Scotland: A history not unlike our own

The battle of Culloden April 16 1746, painted for Lord Cumberland by David Morier in the same year as the battle.  Note the use of the bayonet by the royal army.

The battle of Culloden April 16 1746, painted for Lord Cumberland by David Morier in the same year as the battle. Note the use of the bayonet by the royal army.

On the morning of April 27 1746 the Duke of Cumberland calmly moved his army of 8,000 men into position before a colourful Scottish array of 7,000 highlanders, including about 150 Irishmen then serving in the Irish Brigade in France. The place was Culloden, south east of Inverness.

The Scottish army was led by  Prince Edward Stuart, popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was the grandson of  Catholic King James who was defeated at the battle of the Boyne 56 years earlier. The young prince was determined to win back for his family the thrones of Britain, Scotland and Ireland.* For a time it appeared that he just might be successful. His charm and continental manners won many hearts.

In July of the previous year he arrived in Scotland, and raised his family’s  standard at the head of Lough Shiel at Glenfinnan to which large numbers  of the Catholic and Protestant clans jubilantly rallied. The standard was blessed by the Catholic bishop of Moray to cries of  “King James! Prosperity to Scotland and no union”.** The army  marched on Edinburgh which immediately surrendered.

On September 21 the prince’s force routed the only government army in Scotland at Prestonpans.*** Now, with more and more highlanders rushing to his banner, the prince confidently turned  south at the head of  approximately 8,000 men. Carlisle surrendered. The prince’s army crossed  into England and halted at Swarkestone Bridge in Derbyshire, where it received the first bad blow of the campaign.  Except for a small unit of French Royal Scots, the promised French support of ships and arms, was not forthcoming.

There were rumours that London was sending a strong professional army northwards. Many of the highlanders insisted on returning to Scotland. This was agreed, even though the prince wanted to carry on south. Still buoyed by their victories, however, they laid siege to Stirling Castle, and fought a desperate battle against government forces at Falkirk Muir in a storm of wind and torrential rain. Again the highlanders were victorious.

Surely nothing could stop the momentum of the prince’s army?  But morale was breaking down. Supplies were badly organised, and keeping an army fed and sheltered in winter was a challenging task. Many highlanders began to drift home. There were arguments and jealousies among the clann leaders, but the prince, who had little or no military training,  was impervious to the changes among his men. He was confident that his mission would prevail no matter what.

Dangerous mistake

While at Aberdeen, Cumberland prepared his troops for the forthcoming battle. He was determined there would not be another defeat like at Prestonpans or Falkirk. In addition to practising volley firing the troops were taught a form of bayonet fighting, the first time the use of the bayonet had been the subject of tuition.

Where possible the royal army marched near the coast where it could be properly supplied by ships travelling alongside. Cumberland, the third and youngest son of King George II, was a decisive and an authoritative man. He ensured his army had the best equipment, including artillery, and the best trained men to use it.

But he nearly made a fatal mistake practically on the eve of the battle, when his army camped near Nairn. April 15 was Cumberland’s birthday. He liberally  distributed barrels of brandy among his troops, who indulged joyfully, enjoying time off from the strains of battle preparedness. Somehow the prince’s army heard of the celebrations. It  attempted a surprise attack at dawn. But the approach march was a failure, with men falling far behind in the dark, and many losing themselves in boggy country. With dawn breaking the highlanders were not near enough to launch a surprise attack. They were forced to return to Culloden exhausted, discouraged and hungry.  

A massacre

Tragically for Scotland the battle turned out to be a massacre. Once in position Cumberland’s artillery began a steady fire into the ranks of the Scottish army. The Scots artillery was ineffectual, and its gunners untrained. In order to escape the murderous cannon fire Prince Charles  was finally persuaded that he must order the highlanders to charge before his army melted away. What must have been a fearsome spectacle as  hoards of clansmen charged at top speed with broadswords, target shields and dirkes, yelling their war cries, erupting down the field. But it was an obsolete military tactic in a changing age of weaponry. The Scots faced a withering and continuous hail of musket fire, as well as, and far more deadly, artillery discharging canisters of ball. They eventually smashed into the royal army, and inflicted wounds and death left right and centre. But Cumberland’s men did not give an inch, and used their bayonets to deadly effect. It was all over in less than an hour.

At least 1,000 clansmen were killed outright.  Hundreds who lay wounded were bayoneted or shot as they lay. Cumberland’s dragoons followed and slaughtered fleeing clansmen, including  innocent bystanders, women and children. For the following five months his men chased, and burned their way through the valleys in pursuit of escaping rebels. More than 100 highland chiefs were executed, their estates forfeited to the crown, and the Scots were banned from wearing the kilt or playing the bagpipes.****  Surprisingly,  the Irish and the few French royal Scots who survived were taken prisoner to London, and eventually repatriated to France.

By contrast Cumberland’s losses were slight. Several hundred of his men were wounded,  but less than 50 killed. His ruthless follow up and vengeance against highlanders earned him the soubriquet The Butcher, but he did not seem to mind. He was later awarded an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University for his service to Scotland.

‘Over the sea to Skye’

Bonny Prince Charlie’s flight became the stuff of legend, commemorated in the popular  The Skye Boat Song, and also in the old Irish song Mo Ghile Mear by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill. Hiding in the moors he travelled about, always barely ahead of the government forces. Though many Highlanders saw the prince, and helped him, no one betrayed him despite the enormous reward  of £30,000 on his head. The climax of the chase was the assistance given to him by Flora MacDonald, who helped him escape the redcoats on the Isle of Skye by taking him in a small boat disguised as her Irish maid, ‘Betty Burke’. He was taken on board the French frigate L’Heureux, arriving safely back in France where he would spend the rest of his life in obscurity. The cause of the Stuarts was lost forever.

Next two weeks: A permanent military occupation of the highlands ensured that the Jaobite rising would never raise its head in Scotland again. For the next 150 years new landlords drove the Scottish off their land  to make way for more profitable sheep. They would suffer amajor potato famine,  and witness emigration on a vast scale.

Next week: The Highland Clearances.

NOTES: * Although the Stuarts had lost the British throne at the Boyne in 1690 the dynasty continued in the person of James’s sons and grandsons, living on the continent.  On a hereditary basis their claim was far superior to that of their Hanovarian cousins (then, selected due to their strong Protestant status, the Kings of England ).  But the Stuarts were debarred from ever becoming royal by the 1701 Act of Succession which forbade Catholics from succeeding.

The supporters of the Stuarts became known as Jacobites, from the Latin term Jacobus for James. Despite their defeat, the family remained popular particularly in Scotland, the traditional home of the Stuarts.

** The Scottish parliament surrendered its legislative powers in the Act of Union with England in 1707. (Ireland followed suit in 1801 ). Two hundred and ninety-two years later, May 12 1999, its new independent parliament at Holyrood, Edinburgh,  opened.

***The government army was disastrously led by general Sir John Cope giving rise to the satyrical song Hey Johnny Cope are you waking yet?

**** Not everyone would regret the banning of the bagpipes. But I am always moved by the playing of the traditional lament The Flowers of the Forest on the pipes.


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