A Journey into Scotland : Part 56
The Last Battle on British Soil
Many’s the lad fought on that day,
Well the Claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.*
My father owned two great cars in his life: both were Wolseleys. The better of the two was the car in which he drove us from Thurso to Barrow in the summer of 1965. It was an epic journey. In the time before motorways, when roads followed the landscape rather than defined it, it took three days. My mother sat up front with my little sister. Four of us stretched out in the back. It smelled of leather and wood, and a big central armrest doubled as a booster seat that allowed me to see out of the windows. I have no remembrance of ever suffering travel sickness in that car. The old photograph shows us washing it outside our Thurso house. It can’t have been taken many weeks before we set off.
The first stop was Inverness where we leaned out of out hotel bedroom window to watch a kilted pipe band march up the street in the twilight. It was a military band. The marching and playing had a glorious precision. There are a lot of memories of pipe bands tucked away from those days. It isn’t the sort of sight you are likely to forget.
Once I’d soaked out the strains of the day in a deep and foaming bath I took a walk around the streets. I wasn’t in a city frame of mind though. This was a ‘getting it together in the country’ tour. There were some impressive buildings and some that looked as out of place and dismal as concrete shopping centres do wherever they are. The River Ness was more to my fancy and I sat on a bench and marvelled at the clean, fast moving river. An awful lot of streams flow into Loch Ness one way or another. Only one flows out and it does so at a good pace..
I wasn’t used to staying in hotels in those days and deemed the sachets of tea and coffee as being something worthy of a photograph. My cravatted host had made a big point of telling me not to ride off with the room key so it was with a certain schadenfreude that I discovered it in my pocket as I reached a hillside vantage the following morning. (I later posted it back.) Inverness spread around the waters like a garment. This was a well-dressed landscape indeed. From the Kessock Bridge over the Beauly Firth to the distant mountains of Ross and Cromarty all perfectly seen over a field of late growing oats. In one panorama I was looking at the entire northern part of the handsomest country on the planet and the most recent seven days of my life.
That was looking back. Within a handful of miles I was standing on an altogether bleaker patch of earth. The scrub and heather and fading autumn grasses of the location of the last pitched battle to be fought on British soil. Since Glenfinnan, on the road to the Isles, I had been following the story of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). I find him a difficult man to like and a more difficult man to admire but he certainly had a year of it. His adventure began when he landed on Eriksay in July 1745. He intended to claim the British crown back for the Stuart dynasty and, for a while, he was more successful than anyone could have imagined. The enterprise saw him easily defeat a British force under the humiliated “Johnny Cope” at Prestonpans, establish himself in Edinburgh before leading an invading army into England. They reached Derby without any problem and then turned back for reasons that have remained under dispute. He was followed over the Shap fells by the armies of General Wade and the Prince of Cumberland.
Since 1746 it has been possible to determine the allegiance to Charlie or Cumberland by what one calls the flower dianthus barbarous. Supporters of the Hanoverian claim have long referred to it as the Sweet William. It is certainly an attractive addition to any summer border. If you cut it and leave it too long in the vase though, it will reek your house out and have you reaching for the air freshener. It could be this, as well as a lasting memory of a cruel legacy, that led Scots to refer to the flower as the Stinking Billy and of the Duke of Cumberland as a butcher.
By the time Charles chose this barren, flat, windswept and marshy ground to engage the English army his star was well and truly on the wane. He’d had many highs in his annus mirabilis. Culloden was a very deep low.
He was a charismatic man, but he wasn’t a military man. His ego has been blamed for turning down advice from more experienced campaigners and his leadership of the 7000 men who fought for the Jacobite cause that day was inept. Having said that, it is difficult to see how any general would have brought about a different outcome. He was out-gunned, out manoeuvred, out numbered and out-thought. Military tactics had moved on. The one great Scottish weapon was a frightening and courageous charge armed with sword or dagger. (Heroic paintings portray the clansmen with both and a round shield or targe to protect themselves. Evidence in the aftermath of the battle suggests that only one in five clansmen had a sword. Over a thousand lay dead after an hour. Only 190 swords were recovered.) The charge had won many a battle in the past. It had worked at Prestonpans less than a year before. At Culloden flags mark out where the armies and generals stood (Charlie was out of sight and gave orders without being able to see what was going on). Flags also show a break in a natural enclosure where English snipers hid and picked off the rampaging Scotsmen. Many were dead before the first reached the English ranks. Some managed to break through. But these were easily picked off by the muskets of the second English line.
The first shots of the battle were fired at one o’clock. By three o’clock the Bonnie Prince had fled and the Jacobite army was in tatters. The aftermath can either be seen as ruthless efficiency or cruel oppression. The clans tradition, which had outlasted most other feudal systems in western Europe, was ended. The Stuart claim to the throne faded away and any glory or honour to be salvaged from the “45 Rebellion” was left to the bards and the storytellers. Charlie’s story continues through a series of escapes and places of hiding. The most famous sees him bound from Benbecula to Skye dressed as a woman. He eventually returned to France and later Italy where he never quite gave up on the idea that he was “the lad that’s born to be king.”
It’s a scrubby tract of ground. As bleak as any I’d trodden since arriving in Scotland. It has changed in many ways since that fateful day. There is a visitor centre. In 1987 these were still new and were deemed essential to the re-enactment of the historic experience. I had an open mind towards them back then. The one at Culloden helped to develop a tired cynicism. This was the kilts, claymores and shortbread version of Scottish history. “Welcome to the place where two thousand men were led to an inglorious and painful death. Lets have fun!”
Outside praise should be given to the way the battlefield has been allowed to stay tussocky, bleak and forbidding. Of all the many fields I’ve visited where battles have been fought, Culloden has the strongest feeling of the pity and sadness of war.
*from The Skye Boat Song lyrics Sir Harold Boulton