history · Scottish History

Inspired by Outlander: Culloden and its Aftermath

It probably would not surprise anyone to know that I am a huge Outlander fan. The premiere of season three featured heartbreaking scenes from the battle of Culloden and its aftermath. Apparently, it took nine days of filming and over 1,000 extras to create those intense battle scenes, though they were only in the episode for the first few minutes. I am not Scottish myself, but part of Outlander the show and the book’s influence has peaked my interest in Scottish history. I would be very interested to visit the country and the site of Culloden myself one day.

But my question today is, how did Culloden happen and how did Scottish culture change in its aftermath?

Culloden and “the ‘45” was the last of many Jacobite rebellions; these rebellions had been going on for much of the 17th & 18th century. The Jacobites were the supporter of the Stuart dynasty (James II and then “James III”) that had been pushed out of power after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, due to their Catholic leanings. England had to have a protestant monarch, so they went to James II’s protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange from the Netherlands. But, the Stuarts still had many supporters and believed James II and his heirs were the rightful rulers. How did the Jacobites gain many highlanders support? Many held anger toward the English especially after the Act of Union in 1707 and by supporting a new King, one who could change that act, was a good way to act out against the English.

I may want to do a separate post about the Bonnie Prince Charlie because I find him very interesting, but I will say that he portrayed himself as a symbol of hope to the Scots in 1745 and really encouraged them to remember their principles and take on a government that was not treating as they would wish to be. A letter from the Bonnie Prince explains many of his ideas that would be favorable. In this letter the Bonnie Prince explains that he will maintain the Church of England, but was “utterly adverse to all animosities and persecutions on account of Religion it also contains a promise to grant and allow toleration…” He goes on to say that he will not allow imprisonment without trial and will find ways to lower the taxes on the people. Sure this sounds pretty good, but the Bonnie Prince is also trying to say whatever he can to get the support from Scotland. They are the only army he has while he awaits the French support (which will never come *spoiler alert*). It is important to note that though some of the clans did join up with the Jacobites (for ex: Camerons, MacDonald, Campbell, etc) not all the clans were for this cause and remained loyal to the English. So all of Scotland was not in agreement regarding this “Young Pretender”.

But, when the battle of Culloden came around the state of the Jacobite army was a bit of a mess. They were exhausted and starving as the financial resources were running dry, French support still had not materialized and the Bonnie Prince’s generals could not agree on anything creating divisions. By this point, April 1746, the Jacobites were running on victories that surprised and concerned the English. They had “captured” Edinburgh, won the battle of Prestonpans, won at Falkirk and captured Inverness where they were currently. Unfortunately, Culloden had a rough start foreshadowing the disaster to come.

The original plan was a night attack on April 15th. The Prince and his generals had decided it would be best to perform a surprise attack and slaughter the British army in their sleep. The problem is, bringing your whole army in the dead of night through marsh lands is more difficult than it seems. The columns of men got lost and separated throughout the night and the whole mission was delayed. The men became more exhausted than they even were before this mission and began to wander or fall asleep. By the time they could even regroup it was dawn and their plan was ruined. A retreat had to be called back to Culloden and the mission a large waste of time, not to mention made the Jacobite army more fatigued than ever.

Meanwhile, not long after this retreat was called, the well rested British army was already awake and on the move towards Culloden. The Jacobite soldiers were exhausted and scattered everywhere so you can imagine the chaos this scene was when the alarm went off that it was time for battle. Imagine, being up all night on a foolhardy mission, exhausted and hungry, then barely getting shut eye have to get up again and fight. The Prince, irritated by the failure of the night mission and tired of his generals bickering, took command himself. Unfortunately the terrain of the battle site was not on their side and was a hinderance to the Highland charge. The ground was marshy and uneven which would slow up the charge and leave the men vulnerable to artillery.

Between twelve and one o’clock on April 16, 1746 the first shots were fired. I am not a military historian so my comments about the battle will be pretty general, but I have put a book that describes more detail in the sources section. Basically, the Highland charge was not effective in this case as they were slowed down by the marshy landscape and were slaughtered by cannon fire and gunshots. A witness, James Johnstone, of the battle described what happened as the Highlanders were forced into a rout, “What a spectacle of horror! The same Highlanders, who had advanced to the charge like lions, with bold, determined countenances, were in an instant, seen flying like trembling cowards, in the greatest disorder.” The Duke of Cumberland (the British command) sent his cavalry to pursue the fleeing Jacobites for miles slaughter those who got away. Even the poor civilians were caught up as the pursuit of the fleeing rebels when all the way into Inverness “where the streets ran with blood.” In the end, 1,500-2,000 Jacobites were killed versus only about 300 British. The battle was less than an hour and (I just learned this now) was the last pitched battle fought on British soil.

In the aftermath the British gathered up Jacobite supporters and sentenced them to trial and then, usually, execution. There were so many captured that in some instances many had to draw lots for a trial/punishment. Those whom the lot did not fall on received “His Majesty’s Mercy.” Some were imprisoned and many were transported to the British colonies for life. But, of course, the Bonnie Prince Charlie got away leaving a letter to the chiefs who followed him which stated,

“When I came into this Country, it was my only view to do all in my power for your good and safety. This I will allways do as long as life is in me, But alsa! I see with grief I can at present do little for you on this side of the water, for the only thing that can now be done, is to defend your selves till the French assist you…”

The Prince was going to flee back to France and beg for support. He did not believe he was abandoning his supporters for he fully assumed to be back, but after he left on September 19th, finally boarding a ship to France, he would never return.

During the Bonnie Prince’s escape he received the aid of a woman by the name of Flora MacDonald. She got him to Skye by dressing him in women’s clothing and pretended he was her Irish maidservant, named Bettie Burke, for days.She was arrested not long after his escape by the British.

The British government was serious post-Culloden to avoid any further Jacobite uprisings, this basically was the last straw. The enacted a series of laws:

  1. Abolishment of the Highland dress (under pain of transportation)
  2. Abolishment of the names of some clans such as Cameron, MacPherson, etc. In addition all clan chiefs could no longer call their men to arms even though not all the clans rose up in the rebellion. “Not to call or write themselves by that Name, under Pain of Transportation. Penalties on other Persons calling them by that Name. A Bill more effectualy to surpress all meeting Houses & Conventicles, [a small meeting house or chapel for a religious assembly, especially of Nonconformists] for religious worship in Scotland where the King & family shall not be prayed for by Name…”
  3. The disarming of Scotland; “Visitations and by inflicting Death or Transportation as the Punishment on all who may be found armed, or to have arms concealed in or near their Habitations, & that every circuit, everyone should be brought to his Tryal, that shall have been seen with arms; This beside the annual visitations.”

It was not until June 1747 that an Indemnity Act was released offering a general pardon to the rebels.

Outlander shows a little of this through Jamie’s struggles in hiding and in prison, but most of that is overshadowed by the fantasy story. The real stories of real people I have found to be even more interesting. Hope everyone enjoys episode 3.2 tonight! 🙂


Great primary documents from “the ‘45” rebellion: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/jacobite-1745/


Jacobites: A New History of the ‘45 Rebellion by Jacqueline Riding



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