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Blades not Bullets: the Battle of Culloden

The Battle of Culloden, which vanquished for good Jacobite claims to the British throne, is a much mythologised and misunderstood event. Murray Pittock cuts through the fog of war to find out what really happened in April 1746.   

After the battle: Culloden Moor Looking Across the Moray Firth, 1746, engraving by H. Griffiths, c.1830.

For two centuries, British historiography has defined Jacobitism as ‘primitive’: first, it was demeaned because of the very real threat it posed to the Hanoverian state; second, because of the role played by the Jacobite defeat in the creation myth of the British Empire. It is no coincidence that this approach began to founder in the 1970s, as the former imperial state, which grew to maturity in part as a consequence of the defeat of the Jacobites, took on a more fragmentary, modern and multicultural existence. Yet the popular image of the Jacobites, not least at the Battle of Culloden, fought on April 16th, 1746, remains. Though the Jacobite armies were well armed and decently led by officers familiar with the courts of Europe, both British ‘Whig history’ and Scottish patriot nostalgia relies on an image of them as dirty, poorly armed primitives sacrificing themselves with pointless nobility on the orders of an Italian princeling, ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie. That they are not remembered entirely with contempt is due to the fact that all agree that they were defending an ancient way of life. 

Arguably no battle beyond living memory is remembered so powerfully and so falsely. On Culloden Moor, what was in some ways the last Scottish army, with its Franco-Irish and Scoto-French allies, sought to restore Charles Edward’s father, James (known to his supporters as ‘James III and VIII’), to a multi-kingdom monarchy more aligned with European politics than colonial struggle. They were in many ways more of a regular army than many have given them credit for. Outnumbered but not outgunned, it was the Hanoverian cavalry that proved their downfall. Archival research and recent battlefield archaeology of Culloden demonstrate that it was not British artillery that brought down kilted swordsmen as much as dragoon blades that cut down Jacobite musketeers. The effect of flanking cavalry on an over-extended infantry formation with little effective reserve had been a constant in warfare for centuries and it is the key to understanding what happened at Culloden. The battle as it happened is much more interesting than as it is remembered. 

Historians have long argued that the eventual field of battle was ill-chosen; that it gave the Duke of Cumberland, commander of the British forces, considerable advantages, especially for his artillery and cavalry. This interpretation originates in a dispute between the advocates of Lord George Murray, Charles Edward’s lieutenant-general, and those of John Sullivan, a respected French regular, who was quartermaster and adjutant general for the Jacobite army.

The first site, scouted by staff officers in retreat from the Jacobite campaign south of the border, was near Dalcross Castle, five kilometres east of the final battlefield. From here, the Jacobites sought to defend the main road into Inverness, which was Sullivan’s aim. But, two days before the actual battle, Sullivan advised against it. It is easy to see why he was wise to make that decision: the distance between the two armies would leave them within effective musket range of each other and it has been estimated that the superior, highly disciplined firepower of the British army could have killed or wounded as many as 300 Jacobites a minute. Contesting a fire fight or adopting a defensive position were not traditional Jacobite strengths, which depended more on the Highland Charge and mobile, individual sharpshooters picking off individual troops. 

On the 15th, Murray sent his own party to examine a site further west, near Daviot Castle, on the southern bank of the River Nairn, two kilometres south-west of the final battlefield. It was an odd choice for a general who had complained that Jacobite food supplies in Inverness were not being effectively distributed to his troops, as it was some distance from the Inverness road and so could not defend Jacobite access to the city. Murray was criticised for his choice, ‘that it looked like shunning the Enemy … at a greater Distance from Inverness … a great deal of Ammunition and Baggage being left there’. That judgment, ignored by Murray’s advocates, was surely correct. Instead, Sullivan suggested a site one kilometre east of the final battlefield, which covered the road into Inverness. 

Of the three battle sites, Sullivan’s final choice was the best. Its only disadvantage was that it was visible to the Royal Navy in the Moray Firth and, given the high levels of spring light in Scotland by mid-April, the movement of the Jacobite army might have alerted government troops at Nairn before the Jacobites were in position to attack. However, due to the disorganisation of the Jacobite army and the tendency of units returning from the night attack to congregate a kilometre behind the lines near the Jacobite headquarters at Culloden House, it was not the site on which they finally deployed. 

The next day, the 16th, the Jacobite army formed up on a mildly convex site, where the left and right wings were both mutually invisible. Rainfall levels and drainage mean that such a site tends to drain to boggy ground at the extremes of left and right, which would impede the speed of the Highland Charge, so crucial to Jacobite strategy, and the ability to attack the enemy flank. In addition, it is likely that, to the extent that the farmland was well drained, the land adjacent to it would be correspondingly wetter. Sullivan’s view that the enclosures at Culloden House and nearby Culwhiniac would provide protection from a flanking attack was not ridiculous: he was probably thinking of the French practice of deploying a mobile reserve to reinforce the flanks. There were some signs of this at Culloden, but there were too few in the Jacobite second line to carry this out effectively. The Jacobite cavalry, though its ‘screen’ (a move used to obscure what lies behind it) on the right held well into the battle, was woefully deficient in numbers. The National Trust for Scotland battlefield site covers a smaller footprint than it did for the combatants, which has had the effect, as the archaeologist Tony Pollard has observed, of reinforcing interpretations that marginalise or ignore the central role played by cavalry action.

The initial artillery exchange (the Jacobites possessed 85 pieces of artillery at its peak) lasted for about nine minutes, maybe a little longer. Some 30 to 90 rounds were fired from the British army’s cannon. When the 4th Regiment of Foot was broken by the Jacobite advance, the breach was narrow and, forming 20 or 30 deep to push through, the Jacobite infantry could not bring fire to bear over a wide enough front. In a three-minute struggle, five or six volleys from three British infantry regiments sent a huge volume of ball into both the remnants of the 4th and the Jacobite front, halting the charge. The Jacobites returned fire: multiple ball holes were reported in the clothing of at least one British officer. As recent archaeology has demonstrated, the Jacobites fired more ball per man than the British: isolated fire fights on the flanks, forming into squares to screen the retreat and the volleying of relatively intact units such as Lord Ogilvy’s infantry regiment all played their part. But retreating Jacobite battalions, disorganised by soggy ground, poor visibility, canister and musketry, were swept aside by a dragoon pincer movement when their cavalry screen on the right gave way.

Culloden was always going to be a difficult battle for the Jacobites to win, but the improvised nature of the final site, the lack of any reserve and sufficient cavalry to build on the protection offered by the obstacles on their flanks, as well as the strength of the British cavalry and their use late in the battle (not too early, as at previous encounters at Prestonpans and Falkirk) made all the difference. In remembering the Battle of Culloden correctly, we should realise that the British army’s most effective weapons that day in 1746 were the cavalry’s blades rather than the infantry’s bullets. 

Murray Pittock is Bradley Professor at the University of Glasgow and the author of Culloden: Great Battles (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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