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17 Apr 2024

New finds at Culloden shed light on intensity of battle

Written by Sarah Burnett
Hand holding two small and old metal objects.
Grapeshot and a damaged buckle found near the position of the Government front line
Our archaeologists have found grapeshot and an intriguing buckle at Culloden battlefield.

Latest investigations by our archaeologists at Culloden battlefield have recovered a wide range of artefacts, including a buckle we believe to be the shoe buckle of Donald Cameron of Lochiel. Also known as ‘The Gentle Lochiel’, he led the 400-strong Camerons regiment into the battle and was wounded as he did so.

The fierceness of the fighting at Culloden is brought to life by the large number of musket balls and grapeshot unearthed in a small 60 sq m area close to the Government frontline. These findings, made during test pit excavation and metal detecting in late 2023 and processed this year, were revealed as our charity marked the 278th anniversary of the battle on 16 April 1746, which saw around 1,600 men killed in less than an hour.

Of particular significance and interest to our archaeology team were two items found in close proximity — a single piece of heavy lead grapeshot and a broken copper alloy buckle; as Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeology, explained: ‘The grapeshot has obviously hit something with great force as one side of the lead ball has been completely flattened. The ball would have been around 2–3cm in diameter and, at 102g, weighed about four times a standard musket ball. The flattened side of the impacted ball has a striped impression, with part of the surface gouged and rolled back and an angular cut on one of its edges. It looks like it hit something angular with enough force to flatten the ball but also at an angle to cause the gouge across it.’

The other item found in the same hole was a flat copper alloy object. This appears to be part of a broken rectangular framed buckle for a strap measuring 26mm wide. The buckle is decorated on the outside with cast beaded dots, plain lines and a central twisted-rope pattern, with a shape reminiscent of the flat, slightly-curved shoe buckles often shown in contemporary illustrations.

Derek Alexander continues: ‘The juxtaposition of both these artefacts, recovered from the same hole and within 20–30m of the British Army front line, is intriguing and the obvious conclusion would be that the grapeshot hit the shoe buckle and broke off one end. This is of particular significance as one of the most recounted stories of the Jacobite charge at Culloden is the wounding of Donald Cameron of Lochiel, known as ‘The Gentle Lochiel’. The late Christopher Duffy, a leading authority on the Battle of Culloden, tells how Lochiel ‘advancing at the head of his regiment (the Camerons), was so near Barrell’s (Government Regiment) that he fired his pistol, and was drawing his sword when he fell, wounded with grapeshot in both ankles’.

‘This description shows us that Lochiel was hit in the ankles charging forward and if he had been wearing shoes with buckles, it is possible that these would have been hit and partly absorbed the impact. We can’t prove that this is what happened but both objects combine to tell the story of the terrible events that took place on that day.’

Donald Cameron of Lochiel (1695–1748) was the hereditary chief of Clan Cameron and led their 400-strong regiment at the Battle of Culloden. A staunch Jacobite, he played a key role in the 1745 Rising and marched with his clan regiment to Derby and back. Despite being wounded at Culloden, he managed to escape to France with Bonnie Prince Charlie in September 1746. He died of a stroke in northern France at the age of 53 in 1748. After the Rising, he was given the nickname ‘The Gentle Lochiel’ due to him preventing the Jacobite army from sacking the city of Glasgow in 1746.

Donald Cameron of Lochiel, the current (28th) chief, commented: ‘This fascinating archaeological discovery adds to the legends surrounding one of my most famous ancestors, the Gentle Lochiel, and certainly tallies with the fact that he was injured by grapeshot in that particular location at Culloden. We will, of course, never know the full picture, but it’s intriguing that the battlefield is still producing such interesting artefacts even today.’

Hand holding two small and old metal objects.
Grapeshot and a damaged buckle found near the position of the Government front line

As Derek Alexander explains, each discovery of grapeshot, musket balls and other shot also adds to people’s understanding of what happened at the Battle of Culloden, with visitors able to see for themselves examples of these in the Trust’s Visitor Centre at Culloden: ‘The most common archaeological finds on 18th-century battlefields are the wide range of projectiles that were fired by the opposing sides and many are on display in our exhibition at Culloden. We can tell the difference between the French muskets used by the Jacobites and the Brown Bess muskets used by the British Army by the difference in size of the lead musket shot. Pistol balls are smaller again and it is important that we record the precise location of any discoveries. Even the cannon shot varies in size depending on the type of gun it was fired from and the range it was intended to be used at.’

Large sign for the Culloden Visitor Centre on a traditional stone wall.
Examples of shot and other archaeology finds can be seen at the Culloden Visitor Centre

Derek continues: ‘At the start of the battle, both sides would have exchanged fire of solid iron cannonballs at long range but as the Jacobite charge closed, the British artillery would have swapped to firing cannister shot (a tin can full of musket balls) and grapeshot. Grapeshot consisted of around 12–15 balls of iron or lead about the size of a squash ball in a sack and bound tightly together so it could be rammed into the cannon. The bag would have burst apart on firing, and the balls would have been sprayed out in a cone pattern. At Culloden, one witness describes how the grapeshot cut lanes through the advancing Jacobites. Through these new investigations and findings close to the frontline, we can visualise better than ever the intensity of fire the Jacobites would have faced.’

A view of a large moorland area, with a large stone cairn in the distance. The sky is blue, with white fluffy clouds scudding across.
With help from many generous supporters, the Trust works hard to protect the sense of place at Culloden

Gail Cleaver, Operations Manager for Culloden, added: ‘Culloden Moor is a powerfully emotive place, and it’s rare for a landscape of this age to be so relatively intact. The National Trust for Scotland has been acquiring and caring for parts of the battlefield since 1937. But the field of battle and the views that surround it are increasingly under threat from development, and as well as sharing the stories of Culloden, our charity works hard to protect its sense of place. This is why we set up the Culloden Fighting Fund in 2021.

‘The fund helps us care for and protect the battlefield in many ways, including setting up our five-year archaeology programme, which has transformed our understanding of the battle and strengthened our advocacy against improper development around the battlefield. Our charity is grateful to people from all over the world who generously support our work here. Their donations to the Fighting Fund, as well as the encouraging words they send us, are greatly appreciated and remind us more than ever of how privileged we are to care for Culloden and how important our work is to protect, care for, and share it. If you’d like to support us, you can donate online at Culloden’s Fighting Fund.’

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