Why Was the Battle of Culloden so Significant?

Tristan Hughes

7 mins

27 Mar 2019

On 29 November 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie and his 8,000-strong Jacobite army reached Derby, having gained a decisive victory at Prestonpans the previous September. Their target was London.

Government armies were stationed at Lichfield and Wetherby, but no professional army blocked his way to the capital. The road looked clear.

Yet Charlie’s army advanced no further. He and his commanders convened a war council and the generals overwhelmingly decided they turn around and retreat north, much to Charles’s displeasure.

Prince Charles in the battlefield.

Why did Charles turn around?

There were several reasons. Promised French support had failed to materialise, while the recruitment drive for English Jacobites had also proved disappointing (only Manchester had provided a worthwhile number of recruits).

There was also Dudley Bradstreet, an undercover government spy within the Jacobite camp. Bradstreet subtly spread misinformation that there was in fact a third government force numbering some 9,000 men at Northampton, barring their way to London and ready to fight the smaller Highland army. The ruse worked and greatly influenced the decision to retreat.

Thus Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army retreated north between two enemy armies out of a hostile country – a major military achievement we sometimes overlook today.

Victory and retreat

The war continued in Scotland as governmental forces followed in pursuit. Yet things did not start well for the Hanoverians. On 17 January 1746 a 7,000-strong loyalist army was decisively defeated at Falkirk Muir. The Jacobite army remained unbeaten.

But Charles and his men were unable to capitalise on the victory. Within two weeks they had retreated further north, to the area around Inverness.

In pursuit of them was a significant government army led by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. His army’s nucleus consisted of battle-hardened professional soldiers who had recently seen action on the European continent. Furthermore among his ranks he also had a significant number of loyalist Highland clans – including the Campbells.

The Black Watch at Fontenoy, April 1745; an example of highly effective and conventionally trained Highland troops who served in Cumberland’s army.

Backed by his professional army, Cumberland sought a decisive battle to crush the Jacobite rising.

Highland beserkers

The nucleus of Charles’s Jacobite army centred around his hardened Highland warriors. Trained in traditional arms, some of these men wielded muskets. Yet most primarily equipped themselves with a razor-sharp broadsword and a small round shield called a targe.

A contemporary illustration of a highlander wielding sword and targe.

The targe was a deadly weapon. It was made of three separate slabs of wood, covered in hardened leather dyed blood red and a bronze boss. Defensively, the shield proved highly-effective, able to stop a musket ball fired from either long or medium range.

Yet the shield primarily served as an offensive weapon. In its centre was a spike, designed for slashing.

Equipped with sword and shield, the Highlanders would unleash their special, morale-destroying attack: the feared Highland charge.

Using their spiked shields to block a bayonet strike from their enemy, they would then use it to push aside the redcoat’s weapon, leaving the man defenceless and at the mercy of the Highlander’s broadsword.

By April 1746 this charge had proved devastatingly effective on several occasions, carving through Governmental lines at Prestonpans and Falkirk most notably. Like the Germanic warriors of antiquity, these Highland berserkers had a fearsome reputation.

At Prestonpans, the government infantry was over-run by the Highland charge.

The road to Culloden

On the night of 15 April 1746, Cumberland’s 25th birthday, the Governmental army pitched camp near Nairn, well-supplied and warm. Outnumbered, Charles’s Jacobites thus decided on a risky, but potentially decisive strategy: a night attack.

That night, a section of the Jacobites attempted to surprise the Government army. It was a risk that did not pay off: many highlanders lost their way during the night and very quickly the plan fell apart.

Following this failure, many of Charles’s sub-commanders pleaded with their leader to avoid a pitched battle against the larger, more professional governmental army. Yet Charles refused.

He had never lost a battle and, believing himself the rightful king of Britain, he refused to degrade himself to guerrilla warfare beyond the Tay. He decided on a pitched battle at Culloden Moor, just south of Inverness.

William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland.

The Battle of Culloden: 16 April 1746

On the morning of 16 April 1746 many of Charles’s men were exhausted from the failed operations of the previous night. Furthermore, many more were still scattered around the area and not with the main army. Cumberland’s troops, meanwhile, were fresh – well-supplied, well-disciplined and well-informed.

Battle lines were drawn up on the Moor and Charles ordered his Highland infantry forwards, including clans Fraser of Lovat, Cameron, Stewart and Chattan.

Opposing them were three lines of government infantry, armed with muskets and bayonets.

The battle began with an exchange of artillery fire from both sides – mortar and cannon shot. Then, after what must have seemed like an age, the order was given for the feared Highland charge.

Immediately the charge met with difficulty. On the left of the Jacobite line, boggy ground slowed down the McDonalds. Meanwhile the clansmen in the centre started drifting to the right to reach better ground, causing a great mass of Highlanders becoming concentrated on the right.

The government forces unleashed waves of musket and canister shot into the compact Highland ranks from close range before the lines closed.

A vicious melee ensued. Crashing into Government ranks, the Highlanders started carving their way through the first enemy line. But, unlike at Prestonpans and Falkirk earlier, this time the government line did not immediately buckle.

A tactical depiction of the Highland charge at Culloden. Swampy ground ensured the charge focused on the left of Cumberland’s line.

New bayonet tactics

Learning from past mistakes, Cumberland’s army had been trained in new bayonet tactics, designed specifically to counter the Highland charge. Rather than point their bayonet at the enemy in front of them, this new tactic focused on the soldier sticking his bayonet into the enemy on his right, thus avoiding the targe shield.

Eventually, the Jacobites managed to break through the first government line on the right flank. Yet Cumberland’s forces had resisted long enough for his second and third lines to move into position and surround the Highland infantry on two sides.

Point blank they unleashed a volley of musket shots into their foe – the decisive moment in the battle. Within two minutes, 700 Highlanders lay dead.

The legend goes that Alexander MacGillivray, clan chief of the McGillivrays and a giant of an individual, reached the furthest into the Government lines before he too was cut down.

As this was going on, loyalist highlanders from the Campbell clan took up a flanking position behind the wall of an enclosure to the left of the fight and opened fire. Meanwhile the governmental cavalry arrived to hammer home the victory and put the Highlanders to flight.

Woodcut painting by David Morier of the Battle of Culloden first published just six months after the battle in October 1746.

All across the field the clansmen retreated and the battle was over. Charles and his two most senior commanders, George Murray and John Drummond, fled the field.

The battle had lasted less than an hour. 50 governmental soldiers lay dead and many more were wounded – mainly Barrell’s 4th regiment, which had borne the brunt of the Highland attack on the left wing. As for the Jacobites 1,500 were killed at the battle.

No mercy

Many more Jacobites perished in the battle’s aftermath. For those wounded on the battlefield, there was no mercy for the English and Scottish Jacobites. In Cumberland’s eyes, these men were traitors.

Cumberland did not stop there. Following the battle he raided and pillaged the Gaelic-speaking areas of the Highlands, committing several atrocities to ensure the Jacobites could not rise up again. It was for his acts in the aftermath that he earned his famous nickname ‘the Butcher.’

After Culloden: Rebel Hunting by John Seymour Lucas depicts the rigorous search for Jacobites in the days that followed Culloden.

Those loyal to the Government honoured Cumberland’s victory by naming a flower (Dianthus barbatus) after the general: ‘Sweet William’. The Highlanders meanwhile likewise ‘honoured’ the Hanoverian prince. They named a smelly and poisonous weed ‘stinky willie’ after their most hated foe.

Treason will not be tolerated

The government intended their victory at Culloden to send a strong message to any pondering further dissent. Captured Jacobite broadswords were taken south, to the secretary of Scotland’s residence in London. There they had their tips and butts removed and were used as iron railings, left to rust.

Several Jacobite lords were taken to London in the aftermath where they were tried for treason and beheaded. The last laird to be beheaded was the 80-year-old Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, ‘the last Highlander.’ He holds the unenviable record as the last person to be beheaded for treason in the UK.

After his execution it was claimed he was buried in London. His family, however, have always maintained that he was brought up to his native Highlands and buried in the family mausoleum. Dan joins Dame Sue Black and her team of forensic archaeologists to uncover the truth. Watch Now

As for Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender fled Scotland, never to return. His romanticised story made him the biggest celebrity of the time in mainland Europe, yet his later life proved ridden with poor choices. He died in Rome in 1788, a poor, deserted and broken man.

The Battle of Culloden marks the last pitched battle ever fought on British soil.