Battle of Culloden

gigatos | February 23, 2022


The battle of Culloden (Gaelic: Blàr Chùil Lodair), fought on April 16, 1746 near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, saw the supporters of Charles Edward Stuart, known as the “Young Pretender” (also known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”), definitively defeated by the loyalist forces commanded by the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II, who for the cruelty of the repression carried out against the Jacobites was nicknamed “Billy the Butcher”.

The battle of Culloden was the last pitched battle fought in Great Britain, and despite being in the midst of the modern age, the Scots used concepts and strategies dating back to the Middle Ages, ineffective and outdated; the battle ended with their disastrous defeat.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the expulsion of the last Catholic king, the hopes of a Jacobite restoration on the throne of the three “kingdoms” had not yet waned in Great Britain, and indeed with the passing of the years were increasingly regaining strength, especially in Ireland and Scotland, where the territorial confiscations operated by William of Orange in favor of the Protestants, had aroused strong resentment from the Catholics. Hopes for the Jacobites seemed to rise again in 1744, when the cause of the House of Stuart obtained the political and military support of the King of France, Louis XV. In fact, the French king looked favourably on the British throne with one of his candidates, who was also Catholic. In February of the same year, ten thousand French soldiers were gathered in Dunkirk: the French plan was to ferry them to the southern coast of Essex, and then advance from there to the English capital. The Stuart representative was the Prince of Wales Charles Edward, eldest son of James Edward Stuart and grandson of the last Stuart sovereign of the “three kingdoms”, James II.

The French plans of invasion of England were however ruined by the bad weather conditions, which led to the almost total destruction of the French fleet. Once this opportunity was gone, James Edward, the “Old Pretender”, lost all influence in the games of European politics; his projects passed to his son Charles Edward, who from that moment took the nickname of “Young Pretender” in the European political salons and the nickname of “Handsome Prince Charlie” in the aristocratic and pro-Jacobite ones.

In 1745 Charles Edward was appointed regent by his father and on July 16 he started a new expedition. Together with a small number of acquaintances and equipped with a small amount of weapons and ammunition he headed towards Scotland aboard the frigate Du Teillay, commanded by Antony Walsh, a well-known privateer. The light frigate was escorted by the Elizabeth, a French vessel of third class; on board of this last ship was embarked a group of volunteers, scarce for number and for quality of the equipment. The enterprise began in an unfortunate way: the Elizabeth, severely damaged in a clash with the English vessel Lyon occurred to the west of the Irish coast, was forced to turn back to Brest, taking with it the soldiers and supplies intended to support the Scottish revolt.

Charles Edward, on board the Du Teillay, managed to reach the Hebrides Islands, evading the naval blockade operated by the English, and from here he could reach the Scottish mainland, on July 25, exactly in the roadstead of Loch nan Uamh, near Arisaig. From here, Bel Carlo began to call the Clans of the Highlands. On August 9, in Glenfinnan, Charles Edward raised the banner of the Stuart, proclaiming himself regent in the name of his father. On August 16 the hostilities were opened. In Highbridge a small group of Jacobites led by Sir Tìr nan drìs attacked two companies of English infantry capturing their captain. Thus began the “Forty-five”.

The “Forty-Five”

Initially the army assembled by Charles Edward consisted of only 1200 men, divided more or less equally between the members of the Cameron clan under the command of Sir Lochiel and the members of the MacDonald clan under the orders of Keppoch. This small contingent grew larger as it advanced towards the Eastern Highlands up to Badenonoch; ironically, Charles Edward”s army was traveling along those very roads that had been built by the English during the previous Jacobite insurrection of 1715 with the purpose of facilitating the control of the region, making the movement of the troops faster. The English army led by Sir John Cope, sent hastily against the rebel expedition, proceeded in the direction of Inverness, opening in this way to Charles Edward the road to Edinburgh.

In Perth he joined the army of the Pretender Lord George Murray, who would later prove to be a valiant commander. In the meantime, on September 17, Prince Charles entered in Edinburgh, settling in Holyrood Palace, ancient residence of the Stuarts; the garrison of the city was entrenched in the castle. Cope tried to contrast Charles: reached Aberdeen, his army embarked for Dunbar and then advanced towards Edinburgh. At the dawn of September 21, in Prestonpans, Cope”s dragoons found themselves before the spectacle of the mass charge of the Highlanders through the thick mist “among the wild war cries of the Highlands and the wailing of the bagpipes”. The English army was routed and routed in just ten minutes and Cope had to face a court martial.

Having definitively taken possession of Scotland, Charles Edward could devote himself to his final objective, reaching London: his army marched towards the capital on November 1, crowning his advance with the occupation of Carlisle on November 16, Manchester on the 28th and Derby on December 4. However, not everything went according to the plans of Charles, who had strong contrasts with Lord Murray: the aid from the English Jacobites was more inconsistent than expected and arrived late, and about a thousand Highlanders deserted, returning to their homeland. In addition to these internal problems, the Pretender had to face three loyalist armies that, under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II, succeeded as commander-in-chief to Field Marshal Wade, were gathering to encircle the Jacobites. Prince Charles then decided to retreat, even though London was only 127 miles away and the city, as Horace Walpole himself reports in his famous epistolary, was in great anxiety because of the news that circulated about a large French army embarked on the coast of Calais and already en route through the English Channel, and about numerous Jacobite reinforcements arriving from Wales and the counties of England itself.

Showing little strategic and political acumen, instead of marching quickly to occupy London, Charles Edward preferred to turn back to Scotland, entering Glasgow on Christmas Day, although the city was now hostile to him. Even the city of Stirling let him enter only reluctantly, although the government remained locked up in the castle. However, luck seemed to be still favorable to Prince Charles. Lady Anne MacKintosh, whose husband, head of the homonymous clan, was in the government troops, secretly sent him 400 men, earning from the Jacobites the nickname of “Colonel Anne”. Finally came the long-awaited French aid. On 17 January 1746, at Falkirk, the Jacobites defeated the army of Lieutenant-General Henry Hawley. On February 1, the Highland army forded the Forth to head north.

Despite his secretary, John Williams O”Sullivan, insisted on resuming the advance towards south, Prince Charles preferred to listen to Lord Murray, who suggested the opposite strategy, and established his headquarters in Inverness, where he remained for seven weeks to winter. In the meantime, however, his situation was worsening, because with the advance of the army of the Duke of Cumberland, who had settled in Aberdeen, many Scottish leaders had begun to abandon him, while the economic aid sent by France had been neutralized by the English. The Duke of Cumberland, along with numerous German allies from Hanover and Hesse, left Aberdeen on April 8, heading for Nairn. On April 14, the Jacobite army prepared for the clash, deploying the next day on the moors of Drumossie.

Although the Jacobite army was deployed, April 15, 1746 ended without fighting, as the British army had celebrated their commander”s birthday with an extra distribution of brandy and remained in their camp to celebrate. The rebel army did not take advantage of this opportunity because their commanders had not yet reached an agreement on the choice of a suitable battlefield. While in fact O”Sullivan and Prince Charles claimed that the moor was a good terrain for their troops, Lord Murray objected (and the facts would have given him reason), that such a battlefield would have weakened the feared charges of the Highlanders, allowing instead the English to better exploit the firepower of musketeers and artillery.

These discussions lasted all day long, while the Jacobite troops remained lined up motionless, prey to cold and hunger. Late at night, an attack on the English camp was ordered, but it was repulsed.

Demoralized, hungry and disconcerted by the absurd management of the situation by their commanders, the Jacobite soldiers retreated, without having the possibility to rest during the night. Some, exhausted, threw themselves in prey to sleep along the road and were surprised and massacred by pickets of English soldiers.

At dawn on April 16, Charles Edward deployed his troops; his entire army consisted of just over 5,000 men, including the two battalions of the Jacobite regiments of the French army, the Écossais Royaux and the Brigade Irlandaise, and a few hundred poorly armed cavalrymen. Artillery counted only thirteen old light field guns of French origin. The Highlanders were arranged in order by clan, forming two lines, while Lord Kilmarnock”s weak cavalry and the French-Irish troops were in reserve. On the other side of the battlefield deployed the fifteen well-trained regiments of infantry of the Duke of Cumberland, including three Scots from the clans loyal to Hanover, and two regiments of dragoons.

The English army under the orders of Lord Cumberland was deployed in three lines: the first two (commanded respectively by the Earl of Albemarle and Major General John Huske) were composed of six battalions, while the third, held in reserve, consisted of three battalions under the orders of Sir John Morduant. The sides were protected by cavalry, while the artillery, much more powerful than that available to the Jacobite army, was deployed in the spaces between the various battalions. Finally, on the left side of the deployment were positioned three battalions of Scots loyal to the House of Hanover, which constituted the militia of Argyll; these last ones had, according to the English plans, to encircle the rebel army, taking it from the side. Most of the information on the disposition of the army of the Duke of Cumberland is had, in addition to the military dispatches, from the two letters that the then Major James Wolfe wrote the day after the battle.

The battle was opened, around ten o”clock in the morning, by the fire of the small Jacobite cannons, made ineffective by the excessive distance and the inexperience of the artillerymen. Although the marshy terrain had diminished the power of the enemy”s artillery, while waiting for the order to attack, the long line of tartans suffered heavy losses and morale began to fall. However, Prince Charles waited as much as an hour before giving the signal to attack because, being far from the front line, he did not realize how many casualties the English artillery was making in his ranks. When the rebels finally decided to attack, moreover, the MacDonalds refused to carry out the order, enraged at having been placed on the left flank of the army, ignoring their traditional position on the right flank. This insubordination meant that only a portion of the Jacobite forces actually took part in the battle.

The clans of the Chattan Confederacy were the first to charge at the wild cry of the Highlands, but the marshy terrain before them forced them to converge to the right, thus blocking the way for the other regiments of Highlanders and pushing them ever closer to the stone wall. Despite the great confusion created by this accidental maneuver, the Jacobites continued to advance intrepidly. The army they faced, however, besides being numerically superior, was substantially different from those against which the Jacobites had won several victories: Lord Cumberland”s army was formed by the elite units of the English army, whose members were true veterans who had taken part, in some cases, in the battles of Dettingen and Fontenoy in Europe. Having come within a few steps of the English lines, the Highlanders were hit by the discharges of the musketry and the machine-gun fire of the artillery. Nevertheless, a large number of Jacobites reached the enemy lines and for the first time in a long time a battle was decided by hand-to-hand combat between the Highlanders armed with sword and shield and the English Redcoats with muskets and bayonets. In the wild melee that followed, particularly with the 4th Regiment of Line, the Jacobite charge was halted and the few rebels who managed to penetrate the enemy”s first line were mowed down by the fire of the second.

While the attack was still in progress, a part of the English troops had climbed over the stone wall and the militia of Argyll, led by Lord Campbell, advanced to the side of the Jacobites. By now sure of the victory, the English finally pushed back the few surviving rebels and exterminating the wounded. The dragoons of Lord Mark Kerr under the orders of general Hawley charged the fleeing troops making a real massacre. Prince Charles Edward fortunately escaped death and capture, managing to escape with a small escort. To cover his escape, the French and Irish regiments immolated themselves.

In just one hour the Duke of Cumberland had achieved a crushing victory. About 1,250 Jacobites lay dead on the battlefield, as many were more or less seriously wounded and 558 prisoners had been taken. The British had lost about fifty men, most from Barrell”s and Munro”s regiments; the wounded amounted to 259.

The disastrous outcome of the battle put a definitive end both to the Stuart”s plans to regain the English throne, and to the Scottish dream of becoming independent again from England. The total extermination of the wounded ordered to his soldiers caused the Duke of Cumberland to be nicknamed “Billy the Butcher” by the Scots. Some high-ranking prisoners were taken to Inverness to be tried and executed, while three rebellious lords were sent to London.

Charles Edward fled the battlefield and spent another five months as a fugitive in Scotland, with a bounty of £30,000 on his head. Aided by a Scottish noblewoman, Flora MacDonald, shortly thereafter, Handsome Charles adventurously left Scottish soil disguised as a woman, to take refuge in France.

Immediately after the battle, Cumberland went to Inverness with his saber still covered in blood, as a symbolic gesture and warning. The following day, the massacre went on. The Duke emptied the prisons of English prisoners and ordered to fill them with Jacobite prisoners. A number of those arrested were taken to England to be tried for high treason. A series of trials took place in Berwick-upon-Tweed, York and London and many Jacobites were held for some time in pontoons on the Thames and in Tilbury Fort, where they were tortured and left to die. Executions were conducted at a ratio of one to twenty. In total, 3,470 Jacobites and other supporters were taken prisoner at Culloden, of whom 120 were sentenced to death and 88 died in the prisons; 936 were deported to the colonies and 222 exiled. While many were later released, the fate of nearly 700 remained unknown. In the same way as he carried out summary justice on Jacobite prisoners, Cumberland was also inflexible towards his men, having 36 English deserters shot. The repression carried out, however, was not very different in cruelty from that operated by James II at the time of the rebellion of Monmouth, with the bloody assizes of Judge Jeffreys.

Unlike the Scottish rebels, the pickets of Irish soldiers of the French army were granted a formal surrender and were treated honorably, even allowing them a return to France: they were considered regular soldiers of a foreign nation, subject to the normal code of war. Jacobite prisoners, however, seen as traitors, were treated accordingly.

The repression of the government troops against the Jacobites and their sympathizers continued in the following months. The English, moreover, took several measures to definitively subdue Scotland, destroying its customs and traditions: Scots were forbidden to wear kilts or play the bagpipes, with the sole exception of regiments recruited into the English army; to this series of laws, called the Act of Proscription, were added the Tenures Abolition Act, which decreed the end of the feudal bond of military service, and the Heritable Jurisdictions Act, which abolished the virtual authority that chiefs had over their clans. The new ecclesiastical provisions aimed to proscribe the main religious denomination of the Jacobites, Episcopalianism. Scottish cultural roots were also severely tested by the English, who opposed the use of Gaelic and the recitation of ancient Scottish literary works.

Following the battle, Händel wrote the oratorio Judas Maccabeus in honor of the Duke of Cumberland, with the celebrated aria “See how the conquering hero comes.”

Before the Duke of Cumberland took command of the English army, King George II”s troops were assembled at Newcastle-upon-Tyne under the orders of Field Marshal George Wade. On October 15, 1745, in The Gentleman”s Magazine, the hymn God Save the King in honor of King George was officially published for the first time. The sixth and final stanza, removed in the late 20th century when the anthem was officially adopted as the national anthem, contained the following words:

Remnant of a tribal society by now destined to decline, the clan (from the Gaelic clann, “family”, “son”) represented the cardinal social structure of the Scottish Highlands. It was composed of families who considered themselves descendants of the same ancestors and who often bore the same surname. The head of the clan, who had the title of Lord, had possession of all the lands on which the members of his clan lived; these, in exchange for the right to cultivate them, were required to follow him in war. Each clan was distinguished by a particular color scheme, in the typical Celtic geometric patterns, called tartan, which was worn on kilts, plaids and other items of clothing. The Jacobite army that fought at Culloden included men from: Clan Stuart (Stewart of Appin), Clan Donnachaidh, Clan MacDonald of Keppoch, Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry, Clan MacDonald of Clanranald, Clan Mackinnon, Clan Cameron, Clan Gordon, Clan Fraser, Clan MacGregor, Clan MacLean, Clan MacLeod, Clan MacIntyre, Clan Ogilvy, Clan Chisholm, Clan MacLaren, Clan MacLea, Clan MacBain, Clan MacLachlan, Clan Macnaghten, and Clan Chattan (confederation consisting of: Clan Davidson, Clan MacGillivray, Clan Macpherson, Clan MacKintosh, Clan MacDuff, and Clan Farquharson).

The Jacobite Army

The Highlanders of Prince Charles Edward were absolutely unable to perform on the battlefield the complicated infantry maneuvers imposed by the eighteenth century drill. They knew only one tactic, used in clashes between clans for the possession of land or livestock that for centuries involved the Highlands: the wild charge to get to a furious melee in which the physical strength and courage of individuals decided the outcome of the fight. During the “Forty-five” this way of fighting proved effective until the Highlanders faced the small and poorly trained English county militia, but it totally failed at Culloden, where the Duke of Cumberland”s army, numerous and made up of regular regiments of veterans, stopped the impetus with the deadly fire of muskets.

However, the Jacobite army could also count on numerous veterans of the European wars, both within the regular clan militia as veterans (Scotland, especially in the north, had been supplying soldiers to the British army for more than a century, and even more so after the Act of Union), and, above all, in the small (and minority at that time) regular Scottish and Irish formations of the Spanish and French armies. The soldiers of the “royal Scottish regiment” (Règiment écossais royaux) and the French Irish brigade (reinforced with some elements of the Spanish Irish regiments) constituted a small but relatively well-trained and robust reserve for the Jacobite army, capable of fighting according to the rules of the eighteenth-century drill (and in particular according to French regulations).

The British Army

The regular regiments that the Duke of Cumberland commanded at Culloden had their origins in the military reforms of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army during the English Civil War, of which they retained the organization and the traditional scarlet red color of the uniforms. The rigid eighteenth-century drill, however, was inherited from King William III”s long wars on the Continent. Trained to fight by battalion in long lines three ranks deep, the English soldiers relied on the precise fire of their muskets, whose effectiveness was determined by strict training, and on the deadly impact of bayonets in hand-to-hand combat. Starting from the early eighteenth century, one company of each battalion was given the name of grenadiers. It was made up of the bravest and strongest soldiers (no less than 1.80 m tall) armed not only with muskets and bayonets, but also with hand-thrown grenades, which soon fell into disuse. As a distinctive sign, the grenadiers wore the mitre instead of the normal tricorn hat, an element that made them look like real giants.

Order of battle

Below is the order of battle of the two armies, with relative losses.



  1. Battaglia di Culloden
  2. Battle of Culloden
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