On April 16th, 1746, the last battle fought on British soil occurred. It was a confrontation between the supporters of two different dynastic houses, but it was more than just some familial feud. This was the Battle of Culloden and it was the last battle in a conflict that was political, religious and ethnic. It is the subject of John Prebble’s Culloden, but his book is more than just a re-telling of that battle. It is also the story of Scottish Highlanders and in particular what happened to them in the aftermath of Culloden. Prebble’s book is also, to a lesser extent, the story of the Lowlands and of the men who fought on behalf of the ruling Hanoverian dynasty against the rebellious Jacobites.
John Prebble is perhaps best known for having written the screenplay for the great 1964 film Zulu. He also helped in creating a documentary based off of this book. Prebble was for most of his life a communist and yet he was arguably a Scottish nationalist as well. Though he is clearly very critical of aspects of Scottish culture and traditional feelings of nostalgia for Jacobitism, from reading Culloden one generally comes back with the feeling that this was in fact the work of a patriot.
The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 was the second attempt by the Scottish Stuart dynasty to retake the thrones of England, Scotland (which since 1701 were united together) and Ireland. The first rebellion had occurred in 1715 and had also begun in Scotland, although there was a failed attempt at initiating one in Cornwall as well. James II was the last Stuart to rule over the British Isles. He was overthrown during the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688 after the largely Anglican political establishment decided they had had enough of a Catholic king whose wife had just recently given birth to a son – the ‘Old Pretender’ aka James III to Jacobites. James II tried to regain his lands in 1689, when he landed in Ireland to help the largely Catholic Irish resist the Protestant forces of Great Britain, the Netherlands (where his replacement William III hailed from) and Ulster. This attempt failed. So did his son’s aforementioned attempt in 1715. After the failure of the 1715 rebellion, the ‘Old Pretender’ essentially resigned himself to live out the rest of his days in exile in France, but his son, Charles Edward (aka the ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ or the ‘Young Pretender’) was not so easily subdued. He landed in Scotland in 1745 to take back the British Isles for his father.
As stated earlier this war was more than just two (closely related as it turns out) families fighting for power. The Jacobites represented the old order as they wanted the monarch to rule over parliament. As Catholics, James II and his son and grandson naturally wanted to give equal rights to Catholics, but they also claimed to want to give similar rights to those Protestants that weren’t Anglicans. There is a long running controversy about whether James II had truly meant to give such rights to low-church Protestants or if he wanted to force Catholicism upon the populace, which is the view generally held by liberals. The enemies of James and his prodigy were indeed liberal. They were Whigs, the forerunners of the modern variants of liberalism and its offshoots (including cultural marxism). They believed in ‘progress’ and the power of the parliament over the monarch who was to be as powerless as possible. They also supported the continued amalgamation of all regions of the British Isles and political centralization. In contrast, a good many Jacobites wanted the Act of Union repealed. The Hanoverian dynasty, like William III before them, were not fully behind Whiggism, but there was nothing they could do. They owed their title and power to parliament and thus were beholden to it.
Personally I’ve never been impressed with James II or the Stuart dynasty as a whole (going back to when they were still only kings of Scotland). Similarly, the Highlanders weren’t particularly predisposed towards James or his family either and in fact the most powerful of Highland leaders, the Lord of the Isles, had on several occasions gone to war against the Stuart kings during the 15th century. However, the cause which was born from the Stuart’s overthrow is obviously bigger than one man. Moreover, the Bonnie Prince was a man who was able to inspire loyalty through his charisma and daring. He gave them the will and desire to march as far as Derby and, had his generals been less cautious, perhaps it would have been this Italian-born and seemingly foppish aristocrat who would have taken London and brought the Stuarts back to power.
Prebble does not give much background to the Jacobite Rebellion that Culloden was the final, bloody battle of. In this way it is as if he had written this book with the belief that his readership would be well versed in the history of the rebellion, which is uncharacteristic of this book as a whole, because Prebble often relates information which even those of us with knowledge of the rebellion aren’t aware of. That said, Prebble does occasionally go back to mention previous events concerning the conflict.
Prebble does give some context to this conflict with regards to the way of life of the Highlanders who made up the bulk of the Prince’s army (although Irish, English and others fought for the Prince). Many of course were Catholic, but a great many were Protestants. Prebble notes that many fought because they had been forced to by their clan chieftains. The Highlands were a largely poor and underdeveloped region, quite unlike the Lowlands or England, with the small city of Inverness being the only gateway to the continent that the region had. Many Highlanders lived in little more than hovels and were essentially living a feudal life.
Land used to be owned collectively in the Highlands, but this had changed in the 18th century when it became solely owned by the chief. However, he owned all the land on behalf of his people and parceled out land to his subjects. The mensal was land purely for the chief’s use but some land was given to families of the clan officials (which included the bard and piper, which were hereditary positions) and the rest held by tenants under lease. Tenants could then lease parts to still others. Such men would owe tenants allegiance and all owed allegiance to the chief.
Chiefs were often more cultured and worldly than we imagine. They spoke English and Gaelic and many spoke French and Latin as well, being graduates of universities in the Lowlands or the continent (page 36). Many had a taste for foreign fashion and cuisine. I’d say its fair to say most were good rulers, however, there were exceptions – for example, Sir Alexander MacDonald of Sleat sold hundreds of his people into indentured servitude in the Americas (page 37). The chief’s power was based on the size of his cattle herds as it had been for the Gaels since antiquity. And as with the ancient Gaels, the Highlanders of the modern era engaged in cattle raids against rival clans. In the eyes of his people, the chief’s primary duty was to be a conquering warrior (page 39). His bards and pipers composed poetry and songs, respectively, to commemorate his battlefield glories and those of his ancestors.
The chief controlled all aspects of his people’s life and so when he chose to fight for the Prince or the government (as some clans like the Campbells did) then his subjects had to support him. Evidently those who refused had homes burned, cattle killed and were themselves beaten (page 52). During their trials after the rebellion had ended, many told such stories to the court, but this wasn’t enough for a pardon as the English didn’t understand the Highland honour culture; they stated that the Highlanders should have run away, but where would they go? What kind of a man are you if you betray your chief and clan?
Prebble describes the battle from beginning to end noting what a terrible waste of men it was for the Jacobites. A truly sad and grim affair. The relentless gunfire from the government lines, the desperate charge of the Highlanders, the last ditch attempt by the non-Highland battalions to hold off the government cavalry and let the Highlanders make good their escape; all is told here in great and gory detail. Prebble goes into detail describing some of the leaders and supporters of the Prince, including, among others, ‘Colonel Anne’, the Lady Mackintosh. She didn’t lead any troops into battle but her story is told here because of how intriguing it is. Her husband had gone south to raise a militia force for the government, but when he left she then raised his clan for the Prince (page 68)! He also notes how Catholic priests had not only gone throughout the Highlands preaching rebellion, but many fought as well (page 50).
Prebble notes how the Jacobite cavalry was seriously depleted at Culloden and indeed most were on foot. The artillery had always been a weak point for the Jacobites, but at Culloden it was just down right terrible. Most pieces had been lost and most gunners had deserted so the few guns at Culloden were largely manned by untrained men. Moreover, Charles had left one John Hay in charge of supplies for the army, but Hay proved to be incompetent: he left them at Inverness. It was the aged Irish general O’Sullivan who demanded a fight at Drummossie Moor and is responsible for the poor deployment prior to battle (page 55). Prior to the fateful battle, a night attack attempted at Nairn where the government forces were stationed, but it never went anywhere as the soldiers got lost in the dark. The army was thus dispirited, tired and hungry by the time of the engagement (page 56). Some were so tired they slept straight through the battle and only awoke when enemy dragoons fell upon them after it was all over (page 58). A Jacobite feigned surrender just before the battle so he could assassinate the Duke of Cumberland – who lead the government army. He shot at the wrong target (Lord Bury) but missed, and was himself shot (page 32). Most Jacobite deaths were caused by the artillery barrage at the beginning of the battle. This lasted 30 minutes before they decided to charge, although O’Sullivan had wanted them to remain standing there and continue to endure the barrage (page 82).
Two major tasks this book sets out to deal with are: ending certain myths surrounding the rebellion and to tell the often forgotten bloody aftermath. In fact, most of the book’s pages are devoted to this last task. In terms of dealing with myths, we have already seen how Prebble describes the authoritarian nature of the clans which meant the Jacobite army was not one entirely made of volunteers. Another myth is that the Prince was a coward, but in fact Charles had to be led off the field of battle when he attempted to lead a last desperate hurrah against the enemy even though it would certainly have meant death (page 108). Prebble mentions how the Duke had spies within the rebel army and even the Prince’s entourage, feeding the government information on the Prince’s whereabouts after he went underground. Again, he sets out to show that loyalty to the Jacobite cause was not total. Truly Charles was a tragic figure, but Prebble speaks of him with much scorn as if he were some silly man-child. I wouldn’t go this far and in fact quite admire the man. His last years were, however, depressing ones of solitary life and alcoholism in French exile.
In terms of the battle’s aftermath, almost immediately the civilian populace experienced the wrath of the Duke of Cumberland, who has since gone down in history as ‘The Butcher’ by the Scots (and also the Tories, who were largely Jacobites at this time). Commoners including women and children who had been watching the battle, even those doing so from their homes, were shot at and attacked by government forces after the battle (page 113). Prebble suggests that the troopers killed those they thought were coming to loot the dead and he notes how one Michael Hughes wrote they could not always tell rebel from civilian. However, Prebble also notes that it is clear many were killed in cold blood and not for the reasons stated above (page 118). Farmers who were simply ploughing their fields and their families were slaughtered by government forces in cold blood, for example (page 119). Meanwhile, the dying Jacobites were left on the battlefield for two days before the victorious government soldiers went around killing them (page 125). Someone forged an addendum to Lord Murray’s orders (when they were found) saying he ordered for their to be no quarter. This was told to the parties sent out to find Rebels and they used it as an excuse to kill rebels, suspected rebels and their sympathizers (page 126).
Prisoners of War were treated terribly and essentially left to rot in prisons, the holds of ships, cellars and any other dank and crowded place they could be forced into. Jacobite doctors were not allowed to keep the instruments necessary to treat their injured (page 150). The following is an example, in Prebble’s typical descriptive fashion, of the POW experience,
Some prisoners, from whom the guards expected violence or escape, were manacled, and were not released to eat, seep or relieve themselves. Two officers of the Duke of Perth’s regiment, Major James Stewart and Major Alexander MacLachlan, were handcuffed for ten days, and MacLachlan so tightly that ‘his hands swell’d so that the irons could not be seen.’ Their daily and dignified request for larger irons were daily and obscenely refused. In the same prison, the Tolbooth, Farquharson said that he tended to a dying Frenchman who lay to his waist in excreta. There was little the Highland blooder could do but put a stone beneath the man’s head for a pillow. The dead were not taken from the prisons immediately, they were left until there were a dozen or more, enough to make the employment of the beggars worth the few pence paid. Until then, the living endured the rotting company of the corpses. (page 154).
Surrendering rebels were at mercy of officers of men they surrendered to. Often they’d be killed anyways. Similarly, troops often burned down the property of suspected rebels during their searches (page 181). Of the POWs, 936 were made indentured servants, 222 were simply banished, 88 died in prison, 120 were executed, 58 escaped, 76 were given pardons, 1287 were released or exchanged and 684 fell in the category of “disposal unknown.” (page 233). Such individuals were more than likely the victims of mortal abuse at the hands of their captors. Some 58 camp women were also imprisoned and 27 were sent to the colonies. Many had infants with them (page 234).
The trials for the POWs were all of them short and so similar that as Prebble says, to read one trial is to read them all. Stalin once said that one death is a tragedy but many is a mere statistic, in other words that we are moved more by individual cases of suffering as we can personalise it and make it seem more real to us. For this reason, I believe, Prebble decided to focus his attention on a handful of those were were executed in order to give the reader a better idea of what they all went through. Most were common people and we hear of some, like the English Catholic Francis Towneley, who were stoic and bravely faced death and of others who were anything but. Some like one Donald Macdonald were happy and festive during their imprisonment, treating the whole thing as a joke while others were naturally very gloomy and depressed about the whole experience and the doom it was all leading to. It is interesting that he chose to focus more on the members of the English Manchester Regiment. I suppose this was partly done because every single member was executed, partly perhaps because they had not actually fought at all (having been captured without a fight at Carlisle) and partly perhaps because he wanted to give some space for the non-Highland members of the Jacobite army.
The aftermath of Culloden also brought out anti-Catholic tendencies in the people of London and Edinburgh who, upon hearing of Cumberland’s victory, took to the streets to attack Catholics and their places of worship (page 141). However, the treatment of civilians in the Highlands was far worse. Government clans used aftermath of Culloden as excuse to launch raids into rival territory (page 165). Though ultimately the destruction of Highland culture was the goal of the Duke he allowed it to persist for a little while longer so long as it could be used for his purposes of punishing Jacobite clans. Cattle herds confiscated and soldiers given part of the earnings their officers made in selling the cattle. The main goal, however, was to starve the clans and break their economy (page 182). And starve the people of the Highlands did. Starving and often leaderless now that their chiefs were dead, in prison or exile, the people were broken and there were to be no serious attempts at maintaining rebellion.
Prebble gives many examples of the killings, rape and wanton destruction wrought upon Highlanders regardless of their political or religious affiliations. In some cases, they were a response to the few acts of resistance, although the impression given is that these were often desperate acts by cold and starving men to get some clothes, bedding and food. Soldiers, angered at not being able to get at their attackers taking their frustrations out on others. For example, after a group of clansmen robbed the baggage train of Lord George Sackille, he set his men loose upon the nearest hamlet allowing them to rape the women who were “then held to watch the shooting and bayoneting of their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.” (page 199).
The Duke was essentially given a blank cheque when it came to governing Scotland. I suspect the power went to his head, but also that he was determined to secure the fruits of his victory at Culloden and to ensure that never again could his cousin’s family threaten the dominance of his own. There was also the very real fear of continued French meddling in Scottish affairs (as it was the French who equipped the Prince and gave him passage to Scotland) if the clans weren’t subjugated. Plus, destruction of the clan system allowed the state to further extend centralized power. Would the same fate have befallen the Highlands even with no Rising? I suspect so but this simply hastened the process. This raises the question, though, as to whether the clan system would have survived had Charles succeeded in getting his father the British crown. Would the Stuart dynasty have left the Highlands in peace as a reward for their service or would they have followed the same path as demanded by the Whigs and many Lowlanders? Or could they simply have ignored the demands of such men? How much did the pro-Jacobite Tories care for the Highland way of life? The pacification of the Highlands, after all, was more than the Hanoverians simply getting vengeance.
After Culloden, singing rebel songs, having drunk to the Prince’s health or being a rebel sympathiser was enough for one to be jailed and at first these pronouncements were followed through, but as we shall see the soldiers eventually gave up. The tartan and kilt were for a time banned because they were seen to make the Highlanders too mobile and so made them a threat should they choose to become guerrillas. It was also another way to destroy clan system and culture (page 310). When the land system changed in the Highlands it went from lords owning land on behalf of all to the lord owning everything for himself. Parental feelings were destroyed and thus the path was set for the Highland clearances. Many lords took part in the clearing of their own people as profit triumphed over tribal and familial loyalties (page 315). The end of Jacobite Rising saw the beginning of the end of the last vestiges of a maritime Gaelic culture.
Culloden is also the story of the government soldiers; their travails, camp women, boredom and general life in the army. He mentions how they fully took to plundering even though it was forbidden to them, because they needed the money and Prebble claims the harsh actions of their officers led them to treat others harshly too. A soldier’s life was hard and full of abuse. He got almost no pay and was bound to wind up a beggar after service. London didn’t give enough supplies (including clothes and bedding) to the troops so they stole what they could. Even going into the Lowlands. Indeed, it sounds as if the Lowlanders were often viewed with the same suspicions as Highlanders by English officers. Perhaps because of this, in Edinburgh that December, people began wearing the white cockade of the Jacobite army, signing rebel songs and holding balls in honour of the Jacobite cause (page 296). All of this would have been a clear act of defiance against the government which was treating the Lowlanders as if they were an occupied enemy populace. The soldiers treated such orders with disdain and even laughed along with those they were meant to arrest (page 297). Thus is the beginning of the romance surrounding the rebellion in the Lowlands, a place which largely ignored the Prince’s call to arms. A romance which Prebble is very much against.
For classical liberals I suppose it must seem strange that Prebble, who was for much of his life a communist, would condemn one form of interdependent socio-economic system whilst being an admirer of another form, but this would be from their failure to see the differences between the varied systems of collective existence. Collectivism has a positive natural expression, but also an inorganic one that has come out of a marxist reaction to classical liberals; the clan system, for all its faults, would be an example of the former. It gave people a sense of community and a common goal. Moreover, it united them with their ancestors. Though Prebble is no traditionalist or Jacobite it is possible for those who are, to read it and not feel it overly cringe-worthy. The same could also be said of more modernist right-wing Scottish nationalists, and Highlanders in particular.
Interestingly enough the Prince’s army did not use corporal punishment and it is suggested that this was a factor in government soldiers switching sides (page 122), although not many actually went turncoat. Some the deserters found among the Rebel POWs had deserted in Flanders and either because they wanted to go home, needed the money or were truly Jacobites, joined the French companies that left for Scotland in 1745 (page 146).
Another important advisor to the Bonnie Prince was Sheridan, yet another aged Irishman. Charles’ most able general seems to have been Lord George Murray who had earlier defeated government forces at Falkirk. He also was against a battle being fought at Culloden. However, he had also counseled against continuing the Jacobite advance from Derby to London, perhaps had the Jacobites actually done so they could have won.
This has raised the question as to whether the battle could have gone the Prince’s way if the Highlanders had been allowed to charge earlier? Although perhaps not given how devastating the musket fire from the government lines was and also the new technique of bayonetting which had been developed precisely to deal with a Highland charge.