Ever since I was a small child, the words, ‘Aye, well, worse things happened at the battle of Culloden,’ have been a familiar refrain. I suppose it’s the Scots version of: ‘It’s not the end of the world,’ words designed to stop your whimpering about some small discomfort or worry. But it was only recently that I actually went to the Culloden battlefield, and discovered a little more about what did happen at the Battle of Culloden. It’s definitely a bit worse than a grazed knee.
The first thing to understand about Scotland is that it is an old country with a long memory. Events which are consigned to dusty history books south of the border are fresh in the minds of present-day Scots. You can find this in Edinburgh, where the gothic streets whisper ancient tales, but it is even more evident in the Highlands, where Clan culture runs deep in the blood of those who live there, where newcomers are still appraised and judged on the basis of their surname. If you are a Campbell, to this day you will receive a frosty reception in Glencoe; the massacre of the MacDonald clan in 1692 still causes most highlanders to bristle in anger.But it is further north, close to Inverness, that Culloden is found. On this rather desolate, windswept moor, the final, bloody battle between the desperate Jacobite forces and the organised forces of the British army took place in 1746. The events which culminated in this battle form a centuries-old, complex saga, the kind of story good for recounting on a stormy night, huddled around a fire in a highland shelter, with a few drams of whisky. As we don’t have that (shame, really!) I will be brief, but you can find out more here. The Jacobites were highland supporters of James VII of Scotland (James II of England) who had been forced to flee. He had a fondness for France and was a Catholic, not a good combination for a King of England at that time. The Jacobites saw this as another attempt to be forced under the control of England. The act of Union, creating the United Kingdom early in the century, therefore, was not exactly a cosy and pleasant agreement.
By 1746, there had been many, many uprisings and battles, with favour constantly swinging between Jacobite and government forces. The Jacobite cause was greatly strengthened with the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the son of the exiled King James. He was trying to reclaim the throne – and the scene was set for the last battle of its kind at Culloden.
Unfortunately, the Jacobites were completely decimated by the government army. Charles was highly criticised for leading his troops from the back, acting suspiciously like a coward. After the defeat, he simply fled back to France, whilst the highlanders who had fought for him were left to face the Highland Clearances – the end of their culture and livelihoods.Culloden still has that strange, sombre air that only battlefields do. The sky is large up here, with rolling clouds and a distant horizon of misty mountains. Stones mark the places where whole clans fell – and it was among these that I found my clan, the Stewarts. It is an odd feeling to be linked with such ancient, violent history, but it is also quite amazing, to find direct family links on a remote moor.
That is the thing with Scotland – if you have Scottish heritage, your history is everywhere, in the landscapes, the stories, the names of places. But even if you don’t, Culloden is a remarkable place to visit. The stories just flow from it, and once you get talking to locals, the stories fairly flow from them too, each more grisly than the last. But it is these stories which make Scotland – and it is only set into this historical context that the passion of the highlanders for an almost lost culture makes sense.
So worse things did indeed happen at the Battle of Culloden, but I’m glad to have finally discovered the meaning of those words, and to find out about a culture which I am so rooted in, but knew so very little about.