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pilgrimmage to Culloden field



My grandad, Charlie, was born and raised on the Isle of Skye. We went to visit when I was three years old, and one of my earliest memories is of him playing the bagpipes for me and my grandmother kicking him out of the house to play on the porch because they were far too loud for indoors. His favourite song, which has become one of my favourite songs, was the Skye Boat Song, a Scottish folk tune about Bonnie Prince Charlie escaping after his defeat at the battle of Culloden.

Many's the lad fought on that day,
Well the Claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead in Culloden's field.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Our family were staunch Jacobites, and family legend has it that we are descended from Captain John MacKinnon who led the MacKinnon clan in the Jacobite uprising of 1745, and who sheltered Bonnie Prince Charlie during his escape to Skye.


This photo was taken at the Elgol coast on the Isle of Skye. You can see the remains of stone walls in a squarish outline in the foreground which are, I'm told, the ruins of the house in which my family lived. They took Bonnie Prince Charlie from here to hide him in a cave further down the coast.

The idea, if not the details, of the Battle of Culloden has loomed large in the impressions I have of my family. So, when I was in Scotland this past December, a trip to the site of the battle was high on my list of things to do.

It was a damp, blustery December day when I visited the battlefield at Culloden. I rented a car in Inverness and drove out to Culloden, a brief detour before heading out to the Isle of Skye. Getting there at all was something of a personal triumph, it being my very first experience with right-hand drive.

Admission to the Visitors' Centre cost £10, and included a guided tour of the battlefield. (The National Trust for Scotland has an excellent website [www.nts.org.uk/culloden/], with all the information you need to plan your visit.) I spent some time wandering through the centre, looking at the exhibits on the walls. One side of the gallery tracks the Government's troops under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, and the other side tracks the Jacobite troops under Bonnie Prince Charlie. Walking through the gallery, you can see both sides moving through the battles of the uprising, through to the final battle at Culloden.

It was the tour of the field itself with a guide telling the story that made the deepest impression, however.

It being December, there were only a handful of us on the tour, all huddling deep into our jackets against the driving wind. A row of blue flags showed the Jacobite line, a row of red the Government line. And, not far from them, stone cairns marking the mass graves of each Jacobite clan.


When it was all over, the local villagers came out and dug graves for the dead of both sides, doing their best to keep them together by clan.

Because Culloden was less a battle than it was a slaughter, in the end.

The Government troops under the command of the Duke of Cumberland were well-fed and well-rested. They had spent the day before the battle celebrating the Duke's 25th birthday.

The Jacobite troops, however, were half-starved. Supply lines had broken down and they likely hadn't had much to eat in three or four days. They had spent the previous day standing ready to fight, and the night in a forced march; their commanders hoped to mount a surprise attack on the Government troops during their celebrations at their camp, eleven miles away. A dense fog scuppered those plans, and they were forced to turn back, hungry and tired.

When the battle began, the Jacobite troops charged the Government line through a hail of artillery and musket balls. They smashed into the line and the fierce hand-to-hand fighting began. Under the onslaught, the Government lines buckled, then broke. The Jacobites were through their lines.

The Duke of Cumberland had a plan for this eventuality, however. He had a second line in place, and he sent one part of it forward to meet the clansmen, and the other part around to flank them. The Jacobites were caught in a vicious cross-fire. 700 clansmen fell within a matter of minutes. The battle was lost, and the rest of the Jacobite troops broke and ran.

After the battle, the government troops rode through the field, under orders to kill any wounded Jacobites where they lay. They then rode down and killed any fleeing survivors they could find and anyone along the way they suspected of having Jacobite sympathies.

In the construction of the Visitors' Centre, they have turned one wall into a memorial for all those who died on the field that day.


The inscription on the plaque reads:

16 April 1746
Many more Jacobite than Government men died at the Battle of Culloden. The numbers of fallen on both sides are represented by the two groups of projecting stones in this wall.

The group for the Jacobite dead contains approximately 1500 stones. The group for the Government troups about 50.

My family, the MacKinnon clan, were not among those 1500, however. While they certainly rose with the Jacobite cause, they did not fight at Culloden; they were stationed north of Inverness on another mission. After the battle, they were among the 1200 troops that retreated to Ruthven under the command of Lord George Murray.

After this resounding defeat, Bonnie Prince Charlie accepted that the uprising was over and fled through the highlands with a £30,000 price on his head and the Government troops hot on his heels. It was five months before he could escape to France.

And while Bonnie Prince Charlie was able, finally, to escape, some of those who helped him were not so lucky. The lovely lady behind the counter at the Visitors' Centre was kind enough to look up Captain John MacKinnon in her book, Prisoners of the '45, and photocopy the information for me:

No. 2217
Name MacKinnon, John of Ellagol (Elgol)
Regiment M'Kinnon's
Prison Career 11.7.46 Elgol; H.M.S. 'Furnace,' Oct. 1746, Tilbury, Southwark
Ultimate Disposition Released 3.7.47
Home or Origin Skye
Notes and Authorities Nephew of John Mackinnon of Mackinnon, the Chief, with whom he served through the campaign. In company with his Chief, he helped the Prince to escape from Skye to the mainland in July 1746. He was caught on 11th July and put on board ship, where he was examined by General Campbell as to his reasons for not giving up the Prince and claiming the reward. When he replied that he would not have done it for the whole world the officers rose and drank his health. He was ordered to be transported, but must have been reprieved. He was in hospital in Edinburgh in 1761 paralysed in both legs, and he died 11th May 1762 in Bath.

I did, in the end, find my family connection at Culloden, although not the one I was expecting. I was vastly impressed with the kindness and helpfulness of the staff at the Visitors' Centre. And I also found that the fact of standing on the battlefield, with a very knowledgable guide telling me the story of the battle, made history come alive for me in a way that no amount of books or wall-mounted displays ever could.

Posted by kithica 01:56 Archived in Scotland Tagged tourist_sites

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