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This close-quarters clash on a windswept moor would challenge the Scottish clan tradition and direct the course of British rule.

On a frigid, rainy day in mid-April, on a windswept, boggy moor five miles east of Inverness, Scotland, some 5,000 exhausted soldiers waited. Their kilted front-liners wielded broadswords and dirks along with their muskets; 250 cavalrymen and a dozen small cannon backed them. In prior months they had proved a ferocious and successful force, but they now stood hungry and exhausted after a fruitless all-night march.

Across the moor about 500 yards northeast stood a modern, disciplined, well-equipped and, on this day, well-rested army. It was a far larger and better-organized force and, perhaps most important, possessed superior artillery. The terrain favored its commander’s strategy of remaining on the defensive and letting the cannon do much of the killing.

The Scots on the leading edge of the Jacobite force would rely on a time-tested tactic: the full-throated Highland charge, a fearsome wave of flashing steel that had cowed more than a few enemies into breaking ranks to live another day. British government troops, despite their superior numbers and firepower, had faltered in the face of this tactic earlier in the uprising led by Charles Edward Stuart (aka “Bonnie Prince Charlie”), who hoped to restore his royal line to the joint throne of England and Scotland.

But on this day the British front-line troops, backed by devastating artillery fire and armed with a new close-quarters defensive ploy, would stand their ground against those weary Jacobites who managed to make it through the bog and the fusillades of grapeshot. The opposing forces ripped into one another in savage hand-to-hand combat. The bloody clash was over in less than an hour.

The April 16, 1746, Battle of Culloden marked the last pitched battle on British soil and was the final clash of the 1745 Jacobite Rising. The rebel ranks— composed largely of Highland Scots but which included Lowland Scots and English Jacobites as well as foreign soldiers in the French service—may have stepped forward with some trepidation that day, staring across the moor at the crisp and prodigious British army arrayed before them. In the months leading up to this fight, however, they’d kept mostly on the offensive.

The uprising was variably rooted in politics, religion, nostalgia and greed. In 1689, following the exile to France of James II of England and VII of Scotland, the thrones of both nations had passed from the Roman Catholic House of Stuart to the Protestant House of Orange under James’ eldest daughter, Mary II, and her husband, Dutch-born William III. In 1702, following their deaths, the crown passed to Mary’s sister Anne, considered the last monarch of the House of Stuart. In 1707, through mutual Acts of Union, the parliaments of England and Scotland unified Anne’s realm as the Kingdom of Great Britain. When Anne died in 1714 without an heir, the kingdom passed to the House of Hanover under her German cousin George I, her closest Protestant relative.

Though the unified throne ultimately improved the economies of both England and Scotland, particularly the latter, many remained opposed to the chosen line of rule. The fault lies with Parliament. The 1701 Act of Settlement prohibited Catholics from inheriting the throne, and Acts of Union negotiators had ensured succession of the Hanoverian royal house. Many Scots and English instead demanded restoration of the Stuart line. Known as Jacobites (from Jacobus, the Latinized form of James), they launched rebellions in 1715 and 1719, both of which fell apart. Still, support for the cause remained strong, particularly in France and the Scottish Highlands—the House of Stuart had historically been pro-French and supported the clan chiefs.

In late 1743 France, then at war with Britain in the labyrinthine War of the Austrian Succession, hatched a plot to invade England in early 1744, and Louis XV brought the youngest of the exiled Stuarts, 22-year-old Charles (grandson of the exiled James II and VII), to France to accompany the landing force. The plan was to overthrow George II and install Bonnie Prince Charlie’s father, James Stuart, on the throne, thus turning Britain into a de facto client state. But in February 1744 storms devastated the invasion fleet, and the French abandoned the effort.

Late that year Charles met with French-allied Irish Catholic privateers and begged and borrowed to fund a Jacobite landing in Scotland with two ships. Loaded with Irish volunteers, arms and money, the ships sailed from France in July 1745. Following a run-in with a Royal Navy ship of the line, the larger of the privateer ships—carrying the troops and most of the weapons—was forced to turn back. The one carrying Charles did make it to Scotland, however, and the prince, alluding to French assurances, convinced several Highland chiefs to join his cause. Charlie soon claimed a small army of 1,200 men and on August 19 at Glenfinnan publicly announced his intentions to seize the crown in his father’s name. His promise of French assistance was an empty one; Louis had made no such pledge. But the Jacobites, marching south essentially unopposed, managed to occupy Edinburgh on September 17. Four days later they met a British army of equal size just to the east at Prestonpans.

Arriving on the field on September 20, Sir John Cope’s government troops had secured a position overlooking marshy ground, ensuring that any Jacobite charge would mire down before their guns. But a Scottish lieutenant with knowledge of the area led the Jacobites on an overnight march around the British left flank. At first light on the 21st, through the early morning mist, the Highlanders charged down on the British with a bloodcurdling battle cry. According to a study published by the United Kingdom’s Battlefields Resource Centre, each side was able to fire only one volley of artillery before the front lines closed on one another. The largely untested government troops faltered, and many broke and fled. Those that remained fired a single volley as the Highlanders charged across the gap. Then, employing the classic Highland tactic, the Jacobites returned fire, dropped their muskets, drew their broadswords and swept over their foe.

In a matter of minutes Cope’s roughly 2,300 troops suffered some 700 killed or wounded and 1,400 captured. Fewer than 200 escaped the field. Jacobite losses numbered just 34 killed and fewer than 80 wounded. The clash, according to the Battlefields Resource Centre study, “was a dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness of a Highland charge in the face of well-equipped troops using the current best military practice.”

The Prestonpans victory boosted morale and raised hopes among the Jacobites. French money and weapons began to trickle in, and Charlie’s army grew to more than 5,000 as it marched farther south. In early November the Jacobites crossed the border into England, soon occupying several northern cities unopposed.

A few days’ march from London, however, some of the Stuart prince’s own war chiefs began to suffer from cold feet —an attack on England’s capital would be madness, after all, as they would have to defeat no fewer than three large British armies in succession. The hoped-for broad support of English Jacobites hadn’t materialized, nor had any significant assistance from the French. In early December, against Charlie’s wishes, the chiefs forced a retreat into Scotland, where they might consolidate their forces, recruit more soldiers and rally. The British initially sent Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and son of King George II, in pursuit of the Jacobites, but the fresh threat of a French invasion pulled the bulk of the government forces back south. The Jacobites reached Glasgow by Christmas and soon drew several thousand willing volunteers.

After several indecisive skirmishes, on Jan. 17, 1746, a British rear guard met Charlie’s main army at Falkirk. Responding to the Jacobite siege of Stirling Castle, Lt. Gen. Henry Hawley had led a 7,000-man British force west out of Edinburgh. When he halted his army at Falkirk and showed no desire to advance farther, Lord George Murray marched east from Bannockburn, where Charlie had set up headquarters. The Jacobite army, boasting some 8,000 men, approached Falkirk from the west on an open, sloping field that perfectly suited the Highland charge.

The Jacobite lines were arrayed as usual with the Highlanders out front, the Lowland infantry next, and cavalry and a small body of professional French troops in reserve. Caught napping, Hawley hadn’t properly deployed his forces. But his men, unlike those at Prestonpans, were seasoned veterans who could squeeze off two musket rounds a minute. He deployed them two deep, with his inexperienced militia troops in reserve.

Hawley’s dragoons rode in first to attack the Jacobite right but fell back in the face of controlled Jacobite fire. The fleeing horsemen disrupted the government infantry, prompting a headlong Highland charge. Both lines on the British left broke and ran. Only the government right, protected from the front by a deep ravine, held position, and those disciplined infantrymen poured fire into the attackers’ flank, halting them. Approaching darkness ended the fight.

While the Jacobites had won the field at Falkirk—in the process inflicting some 700 casualties, capturing enemy baggage, ammunition and artillery pieces and winning the propaganda battle—their victory was strategically hollow. The action had exposed their primary weaknesses: poor command and control and the reckless Highlanders’ vulnerability to massed, accurate musket fire.

In the wake of Falkirk, Cumberland arrived in Scotland to take command of British forces. He spent the rest of the winter and early spring in Aberdeen, regrouping his army and adding some 5,000 Hessian mercenaries. Meanwhile, as Bonnie Prince Charlie was running short on funds and food, the scattered Jacobite factions darted about the Highlands, trying to capture government forts and supplies. By early April the weather had improved, and Cumberland broke camp. The stage was set for a showdown.

Cumberland’s 9,000-man army marched steadily west toward the Jacobite stronghold at Inverness and on April 15 camped just outside Nairn. The Jacobites ventured out as far as Drummossie Moor, near Culloden, some 12 miles shy of Nairn. There, on the advice of his adjutant, Charlie chose to make his stand. By then his men were in a weakened state, so hungry that by one estimate a third of the Jacobite army had dispersed in search of food. Meanwhile, the well-provisioned British troops spent the day feasting and drinking.

That evening, taking a page from their earlier success at Prestonpans, Jacobite commanders decided to march their men through the night to launch a flank attack on their foe at dawn. Marching cross-country so as to avoid British sentries, the starving rebels trudged over difficult terrain for hours until, nearing dawn with the objective still miles away, the Jacobite commanders canceled the attack and marched the men back to Culloden. The well-lubricated British remained sound asleep, oblivious to their close call. Several hours and many hard miles later the Jacobites arrived back in camp exhausted and disorganized. Many collapsed into sleep. Others continued the desperate search for food.

Such was the sorry state of affairs when at 10:30 a.m. pickets spotted the approaching British. The ragtag rebels spent the next hour forming up on the southwest side of the moor, placing themselves between the British and Inverness.

The Jacobite forces numbered little more than 5,000, while Cumberland’s red-jacketed army was stronger by 4,000 men and far more capable in terms of cavalry and artillery. About 500 yards separated the two forces. Between them lay boggy ground uniquely unsuited to the Highland charge. Driving rain and sleet blew directly into the faces of the rebel army. Given the conditions and the odds, the Jacobite commanders could not really have chosen a better killing ground—for their own men.

“The morning was cold and stormy as we stood on the battlefield—snow and rain blowing against us,” recalled Jacobite Donald Mackay of Acmonie in later years. “Before long we saw the [British], in battle formation, in front of us, and although the day was wild and wet, we could see the red coats of the soldiers and the blue tartans of the Campbells in our presence.” (Clan Campbell fought on the government side.)

There is no definitive record of who fired first, though most accounts claim the government artillery opened up around 1 p.m., answered by sporadic Jacobite fire. At that moment the stormy weather ceased.

“Just as the enemy began to fire their cannon, it grew a fine day,” Edward Linn, a government soldier with the 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers, wrote in a letter to his wife. “The wind was strong on our back and the enemies face so that we could hardly see them for our smoke.”

The Jacobites got the worst of it. “Many of the gunners had wandered with others in search of provisions and had not returned,” wrote Peter Anderson in his 1920 history of the battle, “and their places had to be supplied by men unaccustomed to such practice, while the duke’s cannon made dreadful havoc.”

The Highlanders were champing at the bit, but the Bonnie Prince held them back, waiting for Cumberland to make the first move. Meanwhile, the rebel ranks were rapidly thinning. “The pellets came at us like hailstones,” Mackay recalled. “The big guns were thundering and causing frightful breakup among us.”

History doesn’t conclusively record who gave the order to charge—Charlie, who had fallen back after a cannonball decapitated a servant; or Donald Cameron of Lochiel, in the center of the line; or Lord George Murray, on the Jacobite right. In any case, the hornet-mad Highlanders finally charged. But it was a ragged effort; the line of attack was oblique, and the lines didn’t advance en masse. The boggy center of the moor, dotted with gorse and heather, slowed the advance, exposing even greater numbers of the attackers to the murderous grapeshot poured out by British cannoneers. But still the rebels came.

At roughly 80 paces from the British lines the Highlanders on the Jacobite right, still stubbornly out front, stopped to fire their muskets, tossed them aside, hefted their claymores overhead and swept in screaming for the kill.

The regiments fronting the British left—the 4th and 37th Regiments of Foot—took the brunt of the attack. Men on the front line waited with fixed bayonets. Meanwhile, the troops in the second line and others who had maneuvered to the extreme left, outside the line of charge, held their fire. Just as the ranks closed, these infantrymen fired well-aimed volleys, breaking much of the attackers’ momentum. There followed a terrible clash of steel on steel. The defensive tactic on which the government troops had been drilled was a counterintuitive move requiring both a high degree of discipline and complete trust in the man to one’s left. The soldiers in the first rank thrust their bayonets at the attacking rebels to their right, targeting the side of the Scots’ bodies unprotected by the light Highland shield known as the targe.

Despite the bloody gauntlet, many Highlanders survived to exact their revenge.

“We ran forward and—oh dear! oh dear!—what cutting and slicing there was, and many the brave deeds performed by the Gaels,” Mackay wrote. “I saw Iain Mor MacGilliosa cutting down the English as if he was cutting corn, and Iain Breac Shiosallach killing them as though they were flies.”

The slashing Highlanders partially broke the first line only to find themselves trapped between the first and second lines. While one British regiment moved to plug the gap, two others counterattacked, some soldiers moving left to pour flanking fire into the attackers. As the Highlanders lost ground, dragoons swept around and behind them to cut off their escape. Meanwhile, the center and left of the lagging Jacobite line —slowed by the boggy ground, punished by the British guns and disheartened at the sight of their reeling right—began falling back and never came into contact with the British lines.

“We were on the left of our army, and at the distance of about 20 paces from the enemy,” wrote James Johnstone, a Jacobite officer, “when the rout commenced to become general before even we had made our charge.…To the increase of my horror I beheld the Highlanders around me turning their backs to fly. I remained for a time motionless and lost in astonishment; I then, in a rage, discharged my blunderbuss at the enemy and immediately endeavored to save myself like the rest; but having charged on foot and in my boots, I was so overcome by the marshy ground, the water of which reached to the middle of my legs, that instead of running, I could barely walk.”

As the Jacobites broke, government cavalry and mounted infantry swarmed into the fight.

“The horse and dragoons who were placed in the wings flanked the right and left and met in the center of the rebel army, and then it became a universal rout,” William Warden of Gargunnock wrote to a cousin nine days after the battle.

“Immediately our horse that were upon our right and left wings pursued with sword and pistol and cut a great many of them down so that I never saw a small field thicker of dead,” Linn recalled.

Only the courageous covering fire of the Jacobite-allied Irish Picquets prevented a complete massacre.

In less than an hour of bitter fighting upward of 1,500 of Charlie’s troops lay dead or wounded, and 376 were taken prisoner. The toll on Cumberland’s men was 50 killed and fewer than 300 wounded.

“There never was a more complete victory obtained,” wrote Donald Campbell of Airds, a Highland officer with the government army’s Argyll Militia. “We got all the enemy’s cannon, ammunition and a good part of their baggage.”

The death toll climbed as the Redcoats either finished off the Jacobite wounded or left them to die. In the ensuing months Britain sought to crush any inclination for the Jacobites to rise again, and Cumberland was their instrument of “pacification.” His soldiers systematically hunted down fugitive Jacobites and other Highlanders, imprisoning thousands and banishing or executing hundreds more, while he personally ordered their settlements burned and livestock driven off. His ruthlessness earned the hated duke the moniker “Butcher of Culloden.”

It was a turning point in British history, ending more than a half-century of Jacobite uprisings and accelerating the end of the fading, traditional clan system that persisted in the Highlands even as the rest of Scotland was undergoing what writer Arthur Herman calls “an explosion of cultural and economic activity.” In a final indignity Parliament passed an act of proscription that summer, banning the possession of “warlike weapons” and the wearing of tartan and Highland dress—powerful symbols of the clans.

Today the National Trust of Scotland continues its efforts to restore the Culloden battlefield] even as modern technology has enabled researchers to better plot the course of the conflict. A 2001 to its 1746 appearance, [www.nts metal-detector survey of the debris field, for example, proved that the Jacobite and British lines converged nearly 100 yards farther south than originally believed. More recent surveys with ground-penetrating radar have identified previously unknown and unmarked burial pits.

A visit to this meticulously preserved site is an engaging step back in time. The interactive visitor center provides a clear understanding of the events leading up to the battle, while a four-minute film projects the clash on four walls, enveloping viewers with a startling sense of immediacy. The GPS-activated battlefield tour leads visitors in the footsteps of both rebel and Redcoat as they envision what transpired that bloody day on the moor.


For further reading William McMichael suggests The ’45: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Untold Story of the Jacobite Rising, by Christopher Duffy; Culloden: 1746, by Stuart Reid; and Culloden: The History and Archaeology of the Last Clan Battle, edited by Tony Pollard.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.