Culloden: Battle & Aftermath 
by Paul O’Keeffe.
Bodley Head, 432 pp., £25, January, 978 1 84792 412 4
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Howdid the Duke of Cumberland become the ‘Butcher’ of Culloden? Before and immediately after that battle, he was adored as the saviour of Hanoverian Britain from Jacobites and papists. As George II’s soldier son, he was the ‘martial Boy’; for Drury Lane audiences, ‘The noble Youth, whom ev’ry eye approves/ Each tongue applauds, and ev’ry Soldier loves … Strength to his Arm, and Vict’ry to his Sword.’ Today, he is remembered only with a shudder.

In England, murdering statues is a pastime as old as the Reformation. The enormous gilt-bronze statue of Cumberland riding towards Scotland, erected in Cavendish Square, was relatively quietly removed. It was taken down in 1868 by the 5th duke of Portland, owner of that part of London, allegedly because it was in bad repair. But the duke, a dotty recluse who prowled through underground mazes dug beneath his palace near Worksop, may have been indulging vaguely liberal prejudices. Today the tall stone pedestal survives: ‘In Gratitude for His Private Kindness, In Honor to His Publick Virtue’. Holes and scars suggest that there were once more inscriptions.

Queen Victoria ordered the word ‘CULLODEN’ to be chiselled out of the Cumberland monument in Windsor Great Park. Public memories change, and public names with them. There was once another statue on a column (now a bullet-bitten stump) in Cumberland Square (now Emmet Square) in Parsonstown (now Birr) in King’s County (now Co. Offaly) in now independent Ireland. But the truth seems to be that revulsion from the martial boy began within months of the Culloden celebrations. Horace Walpole (a great source for O’Keeffe) wrote as early as the summer of 1746 that during a discussion on whether to award the duke the freedom of a City company, one London alderman had said: ‘Then let it be of the Butchers!’ In later years, distaste hardened into suspicion that Cumberland might be plotting a military coup and his own dictatorship. Walpole thought this was rubbish. ‘It is uncertain whether his inordinate passion for war proceeded from brutal courage, from love of rule or from love of blood … it is certain it did not proceed from love of glory, nor much from ambition.’

The ‘butcher’ reference, of course, comes from the wholesale slaughter of the Highland wounded on the Culloden battlefield, and the haphazard massacres and murders committed by Cumberland’s soldiers during the ‘pacification’ that followed. But did he order the killings? The morning after the battle, the duke’s orders to his troops included the sentence: ‘The Officer and Men will take Notice that the public orders of the Rebells Yesterday was to give us no Quarters.’ These captured ‘public orders’ were fake. No sentence denying ‘quarter’ appeared in the original Jacobite document. But Cumberland’s message spread instantly through the army and beyond, and was used in the months that followed to justify indiscriminate hanging, shooting and torture across northern Scotland. Later, as they awaited beheading for ‘high treason’, Lord Balmerino and Lord Kilmarnock used their last moments together to dismiss the idea that Prince Charles Edward Stuart, their ‘bonnie prince’, could have signed such an order. They both ‘vehemently denied’ it before they walked to the scaffold. Whether Cumberland himself was aware of the forgery, or even arranged it, is not known.

The duke was disconcertingly young at the time of the battle. It took place on the day after his 25th birthday (Prince Charles Edward Stuart was only a year older). Afterwards Cumberland would grow fat, discontented and unsuccessful even as a soldier: to the disgust of his father, he surrendered Hanover, the dynasty’s sacred seat, to the French in 1757. He died, after a series of strokes, in 1765. O’Keeffe does not spare his readers in his explanation of what happened. ‘In the moments before death … arterial blood – already starved of oxygen by the morbidly constricted lungs – had been expelled from the failing heart to the engorged brain and extremities of his massive body swollen by leakage of blood fluid into atrophying tissue. The entire ruined network of grossly distended veins and capillaries’ and so on, quite a bit further.

That passage is an example of O’Keeffe’s curious content selection. His book is often intensely researched and always very readable, but he pays only brief attention to the larger questions that still trouble students of the Forty-Five. To cite a few: to what extent did the rebellion become a Scottish civil war? What moved respectable Episcopalian gentlemen in Aberdeen to ‘come out’ and gamble everything on a wild venture, joining a ‘barbarous’ Gaelic host led by a Catholic youth with no experience of war? How important was the prospect of restoring Scottish independence to those who joined the rebellion? What would a Jacobite England ruled by the Old Pretender with French support have looked like, and how could it have survived for more than a few months? And, perhaps most baffling, what was the Jacobite ‘mentality’, with its strange combination of fiery rebellion and almost craven awe of royalty? Flora MacDonald, who risked her life after Culloden to save her prince from George II’s soldiers, would later risk it again fighting for his grandson George III against Americans seeking independence. How was that possible?

Such speculations don’t detain O’Keeffe, whose talent lies in the collection and display of minute, often fascinating and occasionally revolting detail. He makes a narrative out of who did what to whom with which sort of weapon. He brings us close to the bitter sleet blowing in the faces of young men as they struggle to haul cannon up a muddy slope under fire, and to the archaic rituals of a treason trial in Westminster Hall. He takes his readers through second after grisly second as the executioner almost severs Lord Kilmarnock’s neck with his first stroke, but makes an agonising, drawn-out mess of Lord Balmerino’s death.

Like many contemporary historians and archaeologists, O’Keeffe is almost as interested in the memory and celebration of events as in the events themselves. He gives many pages to the programmes of London theatres as they exploded into carnivals of anti-Jacobite patriotism before and after the news of Cumberland’s victory at Culloden, and to the frightful doggerel of hastily composed odes. At the New Wells in Clerkenwell, ‘Miss Lincoln made her entrance in the role of Liberty. Urging England to “droop no more”, she reviled “the wretched, mean, enervate Race’ of Scots”.’ Handel wrote a tune for a loyal recruiting song (‘Stand Round, My Brave Boys!’) to be played at Drury Lane; Covent Garden hit back with an aria about ‘plundering Banditti’ from ‘barren Caledonian lands’. At the King’s Theatre, Gluck laid on an opera (La caduta de’ giganti or The Fall of the Giants) which was an allegory of the crisis. Catholic chapels burned all over England, and visiting Scots sought in terror to conceal their accent.

At first, the rising had seemed almost trivial. In August 1745, Duncan Forbes, Scotland’s senior law lord, reckoned that Prince Charles – ‘this young gentleman’ who had reportedly landed in the Hebrides – had no ‘apparatus for his reception, even amongst the few highlanders who are suspected to be in his interest’. But two days later a French frigate brought the prince to the mainland, to Loch nan Uamh in Moidart (not Lochnanuagh in Skye, as O’Keeffe thinks), where the first group of important clan chiefs came aboard to meet him.

What happened to these chiefs, when they confronted the pale young man in the cramped semi-darkness below deck? They must have known how poor their chances of success were. Lord George Murray, who would become the prince’s military commander, wrote to a brother: ‘My Life, my Fortune, my expectations, the Happiness of my wife & children, are all at stake, & the chances are against me, & yet a principle of … Honour, & my Duty to King and Country, outweighs every thing.’ The chiefs must have understood what could happen to all their followers and their families if they ordered their men out to fight. They must also have wondered what they themselves would gain, even if this reckless enterprise succeeded. Honour? The glory of restoring the ancient Stuart dynasty and overthrowing the ‘German’ usurper? ‘I got a kiss of the King’s hand,’ the Gaelic song went. Whatever their doubts, something inexplicable and fatal passed to them from the young man standing there. Yes, they would die for him. The price on his head, then and after his defeat and flight, was equivalent to three and a half million pounds today. Nobody claimed it.

The first real battle came in September. Up near Loch Ness, General Cope was outmanoeuvred by the prince, who went over the hills to take Perth and then, with almost no resistance, Edinburgh. Cope followed, drawing up his army at Prestonpans, a few miles east of the city, where the Jacobites moved to face him. As O’Keeffe describes it, two utterly different fighting methods confronted each other. British infantry formed three musketry ranks, respectively standing, crouching and kneeling; as one fired, the next completed reloading while the third began the reloading process, so that, with discipline, a platoon could deliver almost continuous volleys. But discipline had to brave the ‘Highland charge’: the terrifying onrush of Gaelic warriors. As the main attacking units in the Jacobite army, their tactic was to fire their pistols or muskets at the closest possible range, fling them down, raise targe and broadsword and with a ‘hideous Shout’, rush out of the gunsmoke at the enemy.

It worked at Prestonpans. In pre-dawn darkness, the Jacobites got round the British flank and charged as the sun began to rise behind them. Cope’s gunners bolted at once, leaving their cannon behind. An attempt to stop the Highlanders with cavalry failed as the untrained horses took fright at the din of firearms. The infantry wavered: ‘It was so dark … I could only perceive them like a black hedge moving towards us,’ one of Cope’s officers recalled. Then the clans roared into them, hacking and slashing. Colonel Gardiner, commander of the dragoons, went down fighting, mortally stabbed by an Edinburgh watchmaker. ‘Big Duncan’ MacKenzie split one of Gardiner’s dragoons down through his steel skullcap. The redcoat lines started to buckle. Cope rode up and down shouting, ‘For Shame, Gentlemen, behave like Britons,’ but within minutes his men were in flight, and a killing frenzy began as the Jacobites chased and overtook them. A spectator wrote that ‘the Whole Prospect was fill’d with Runaways, and Highlanders Pursueing them.’ Somebody – it may have been the prince himself – called for the slaughter to stop. Certainly, he forbade any public rejoicing when he returned to Edinburgh. But his victory, in a battle which lasted for only a few minutes, seemed complete. As a Scottish pro-Hanoverian put it, ‘a handfull of the Scum of the Highlands are Masters of Scotland without burning almost a pound weight of powder.’

O’Keeffe does not give much space to the march on London which followed, or to the Jacobites’ decision to turn back at Derby, not having found the recruits or support they had expected. He is concerned with fighting rather than politics, and gives a vivid account of the skirmish at Clifton, just south of Penrith, in December 1745, as the Jacobites moved back north. In this, what O’Keeffe calls the last battle ‘ever fought on English soil’, government dragoons had dismounted when the Appin Stewarts and MacPhersons charged downhill out of the winter dusk. A MacPherson remembered ‘the great hurry with which we went down towards the hollow upon them, by which means they were so suddenly mistaken of us that … [we] were at their muzzles with our swords before they got all their fire given, which, thereafter they got noe time to give’.

Back in Scotland, the Jacobite army won its last victory at Falkirk in January 1746. In storms of rain and sleet, they faced General ‘Hangman’ Hawley, famous for the crowded gibbets he left in his wake. Hawley derided the Highland charge. He boasted that ‘fire by ranks’ would deal with it, and told his friends at White’s Club that he would sweep the rebels out of Britain with two regiments of dragoons. But outside Falkirk, his guns sank axle-deep into the mud as he tried to occupy a high moorland position he had never seen or reconnoitred, while ‘a ferocious south-easterly gale was blowing torrential rain full in the faces’ of his men. The government infantry couldn’t use their muskets because the rain had drenched their gunpowder, while the Jacobites – with the wind and rain behind them – had kept their powder dry and mowed down an onslaught by massed dragoons. In great confusion, the government foot soldiers gave way before another Highland charge (the Appin Stewarts in front as usual). Flight and bloodthirsty pursuit began, watched by large crowds of spectators who sometimes had to skip out of the way of the fighting. As the publisher and writer Robert Chambers later recorded, they ‘saw the discomfited troops burst wildly from the thunder-cloud … and rush, in far-spread disorder, over the spacious face of the hill’.

Some of those spectators – perhaps most of them – hadn’t come to see history made but to pick its pocket. O’Keeffe is at his best when he discusses the ancient and apparently ineradicable urge to plunder the dead. Achilles did it; the Bayeux Tapestry shows it being done; in the Thirty Years’ War a Flemish genre of painting called ‘plunderingstaferelen’ grew popular. In Cumberland’s day, the ‘spectators’ stripped clothes from the corpses, allowing one Falkirk citizen to compare the battlefield to ‘nothing but a large flock of white sheep at rest on the face of the hill’. Today the dead soldier usually lies clothed, apart from his desirable boots, inside a ring of crumpled paper dragged from his pockets.

When the armies faced each other on Culloden Moor, east of Inverness, three months later, both sides knew that the culminating moment had come. It was 16 April 1746. The Duke of Cumberland had returned from fighting the French in Flanders to take command of an army whose core was a force of sixteen experienced infantry battalions, their men mostly but not exclusively English. He had plenty of well-placed artillery, ‘coehorn’ mortars, and cannon firing both roundshot and canister (a spreading blast of musket balls). The Jacobites, by contrast, were under strength (many Highlanders had gone home after Falkirk), tired, hungry and disorganised. Not all the prince’s men were clansmen. The Duke of Perth’s regiment was composed mainly of his tenantry from around Crieff, while units of Irish Piquets and Royal Ecossais mercenaries had arrived from France.

The daring Jacobite plan was to do a night march to Cumberland’s encampment at Nairn and surprise the enemy while they were still in camp, dozy and hungover, it was assumed, after celebrating Cumberland’s birthday. A good idea, which failed because of an unforgivable lack of intelligence and planning: it was much further to the enemy positions than Lord George Murray or the prince had realised, and when dawn broke they knew that any chance of surprise had been lost. Murray ordered a retreat. Not everyone got the order; vast muddle ensued, and the soldiers who finally stumbled back to their original positions were exhausted. Hundreds wandered off to sleep in woods or fields. When the gunfire woke them, it was too late.

There was a very Celtic dispute about who was entitled to stand on the far right of the foremost line – closest to the foe. The MacDonalds claimed the privilege: Robert the Bruce had granted it to them on the field of Bannockburn. Murray thought otherwise, and put the Atholl men, the Camerons and of course the Appin Stewarts in the place of honour. A few years ago, the metal detectors of Tony Pollard’s battlefield archaeology team found a terrible concentration of musket balls and grape shot in that corner of the moor. It was there the battle was decided.

This time, the Highland charge did not break through. The artillery barrage tore into them as they moved forward. ‘It has been calculated that the six guns firing into the centre and right of the advancing insurgents were killing or maiming between sixty and eighty men every twenty seconds,’ O’Keeffe writes. Half-blinded by cannon smoke, the Highlanders flung themselves at an enemy firing steady volleys by ranks and were impaled on the waiting bayonets (‘three bayonet thrusts might be driven home in the time a swordsman could complete a single stroke,’ according to O’Keeffe). A hideous struggle began, as the men were crushed together, hacking and stabbing: the government cannon killed many of their own men with ‘friendly fire’ and cut down any band of Highlanders who burst through the fence of Hanoverian bayonets. The most eloquent relic Pollard’s diggers found was a lead musket ball, bent into a U-shape by impact with a raised sword-blade.

A French witness remembered that ‘the ranks were so tightly packed that even those the Highlanders had cut to pieces did not fall, and the living, the wounded and the dead formed so solid a body’ that the Highlanders had to abandon all hope of breaking through it. ‘Their great effort was there,’ one of Cumberland’s officers remarked, ‘but it was vain, they could not penetrate, and lay in Heaps.’ This ‘macabre deadlock’, as O’Keeffe calls it, lasted for perhaps half an hour before government reinforcements arrived to tip the balance. The Jacobite survivors of the crossfire began to retreat and then to run. On the left of the prince’s army, the charge of the MacDonalds was fatally slowed by sometimes knee-deep mud, while the redcoat infantry fired volley after volley at close range. Famous chieftains and their officers, racing in front of their men with pistol and broadsword, fell before they could reach the enemy, and soon a panicked flight began. Some threw their dirks at the enemy before they ran; others expressed ‘their rage by hewing up the heather with their swords’. Prince Charles, leading the Jacobite cavalry, wanted to charge and die gloriously, but was forcibly led away by his staff.

‘In less time than a written account of it takes to read, the Battle of Culloden, or Drummossie Moor, was over … What followed for the rest of the afternoon would be unopposed, defenceless slaughter.’ The Jacobite dead and wounded on the battlefield are thought to have numbered between fifteen hundred and two thousand. Cumberland’s forces suffered only about fifty dead and 230 wounded. His troops moved about the moor stabbing or shooting any Jacobite still alive, while the cavalry pursued their fleeing enemy all the way to Inverness and into the town itself, slashing down not only soldiers but anyone else they met. Some wounded prisoners were propped against a wall and used for target practice; others were pitched into a wooden hut and burned alive.

It is from here, in the landscape after the battle, that the familiar Bonnie Prince Charlie narrative usually begins. Cumberland harries the Highlands with fire and sword; townships burn and suspected rebels are hanged or shot. Highland dress and all weapons are proscribed. Disguised – once as Flora MacDonald’s maidservant – the prince wanders among lochs and islands, hidden and never betrayed, until he can escape to France. O’Keeffe summarises all this, without adding much that seems new. Instead, he diverges into less well-known but intriguing side-effects and aftershocks. For example, he asks whether the notion of ‘romantic’ landscape dawned when some of Cumberland’s more sensitive officers looked about them. And he gives a full history of how successive Jacobite rebellions prompted not only the network of roads constructed across the Highlands by General Wade in the years after the 1715 rising, but the ‘Great Map’ itself.

This was the nine-year achievement of William Roy, an astonishing twenty-year-old from Lanarkshire who surveyed and then mapped Scotland from Cape Wrath down to the tip of Kintyre: ‘Fifteen thousand square miles of moors, bogs, mountains and lochs were reduced to a scale of … 1000 yards to the inch.’ Completed in 1755 by the addition of the Lowlands, the final Great Map of Scotland was thirty feet long and twenty feet wide, and ‘arguably entirely futile’. Nobody ever used it. Perhaps Borges was thinking of it when he imagined ‘Colleges of Cartography’ which drew up a map of their empire on a one-to-one scale, ‘coinciding with it at every point’. That map too was judged useless, left to rot and blow away. Roy’s map is at least safe somewhere in the British Library.

The prince settled for a time in Paris, becoming an embarrassment to Louis XV. He ignored decreasingly polite entreaties to leave, until in 1748 – as O’Keeffe tells through dramatic witness accounts – he had to be arrested, tied up (with crimson silk cord, naturally) and briefly jailed. He was then stuffed into a coach heading for Savoy and Italy, which he managed to divert to the papal city of Avignon. O’Keeffe adds the little-known and still mysterious story of the Young Pretender visiting London in disguise in 1750. He used his stay to join the Anglican communion, formally improving his claim to the English throne, and may have had something to do with the abortive Elibank Plot to kidnap George II.

O’Keeffe describes the vengeance that fell on the captured rebels with merciless precision. This is what it was like as, in front of huge, cheering crowds on Kennington Common, one naked ‘traitor’ after another was pulled down alive from the gallows, disembowelled and had his guts flung on a fire before being finally beheaded. Lots were drawn to decide who would go for trial; the nineteen out of twenty prisoners who escaped this were mostly transported to ‘indentured’ labour on the Virginia plantations. Jacobite nobles faced only the axe, not hanging and ‘drawing’, but thousands still fought to get good seats to watch. At Lord Lovat’s beheading outside the Tower of London, a multi-storey stand collapsed under the weight of spectators and killed nearly twenty of them.

O’Keeffe’s tendency to dwell on horror serves one useful purpose. It dispels the myth that the 18th century was all wigs, wit and enlightened humanism. Sadistic public cruelty, military slaughter and political order maintained by the fear of death and torture still prevailed, and many of the superior minds parading the salons of Edinburgh, Paris or London had inherited a mortal fear of hell-fire. In such times, why did sophisticated London opinion so rapidly decide that what Cumberland did after Culloden was unpardonable ‘butchery’?

This book, although vividly written, does not tell us. O’Keeffe’s research is elaborate but limited. Many pages reveal what Culloden did for London’s theatres, but none considers how it mortally wounded an already discredited and disintegrating clan system, leaving Gaelic society to be finished off by Clearances rather than bayonets. The Jacobite promise must now seem delusional, even dishonest. But that is not the full story, which has proved unwilling to end. When Peter Watkins’s 1964 docudrama film Culloden toured Highland halls, there were silent tears on many faces when the lights went up. Robert Burns’s song ‘It was a’ for our rightfu’ king’ gives the saddest of words to a Jacobite looking back as he leaves Scotland for ever: ‘Now a’ is done that men can do,/And a’ is done in vain.’ I suspect that there are still mothers, in unregarded corners of this kingdom, who tell a child crying for a cut knee: ‘Worse things happened at Culloden.’

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Vol. 43 No. 17 · 9 September 2021

Neal Ascherson is right that William Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, conducted in the aftermath of the 1745 uprising, is ‘safe somewhere in the British Library’: it resides at Maps K.Top.48.25-1.a-f (LRB, 12 August). It is also true that, thanks to the effective subjugation of the Highland insurgency, the survey wasn’t needed for its original military purpose, but Ascherson’s remark that ‘nobody ever used it’ is a bit misleading. Far from being obscure artefacts, these pioneering maps are a valuable historical and genealogical resource. It was many decades before the Ordnance Survey, which Roy founded, returned to make comprehensive maps of Scotland. Now digitised and geo-referenced, Roy’s survey is freely available online from the National Library of Scotland. Despite the limited technology available to him, digital overlays show that his team’s cartography bears direct comparison with the latest satellite and lidar imagery.

Colin Munro

Neal Ascherson asks how it was possible that, after risking her life to help Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after Culloden, Flora MacDonald could some years later fight for King George III against the Americans seeking independence. I don’t think the answer is too difficult to find. After her arrest and confinement for nearly a year in a messenger-at-arms’s house in London awaiting trial, as Jacobite prisoners were being executed on a daily basis, MacDonald was amnestied on 4 July 1747. She returned to Scotland to learn of the wholesale arson, murder, rape and pillage that had been visited on the Highlands and Islands after the battle. She would have been well aware of the consequences of rebellion against the crown.

Shortly after she and her family emigrated to North Carolina in 1774, the American War of Independence broke out. Both the American Patriots, as they were called, and the British vied for the support of the warrior Highlander settlers. But Flora and her husband, Captain Allan MacDonald, knowing that the wages of treason were death and destruction, opted to fight for the crown. They were roundly defeated at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, and Allan and his son were captured.

Seán Damer

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