Culloden: field of sorrow

culloden-jw-jan-2017-25I don’t think I’ve ever walked on a battlefield before.  That might explain why Culloden made such an impression on me when we went there the other day.
It was the perfect morning.  Frost was white in the hollows and there was not a cloud in the sky.   Yet the whole place was hushed, and I see now why they say that birds don’t sing here.  It isn’t, as I rather cynically thought, that they don’t have many trees to sit in.  It’s something else.
In 1746, this was the scene of the last hand-to-hand battle fought on British soil.   Jacobite forces loyal to Prince Charles Edward Stuart faced the British government’s army on April 16th, a spring morning when they would all have been better off tending to their cattle or sowing crops or making repairs to house and farmstead.  Returning from exile, Charles had raised his banner in Glen Shiel the year before, and persuaded thousands of clansmen to stake their lives on his claim to the throne.  Since then, a handful of victories had convinced him that the prize was within his grasp.  How wrong he was.
Lingering frostculloden-jw-1
Frost on gorse and mossLined up on one side of the moor were the soldiers of George II, under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, the king’s youngest son.  A few hundred yards away were the Prince’s troops, led by Lord George Murray.  The division of loyalty wasn’t as clear-cut as it sounds:  there were Scots who had sided with George II, and there were Englishmen who were Jacobites.
The Jacobite soldiers, already exhausted from unsuccessful manoeuvres the night before, were hungry and strained to breaking point.   Clan leaders with military experience went to the Prince and beseeched him to think again:  to fall back onto higher ground, where they would have the advantage, or to retreat to Inverness.  But Charles was unmoved, and early in the afternoon he ordered his artillery to open fire.
It was all over in less than an hour.  For the Jacobites, defeat swiftly turned to massacre.  Charles fled the battlefield and embarked on a prolonged game of cat-and-mouse which culminated in his return to France.   Most of his men were either dead, or fatally wounded, or facing execution.  The losses on the British government side were lighter.  For the few Jacobite survivors, and for the families of those who died, life would never be the same again:  if they escaped Cumberland’s retribution, the Act of Proscription made sure that their traditional way of life – in particular the wearing of plaid and the carrying of weapons – was fiercely suppressed.

Leanach Cottage

This single-storey cottage is one of several farm buildings which are marked on contemporary maps, and it is thought to have been used by Cumberland’s forces as their field hospital.   It later fell into ruin, but in the 1880s it was repaired and re-occupied.  The last resident of Leanach Cottage was Belle MacDonald, who died in 1912.

It’s possible to talk in figures and lay out the plan of the battle and re-enact it in your mind.  This is something I’d rather not do.  What struck me yesterday is that these were good men who died, and they still lie buried beneath the heather, in mass graves which are grouped according to their clan:  Cameron, Macdonald, Maclean, Maclachlan, Macgillivray, Fraser.  By the Stewart of Appin stone someone had placed a single white rose.  Tradition says that the fallen were identified by the plant sprig which they wore in their bonnet, which was unique to each clan.  I’m not sure exactly how far this can have been true.  As for the government soldiers, their graves have never been properly identified.

culloden-cw-95Paths lead you around the moor, past the memorial cairn and the graves, and information signs offer maps and details about the soldiers’ positions.   The cairn was raised by Duncan Forbes, the local landowner, in the late 1800s, and it was he who placed the engraved stones on the graves.

culloden-jw-jan-2017-56Gorseculloden-jw-jan-2017-35culloden-jw-jan-2017-41culloden-jw-jan-2017-39The Well of the Dead:  where Alexander MacGillivray of Dunmaglass fell while leading the Clan Chattan regiment

There’s a feeling here which you can’t dwell on for too long.  Such a sadness.   There was only a handful of visitors, and we greeted each other in passing with a quiet respect, as if we were at a funeral.  A female stonechat eyed us curiously from a fencepost.  Occasional sounds echoed from a long way away:  a flock of geese, somewhere over towards the hills, calling as they took flight.  And then silence.
culloden-jw-jan-2017-66The National Trust for Scotland is responsible for maintaining the battlefield at Culloden.  The Visitor Centre closes for a few weeks in winter (check the NTS website for exact dates).  The battlefield is open all year.
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Images copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf

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  • davidoakesimages

    It is a very moving and haunting place….and I have been on many others locations but they didn’t move me the same way. Well laid out for you to see just where all the different Clans were positioned. I was also moved by the number of folk who actually cried as they learnt of the horrors….yes, a moving and haunting place….one not to be missed

  • Anny

    We visited a couple of years ago in the height of summer, but it was every bit as moving and even with lots of people, it still retained a tremendous atmosphere. I’d been rather reluctant to go thinking that it would be boring, but it was one of the best historic visits I’ve ever done (and that’s really saying something!), very well interpreted and managed. Anyone wondering about visiting – just go.

    • Jo Woolf

      I was hoping it wouldn’t be touristy, Anny, and in fact it was the opposite (although we didn’t go into the Visitor Centre, which was shut anyway). Certainly will remain with me for a long time. I totally agree that if anyone is considering a visit, they won’t regret it.

  • Cornell

    I understand you very well. In 2014 someone invited me and some friends to have a walk into the forest, somewhere up high. He explained and showed us how soldiers have tried to protect the boundaries during First and Second World Wars… I was so moved by the sceneries, by the quietness of the forest, by the silhouettes of the military trenches. I was deeply moved because many of those soldiers who died there were my age. Ho many dreams died with them then, how many wishes… Oh, this is so sad. I think I have to write a post about this.
    I have enjoyed your photos and your words. They really portray that place.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you Cornell, and I can appreciate the feeling you must have had in the forest, by the wartime trenches. Such young men as you say, with unspoken dreams. I look forward to your own blog post, if you decide to write one. Thank you for your lovely comment!

    • Jo Woolf

      Kind of you to say that, Ken. I was moved by the place and wanted to write about it while the memories were still fresh. But all the time I was aware of how many other stories lie there, untold. Almost overwhelming.

  • Janice Boyes

    Dear Jo Woolf; In 1988 My family and I visited Culloden. Though it was summer weather, it was much as you describe. Quiet, only about a dozen visitors, getting on towards sunset, long shadows across the graves. A sense of deep sorrow. My husband’s mother was born a Fraser, though many generations in Canada. My own Great Grandfather left Scotland in 1853. The Clearances were going on, and he was a lucky man, in that he had a good trade and could leave with his own choice of where to go. He was a Brown, a blacksmith from Aberdeenshire .
    I do not think of myself as a Scot, I am a Canadian, but the ancestral ties continue, and we think about what has been. Bless you for your lovely posts. Janice

    • Jo Woolf

      Dear Janice, thank you for sharing that memory, and some of your family’s history. That sounds like a lovely peaceful visit to Culloden, with the long shadows of evening. The Clearances were another sorrowful episode in Scotland’s history, and it makes you very grateful for the age that we live in. We can’t help but reflect because these things have helped to shape us all – unbroken links in a long chain. You’re most welcome, and I was touched to read your comment – thank you!

  • Pat

    I experienced something like this when visiting the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania. It was one of the worst battles of our civil war. It’s hard not to be moved by the incredible tragedy of such places.

  • sulewath

    Hello Jo, It’s a coincidence that you’ve just written about Culloden as I watched an excellent programme on BBC Alba last week, which was about the places that inspired Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. They are set during the time of the Jacobite Rebellions and the most moving part of the programme was when she talked about the effect Culloden battlefield had on her. (BBC Alba, Sar-sgeoil : Outlander . Available on BBC i-player until 18 Feb, and it has English subtitles!)

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you – I will check that out! I knew that Diana Gabaldon had spoken about Culloden, and that it had made a deep impact on her. Will look forward to finding out more.

  • blosslyn

    Lovely post Jo, we were there 2 weeks before Christmas, the museum was still open, so we got to visit. We had to visit Inverness and of course its not far from the battleground, so we made a quick visit before it got really dark. It was cold and a little dusky, so it felt right for the echoes of the battle that took place there, there were only two other people walking their dog, so we had quite an experience in the shadows. almost waiting for something to happen.

  • CW

    I’ve never been to a battle field in the UK, but I have been to two nearest to where I live and truthfully felt nothing. They are two different types, as well. By that I mean they are from two separate wars and yet neither holds more significance to me than the other. Not sure why it should affect some and not others.
    Your photographs are stunning, as always, and your prose descriptive. While I know of Culloden it’s always enjoyable to read of someone’s personal experience at a location rather than just the information spewed by dry history books.

    • Jo Woolf

      That’s an interesting thing, and it must be the case that all battlefields, like all places in general, have their own energy. You are very kind and I’m glad you enjoyed my musings about Culloden. For me personally, it was a place that needed to be felt rather than explained, although there are some very fine books that delve into the logistics of the battle. Thanks for your comment!

      • CW

        If I ever hop across the pond again, I’d very much like to visit a few battle sites to see what it’s like compared to our own.

  • Lorna

    Isn’t it strange, the way a place can have such atmosphere. I’ve only experienced that sort of thing a few times, and I’ve never been to Culloden, but I can imagine how you felt. Such a terrible waste of human life, and it seems we never learn. It was a beautiful day for your visit, as reflected in your lovely photos. I like Duncan Forbes’s inspired act of putting carved stones there for different clans.

    • Jo Woolf

      I know, Lorna – I wasn’t expecting it to be so moving. It was an inspired act by Forbes, you are right – especially since the land was at one time covered by woodland, and so the location of each grave site must have been preserved in local memory. 1746 seems a long time ago but at Culloden it seems almost touchable.

  • Colin MacDonald

    Thanks for such a suitably humble and tactful description of your experience at Culloden. I’ve been there a few times and can attest to the field’s notable atmosphere.
    It’s a welcome change to read something about Culloden that doesn’t include a fawning and unnecessary reference to Outlander. Culloden is starting to become a shrine to a TV show, rather than a venerated piece of Scottish history. I’m not exactly thrilled about the way the battlefield is being marketed and it has bred a certain kind of behaviour at Culloden that I don’t think is acceptable near war graves. I’m in a minority by having these views, but I think it’s a valid concern.

    • Jo Woolf

      That is very kind of you to say so, and thank you. I know that the author of the Outlander novels, Diana Gabaldon, was extremely moved by her visit to Culloden and I’d like to think that it’s only a small minority of visitors who get a bit too carried away with the excitement of being there. I sincerely hope that it never gets too commercial. Speaking personally, I’m very glad we visited ‘out of season’, because you can kind of listen to the landscape and respond to it in a way that you can’t (or can’t do so well) when there are loads of visitors. I found that I just didn’t want to read the story of the battle, because of the hopeless inevitability of the whole thing.

  • Randolph Felcher

    I have been back to the old homeland a few times researching my ancient scottish family and scotch clan history. I can confirm that Culloden is one of the most wonderful places in Scotland to visit. To stand on the field is one of the highlights of my life. My own name comes from Fletcher which were the arrow-makers of the tribes and clans for the bowmen who fought and died in this great battle..

  • Barbara Thompson

    I visited years ago, on a visit to Scotland from the US. It was a bright sunny day, but at the same time it felt cloudy, can’t really explain it. The hush became unnerving after awhile, almost as if the battlefield was somehow removed from the real world. The only other place I’ve ever visited that even felt similar was the Gettysburg battlefield, from our Civil War.

    • Jo Woolf

      I know exactly what you mean, Barbara! There was a similar feeling there for me as well – removed from the real world, as you say. The Gettysburg battlefield must have a powerful memory. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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