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17 Oct 2021

The psychology of the Highland Charge

Written by Debbie Reid, Visitor Services Manager at Culloden
The sight and sound of a Highland Charge provoked fear in the Jacobites’ enemies
We look at how the Jacobites used the psychology of the Highland Charge to gain the upper hand in battle.

The Highland Charge was a battlefield tactic synonymous with the Jacobites. It was used with great effect against the Government armies and was a deadly combination of physical and psychological warfare, when used correctly.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Highland Charge, it was essentially a battlefield shock tactic. Jacobite soldiers would race towards the enemy screaming clan war cries. Once within musket range, they would then fire a single musket shot, before charging into the front line with swords raised and engaging in fierce hand-to-hand combat. So, what made the move so effective?

The clamour of the war cries

To start, the cries of the Jacobite soldiers made an imposing first impression on the battlefield. The cries served two purposes: they helped to stiffen the reserves of the Jacobites themselves, uniting them together as one force and raising their energy; and secondly, the noise would hopefully frighten the enemy – imagine facing a wall of men all screaming out various war cries, often in Gaelic, a language foreign to many Government soldiers. Bagpipes were also used to add to the noise and intensity, perhaps one of the reasons the bagpipes would later become classed as ‘weapons of war’. Before the fighting had even begun, inexperienced soldiers would already be feeling nervous about the foes in front of them, and some even broke rank.

As the Jacobites charged forward, they would then fire a single musket shot. This created a smokescreen in front of the enemies’ eyes and for a moment the army before them would disappear. This single volley was essential to the Highland Charge, and distinguished it from previous charges. The smokescreen would be a confusing presence in front of the enemy, and would often cause them to panic and fire blindly with their own muskets. For a moment, the enemy would be blind. The Jacobites would then emerge dramatically from the smoke, their muskets thrown down and their swords drawn. This sudden shift in approach would lead to more shock and panic in their enemy.

The Jacobites would create a smokescreen with their muskets

Often at this point the Jacobites would switch from a very linear approach to more concentrated groupings. Thus, the enemy would be unprepared for the sudden mass of men in one space. The change would be disorientating, and with no time to reload their muskets, the Jacobites would soon be on top of the enemy. Whilst the Jacobites could quickly move from muskets to swords, their enemies often used muskets with bayonets. In the 18th century, these bayonets were plug bayonets that had to be attached to the barrel of the musket, making it unable to fire. The soldiers would be slower to change from firing to hand-to-hand combat, especially under the stress of facing the charge of men coming towards them, giving the Jacobites an important few seconds’ advantage.

The forces would finally clash on the battlefield

The charge was perfectly suited to the Highland clan system where men formed close ties and worked together in tight groups for a common cause. The connections between each other were often stronger than those of a basic regiment and this commitment was key to the success of the Highland Charge. The move was one of high reward, but also high-risk: the men had to accept that some would die in the initial rush forward as the enemy fired their muskets. To their enemies, this made the men appear even braver: they appeared unafraid of dying, and were willing to risk everything to succeed.

The Highland Charge did have its strategic downsides though. It needed to be quick to be effective and thus was generally used on high ground, allowing the men to gain speed as they charged downhill. They also needed solid ground, which was a considerable limitation at the Battle of Culloden where many Jacobites were slowed by the boggy ground of the moor.

With the introduction of ring bayonets, and the eventual progression of firearms, the Highland Charge faded away soon after Culloden but remains an enduring image of the Jacobite soldiers.

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