Remembering the Jacobites: the path to Culloden


15 October 2020
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National Trust for Scotland explore the events that led up to the battle of Culloden of 16 April 1746 - the last major battle fought on the British mainland.

A memorial stone on Culloden Moor calls the Jacobite soldiers who died fighting beside Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) ‘the gallant Highlanders’.

While there were many Highlander casualties at Culloden, the Jacobite cause also drew support from the Lowlands, as well as from France and Ireland. 

Background to the '45

Our story begins in 1745, at a time when Britain had been governed for over 30 years by the political party known as the Whigs. Whigs opposed the Stuarts’ belief in absolute monarchy. Instead, they argued for a balance of power between king and parliament – as under the Hanoverians. They were Protestants but then so were many of the Jacobites.

However, political infighting, charges of corruption and military setbacks abroad meant that the government was not in a strong position in this year, and it was taken by surprise by the Jacobite rising. War in Europe had been simmering since 1740. In order to divide the British further, groups in the French government had encouraged Jacobite plotting. Without support from the Continent, the Jacobites knew they would never succeed in regaining the throne for the exiled James VII’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart.

On 11 May 1745 at Fontenoy (in present-day Belgium), the French crushed British forces under the leadership of the Duke of Cumberland (King George II’s son). The defeat of the British army offered the perfect opportunity for a co-ordinated rising and invasion of Britain – Prince Charles Edward Stuart, James’s son, seized the moment.

Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in the Hebrides in 1745. His arrival signalled the start of some success for the Jacobites, and under Charlie’s leadership the ’45 rising would claim important victories against the government armies.

Bonnie Prince Charlie's arrival in Scotland

The Prince had left France on 5 July with the essential supplies to start his campaign, but two of his ships were attacked en route and returned to port. Charles arrived in the Highlands with only a handful of men – an unimpressive start. However, his charm and promises of French aid eventually persuaded local clan chiefs to support his cause. On 19 August, Charles raised his father’s Standard at Glenfinnan, the army gathered and the 1745 Jacobite Rising began.

Just over a week later, rumours of the Prince’s arrival were confirmed to the government. But they were confident that Sir John Cope, commander of forces in Scotland, would quell the disturbance, using the new network of forts and roads in the Highlands.

Barely a month later, Edinburgh was in Jacobite hands, and Cope’s forces suffered a disastrous defeat at Prestonpans.

March into England

At a Council of War in Edinburgh, the Jacobites were faced with a critical choice. They could remain in Scotland to strengthen their grip on the country. Or they could march into England and head straight for London. This would encourage the English Jacobites to rise and then, surely, the French would launch an invasion as the Prince had promised. Swayed by the Prince, they chose the latter.

The government, shocked by the defeat at Prestonpans, also called a Council of War. It decided to assemble two armies. One army under Field-Marshal Wade was concentrated in the north-east near Newcastle; the other was positioned in Chester to defend the west.

Showing astonishing speed, the Jacobite army reached Derby, only 125 miles from London, by 4 December. Banks and businesses in the capital were panicking, but doubt was growing among Jacobite officers, primarily Lord George Murray.

In his opinion, it was madness to continue. There were two government armies behind them and he believed that a third defended London. There had been very little support from English Jacobites and no sign of the promised help from the French. During angry meetings on 5 December, the Prince’s leadership was challenged by his senior commanders. Eventually, they decided to turn round and withdraw to Scotland. What if they had continued? What if they had known that a French invasion fleet was at that moment preparing to cross the Channel?

The return to Scotland

Although in retreat, the Jacobite army was still a force to be reckoned with. Government troops led by the Duke of Cumberland were close behind the Jacobites, but rumours of a French invasion briefly drove the Duke and his army back to the south coast.

On returning to Scotland, the Jacobites defeated the government army at Falkirk on 17 January 1746. But in the confusion after the battle, the Jacobites failed to build on their victory. Against the Prince’s will, they took the decision to retreat further north into the Highlands. They wanted to gather their strength over the winter months, and the Jacobite campaign would start again in the spring. Hearing the news of the government’s defeat at Falkirk, Cumberland raced north to Scotland to take charge.

Towards the end of the long, hard winter, the rising entered a new phase. Both sides divided their forces and engaged in skirmishes across the Highlands and the north-east. The Jacobites were keen to capture government military centres. The government successfully held Fort William but lost Fort George and Fort Augustus. However, the thinly stretched Jacobite army began to struggle to keep its lines of supply open.

As winter eased into spring, the two sides drew closer together. The Jacobite army took Inverness at the end of February; at the beginning of April, Cumberland’s forces began their advance west from Aberdeen.

For the Prince, time and money were running out.

The battle of Culloden

In April 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army went into battle against the Duke of Cumberland and his redcoats at Culloden, near Inverness. In less than an hour around 1,600 men were killed, 1,500 of them Jacobites. This would be the last major battle ever fought on the British mainland.

copyright Herbert Frank

Since the mid-19th century the battlefield has become a place of pilgrimage for people from Scotland and throughout the world. Some visitors are descendants of those who fought; others are gripped by the extraordinary story. With ongoing archaeological research and fresh historical interpretations, the story of Culloden and the Jacobite cause is far from over. 

Text adapted from a Jacobite adult learning resource on the National Trust for Scotland website. Explore the adult learning resources here.

Want to learn more about Culloden? History Scotland is hosting a live Jacobite talk with historian Professor Murray Pittock. Find out more here.