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The Battle of Culloden (1746)

Written by: Caitlin
Published: 23rd June 2020, last updated: 28th October 2020

The Battle of Culloden took place in 1746 and was the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising, as well as being the last ever battle to have been fought on British soil.

In the centuries since it was fought there have been a series of compelling but somewhat misleading myths surrounding the Battle of Culloden. But what is undisputed is that on 16 April 1746, the Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart was decisively defeated by a British government force under William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, on Drummossie Moor near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands.

The battle finally settled a contest for the monarchy that had lasted almost 60 years.

Battle of Culloden

The Battle of Culloden in 1746

The Background of the Battle of Culloden

In 1688, in an act that was immediately hailed as a ‘Glorious Revolution’, Parliament and an overwhelmingly Protestant political nation deposed the Roman Catholic King James II. James’s Protestant daughters from his first marriage, Mary and Anne, reigned after him. But when Anne died in 1714 leaving no heir, Parliament replaced the Stuart dynasty with their German cousins, the Hanoverians.

Charles was the eldest son of James Stuart, the exiled Stuart claimant to the British throne. Believing there was support for a Stuart restoration in both Scotland and England, he landed in Scotland in July 1745: raising an army of Scots Jacobite supporters. During his lifetime Charles was referred to by the nicknames “the Young Pretender” and “the Young Chevalier”, but nowadays the most popular moniker he is refered to as is Bonnie Prince Charlie. You can find out more about him here.

Jacobitism was a largely 17th- and 18th-century movement that opposed the creating of  The Acts of Union in 1707 and therefore supported the restoration of the House of Stuart to the British throne. The name is derived from Jacobus, the Latin version of James.

The news that Charles Edward had landed in Scotland with a handful of followers and was gathering support amongst the highland clans was initially met with little alarm. But this changed rapidly when his highland army defeated government troops at Prestonpans in September 1745, occupied Edinburgh, and then in November entered England.

The government recalled 12,000 troops from the Continent to deal with the rising. The Jacobite invasion of England reached as far as Derby before turning back on the 5th December, having attracted relatively few English recruits, despite being a 5000 strong army at this time.

The Jacobites, received limited French military reinforcements, attempted to consolidate their control of Scotland, where by early 1746 they were opposed by a substantial government army. The highlanders defeated the first government army sent against them at Falkirk (17 January 1746). But by the time the highland army came up against the Duke of Cumberland’s forces on Culloden Moor on 16 April, it was dispirited, poorly supplied and suffering heavy desertion.

Battle of Culloden

Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart claimant to the throne of Great Britain after 1766.

Night Attack at Nairn

Following Hawley’s defeat at Falkirk, the Duke of Cumberland arrived in Scotland to take command of the government forces. His army reached Cullen on 11 April, where it was joined by six further battalions and two cavalry regiments.

It was whilst the Duke of Cumberland’s troops were toasting to his birthday on the night of the 15th April, that the Jacobites, lead by lieutenant- general Lord George Murray, decided to try and repeat the success of Prestonpans by carrying out a night attack on the government encampment.

Murray proposed that they set off at dusk and march to Nairn. His plan was to have the right wing of the first line attack Cumberland’s rear, while the Duke of Perth with the left wing would attack the government’s front. However, the nighttime march was longer than expected and they only arrived at their destination with about an hour of daylight left, so in the end this mission was aborted.

The Battle of Culloden Moor

It was only shortly after the exhausted Jacobites arrived back at their camp after the failed night mission that a scout delivered the news of advancing government troops.

But by then many Jacobite soldiers had already dispersed in search of food or returned to Inverness, and others had fallen into an exhausted sleep in ditches and outbuildings. It is estimated that several hundred of their army may have missed the battle.

Battle of Culloden

At around 10 am the Jacobites saw the government army approaching at a distance of around 4 km, and by the time they were 3 km away from the Jacobite position, the Duke Cumberland gave the order to form line, and the army marched forward in full battle order.

Over the first half-hour of the battle, Cumberland’s artillery battered the Jacobite lines, first with roundshot and then grapeshot. Finally, Charles issued the orders his Highlanders had been waiting for, to charge the enemy.

Although hampered and slowed down by the boggy ground, many of the Highlanders reached the Government lines. In the bloody hand to hand fighting that followed, the new Redcoat tactic of bayoneting the exposed side of the man to the right, rather than confronting the one directly in front appears to have paid dividends. The Highlanders finally broke and fled, the entire battle had lasted less than hour.

Around 1,000 of the Highlanders were killed by the 9,000 Redcoats, who lost only 50 men, and some 1,000 more were killed in subsequent weeks of hounding by British troops. Hunted by troops and spies, Prince Charles wandered over Scotland for five months before escaping to France and final exile. The Battle of Culloden marked the end of any serious attempt by the Jacobites to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne.

Battle of Culloden Misconceptions

The Battle of Culloden is today considered one of the most significant clashes in British history, and yet there are still a lot of confusions over some of the details.

  • People will refer to the Battle of Culloden as a dynasty clash between the Stuarts and the Hanoverians,but  many of the Jacobite following were motivated by their opposition to The Acts of Union rather then their allegiance the House of Stuart. In the days of Charles I and James VII and II, no more than 3,000 fought with them, but in 1715, some 22,000 fought for the Jacobites, and in 1745 about 11-12,000 Scots were still prepared to take up arms. The big upward shift in Jacobite support came as a result of wide opposition to the Union of 1707, and Jacobite recruitment stressed this.
  • Though the Jacobite forces are often referred to as the Highland Army, many of its units were from the Scottish lowlands, as well as Irish and Scottish soldiers in the French service, and some English volunteers. Army orders were given in English, not Gaelic, and the use of the Highland Army term refers more to the patriotic qualities of northern Scotland rather than a description of the background of its soldiers
  • One of the biggest myths os that the Battle of Culloden was a victory of muskets over swords, but in fact, the Jacobite army at Culloden was heavily armed with French and Spanish muskets, as well as captured British ‘Brown Bess’ Land Pattern muskets. From the 1740s onwards, the conflict has been presented in this way in order to be seen as the inevitable victory of modern Britain over the backwards Scottish rebels, but it just isn’t accurate.
  • It is often believed that the Jacobites loss can be attributed to Charles Edward’s choice of site, when in reality there were 3 sites considered and none of them were likely to prelude to any more success. In the end, nobody ‘chose’ the site of the battle on Drummossie Moor as a preference, it was just the line closest to headquarters at Culloden House which could defend the road to Inverness.
  • There is a common belief that battle of Culloden was a defeat for Scottish nationalism, but the Jacobite leadership was not ‘nationalist’ in the modern sense. The Stuarts wished to be restored to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland and to be kings in London. A Stuart Scotland would probably have been ‘independent’ and have had its own army, but would likely not have had much room to pursue a separate foreign policy from London.

Culloden Battlefield Today

Battle of Culloden

In 1881 these headstones were erected to mark the mass graves of fallen Jacobite soldiers.

A visitor centre was opened near the sight of the Battle of Culloden in 2007. The intention of opening this as a visiting site was to preserve the battlefield in a condition similar to how it was on 16 April 1746.

One noticeable difference is that it is currently covered in shrubs and heather; during the 18th century, however, the area was used as common grazing ground, mainly for tenants of the Culloden estate. Those visiting can walk the site by way of footpaths on the ground and can also enjoy a view from above on a raised platform.

You can join a guided tour of the battlefield where an expert guide will lead you around the key areas of action on Culloden Moor, as well as visiting the memorial cairn around which lie the graves of 1,500 fallen Jacobite soldiers.


About the author

Written by: Caitlin

Comments on this post

  • Diana McFadden
    23/12/20 - 22:39

    A tragic event that happened because the Scots were persuaded that the Jacobite cause was their cause, and about defending their country, when really, they were exploited by Prince Charles to fight for him. Yet he’s still poetically called “The Bonnie Prince.” Despicable drunken toad.

  • Robert Gary Dodds
    26/03/21 - 16:31

    Where can I find a roll call of the Scottish nobles who took part in the battle of Cullodon, on “both” sides?

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