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April 2021 marks the 275th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden. We know the story, Bonnie Prince Charlie versus The Butcher of Cumberland, and a whole lot of folklore!

Books, films, plays and endless poetry…every blade of grass has been covered about this famous clash for national sovereignty. But you can’t deny its historical importance as the last battle to be fought in Britain with the Jacobites being the final feudal army to attempt to go mano o mano with the Crown’s forces. This blog will take the subject matter one letter at a time in the hope that we can cover ground that may not have been examined in the past.

Let’s talk about Culloden.

Black and white etching of a man riding a horse.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart
after Unknown artist
etching, circa 1735-1750
NPG D34709
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs National Portrait Gallery

This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer. The Stuart Family Tree might be a useful resource to look at while reading this blog,

C is for Cousins

An often-overlooked fact about Culloden is that the two main protagonists were cousins. Not first-cousins per se but in the convoluted world of European Royal Dynasties there was a clear blood link between the House of Stuart and House of Hanover via the late Queen Anne. Charles Stuart was leading Britain to the brink of Civil War to reclaim the throne that his grandfather King James II (or VII depending on your allegiance) had vacated in the Glorious Revolution. His father, James Stuart aka ‘The Old Pretender’ gave his patronage to the original 1715 Jacobite Risings fought under the family banner but was exiled for their somewhat lukewarm efforts.

This ‘Young Pretender’ seemed to be a different animal with an infectious ‘gallus’ charm that appealed to the indigenous population who would become the bedrock for his monarchical campaign. Only a few months separated the births of Charles Stuart and Prince William, the youngest son of King George II who had been titled Duke of Cumberland in his childhood. A rather cumbersome figure he was portrayed unfavourable in comparison to his relative on the other side and deliberately shunned the limelight. But going into battle the Hanoverian remit was simple – crush them!


Handwritten manuscript document. The document has clear fold/crease lines.
Commons' Resolution declaring that James II had abdicated and that the throne is vacant, 28 January 1689, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/403A

U is for Underdog

Everyone loves an underdog, don’t they? Despite his privileged background Charles Stuart fitted that description. He landed incognito in the Outer Hebrides nine months prior to Culloden with just seven companions as an entourage. His Catholic faith was enough for Hebridean priests to become unofficial recruiting serjeants amongst their congregations. A great man for self-publicity the wannabe King ceremonially began his campaign by raising a Stuart Standard at Glenfinnan. His army hit the ground running overcoming Crown forces at the Battle of Prestonpans spurred on by a traditional Highland charge. A greater scalp was taken in November 1745 when an all-encompassing Jacobite army lay siege on Carlisle.

Confidence was now at an all-time high, so a decision was made to keep marching on to Derby. Over in London, the ladies of the Royal Court we’re being shipped back to Germany as a precautionary measure. While Parliament declared this usurper to have the ‘utmost arrogance and insolent affront to the honour of the British nation with his vain and impotent menaces’.

However, with the Duke of Cumberland’s army advancing the Young Pretender’s senior commanders advised him to turn back. A sliding door moment perhaps but a New Year victory in Falkirk gave the rebels belief that retreating had made them stronger. As the Georgians under General Henry Hawley were outfoxed by the tactics of two Jacobite veterans Lord George Murray and Sir John William O’Sullivan. A big showdown was on the cards but had the underdogs already burnt out?


L is for Lineage

To raise manpower for his proposed insurrection Charles Stuart had to rely on the power of lineage. The Stuarts had been Kings of Scotland since before the 1707 Union of Parliaments which had been perceived by the Highlanders as an act of betrayal. This meant hereditary clans such as the MacDonald’s, Chattan’s, Glengarry’s and Cameron’s would stand with the ‘Young Pretender’ as they had with his father previously. Writer Daniel Defoe wrote of the clan chiefs being, ‘Gentleman born. Polite and finished outdoing our own in many things, especially arms and gallantry abroad as well as at home’.

The public image of those further down this class system was of barbarians clad in rags, speaking in Gaelic with a tendency to demand ‘tribute’ by the sword. Despite overwhelming hype, only 6,000 volunteers joined the rebellion from a potential local talent pool of over 31,000. In reverence to previous rebellions, Lord Lovat sent over men including his eldest son. While Lady Mackintosh of Moy Hall raised a rabble even though her husband was commanding a King’s militia.

For two months there was a waiting game with the accidental death of Glengarry chief Angus Og being deemed a bad omen by this most superstitious of tribes. Tradition warranted that pipers had to be present at the battlefield. The MacCrimmons were the most renowned in the glens and they were ordered to begin the chanter at the first sound of cannons. The rebel yell was to be ‘Buaidh no Bas’ which translated as ‘Victory or Death’.

Pretender’s Declaration considered by the House of Lords, 6 November 1745, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/6/526

L is for Loyalty

Morale was low within the King’s regiments as Culloden loomed large. They had recently suffered defeat to the French at Flanders and now, they were second best to these Jacobite upstarts. On battle’s eve, the Duke of Cumberland celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday by issuing an ‘anker’ of brandy to each battalion who drank to the man they affectionately called ‘Billy’.

This was an example of the good treatment given to King George II soldiers which nurtured a fierce loyalty to the crown. The 9,000 men stationed at Nairn had their bellies full and enough powder, ball, and paper to do some serious damage to the opposing force. The frustrations of the past few years were to be taken out on Charles Stuart’s followers. They marched twelve miles to the battlefield in a gloaming landscape which one Kent Regiment member described as, ‘hills like black puddings sold in London taverns’.

There was a synchronicity to the units with the white horse of Hanover on their caps and a Brown Bess musket in hand.  Cumberland surrounded himself with trusted lieutenants like Lord Bury a capable Coldstream Guard who away from his duties gained a reputation as a gambling dandy. Within the brigades there was a smattering of German accents but also some Gaelic influence. Highland clans like the Campbells led the kilted columns after deciding it was more logical to fight with the royalists. Any potential deserters were warned that if caught it would be death by throttling. The red coats meant business!

Line engraving of a man sat on a horse.
King George II
by Simon François Ravenet, after David Morier
line engraving, 1743 or after
NPG D10762
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs National Portrait Gallery

O is for Offensive

Wednesday 16th April 1746, the two armies faced off at the Culloden Wall, three miles east of Drumossie Moor. The rebels had considered a perilous night-raid offensive and now in the cold light of the afternoon they realised the enormity of the situation. But early exchanges were encouraging as the Clan Chattan led an impromptu raid that momentarily stunned Lord Bury’s division.

Sadly, for Charles Stuart this small victory would be the sole success of the day as the tartan tide was blitzed under relentless fire. The ‘Young Pretender’ had delayed on his pre-planned advance and now the King’s army stormed into the breach. As brave as they were the MacDonald’s & Cameron’s soon found themselves cannon fodder as they sought out ‘bothys’ to tend to the multitudes of wounded while victorious Campbell pipes could be heard in the distance.

Senior figures within the Stuart camp walked around in a daze with a bewildered Lord George Murray being described as ‘wigless and hatless’ amongst the devastation. In just over an hour the rebel deaths amounted to thousands as the fearsome Nottingham Regiment symbolically overturned Charles Stuart’s deserted carriage then on order began systematically butchering the twitching, limbless corpses populating this wretched field.

Cumberland and his army descended on the Stuart stronghold of Inverness and as the calvaries rejoiced in the shebeens their leader entered the Jacobite HQ of Culloden House where he wrote to his father still basking in the euphoric aftermath of what would be his singular military triumph.


Colour painting of a white man stood in a room wearing a red coat.
William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland
studio of David Morier
oil on canvas, 1749-1770, based on a work of circa 1748-1749
NPG 537
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs National Portrait Gallery

D is for Draconian

Martial law was now decreed as the Duke of Cumberland became a de-facto dictator of Scotland extending his stay to oversee the capture of Charles Stuart. In a letter to the House of Lords he lamented over the ‘guilt and terror of an infatuated multitude who with contemptible foreign assistance tried to shake an establishment founded in the heart of his majesty’s subject’.

Prospectors from across England headed North to enjoy the fruits of what would become a great plunder of the regional assets. As his cousin still eluded him Cumberland entertained himself by organising horse races or frequenting Inverness’s only coffeehouse. The draconian plan was to rid the people of their culture through Parliament legislation.

The 1746 Disarming Acts went to town on the matter as the various measures rubber-stamped transportation of rebels and notoriously outlawing the kilt. The author John Prebble noted this was ‘a law that drove the clansman into breeks’. In certain instances, the Government bought or sequestered lands against the will of powerless clan chiefs who could then find themselves deported to the West Indies. Unbeknown at the time this would be the launching pad for the Highland Clearances.

Handwritten letter
Letter from the Duke of Cumberland following the Battle of Culloden, 15 May 1746, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/6/531A


E is for Exile

The ‘Young Pretender’ spent his summer island-hopping around the Hebrides leading a fugitive existence sheltered by his remaining loyalists. A frustrated Cumberland returned to London to be honoured with his own Handel choral titled See the Conquering Hero Comes.

National interest grew as the rebel prisoners were sent to England to hear their fate in special courts. The trial of the Manchester Regiment caught the public’s imagination as these English born Jacobites were executed at Newgate becoming the nearest thing the Rising had to martyrs. Lord Lovat and other peers attained ‘Celebrity Jacobite’ status due to a much-publicised custody spell in the Tower of London followed by a Westminster Hall trial. Now obese his Lordship and Laird was arrested while hiding in a hollow tree. Opportunists ransacked Lovat’s Beaufort Castle residence making off with hundreds of bottles of his favourite Madeira wine and a library collection valued at £400 pounds.

As still recognised members of the aristocracy, they were spared the indignity of the hangman’s noose instead being ‘rewarded’ with the more exclusive axe. There was money to be made in transportation as the Government paid out £5 for each man who could then be sold in the Americas for an additional £7.

The final sentencing figures make for stark reading.

Executed: 120

Transported: 916

Died in prison: 88

Released: 1,287

Disposed Unknown: 684

As for Charles Stuart, despite the attentions of the Earl of Albemarle he made a moonlight flit to gallic exile. Leaving nothing behind but a legend.


N is for Narrative

At the century’s end a mythology industry around ‘Bonny Prince Charlie’ was already writing its own narrative. When he died in 1788 Prince George (later King George IV) paid for a suitable tomb as ‘The Young Pretender’ had attained iconic status.

Jacobitism assumed its place in the nationalistic soul of Scotland as its advocates took a perverse pride from its ‘glorious failure’. This sentiment is best expressed in the popularisation of the Skye Boat Song about Stuart’s innocuous escape.

Despite the emergence of revisionist viewpoints championed by the author John Prebble & filmmaker Peter Watkins that painted Charles Stuart in a less romantic light the dye was cast on this legendary tale. If only the French had come to his aid?



Culloden, John Prebble (1963)

Culloden, BBC Film, Peter Watkins (1965)

HL/PO/JO/10/6/526- Pretender’s Declaration considered by the House of Lords – November 6th, 1745 

HL/PO/JO/10/6/531A: Letter from the Duke of Cumberland following the Battle of Culloden - 15th May 1746

HL/PO/JO/10/1/403A - Commons' Resolution declaring that James II had abdicated, and that the throne is vacant – 28th January 1689

HL/PO/DC/CP/12/24: House of Lords; Committee for Privileges:  Lovat Family Tree

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