On 16 April 1746, the Scottish Jacobite army, led by Prince Charles Edward Stewart, fought the English Hanoverians in the bloody Battle of Culloden—the last pitched battle on British soil (the Battle of Britain in World War II was fought in the air). A last stand such as this defines an age, and many legends and songs about “Bonnie Prince Charlie” have celebrated the heroism of that day and mourned the fatal outcome. The loss at Culloden, the climax of Prince Charlie’s Rising, preceded the English repression of Scotland and attempts to obliterate Gaelic culture.
For those familiar with Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, it can be said that Culloden is Scotland’s Battle of the River Deisa. It is a last stand (close to a river, the Moray Firth, no less) against a dominating force which eventually consolidates its control over the defeated defenders with slaughter and cultural repression, in an attempt to assimilate them. History has seen a few such battles…
Culloden features prominently in Alistair MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief and in popular fiction such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, in which one of the protagonists, Jamie Fraser, is a veteran of the battle. For those interested in such novels, or Scottish history more generally, this three-part telling of the battle (before, during, and after) is for you.
My personal interest in this battle extends deeper than a mere interest in Scottish history, since Scotland and particularly the Jacobite cause is within my heritage. People from my own ancestry played key roles in the build-up to the battle and the aftermath. My mother is a Macaulay and her mother was a MacDermid, and her grandmother shared a name with one of the key players in the Prince Charlie legend: Flora MacDonald. Furthermore, Campbells and MacDonalds appear with frequency in my family tree.
According to my uncle, who is the genealogist of my family, my ancestors were Jacobite politically and Catholic devotionally, which fits because Jacobites tended to be Catholic rather than Presbyterian or Anglican. My family is originally from South Uist, North Uist is more Protestant.
Now, to begin with the boring part (actually, not that boring) to the narrative, a.k.a. the politics. The reason for why.
Anyone familiar with films such as Braveheart will know that Scots have hated the English frequently in their history. The iteration of anti-English feeling that is called the Rising “arose” (get it?) as a reaction to the Act of Union in 1707, which unified Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and England into Great Britain.
Many of those who opposed the Union in Scotland wanted the old Stewart dynasty, instead of the Hanoverian kings of England (the first being George I), who were from a German family. Even among the anti-royalists, Stewarts were preferred over foreign Hanoverians. “Jacobite” came to refer to those who supported the Stewart cause, after “James,” the name of many Stewart kings.
The first Jacobite uprising followed the Act of Union and revolved around the pretender to the throne James Edward Stuart, who Louis XIV, the Sun King, recognized as King James VIII and III. The two numbers in his title refer first to his position on the Scottish line and then the English line. For some reason, Scotland really liked to call their kings James. During the first Rising, the Scots, as usual, had the support of France, a partnership called the “Auld Alliance.” Basically, the country that hated England the most after Scotland was France.
The first Rising ended when Prince James returned to France before ever setting foot in Scotland. Later Risings, such as the one 1715, also ultimately failed.
Now the Rising of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who will serve as the tragic protagonist of my narrative, is also known simply as “The 46.” It began with the mounting (to avoided the word “Raising”) of the Prince’s standard on 19 August 1745. By this time, Jacobite support had waned considerably. Since 1727, George II sat on the English throne, proving that the Hanoverians were here to stay. Meanwhile, the Jacobite leaders were still largely in Rome, bickering over futile plans to win back the throne. It might be said that Charlie had higher “standards,” which he “raised” but that’s enough with the bad puns.
What enabled him to raise his standard? Well, in 1743, the Jacobites saw an opportunity. The hilariously named War of Jenkins’ Ear, in which British captain Robert Jenkins had his ear cut off by a Spaniard who did not apologize, had hurt England’s feelings, making it enemies with Spain. And then came the War of Austrian Succession, which was unpopular except among our favourite rebels, the Jacobites, since it drove France and Spain to war against England. Party time! The time was ripe for a Pretender’s dreams, and Bonnie Prince Charlie landed on the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides on 2 August, hoisting the standard 17 days later.
Here’s where Alistair MacLeod’s ancestor comes in. Meeting Charlie at the landing site was MacLeod of MacLeod, who stands as a bit of traitor, unfortunately. He mentioned his arrival to the English government—in a shrewd, say-no-more kind of way—as if he expected no one would notice. A tough legacy to live down for Alistair. And all the way from South Uist, the rocky homeland of my Scottish ancestors, came MacDonald of Boisdale to tell Charlie to go back to Italy. These people two did not want a war. But the exiled prince gave MacDonald a sly look (in a very Alessan di Tigana moment) and said, “I am come home.”
So the struggle began. Rounding up his allies and dealing with the clansmen who supported the Hanoverians, Prince Charlie fought a guerilla-style war against the redcoats throughout Scotland. In September he promoted Lord George Murray and the Duke of Perth as Lieutennant-Generals. Both men would play crucial roles at the Battle of Culloden.
The high point of the campaign was capturing Edinburgh. Fighting off English dragoons with his army, Prince Charlie marched into the Scottish capital after the Camerons beat the sentries guarding the city. He was proclaimed King James VIII on 17 September.
Unfortunately, that title meant little so long as the Rising itself was unconcluded. During a siege on Stirling Castle, morale fell apart. On 30 January, the Duke of Cumberland claimed control of the English army from General Henry Hawley and scattered the disorganized Jacobites, setting off for Linlithgow. The leaders convened in Falkirk, agreeing after much debate to march north, where they would encounter Cumberland for a final decisive battle.
The battle would take place on Culloden Moor, and it would see the end of the Rising, though not before a much romanticized battle, in which heroism meets the hard flying nails of grapeshot from regimented English canons.
Stay tuned for Part II of the epic of the Battle of Culloden, and learn how the battle was fought (including a guest appearance by the infamous James Wolfe, the Conqueror of Canada, of Plains of Abraham fame).
Maclean, Fitzroy. Highlanders: A History of the Scottish Clans. New York: Penguin 1995.
Magnusson, Magnus. Scotland: The Story of a Nation. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2000.