The Culloden Schemie

The Culloden Memorial Cairn overlooking the battlefield.
The Culloden Memorial Cairn overlooking the battlefield. 

Building any sort of housing development close to the battlefield of Culloden is a national disgrace. Do we care about our history and the graves of the martyred, or are we petty wee capitalists? A red line perimeter ought to have been laid down years ago prohibiting any sort of development, keeping new build well out of sight. Robin McKie takes a look at the rights and wrongs and protests at attempts to desecrate hallowed ground.

In the USA there exist strict laws about building over sacred Indian burial grounds. We should emulate that respect. When it happens, it becomes a national outrage and the American media broadcast the incident. Burial sites have been blown up by construction crews building the US-Mexico border wall. Authorities confirmed that “controlled blasting” begun at Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a Unesco recognised natural reserve, contrav ened burial laws. Raul Grijalva, a Democratic congressman, told the Intercept the destruction is “sacrilegious”. The government failed to consult the Tohono O’odham Nation. Building over any part of the Culloden battlefield is sacreligious.


It was the last pitched battle fought on British soil, and its outcome determined the future of the newly formed United Kingdom and its fledgling empire. However, the land around the Culloden battlefield near Inverness is now under threat – from spreading housing estates and other developments.

As a result, historians and archaeologists have launched a campaign aimed at boosting protection for the site where Britain’s last civil war came to an end on 16 April 1746, when the Jacobite troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie were decisively defeated by an army of government soldiers.

The researchers, backed by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) which owns and manages a significant part of Culloden Battlefield, have launched a series of digs to establish the exact boundaries of the battlefield and to discover, in greater detail, how the conflict unfolded.

“We know where the hand-to-hand fighting occurred in the battle but there were other important manoeuvres and encounters in the area,” said Catriona McIntosh, estate manager for Culloden Battlefield. “If we can pinpoint these, we will be better able to protect the area.”

The battle of Culloden marked the end of the Jacobite rising of 1745, an attempt by Charles Edward Stuart to regain the British throne for his father, James, who was – in turn – the son of the deposed monarch, James II of England. The Jacobites won their opening battles of this campaign but, after returning from a brief invasion of England, they met government troops with a fresh British commander, the Duke of Cumberland. He had devised new tactics – including special training with bayonets – to take on the Jacobites at Culloden.

Cumberland also had a larger army: 8,800 soldiers to the Jacobites’ 6,000, men who had also been exhausted after attempting – and then aborting – a surprise attack on the government soldiers’ camp the night before the battle.

“There have been several puzzles about the battle, including the fact that the government troops lined up to face the south-east,” added Raoul Curtis-Machin, operations manager at Culloden. “Strategically, you would have expected them to face east.

“However, recent research, including laser-ranging techniques, suggests that these troops were avoiding an area that would have then been treacherously boggy – it was drained not long after the battle – and this would have affected their deployment. The current dig would appear to support this thinking.”

Such conditions would also have had an impact on the Jacobites’ ability to charge their enemies’ lines, a favoured technique for them. However, these head-on tactics would have foundered in the mire that was then Culloden moor.

“We see from our research that the government troops must have been very well drilled and could manoeuvre quickly, something that Cumberland had been working on very carefully,” added Derek Alexander, head of archaeology at the NTS.

Research has revealed that each government soldier was ordered to thrust his bayonet not at the man opposite him but at the exposed underarm of the clansman to his right, for example. The result of these tactics was a battle that lasted only 60 minutes and led to the slaughter of a vast number of Jacobite soldiers.

“We know that 60 government troops died on the field and a further 200 died later of their wounds,” added McIntosh. “By contrast, around 1,500 Jacobites died either on the day or later of their wounds. So the ratio of deaths was about 5 to 1 for the Jacobites. It was very one-sided.”

The battlefield commemorates this grim slaughter and marks a turning point in British history. However, the site is now suffering because it is being heavily encroached by housing schemes. “For example, just beyond the Culloden Battlefield Memorial Cairn you can see Viewhill estate where 16 five-bed executive houses have just been built,” said Curtis-Machin. “It is an entirely inappropriate development for this landscape.

“The problem is that we have been besieged by planning applications for further developments on land on all six sides of Culloden. If this sort of thing continues, then we will be hemmed in and will end up looking like Central Park in Manhattan.

“And that would be wrong. By putting something there that is so out of place, it becomes incredibly difficult to experience history in a meaningful way.”

After the battle of Culloden was over, Prince Charles fled and spent five months on the run before escaping Scotland for France in September 1746. He never returned and died a broken alcoholic without an heir in Rome in 1788. Had he triumphed at Culloden, however, Britain and its fledgling empire would have had very different destinies.

“A Stuart monarchy might have had a very different view of Britain’s colonies, and so we might not have had an American revolution,” said Curtis-Machin. “Similarly, Highland Scots who suffered during the Clearances, which dramatically accelerated after the battle, would not have been forced to emigrate to Canada and other parts of the world. Culloden made a great difference to the world and we should acknowledge that.”


This entry was posted in Scottish Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Culloden Schemie

  1. duncanio says:

    It seems that Scotland is for Sale. Highest bidder. Roll-up please.

    Philistines had more aesthetic appreciation.

  2. diabloandco says:

    There’s a sadness about Scotland – or is it just me?
    I seem to be watching the downfall of my country , its absorption into Greater England, ingested by a large slug.

  3. tombkane says:

    Diabloandco, there is no sadness about Scotland. Scotland is beautiful… In particular, the Highlands and Islands if Scotland are beautiful. It’s peoples are diverse and community minded… It’s a welcoming country.

    But it is a colony of a country that was supposed to be our partner. And the conservative forces of that country are fighting hard to establish the sadness you talk about.

    If they win, it will be by destruction of a geography, many peoples, many cultures and a shared history. If they lose, they won’t lose much.

    The world will be a big winner the day Scotland becomes an independent country.

    But I know what you mean. It’s tough going just now.


  4. Howard Cairns says:

    Hopefully the NTS can overcome the creep of creepy capitalists. Can’t the local council stop this attempt to destroy our sacred sites?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s