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28 Apr 2021

I remember that he remembered: family history stories from Culloden

Metal letters spelling out Culloden are attached to an old stone wall at the entrance to a driveway. It has rained recently and the grass and stones glisten as the sun breaks through the clouds.
Memories of Culloden have been handed down by word of mouth through generations.
As the Trust commemorates the year of the 275th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, we’ve collected some stories and personal connections handed down by word of mouth over the generations. We’ve heard stories from families living as far afield as Australia, France and England, as well as from people local to the Highlands.

Story one – Michelle Morton

A close-up photo of a smiling lady, sitting in a visitor area. She wears glasses and has short hair. A wooden whisky barrel stands just to the left of her table.
Michelle Morton

I have a story from my grandfather which extends to 1745. I sent this story to the BBC Radio 4 Rewinder programme when they asked for the earliest memories handed down over the generations, and this was included as one of the earliest they could find!

I am now 54 and live in the French Alps, but when I was in high school and living in Montreal, Quebec with my parents, I was required to complete a genealogy project. This was in 1981. I reached out to my grandfather, who was born in 1907 and lived in Manchester, and he enthusiastically handwrote four pages of detailed family history. The last paragraph is fantastic and I quote from his original text:

‘I have tried to set down as much as I can about the Shaws and Bownesses history. I am only sorry that I didn’t start pursuing the family history years ago when so many more people were alive to be asked. For instance, I remember that my Aunt Mary Ann used to say that she remembered her mother [my grandmother, Jane Bowness] saying that her grandparents remembered the invasion of England by Bonnie Prince Charles and his Scottish clansmen who came through Penrith in 1745.

This means that I last saw an old lady in 1917 who was born in 1831 and who had met someone who had seen this piece of history of 235 years ago. Strangely enough, my father, who was older than Mary Ann, never referred to it – and of course we shall never know now.’

My grandfather died only a few years later. His roots are from Keswick in the Lake District.

Michelle’s uncle Andrew adds to the story:

It may have been north of Penrith where the Scottish forces were seen by great-great-great-great-grandma Bowness, for the old turnpike from Carlisle to Penrith passes less than 3 miles east of Skelton, where the Bowness family lived.

Could it even be that some of the forces passed though Skelton? Armies on campaigns often spread out as they foraged for food and commandeered buildings for shelter. In the Carlisle/Penrith area there are still remains of several pele towers – defensive towers built between the 15th and 17th centuries for protective use by households and communities during the border wars and skirmishes of that time. There is one at Greystoke, just 2 miles south of Skelton.

We can only speculate as to where the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie were seen and whether they were going south or north.

Michelle was born in Lancaster but her parents moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1968. She grew up and worked there until she was 30, then returned to the UK and lived and worked in Europe for 23 years. Her mother and brother still live in Canada. She is now retired and living in Haute Savoie, France. Her uncle Andrew lives in Northampton and she has no known relations in the Lake District anymore.

Story two – Juliet Maclay

A smiling lady stands in front of a pale wall inside. She has short fair hair and wears a blue and yellow v-necked jumper, with a silver choker-style necklace.
Juliet Maclay

When a very young woman, my grandmother Kathleen Boswell-Brown, known by us as Gala, had a conversation with an ancient shepherd in the Highlands of Scotland. She understood Old McFie to be well over 100 at the time. He could remember being told, when a very small child, about the Battle of Culloden by his great-grandfather – who had been there (probably as a boy)!

Her uncle bought a couple of ancient crofts and a smallish estate with a farm just after the First World War. It was called Gaskmore, and is a mile south of Laggan in the direction of Newtonmore. The house you see now on Google Images is a hotel, and is a pale imitation of the original. My grandmother sold the estate in the late 1960s and the house was later rebuilt.

Her uncle, Donald Macpherson, was a rather grand Englishman of Scottish ancestry. He was descended from the Cluny Macpherson of the ’45, who hid in a cave on Creag Dubh just outside Newtonmore for many years after Culloden. He built the original house as a sort of ‘alternative Clan Chieftain’s residence’. His connection was certainly alternative, having been derived from an affair between Cluny of the ’45’s son and our ancestor, Isabel – whose house is still in Laggan (it was the manse originally, I think). The fruit of these liaisons were referred to locally in Gala’s day as ‘prickly-bums’, having been conceived, no doubt uncomfortably, on the heather.

Donald’s son, Euan, didn’t inherit the house as he had been badly injured in the war and didn’t live long, so it was offered to Gala – though with little money to go with it. She opened it as Gaskmore House Hotel and bar – and I have wonderful memories of this period. As a teenager, my mother had assisted in the ‘drunks’ bus’. As the pub was a mile from Laggan, they used to drive the inebriated clientele home after big events (or scrape them off the road or out of the ditch if they’d made an attempt at it). One regular was so enormous that they didn’t pick him up off the road if he fell, but just put road builders’ lights around him so he wasn’t run over. As a 4-year-old, I remember a big fight breaking out about Culloden (real fisticuffs in the car park!) – these memories indeed run deep.

Old McFie, somewhat feudally, she ‘inherited’. He lived in an earthen-floored croft that I can remember (it’s probably still there). And even in my day (I was born in 1958), it had a pile of peat and a pile of coal on the floor. A later shepherd slept in a box bed. There was no running water or bathroom or anything. He told Gala the story of his great-grandfather when she first visited Donald. It’s always been one of our most amazing family memories.

One of the other stories we heard then was how when the Duke of Cumberland was approaching the Spey Valley and Cluny Castle, one of the servants was sent up into the hills to bury the family silver to protect it. He was killed on the way back, so it was never recovered. Gala used to suggest (when times were hard) that we should get digging and find it!

I still have a photo of the original crofts there and also still have lovely old peat-cutting tools from those days.

Juliet Maclay lives in Devon and has a long association with the Highlands, with family living there until the early 1980s.

A painting of a young woman in the 1920s. She wears a sleeveless green dress and has  short brown hair. The painting surface has cracked a little over the years.
Juliet’s grandmother Gala in the 1920s

Story three – Libby Troy

A close-up photo of a smiling man and woman, arms around each other and smiling at the camera. The man on the left wears a blue checked shirt and glasses; the woman on the right wears a black top and glasses.
Libby Troy and Noel Haupt

Only since I have been working on my family tree have I found my 2nd great-grandfather was John Cameron. I have attached the census for 1901 showing that he was a farm servant at Leanach Cottage. So, you can see why I am very excited about coming and seeing where he lived. I know that the cottage there now is a rebuild after a fire.

My paternal grandmother was Alexandrena Fraser Cameron, who was born in Ivy Cottage, Dingwall on 13 April 1901. She graduated from Glasgow University in 1924 with a MBChB. She emigrated to Australia in March 1939 where she lived in Hunter’s Hill, Sydney until her death in 1976.

Her father was Malcolm Cameron (1871–1954), and his father was John Cameron (1844–1912).

I am definitely hoping to visit Culloden in May 2022 to see Leanach Cottage and the whole battlefield site. I must say how brilliant the anniversary events were online, which we watched as we had dinner here in Australia. It was so well done!

View our 275th anniversary films

Libby Troy and Noel Haupt live in Australia. They are so keen to visit Culloden when travel is possible again!

Story four – Hugh Miller’s grandfather

A sepia-toned photograph of an older Victorian man, shown seated and reading the book he holds in one hand. He is wrapped in a large tartan shawl. He has thick brown hair and very long sideburns.
Hugh Miller by James Good Tunny © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Trust cares for Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage and Museum, which was the home of inspirational geologist, folklorist and fossil hunter Hugh Miller. Here, Property Manager Alix Powers-Jones takes over the story.

Hugh Miller in his biography My Schools and Schoolmasters vividly retells accounts of the Battle of Culloden that had been told to him. These ‘glimpses of the past so unlike the present’ are eye-witness history. Miller’s grandfather was a boy of 14 when he stood with his neighbours and friends to watch the battle unfolding across the water. I have reimagined the scene, based on Miller’s descriptions:

The touch of sound.

Toiling hill-ward, upward, on a familiar geological prominence, timelessly weathering firth waters beyond: an island fisher community. Old and young, brow-bound as viewpoint witnesses. Waiting.

Waiting for drizzly fog to revoke its blanket muffle. Waiting for a distant reveal across firth waters. (Was there a reveille call to summon men at arms?)

Look! The mist is lifting. Dark, low sea-bound hills emerge from diaphanous mist.

See, there! Soft, round puffs of smoke rise mute above the moor.

It has begun.

In the blink of an eye, innocuous, bewitching smoke bestowed solid reality by an insidious, deadly underbelly soundscape, rolling across the firth. Cannon mouths boom destruction and ‘sharp intermittent patter of musketry’ (Miller, 1850) sound out their deadly prattle.

Watchers, gripped in helpless thrall. Safely remote, but nonetheless involved. Gone, any youthful anticipation of spectacle. This is not history being written. This is real battle, real death, enacted on Highland hill. Death hidden by distance, but real enough to mark its unwary distant prey. Along the island, a young shepherdess tending sheep tries in vain to comfort a terrified dog howling back to cannon’s roar. Lives scoured by the touch of sound, minds filling in missing images of this reality.

Did Miller’s grandfather climb the hill in excited anticipation, not knowing what to expect? If he did, the events were a sobering reality that remained with him all his life. Miller records that, when he was in his mid-eighties, his grandfather’s earliest (and most vivid) recollections remained those of the Battle of Culloden. When age and infirmity erased memories of middle years lived, the scar of the battle remained etched deep in the mind of this Highlander. He was a remote bystander, but a witness all the same.

The same was true of an un-named lady tending her sheep on Munlochy common ground. This ‘ancient woman’, as Miller rather unflatteringly describes her, must also have been a youngster on the day of the battle. Her grazing location meant that she would have had no sight of the battlefield and was instead assaulted by the noise of weapon fire and the terrified reaction of her howling dog who ‘looked as if he saw a spirit’ (Miller, 1850).

We often think of bystanders as spectators or witnesses, who could intervene but choose not to do so. Theirs is often a passive role, their decision not to intervene driven by disinterest, apathy, a lack of understanding, misplaced support, or perhaps a fear for their own safety. However, what about another type of bystander: the witness to whom any chance of intervention is removed? The one who witnesses, but does not necessarily see; who is remote, too far away to intervene – what of them? Today, we might name their reaction as post-traumatic stress disorder. But whatever it is called, this eye-witness narrative moved Hugh Miller when it was retold to him; and we, in our turn, are moved by its retelling to us.

A photograph of a white-walled, small thatched cottage, attached to a later Georgian townhouse. The cottage has crowstepped gables. Iron railings on top of a white wall separate the street from a small, patio-style garden.
Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage, Cromarty

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