Inverness and Culloden

My husband and I began each morning of our 2-day stay in Inverness with the most exquisite Scottish breakfasts: eggs served with sauteed vegetables and black pudding, fresh strawberry muffins, fruit and yogurt, oatcakes, and local cheeses. Our gracious hosts at Highfield House, Margaret and Ken, provided amazing food and a lovely, well-lit, en suite room (my dear husband is always going on about clean, well-lit places, and this fits the bill).

We spent our first evening in Scotland fighting jet lag by wandering the city of Inverness, eating meat pies and fish and chips on Church Street, and imbibing in a few local ales and a dram or two. Did I mention there was no consideration of healthy eating on this trip? Our eating habits could only be described as haggis friendly!

On our first full day, we left Highfield House around 8:45 am and arrived at Culloden Battlefield when their doors opened at 9:00 am. I was thankful that these hallowed grounds were only fifteen minutes from our bed and breakfast. It’s no surprise that my interest in Culloden has grown due to my love of Diana Gabaldon’s books. Loving Scottish culture also means understanding the real history of what we read in stories and see in movies. True to what Outlander heroine Claire knew would come to pass, the battle of Culloden marked the tragic end of not only the Jacobite cause but also the Highland culture. In 1746 the government banned tartans, bagpipes, kilts, and the carrying of weapons. Men and boys who supported the Jacobite cause, whether in battle or not, would be forced into the government army, sent into indentured servitude in the American Colonies, or sentenced to death. If you had so much as a white rose in your garden, you were condemned.

One of the biggest takeaways for me was that this was not a fight of Scotland vs England. Highlander clans were required to fight for the cause their clan leader chose to support. Jacobite vs Government meant that Scots were fighting Scots. Friend against friend in civil war that ultimately meant all parties lost. In the end, all Highlanders, Jacobite or not, were punished by the bans set forth by the government. For some it was retribution, but for others it was simply betrayal.

The Culloden Visitor’s Centre provided engaging and interactive displays to learn all about the events that led up to the battle, as well as the aftermath for both sides. From shoe buckles and musket balls to pistols and dirks, there were tons of fascinating artifacts left over from this bloody and brief battle (Claire Fraser would certainly approve of their display of medicinal herbs).

As we left the centre and stepped into the cool morning air (it’s awfully hard to do justice to the Scottish air in words), a light breeze swept over the tall grass and the sun peeked its sleepy head through the fickle clouds. Despite the recent rain showers, the ground was fairly dry, unlike the once boggy ground of this beautiful, desolate moor. Over the past 270+ years, roads and forests have drastically changed the landscape of Culloden Moor. Yet being there on the open field evoked a sense of somber calm, and I could almost imagine the spring day when more than 1,000 Jacobites and roughly 50 government soldiers perished in battle on this sacred ground.

Of course in April, it was much colder and wetter than it was on our visit in August. Yet the weather was the least the Jacobites’ problems. On the eve of battle, Prince Charles Stuart commanded the malnourished Jacobite soldiers to march 12 miles to Nairn, where the Duke of Cumberland was celebrating his birthday with his army. The prince thought a surprise attack would end the war, but the Jacobite soldiers lost their way in the darkness and were forced to march all the way back by the coming dawn and the impending battle. They arrived at Culloden in the early morning hours, barely able to stand (some even fell asleep on the way back and never made it to the battle). Yet Bonny Prince Charlie, desperate and destined to become Britain’s king, could not wait until another day to seize the crown.

The battle marked the first time Jacobites had used canons in the field. With little time to train, they could only fire one poorly aimed shot every five minutes. The government troops, on the other hand, fired a good shot every minute, tearing holes in their opponents’ defense. Despite unleashing their feared “Highland Charge,” the Jacobite soldiers failed, as half of the men were slowed by boggy ground (based on the interactive map in the Visitor Centre, I am assured that the Frasers were not stuck in the bog and were one of the faster groups in the charge). But a quick, warrior’s death might have been preferable to what they had to witness: their comrades trapped in the mud and strafed by musket balls. Seeing their allies torn asunder in this brutal crossfire, the remaining groups of Jacobite soldiers began to retreat.

This was the story our guide brought to life for us and finished by detailing the final moments of the battle, when Cumberland’s troops formed a U-shape around the Jacobites and fired their pistols, killing 100 men in 30 seconds. In total, this battle, which changed Scotland’s history, lasted less than one hour. The people of Inverness were not allowed to tend to the dead until three days after its end. Mortal wounds and decay left most of the bodies in an unrecognizable state. They were buried in mass graves on the moor in groups of 20-50 men.

A man named Duncan Forbes erected the memorial cairn in 1881. He also placed memorial stones on each of the burial mounds, one stone per clan. At the time, this caused some controversy, as people knew that the dead men, their identities lost to time, were thrown together. We really don’t know who is buried where. Even though I am a sassenach, this gesture, and the enduring sadness that comes not only from the loss of life but also from the imperfection of this well-intentioned memorial, brought tears of wonder and grief to my eyes.

Stay tuned for my next travel post as I follow “the man who was born to be king over the sea to Skye.”