Spanish troops landed in Glen Shiel and captured Eilean Donan Castle.
1744 saw the French planning to invade Britain to replace George II with James VII/II's son, also called James, known to history as the Old Pretender. He would have become James VIII/III if the venture succeeded. It didn't: a storm wrecked the French invasion fleet and the French gave up both their plans for an attack on the south coast and a diversionary plan to land a smaller army in Scotland.
Undaunted, the Old Pretender's son, Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender or Bonnie Prince Charlie, took it upon himself to restore the crown to his father. The following year, 1745, he landed in Eriskay, then at Loch nan Uamh before raising his standard at Glenfinnan. He gathered an army largely made up of Highlanders, but including some Irish and French troops, to take on the Government. They quickly reached Perth and then Edinburgh, before heading south towards London. (Continues below image...)
The Jacobites reached Derby on 4 December 1745. It was becoming clear that support from English Jacobites was not emerging as Charles as hoped. And it was becoming equally clear that the French were not going to invade in a timescale that would be of any help to Charles' Jacobite army. Meanwhile Government armies were gathering and the military situation looked increasingly bleak.
Charles Edward Stuart met with his key advisers in what is today the upstairs room of a Derby pub through most of 4 December. Charles was all for pressing on to London: the majority wanted to retreat to Scotland. Charles finally angrily accepted the need to retreat. The Jacobites began their retreat from Derby on 6 December 1745. What none of them knew was that the Welsh Jacobites has risen in support of them, and others in Oxfordshire were on the point of doing so. Neither did they know that London was in panic and that George II's court was packing his belongings onto ships on the Thames ready to flee to the Continent.
It has been said that had the Jacobites pressed on, George II would have fled; that the English and French would have avoided a further 70 years of conflict; that the English would not have had to raise taxes in the colonies to pay for the French wars; and that the Americans would have had no cause to fight a war for their independence. And, arguably, the French revolution would not have happened. The world might have been a very different place but for a closely argued decision taken in the upstairs room of a pub in Derby one dark winter's evening in December 1745.
Once the retreat was under way, the eventual outcome was probably inevitable as the Government had the time it needed to assemble and marshal its much greater forces. The Jacobites did defeat a Hanoverian army at the Battle of Falkirk Muir on 17 Janujary 1746, but failed to capitalise on it. By February 1746 Charles was based in Inverness, while the Government forces under the Duke of Cumberland, son of George II, were based in Aberdeen and Dunkeld.
If the outcome after the retreat from Derby was inevitable, the outcome of the Battle of Culloden was doubly so. The Jacobites moved out of their Inverness base on 15 April and assembled on Culloden Moor, five mile to the east. They had succeeded in leaving most of their food and other supplies behind in Inverness. They had also selected for their battlefield ground recorded as "treeless", "boggy" and "bare moor": much more suited to the weapons and tactics of the Government forces than to their own charge and slash approach. The higher ground to the south would have suited them much better.
As night fell, the Jacobite commanders came up with the idea of marching to Nairn, some 12 miles away, to surprise the drunken Government army. However, by dawn next morning the Jacobites were still two miles short of Nairn, and Government troops were stirring. The Jacobites turned and marched the ten miles back to Culloden.
So when the Jacobite army did finally face the Government army across 500 yards of Culloden Moor at 11am on 16 April 1746, most had not eaten for more than two days; they had endured a pointless forced march and retreat throughout the previous night; and they were on ground ideally suited to the Government army's artillery and dragoons, and totally unsuited to their own single tactic of charging down the enemy.
And they were at a numerical disadvantage. The Jacobites numbered at most 5,000 men, while the Duke of Cumberland's Government army facing them was perhaps 8,000 strong, including 800 mounted dragoons. To make matters worse, many of the Jacobites had dispersed in search of food; while others had simply fallen asleep in ditches and buildings. When you add to all of this the much better equipped and trained artillery available to the Government forces, the outcome of the battle was certain before it began.
When the battle commenced, the Government artillery was able to pick off the Jacobites at long range, eventually provoking them into a charge. This reached the Government lines at the southern end of the line of conflict, but was repulsed after savage hand-to-hand conflict. Elsewhere the mass of charging Highlanders did not even reach the Government lines. They were simply stopped by musket and cannon fire before they came close enough to use their broadswords and targes or shields.
In less than an hour it was all over. Some 50 Government troops had been killed and a further 300 wounded. A much larger number of Jacobites and others had been killed during the battle. Many more were killed as they lay wounded on the battlefield or after being taken prisoner. And the Government dragoons dispatched to hunt down fleeing Jacobites roamed far and wide, indiscriminately killing rebels, bystanders, spectators, residents and anyone else who was within reach. It is estimated that the total dead on the Jacobite side was around 1,250. A total of 3,470 Jacobites, supporters and others were taken prisoner in the aftermath of Culloden. Of these 120 were executed and 88 died in prison; while 936 were transported to the colonies and 222 more "banished". Many of the rest were eventually released, though the fate of nearly 700 is simply unknown.
So Culloden marked the end of a sporadic civil war for succession that had lasted 60 years. But the brutal reprisals and suppression of the Highlands that followed under the command of the Duke of Cumberland ("Butcher Cumberland") brought about the end of a way of life, and the end of a meaningful clan system. The clan chiefs who survived, or who had supported the Government (and a number did), ended up less tribal chiefs than landowners with tenants who might happen to share the same name. The way was thus opened for the Highland Clearances that started some decades later, when vast numbers of Highlanders were cleared off their land by the landowners to make room for more profitable sheep. Bonnie Prince Charlie eventually made good his escape to France, but the price of his adventure for the Highlands was high indeed.
As for Culloden Moor itself, the battlefield has, over much of the intervening period, been treated almost as badly as the wounded left lying on it at the end of the conflict. The supreme insensitivity came in 1835, when a road was built through the mass graves of the clans. Later the whole area was turned into a conifer plantation. In 1881 Duncan Forbes of Culloden House, now a hotel, erected a memorial cairn and headstones to mark the traditional sites of the clan graves.
In the latter half of the 1900s the National Trust for Scotland became increasingly involved in the conservation and restoration of the battlefield, They built a visitor centre in 1970, and extended it in 1984. In 1983 they cleared large parts of the battlefield of the forestry which was covering it, and also had the road through the centre of the site rerouted further north. But despite these efforts, by the time some of the images on this page were taken in 2001, the battlefield was becoming heavily overgrown once more, and would certainly not have been recognisable to those who fought here in 1746.
All this has since changed for the better. Much of the area of the battlefield has been cleared and is now once more as open as it would have been on the day of the battle. Meanwhile, a new visitor centre has opened to the public. This is much larger than its predecessor (which has since been totally removed); is much more sensitively designed; and is clear of the main area of the battle. As well as a shop and a large restaurant, the new centre is home to a series of exhibition areas using state of the art techniques to help set the Battle of Culloden in context and bring it to life. These include a battle immersion film, a large animated battle table, and a rooftop viewing area. Visitors can then tour the battlefield itself with portable audiovisual guides which use geographical positioning software to tell you what took place in each particular area.
Visitor InformationView Location on Map
Culloden Moor, Inverness, IV2 5EU.
0844 493 2159.
Grid Ref: NH 745 450
NTS: Culloden Web Page
What3Words Location: ///stay.towers.tungsten
Culloden In Fiction
A Tangled Web by Ken Lussey (15 November 2023).
A fast-paced thriller set in northern Scotland. Callum Anderson returns to Sutherland to help Jenny Mackay investigate the death of her
husband. The authorities say he committed suicide but she’s convinced he was murdered. If she's right then they're both in danger.
Callum visits Culloden twice as his investigation builds.