Battle of Culloden

Battle of Culloden

The Battle of Culloden Moor, six miles east of Inverness, Scotland, on April 16, 1746, brought to an end the last important English dynastic struggle and resulted in the devastation of much of Scotland by British government forces.In 1688 Catholic king James II of England was ousted in the Glorious Revolution and replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, stadtholder of Holland. James fled to France, where he was recognized as king of England by French king Louis XIV. James died in 1701, and James Francis Edward—usually known as James Edward or, to Jacobites, as James III—emerged as a pretender to the throne. He has gone down in English history as “The Old Pretender.” Mary II had died in 1694, followed by her husband William III in 1702. The new English ruler was Mary’s younger sister Anne (r. 1702–1714), the last Stuart monarch of England. The Union of England and Scotland was proclaimed during Anne’s reign (1707), establishing the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Many Scots were unhappy with this arrangement, and in March 1708 James Edward landed in Scotland to lead a rebellion. Disappointed both by the lack of support among the Scots and the failure of the French to dispatch an expeditionary force (a French fleet did reach the Firth of Forth before it was scattered in a storm), James Edward returned to France. In 1714 Anne died without issue. Under provisions of the Act of Settlement of 1701, George, elector of Hanover, succeeded as ruler of Great Britain and Ireland.

During September 1715–February 1716 a Jacobite revolt occurred in Scotland. Known as “The Fifteen” (for 1715), it was led by John Erskine, Earl of Mar. Raising an army of some 4,000 men, he fought an inconclusive battle at Sheriffmuir on November 13 against loyal troops under John Campbell, Duke of Argyll. Meanwhile, other English forces under Major General Sir Charles Wills retook the town of Preston that had been seized by other rebels. This marked the end of the Jacobite uprising in England but not the end of the Scottish uprising.

The pretender James Edward sailed from Dunkirk (Dunkerque) and arrived at Peterhead in Scotland on December 22, just as the English were completing the task of crushing the rebellion. He started south but encountered an English force moving north and retreated to Montrose, where the rebellious Highlanders dispersed. James Edward returned to France on February 5, 1716. He died in 1766 and was followed as Jacobite pretender by his son Charles Edward Stuart, known as “The Young Pretender” or “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”

Well before his father’s death and against the recommendations of many of his advisers, the impetuous and imperious Charles Edward led a new rebellion in Scotland known as “The Forty-Five” (for 1745). Nearly alone, Charles arrived in the Hebrides Islands on August 4, 1745. During August and September he raised an army of some 2,000 men from the Highland clans. Commanded by Lord George Murray, the rebels marched on Edinburgh. On September 17 they took the Scottish capital, although General Joshua Guest and English troops held out in Edinburgh Castle.

On September 20 at Prestonpans, Murray and Charles defeated a British army of 3,000 men commanded by General Sir John Cope. Against the recommendations of many of his advisers, including Murray, in November Charles led his army, now grown to about 5,000 men, in an invasion of England. Charles hoped for an uprising by Stuart supporters there and for direct military assistance from France, but he was disappointed on both counts.

The rebels enjoyed some initial success, taking both Carlisle and Manchester. They reached Derby on December 4. Learning that two strong British armies were advancing against him and with a number of his supporters having deserted, however, two days later Murray extracted his forces and withdrew northward, closely pursued by forces under British commander William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, the younger brother of England’s King George II. With bad weather inhibiting the British pursuit, during January–February 1746 Charles laid siege to the city of Stirling. On January 17, 1746, in the Battle of Falkirk, Charles and Murray defeated a British army under General Henry Hawley that had previously retaken Edinburgh and then was attempting to raise the siege of Stirling.

Following careful preparations during the winter and spring months, on April 8, 1746, Cumberland, with a well-trained force of some 5,000 English regulars, German mercenaries, and 4,000 Scottish loyalists, advanced from Aberdeen on Inverness. There Charles had a force of some 5,000 men, almost all of them Highlanders but including some French. Charles and Murray hoped to surprise the English with a night march but found Cumberland and his army drawn up in formation and ready for battle at dawn on April 16 on Culloden Moor.

The rebels were at great disadvantage not only in terms of numbers of men but also in firepower, which decided the battle. The Scots were armed primarily with broadswords and shields, while the British were equipped with muskets. Each side had about a dozen cannon, but the Scottish artillerymen were poorly trained and possessed almost no powder and shot. The English had well-trained gunners and adequate quantities of both powder and shot.

The battle was a rout. It began at about 1:00 p.m. with the Scots firing what little shot they had at about 500 yards and to no effect. The British replied in kind, advancing their 3-pounders through gaps in the infantry. In contrast to those of the Scots, the British guns had significant effect, especially when they switched to grapeshot, against the standing Scots.

The Scots knew only the reckless charge accompanied by piercing battle cries, but by the time their first attack was launched they had already faced an hour of British cannonading. The infantry clash began with an unordered charge by the rebel center and right flank. Cumberland had his men drawn up in two ranks, and although the Scots pushed back the first rank, the second held firm and forced the attackers to withdraw. The rebels mounted three separate charges; all were repulsed by the well-disciplined English infantry. Since the Highlanders carried their sword in their right hand and their shield in their left hand, Cumberland had instructed his infantrymen to bayonet the Highlanders to their right instead of to their front, thus attacking the exposed side. After their third charge, the Highlanders broke and fled. Charles, urged by one of his advisers to charge with his men and “die like a king,” refused. He took flight with the remnants of his force.

The infantry battle lasted only 40 minutes. The Highlanders lost about 1,250 men killed, 1,000 wounded, and 585 taken prisoner. The government side lost only 52 killed and 259 wounded. Cumberland ordered most of the prisoners summarily executed, for which he earned the sobriquet “The Butcher of Culloden.” Over the next months Cumberland and his men hunted down fugitives of the battle, executing any they could find.

They also exacted a terrible revenge on Scotland. The English executed most of the leaders who had taken part in the rebellion and ravaged the land. They also carried out a kind of cultural warfare in Scotland against the Highland clans, making it a capital offense to speak Gaelic, wear tartans, or play bagpipes. Such policies created a long-standing enmity toward the English. Charles remained in hiding for five months until he escaped to France, disguised as a lady’s maid, on September 20. Any realistic hope of reestablishing the Stuart dynasty was at an end.


Black, Jeremy. Culloden and the ’45. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.

Preble, John. Culloden. New York: Atheneum, 1962.

Speck, W. A. The Butcher: The Duke of Cumberland and the Suppression of the 45. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1981.