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16 Mar 2018

Delving into history at Culloden

Written by Robin McKelvie
Travel writer Robin McKelvie with his two daughters at Culloden
Daddy, Tara and Emma at the spot where the Camerons stood at the start of the battle
​There are some things that you can never learn in a classroom. How does it feel to stand on the site of the Battle of Culloden? What’s it like to put yourself in the shoes of the Jacobite and Government soldiers who squared up to each other on that epochal day back in 1746? I’ve just taken my two wee girls to Drumossie Moor to delve beyond their schoolbooks.

Culloden is a historical site that it is impossible not to react to, no matter your politics or your sense of history. Wild Drumossie Moor, just east of Inverness, was the setting for the last battle on mainland British soil back on 16 April 1746. That day was seminal for both the Highlands and the future of the whole of the UK. Over the years, for me, understanding more about it poses as many questions as it does supply answers, as Culloden links into so many other stories and periods. Visiting for me is always nothing short of fascinating.

What my girls knew of Culloden mainly swirled around that most romantic of historical figures, Bonnie Prince Charlie. They have a book on the Jacobites and they once picked up a Bonnie Prince duck look-alike for our bath! What they didn’t know until we were driving to Culloden is that our clan, the Camerons, fought at the battle and played a major role that day.

You might imagine that a battlefield is not of much interest to kids, but six-year-old Emma and nine-year-old Tara were quick to dispel that notion. It is not just the stories and the magnitude of the site, but also how much effort the National Trust for Scotland have put into making the site family-friendly. As well as hands-on exhibits and the chance to dress in historic garb, there is plenty in the shop to tempt them and kids’ menus in the café.

As a journalist it is always reassuring to see both sides of a story told and that is what happens at the well-designed modern visitor centre, which neatly lies low in the landscape. As you eke through the road to the battle, the British Government story is told on the red side of the room and the Jacobites on the blue flank. My kids liked that, as well as clear text, there were also lots of eye-catching visuals and recordings of the various protagonists that really brought the events leading up to the battle to life.

I was surprised at how long the girls’ interest was held; enough time for me to read all the information panels. After the historical momentum reached fever pitch with the failed night march on Cumberland’s birthday we finally arrived at the fateful day and the ‘Battle Immersion’ theatre. A sign warned it can be a little full-on for little ones. To have any chance of offering an insight into how both sides felt as the battle unfolded, it has to be full-on. The girls were undeterred. We stood out on the right flank where the Camerons were stationed that day and we were soon engulfed in the heat of battle.

The last section of the visitor centre is awash with all sorts of relics from the Jacobite years, such as swords and weapons. My girls also snatched the chance to dress up in period garb and insisted daddy ‘swapped sides’ by donning a Red Coat. The massive computerised table that shows how the battle panned out was priceless in showing my girls who did what and where on the day. Tara also found reading in a folder about what the Camerons did that day and what happened afterwards fascinating.

Now it was time to move beyond the visitor centre and experience the battlefield itself. We sombrely made our way towards the blue flags in the distance where the Jacobite lines lay. Emma ran on to try to find the stone marker where the 400 Cameron clansmen lined up. She found it and we stood for a moment staring back at the red Government front line in the distance.

Emma at the spot where the Camerons were lined up at the start of the battle
Emma at the spot where the Camerons were lined up at the start of the battle

No one spoke for a minute. Then Emma declared simply “It’s a really long way”. It is, and back in 1746 the ground was even rougher with of course the added complication of horrendous cannon and musket fire. We began our own slow ‘charge’ forward. We yomped on and on and found another marker. This time it showed where the Camerons started engaging their foes with musket fire in their final ‘Highland Charge’.

Eventually we made it to the Government lines. We’d learned in the visitor centre that the Camerons were one of the ‘lucky’ clans to penetrate the Government lines, but they were soon beaten back and engaged in a shambolic retreat, carrying their badly wounded clan chief, the ‘Gentle Locheil’.

Our last stop together was at the simple stone marker that serves as a gravestone for the hundreds of Cameron men who died that day. We paid our respects to our ancestors before the girls made for the visitor centre. After a half day at this intense site their reward was a bit to spend in the warm environs of the well-stocked shop. I sensed another historically themed bath duck would soon be on the way home with us.

I stayed on the battlefield. If Culloden proves one thing it is that history is never simple. Another convoluted branch of my family has links to the Argyll Campbells, who were at the heart of the Argyll Militia who fought on the Government side at Culloden. I walked to where an enclosure once stood overlooking the ground where the Camerons retreated. It was here that the withering flanking fire of the Argyll Militia decimated the Camerons in their attempt to flee to safety.

We all left Drumossie Moor feeling as I reckon you should do when you leave a historic site. We’d been forced to think about lots of things, to learn and also perhaps most uniquely to actually get a feel for what happened to the individuals involved and how they may have felt. That feeling and sense of experiencing something first hand is something you just cannot repeat in the classroom. I’ll leave the last words to Tara: “I’m glad we came. It was horrible what happened to everyone here, but now I want to tell my class about it and show them the photos.”