Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Battlefield of Culloden

I missed the 265th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden by a week, but I took some photographs whilst there, and have posted them on our facebook page. Since there are so many photographs about the battlefield I thought it would be worth putting down some of my impressions of Culloden. There is no need for me to go into details here about the battle, or the history behind the Jacobite and Government armies. This post is about the battlefield and visitor centre which is just a few miles east of Inverness.

You can easily find it just beside the B9006 from Inverness to Croy and there are plenty of brown tourist signs on the A9 and A96 directing you to the site, so I won't give directions. You can check the NTS website here to find it.

Part of the battlefield is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. The B9006 bisects it and the northern part of the site is in private hands but there is more than enough of the site looked after by the NTS to justify a visit. It is sometimes called Drumossie Moor. Drumossie Moor extends over a lot of the high ground above the River Nairn but the battle was fought on the Culloden House Estate and this part of ground was known as Culloden Moor. It's not wrong to call it Drumossie Moor, it is just more correct to call it Culloden Moor.

I was last there about thirty years ago and it was a cold early spring morning when we turned up on a school trip. I don't remember the visit with much pleasure and it certainly didn't fire up any enthusiasm for studying the Jacobite Rebellions further. Luckily for visitors today there is a swanky new visitor centre. The field of battle itself is open 24x7 and there is no entrance fee, but for a first visit I would highly recommend paying to go into the visitor centre. I have to say it isn't cheap but we took advantage of a deal on a membership to the National Trust for Scotland to lessen the blow.

The visitor centre does a great job of covering the battle but it also goes into a lot of detail about the whole of the '45 Rebellion and also goes into the background of the Jacobites and Hanoverian succession from 1688.

There is a chronological path of Jacobite history for about 100 years from the flight of James II through to the death of Bonnie Prince Charlie. They have done it is a very interesting way. The corridor you follow is split into two. On the left hand side is the Jacobite viewpoint and on the right hand side is the government viewpoint. It is very clearly laid out and there are plenty of artefacts to look at and first-hand accounts from the time to read.

The one criticism I would have is that there is very little for children in the displays. I'm sure on a school trip they are well catered for but as a family it may be interesting for the adults but there is very little to interest the kids until you get to the last room. Actually I have two criticisms, you have to pay for parking too which is a bit much considering how much you are paying to get in. (NTS members get free parking)

The last room in the visitor centre has displays of the weapons used on the day. There are muskets and pistols which you can handle and also reconstructions of the artillery pieces. They also have plenty of broadswords, muskets and bayonets. It is a very sobering experience by this stage (and rightly so)

There are two excellent audio visual displays in the centre. There is the immersion theatre where four connected films are screened onto the four walls of the room. It places you slap bang in the middle of a reconstruction of the battle. I have not seen anything like it before and it really is very effective.

The other audio visual display is a large 'wargames table' screen which follows the battle from start to finish from a birds-eye view. It is very effective in showing the dispositions of all the troops on the field throughout the battle. It really helps when you then go out to the battlefield itself.

If you have paid to go to the visitor centre you can pick up an audio guide to use when going round the battlefield. This is very useful because not surprisingly the battlefield is a pretty flat field, and for a lot of it you are seeing the same thing.

When you leave the back door of the centre you can climb onto the roof of it to get a panoramic view of the battlefield. Like I said it is a field so I don't know how much you would get out of it. Much better to get onto the field itself to see the conditions the men fought in.

Fairly recent excavations by Glasgow University saw a redrawing of the battle lines and NTS have put in paths allowing you to walk along what would have been the Jacobite and Government Front lines. They have placed small pedestals along the lines at the place each regiment started the battle and the number of men in that regiment.

They also highlight the front lines by flying red flags along the Government lines and blue flags along the Jacobite lines.

The NTS is trying to return the field over to the condition it was on the day. It is a long task made difficult by all the changes that have taken place on the field over the years. The B9006 used to run right through the battlefield and a large portion of it was forestry up until recently. They have done a very good job returning part of it as fields, and part of it as heather-clad marsh. It was so marshy in some places in April 1746 that men on both sides commented on standing up to their knees in water whilst waiting for the battle to start.

The flags mark the starting positions of the armies but the best place to stand to work out where the highland charge started is at the corner of the Leanach enclosure. This was the point where right wing of the Jacobite Army launched their attack on the left wing of the Government Army, where the heaviest fighting took place and where there was the largest number of casualties on both sides.

By standing at the enclosure and looking at the red flags you can see how near the armies were but just by walking to the Government front line you can tell just how far the Highlanders had to charge under devastating close range redcoat musket and artillery fire.

Of all the places on the field and centre, my walk along the route of the Highlanders charge brought home to me what they faced on that April day over 265 years ago.

From the scene of the costliest charge it is only a short walk to the large cairn which marks the burial ground of the Jacobites. Around it lie their graves. They were buried beside the old road by the victors and you can still see the mounds of earth which mark the mass graves. In the late Victorian period the local landowner places rustic headstones on the Jacobite graves but no-one is convinced that the Clan gravestones mark actual clan graves. There is no doubt that the Jacobite dead lie there under those mounds but any body belonging to any clan regiment would have been dumped in the nearest grave in an effort to clear the dead off the field as quickly as possible.

There is no marker for the government dead. It has been mooted recently that they should be commemorated. These are the dead who fought and died facing a full blooded highland charge, and not the men who acted so brutally in the glens after Culloden so personally I don't see why they shouldn't be granted the same dignity in death as the highlanders they fought. It is a contentious subject though so I don't know if they will ever get a grave marker.

I'll end the tour on a lighter note. The visitor centre has a well-stocked shop and a cracking selection of books on Scottish military history. There is also a good café by the looks of it. I was staying just along the road so didn't use it so can't comment on taste / quality. What I can say is that the nearby Culloden Moor Inn is very good and we had an excellent meal in its nice restaurant with very friendly staff. Don't let the run down appearance from the B9006 fool you. This is a good place to eat and was very busy with locals on a Wednesday evening.

In my opinion Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre is well worth a visit, and if you have the time to visit nearby Fort George you can get 20% off in a linked ticket offer. (The same applies if you visit Fort George first - 20% off entry to the Culloden centre).

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