9 Reasons for the Tragic Highlander Deaths in the Battle of Culloden
There have been countless significant battles throughout history. Some of them have become infamous – from the Battle of Passchendaele during WWI to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but the majority fade from memory within a generation or two. The Battle of Culloden is one example which has been forgotten by many people today – and yet on just one fateful day in April of 1746 the course of European history was changed.
However, it was the actions of Henry VIII which first set things in motion. In 1534 Henry infamously split the English church from Rome, forming the Church of England and plunging the country into years of religious upheaval. The line of succession after Henry served only to further complicate matters – while Edward VI was Protestant and introduced further reforms, his older sister Mary I was an extremely conservative Catholic, and her aggressive methods of restoring England to Catholicism earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.
With England swinging like a pendulum between Protestantism and Catholicism – often within a single lifetime – the role of the monarch in the lives of anyone religious was extremely important. The wrong monarch would mean life was extremely difficult and possibly downright dangerous.
Matters did not calm down in the decades after Henry first broke from the church – the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 was a Catholic attempt to regain control of the throne; and the Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell after the execution of Charles I in 1649 introduced extremely strict laws which persecuted Catholics.
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The Jacobite Pretenders – Lead Up to the Battle of Culloden
British history is rife with examples of pretenders to the throne. The phenomenon sounds like imposters with no legitimate claim come forward and try to grab power for themselves, but the name ‘pretenders’ is misleading. The term actually has Latin roots and comes from the word praetendo which means "to stretch out before". The implication is not that the pretender has a false claim, but they are presenting their case, and laying it out for others to see and compare with the current situation – whether the position has been filled by a rival or abolished altogether.
The term can also be used to describe people who would have a legitimate claim but have not chosen to act on it – for example, there are four different branches who are descended from previous rulers of France, and they are listed as official Pretenders.
There is even a Pretender to the English throne, Franz, Duke of Bavaria. His claim comes from the fact he is descended from King James II of England and VII of Scotland.
Portrait of Franz, Duke of Bavaria, by Dieter Stein. (CC BY SA 3.0)
In 1688 the Catholic King James was replaced in a swift and peaceful revolution by his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. This may finally have been the end of things, but it left James in exile in France with his second wife and his young son James Stuart – a Catholic, and former Prince of Wales.
English Catholics still had a legitimate heir to rally around. It is this line of succession which means there is still a Pretender to the English throne today, and when the power struggle between Protestants and Catholics was still strong in England, a Catholic with a strong and legitimate claim to the throne was a figure who gained a lot of support.
There were many people who were unhappy with the English government during the rule of Mary and William of Orange; and throughout the 1720s and 30s there were a series of riots, such as the 1725 ‘malt tax’ riots and 1737 ‘Poretous’ riots in Scotland.
‘The Poretous Mob’ (1855) by James Drummond. (Public Domain)
By 1745, support for the Jacobite Pretender – the man who would have been king if his father was not unseated – had solidified, and Charles Edward Stuart, James Stuart’s son, launched a rebellion in a bid to reclaim the throne for his father and restore the Stuart line of succession.
Support for the Stuart Pretenders was particularly strong in Scotland. People felt angry at the English government who they felt were imposing unfair taxes on them. Particularly in the North of the country there were Catholics who had a vested interest in restoring a Catholic monarch to power.
The Battle of Culloden
The Battle of Culloden was the final confrontation of this uprising led by Charles (known today by his nickname Bonnie Prince Charlie), who wanted to reclaim the crown for his father and restore a Catholic monarch. Charles had launched his rebellion from Glenfinnan in the Highlands, successfully capturing Edinburgh and gaining support from the Scots.
‘Prince Charles Edward Stuart, 1720 - 1788. Eldest Son of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart’ (1745) by Allan Ramsay. (Public Domain)
The campaign had been successful and the first few battles had gained both territory and support for the cause.
And yet despite the growing support from the Highlanders, the rebellion was ended once and for all at Culloden and the Jacobite uprising was quashed. So why had Charles been so convinced that it would be a sweeping victory? And what exactly went wrong for the Highlanders?
1. Charles ‘Counted His Chickens Before They Hatched’
The Highlanders may have supported Charles, but they were not ready to invade England. They wanted to consolidate their power and wait until they were stronger to launch an attack and they had made that clear to him. Charles had his eyes firmly fixed on making progress into England and was unwilling to wait until they knew they had additional troops and more support.
He convinced his Scottish supporters that they would receive a tremendous amount of support from people in England who wanted to see his father on the throne, and that there would be a large number of French troops landing in the South of England to help. The Highlanders reluctantly agreed to begin a push into England on this basis, only to find the English support failed to materialize and the French troops were nowhere in sight.
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2. The Highlanders Fought Very Differently
The Highlanders were very capable warriors and they were not scared of getting their hands bloody – but the clan warfare and raids they were experienced in did not end up giving them an advantage. They were not used to long term battles, which required strategic planning and discipline to execute. Their prior experience seems to have been a huge disadvantage against the English governmental forces as they were considered unruly and difficult to control, even by their own colonels, and they had no formal training.
Prince Charles in the battlefield. (Public Domain)
They were used to fighting in small numbers against one another over short periods of time, and organized warfare was completely new to them. This made it difficult to convey any sort of battle tactics and left the English with the significantly easier task of cleaning up a disorganized rabble.
3. Their Formations Caused Problems
The Highlander units were generally formed in a way that meant casualties were much more devastating. They were fronted by the wealthier, better armed members of society and backed by the poorer members of society who did not have access to high quality weapons. This meant the people heading the units were not necessarily better leaders or strategists, and that the Highlanders with better armor and weapons were killed first. Once they had been eliminated it was easy for the English to come and kill the people who were left behind.
4. They Were Not Well Armed
With the exception of the Gentlemen who had enough money to arm themselves with good weapons and armor, the Highlanders were armed shockingly badly. Accounts from the previous battles describe a group who had brought mainly pitchforks and scythes to the war as they were farmers and laypeople who had no need for fancy weapons in their daily lives and no money to arm themselves in the short time of the few months they had been preparing to advance.
Although supplies did eventually get to them from France, they were left fighting with either ridiculously underwhelming weaponry like the pitchforks, or with firelocks they had no prior experience or training with. In contrast, the government army were well organized, well equipped, and well trained in using their equipment.
A private and corporal of a Highland Regiment, circa 1744. The private is wearing a belted plaid in the Government tartan. Note how the plaid is being used to protect the musket lock from rain and wind. (Public Domain)
5. Shocking Lack of Communication
Right from the offset the battle went poorly for the Highlanders. One of the commanders, Murray, spotted an obstacle which would need navigating and moved his entire brigade without consulting or informing anyone else. This meant that people didn’t know how to interpret the movement – some of the unruly Highlanders completely ignored Murray, and others misinterpreted his moving the battalion as an advance.
The result was a very crooked front line, with large gaps appearing before the battle had even started. The general in charge of the second line, Sullivan, was horrified by the way the Highlanders had positioned themselves and redeployed his own troops to fill in the gaps.
6. Charles Made More Poor Decisions
Although the Highlanders were not properly prepared for a battle on this scale, and they made some poor decisions, it was Charles that had convinced them they were ready to be there and at the very start of the battle he made more poor choices which had a devastating effect on the morale of the Highlanders, and cemented victory for the English troops.
While the Redcoats superior artillery battered the Highlanders and inflicted much damage, Charles retreated for his own safety. In a move which has been described as ‘inexplicable’ he left his troops arrayed under fire for half an hour.
Woodcut painting from Oct 1746 depicting the Battle of Culloden. (Public Domain)
7. Difficult Terrain
As the Highlanders grew restless due to Charles’ inaction, they were eager to charge. When the first clan did eventually receive orders to charge, they encountered a patch of marsh which was impossible to navigate. They were forced to move to the right, where they obstructed the next group of troops and both were forced back as a result and their lines were further disrupted. Meanwhile, the charge on the left had successfully progressed only to be assaulted by gunfire and artillery with ease by the English army.
8. Some of them Refused to Charge
Positioned at the extreme left of the front line, the Macdonald regiments saw their positioning as an insult. They were so upset by this perceived affront that when they were ordered to charge, they point blank refused to do so.
While this aspect of the Battle of Culloden is popular legend rather than confirmed fact, their progress was much slower than the rest of the Jacobite forces and they saw every soldier in the Chisholm unit which had been next to theirs killed or wounded, and the colonel of another unit killed particularly horrifically. When they began to suffer their own losses, they immediately gave way, which allowed the English troops to gain further advantages.
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9. They Lost a Lot of Men
At the start of the battle the Jacobite army was 7000 strong, in comparison to the English Governmental army of 8000. Although they were outnumbered, the odds were not impossible to beat. All of the mistakes made by the Highlanders (and by Charles) meant that the number of casualties ended up soaring almost immediately.
The Jacobite list of dead or wounded reached 2000. The English lost only 50 men during the battle with 259 injured. This meant that they very quickly ended up vastly outmanned and it was no longer realistic to expect anything other than defeat.
‘The End of the 'Forty Five' Rebellion’, by William Brasse Hole, published in The Art Journal in 1882. (Public Domain)
It was arguably a rather anticlimactic end to more than 200 years of fighting for the throne between Catholics and Protestants. And unlike Bloody Mary and the Gunpowder Plot, the Jacobite Rebellion and its final battle are not widely talked about or known outside of Scotland.
The Highlanders were passionate in their support of the Jacobite rebellion and they fought hard to try and ensure the restoration of their rightful monarch. It is particularly sad that they were defeated so easily when they had been apprehensive about attacking so soon – perhaps if their future king had been more willing to listen to them his rebellion would have been successful and European history would be very different.
Top Image: ‘The Battle of Culloden’ 1746 by David Morier. Source: Public Domain
Updated on January 12, 2021.
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