Culloden
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Culloden

The Battle of Culloden

The course of British, European and world history was changed at Culloden on 16 April 1746. A ferocious war had come to Scotland, dividing families and setting clan against clan.

It was here that the Jacobite army took their last stand to reclaim the thrones of Britain from the Hanoverians for a Stuart king. The Jacobites fought to restore the exiled James VIII as king and were led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, James’s son; George II’s government army (led by the Duke of Cumberland, George’s son) was equally determined to stop this happening.

In spring 1746, the Jacobite rising was in trouble. The decision to return north from Derby, rather than press on to London, had marked a turning point in their fortunes. Despite victory at the Battle of Falkirk in January, the Jacobites had not capitalised on their success. Now Charles was heading to meet the Duke of Cumberland’s troops in the Highlands, to prevent them from taking Inverness. However, many Jacobite troops were still far from Inverness and were urgently summoned to join the Prince. Food and money were in short supply and the army was not at full force – few commanders thought they could win a battle in this state. 

Did you know?

The Jacobite soldiers were on rations of just 3 biscuits a day.

In contrast, Cumberland marched his troops from Aberdeen in good order. They were closing in on the Jacobite army for what would surely be the decisive battle. Morale was high as they camped at Nairn on 15 April, Cumberland’s 25th birthday. He gave his soldiers extra rations and drink in celebration.

Rather than risk a pitched battle in their weakened state, the Jacobites agreed on a final desperate plan: a surprise night attack. This could have been a brilliant strategy: sleeping Government troops would have been no match for the Jacobites. In reality, as the hungry and exhausted Jacobite column stumbled along in the dark, their progress was too slow and they had to turn back.

As dawn broke, battle was still not inevitable. Even now, there was time for the Jacobites to draw back to Inverness and regain their strength at a safe distance. Bitter arguments broke out between the senior commanders – even the French envoy pleaded for the Prince to withdraw.

But the Prince was determined and took the decision to fight there and then. Many of his soldiers were exhausted from the night march, while others were away looking for food or had yet to arrive in the area.

Some Jacobite leaders favoured a retreat to high ground south of the River Nairn. The Prince preferred to fight where they stood, on the moor at Culloden. With Cumberland’s army in sight, the pipers began to play and the tired army struggled into position.

At around 1pm, the Jacobite artillery opened fire on government soldiers. The government responded with their own cannon, and the Battle of Culloden began.

Bombarded by cannon shot and mortar bombs, the Jacobite clans held back, waiting for the order to attack. When at last they moved forward, it was through driving rain, smoke, gunfire and grapeshot. Upon reaching the government lines, some fought ferociously; many others never reached their goal. This time the government troops were prepared for the dreaded Highland charge; under brutal gunfire and faced with deadly bayonets, the Jacobites were forced to retreat.

Hardly an hour had passed between the first shots and the final flight of the Prince’s army. Charles watched from safety as the Duke of Cumberland emerged victorious. Although a short battle by European standards, it was an exceptionally bloody one that changed life in the Highlands forever.

Did you know?

Culloden was the last pitched battle on British soil and, in less than an hour, around 1,300 men were slain – about 1,250 of them Jacobites.