The Battle of Culloden – new research dispels three long-held myths

16 October 2020
1024px-The_Battle_of_Culloden-60314.jpg The Battle of Culloden
Professor Murray Pittock dispels three long-held myths surrounding the Battle of Culloden of 16 April 1746.

Professor Murray Pittock dispels three long-held myths surrounding the Battle of Culloden of 16 April 1746.

There have been many books on the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and on the battle of Culloden. The view that there have been too many has itself been around for almost fifty years. But that there are so many books on this subject is not surprising: British historiography has for 250 years framed Jacobitism as primitive because of the threat it posed, and the function the defeat of that threat had in a national narrative of foundational reconciliation and the development of the British Empire. So whether criticized or romanticized, the Jacobites have always been of interest, because they are part of who we are – or aren’t.

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But because the historiographical framing of Jacobitism is so strong, many of these books are not particularly good: they repeat each other, they use secondary anecdotes and they often have a strong parti pris. The battle of Culloden is very much a case in point. Many treatments of the battle – and there are many honourable exceptions – are based on what we think we already know, not what is there to be found out.


In the 1990s, the present author brought significant fresh archival evidence to bear on the arming of the Jacobite forces; in the 2000s, the work of battlefield archaeologists, most importantly that of Tony Pollard, bore out the archival record. At the same time, a number of historians began to cast doubt on the traditional evaluation of Lord George Murray (pictured below) as a great general who was ignored in favour of the incompetent John Sullivan.

The present author, Murray Pittock’s Culloden, brings this research together for the first time and adds new work on the alternative battlefields, the disposition of the armies and the use of weapons systems, and the cultural memory of Culloden and its manipulation by generations of historical and popular representation.

Three Myths of Culloden

  1. The battlefield was poorly chosen

The traditional account blames Sullivan (and/or the Prince) for the choice of battlefield. The evidence shows that Murray’s preferred site (and adjacent ground) was suitable only for retreat and the dissolution of the army. The alternative Dalcross Castle site which Murray had earlier suggested was criticized by Sullivan on the grounds of the landscape obstacles not exceeding effective musket range.

In the end, the battle was not fought on Sullivan’s preferred site but around 1km closer to Inverness owing to disorganization following the abortive night attack on Cumberland’s camp. However, only Sullivan’s sites contested the entry to Inverness; there was no tactical merit whatever in the Daviot site. For the first time, the book contains up to date photographs and detailed descriptions of the alternative sites.

  1. The battle was fought between British musketry and Jacobite swordsmen

This very longstanding myth still underpins almost all visual representation of the battle, and has long been central to its historiography. In fact we have known for many years now that the Jacobites were heavily armed with French and Spanish musketry as well as captured Land Pattern muskets. As yet, this knowledge has not been fully incorporated into accounts of the battle.

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Culloden argues that the evidence indicates that it was not British guns that brought down kilted swordsmen but British dragoon blades that cut down Jacobite musketeers. Cavalry was the key imbalance in the battle, not firepower, which is why the ensuing pursuit was so deadly.

  1. Culloden was not a Scotland-England conflict but a civil war

This last conventional view is interesting because it describes the stubborn belief that Culloden was a Scotland-England conflict as itself a ‘myth’. The book shows that in fact the idea that Culloden was a national conflict of this kind was central to its cultural memory until the 1960s.

It was only with the rise of modern Scottish nationalism that a new orthodoxy developed which had as its goal the suppression of the idea of Culloden as a national conflict, emphasizing it instead as a civil war.

The struggle over the memory of the battle continues to show its power to define – but not to encapsulate – issues of Scottish and British identity right down to our own day. Its language is important: to take only one example, without doubt the force facing the Jacobites was the British Army, but almost no history of the battle or heritage interpretation of it will call them that. Why not ?


About the author

Professor Murray Pittock is Bradley Professor and Pro Vice-Principal at the University of Glasgow, and one of the leading scholars of Jacobitism and Romanticism globally. His books include The Myth of the Jacobite Clans, Material Culture and Sedition, Poetry and Jacobite Politics, Jacobitism, Inventing and Resisting Britain, The Invention of Scotland, and many others. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the Royal Historical Society and has won or been nominated or shortlisted for fifteen literary prizes internationally.

Culloden. By Murray Pittock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. £18.99. xxii+ 192pp. ISBN  978-0-19-966407-8.

(Culloden memorial cairn copyright Mike Peel)