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28 Apr 2021

The Great Eight at Culloden

Written by Raoul Curtis-Machin, Operations Manager at Culloden
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.
The Battle of Culloden was the bloody conclusion to the Jacobite rising of 1745, and a battle that changed Scotland forever. The massacre, on 16 April 1746, marked the end of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s dreams of reclaiming the throne for the Stuart dynasty. It also saw the end of Highland ways of life that had existed for centuries, as Government forces brutally subjugated Jacobite sympathisers in the aftermath.

Today, in the 275th anniversary year of the battle, the landscape remains largely unchanged since that fateful day and is a haunting spectacle, with markers and a cairn standing in tribute to the clansmen who fought and fell. The impact of the battle still resonates today. When you see people’s faces as they experience the visitor centre and site, you can see that, while it’s important to read about the events that day, you can’t beat the experience of coming here and standing in the same spot that the Jacobites and Government soldiers stood in.

This is why it’s so important that we continue to protect Culloden from development and preserve it. Culloden is the most visited battlefield in the UK for a very good reason.

Here are eight special features that you can see on your visit.

A very long sword with a large hilt is displayed in a glass cabinet beside its scabbard. There is a written label in the bottom left-hand corner of the cabinet. The cabinet stands in the centre of a corridor with several display panels and cases.
The Brodie sword in Culloden Visitor Centre

The Brodie sword

This is an astonishing artefact, which takes pride of place in our museum. It’s a beautiful broadsword that was gifted to Charles Edward Stuart by the Duke of Perth. It has a Medusa head on the clasp as well as so much symbolism that relates to the conflict, to France and to royalty. It also contains symbols of peace and prosperity. For me, the sword encapsulates the dream of the Prince. He was passionate about capturing the whole kingdom and changing the journey of that kingdom in a whole new direction.

It is just a stunning artefact. I was lucky enough to hold it when it was being moved from its display case to be cleaned, and its power courses through your hands. It has a big effect on visitors and is one of the key elements that bring the Jacobite story to life here.

A view of a rooftop garden, with a mown grass path winding through a wildflower meadow. Beyond the panelled wall and metal railings is a view of Culloden Battlefield. A blue flag flies on the moor, and dark woodland can be seen beyond.
The view from the roof garden at Culloden

The view from the roof garden

The rooftop garden is accessed via a ramp outside the visitor centre. Providing it’s not too windy, it’s open every day. This is one of the last uninterrupted battlefield views that you’ll find in the UK. Our historical advisor keeps reminding us that not only is this the most visited battlefield in Britain, but it’s also a really rare intact example. Yes, there is the odd bit of development that has impinged upon the area, but Culloden is one of the few complete battlefield sites. It’s awe-inspiring: you get a sense of the true scale of the battle.

Looking out across the moor, you can appreciate the ferocious hand-to-hand combat, the mud and the dirt, running through the bogs and tripping over the heather. And when you look further, you can see the distant mountains and across the Moray Firth, so you’re also reminded of what happened afterwards and how Highland culture was changed forever. Highland communities were scattered to the four winds, and the Clearances accelerated after the Battle of Culloden. The view from the roof garden opens up an understanding and appreciation of all that history.

A small, old stone, with moss and lichen growing upon it, sits on a grassy moor. The words Clan Mackintosh are carved into the front side. In the distance behind stands a large stone cairn, with heather and birch trees growing between.
The Mackintosh stone with the memorial cairn behind

The Mackintosh grave marker

This is one of the most atmospheric grave markers on the battlefield and one that, I believe, sums up the complexity of the battle. One of the myths of Culloden is that it was ‘Scotland v England’ – it was so much more than that. A lot of clans had people fighting on both sides, and the Mackintoshs are fascinating. You have Lady Anne Mackintosh, who was an ardent Jacobite, and then you have her husband who fought for the Government and could not be persuaded to join the Jacobite cause. You could say that this family were hedging their bets and playing both sides, but it was a bit of a risky strategy. It sums up, in my mind, that there are very few absolutes in the Culloden story.

A close-up of a black and white cow, facing the camera front on. It has small horns. Some dry grass is hanging from its mouth.
One of our Shetland cows

The Shetland cattle

These fabulous beasts are helping us to conserve the battlefield, without the use of fossil fuels and chemicals. Were it not for the cattle, the field would be full of rowan, birch and willow, and it would turn into a woodland. Shetland cattle are an ancient breed that have not been interbred with other species. They are smaller than average livestock, which means that they’re quite light on their feet and don’t damage the archaeology of the battlefield. They have a broad diet, and you’ll see them use their horns to circle the birch branches, drag them down and eat every single leaf.

As they move around the battlefield, these packs of conservation grazers are clearing areas for us, zone by zone. Shetlands almost became extinct during the 1970s but were brought back by breeders on Shetland, who are very happy to see the cattle grazing at such a high-profile site. And, of course, visitors love them!

Find out more about our cattle at Culloden

An old embroidery sampler is displayed in a wooden frame and hung on a plain blue wall. The sampler has the alphabet stitched at the top and then figures relating to the Battle of Culloden at the bottom.
A tapestry sampler featuring the Battle of Culloden

The Scots sampler

This is a piece of embroidery, which was started by a child in March 1746. It was begun before the battle but clearly shows the fighting as well. Life is all about perspectives and this is such an important piece for me as it shows a child’s perception of the battlefield. Children often have a beautifully simple way of looking at life: this tapestry includes one Redcoat, with a stern face on him, sticking a sword through the heart of a Jacobite. Above his shoulder, there is a picture of a raven, picking at a pile of dead bodies. You just look at it and think ‘yes, this was a bloody, full-on massacre’. It sometimes takes a child to show us that.

Tapestry was a way for children to practise their needlecraft, but became a form of art in its own right. It would have taken the young girl months to create this. Unfortunately, we don’t know her name, but she has produced one of the most graphic contemporary depictions of what happened at the Battle of Culloden.

A very large stone cairn stands on Culloden moor, with a paved path leading up to and encircling it. There is a stone plaque towards the base that describes the Battle of Culloden. Scrub plants are growing on top of the cairn.
The memorial cairn at the centre of Culloden Battlefield

The memorial cairn

This stands in the middle of the battlefield and was built in 1881, funded by Duncan Forbes, the last laird of Culloden House. He erected both the cairn and the grave markers. We’re fortunate, at the National Trust for Scotland, to play a leading role in the anniversaries of the battle. The Gaelic Society of Inverness hold a commemorative service here every year, delivered in Gaelic, with singing and a wreath-laying ceremony. All of the heads of the clans, some travelling from around the world, attend for the anniversary. As you stand around the memorial cairn, with the skylarks singing above you and the flags of the clans fluttering in the breeze, plaintive Gaelic psalm singing then rings out across the battlefield. It’s a magical experience and reminds us that we are custodians of a place that is so important and belongs to everyone.

Watch the films created to commemorate the 275th anniversary

An old, handwritten letter in French is displayed against a pale blue background. It is signed: Votre bon ami, Charles. A red-ink postmark appears to have been stamped on the right-hand side.
A handwritten letter from Bonnie Prince Charlie

Charles Edward Stuart’s letters

These are handwritten letters, penned in November 1746, seven months after the battle, and addressed to King Louis XV of France. By this point, Prince Charles Edward Stuart had been chased across the Highlands but had managed to escape.

“What I love about these letters is that they show the battle from his personal perspective. Culloden has so many different angles to it but these letters give you insight into what the Prince was thinking and his character.”
Raoul Curtis-Machin
Operations Manager at Culloden
A head and shoulders photograph of a smiling man, standing in front of a thatched cottage. He has dark curly hair and wears a tweed suit and tie, with a white shirt.

They reveal that he believed he had made no mistakes; he felt he was beaten purely because he wasn’t resourced properly. He wants to try again and has a list of what he needs to lead another Jacobite rising; he feels this time around it will be different.

You read the letters and understand how headstrong the Prince was, and the consequences of that. The Jacobites needn’t have stood and fought at Culloden that day; they could have disappeared into the hills and fought a much longer guerrilla war. But, for Charles it was the crown or nothing: ‘we will stand and fight’. The letters also reveal the influence that some of his close advisers had on him, such as George Kelly (an Irish clergyman who was one of the Seven Men of Moidart).

A view of the immersion theatre at Culloden Visitor centre. It shows a dark room with large screens on all four walls, showing images of the battle. Four men, dressed in Jacobite costume, stand in the middle of the room.
The immersion theatre in Culloden Visitor Centre

The immersion theatre

This is one of the most powerful elements at Culloden. I watch people come here from all over the world. They follow the route through the visitor centre and read the story of Culloden; they understand the power plays and politics; they see some of the imagery and weaponry. However, nothing brings the battle to life like the immersion film.

In the theatre, visitors are hit with these four giant screens on the walls. Each one shows a different facet of the battle, but all in the same timescale. It doesn’t pull its punches. You see the Jacobite charge. You hear the screams. You see people fall. You see the full-on slaughter.

People watch it and then go out to the battlefield or up to view the site from the roof, and you can see tears forming in their eyes as they understand the scale of what happened that day. This film is the centrepiece of what people experience at Culloden.

This story first appeared in The Scots Magazine

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