And you thought today's Scottish politics was bloody!

And you thought today’s Scottish politics was bloody! Never mind Sturgeon’s battles: when the Scots met the English at Culloden, limbs flew, heads rolled and the survivors were disembowelled

  • Paul O’Keeffe has penned a new book  about the Battle of Culloden in April 1746 
  • It is a fascinating, meticulously research, often brutally detailed account 
  • Freelance lecturer used contemporary accounts, letters and newspapers 
  • Catastrophic defeat at Culloden was the final act of that abortive 1745 uprising



by Paul O’Keeffe (Bodley Head £25, 432 pp) 

On a bleak moor near the village of Culloden, just to the east of Inverness in the wild Highlands of Scotland, the final pitched battle to be fought on British soil began just after 1pm on April 16, 1746.

It was all over in 40 minutes, less time than half a football match, with mangled, stricken bodies strewn across the mud.

If you are looking for the over-romanticised Scotland of whisky and oatcakes, aristocratic mistresses, flights across the misty heather and sailing over the sea to Skye, this is not really the book for you.

Instead, as vivid as the Ten O’Clock News, it is a fascinating, meticulously researched, often brutally detailed account of a short episode in British history, the repercussions of which are still felt hundreds of years later: just look at the headlines. After all, the Scots have long had a fondness for the sweet melancholy of the lost cause.

Brutal: Tobias Menzies (left) and Sam Heughan (right) as a Redcoat and a Highlander in TV drama Outlander, which is based on the Battle of Culloden

On that April afternoon, the Catholic Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charles Stuart — in his continuing attempt to win back the British throne for his father James — lined up against the far better equipped Redcoats, led by the Duke of Cumberland. Eight exhausting months into the uprising, underfed and weakened by continual desertions, the Highlanders still roared defiance as the government army came into view.

Back came the thunder of 250 drummers, carrying across the driving wind and sleet. The rebel Jacobites didn’t really stand a chance.

O’Keeffe, a freelance lecturer, has trawled contemporary accounts, letters and newspapers to give us a front-row seat at the battle.

An officer standing with the Prince and watching the government army says the fight was lost before it began as he never saw ‘men advance in a more cool and regular manner’. The Prince, trying to rally his troops, reached for a man’s sword: ‘This will cut off some heads and arms today,’ he shouted.

The catastrophic defeat at Culloden was the final act of that abortive 1745 uprising. Bonnie Prince Charlie, then 24, had arrived in the Outer Hebrides the summer before, hoping to rouse all the Highland clans. When one chieftain told him to go home, the Prince replied: ‘I am come home, Sir.’ What is shocking is quite how close they came to success, stirring up considerable panic in London, which caused a run on the Bank of England.

After a swift and brutal victory over a poorly led garrison at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh, the Jacobites, relying on disaffected Scots and Catholics, even invaded England and got as far as Derby before deciding to retreat, fearful of being cut off from Scotland.

Another victory came at Falkirk. Then the decisive engagement was played out on the mud of Culloden.

The Battle of Culloden (pictured) was the final pitched battle to be fought on British soil and began just after 1pm on April 16, 1746, and the catastrophic defeat was the final act of that abortive 1745 uprising

The government soldiers, with muskets primed and cocked and their bayonets locked, had been ordered to hold their line until the insurgents came upon them. As the Jacobite lines advanced, they were mown down by grapeshot — lead balls packed tightly into canvas bags —with up to 80 men killed or maimed every 20 seconds, according to one estimate.

Within minutes, the ground was covered with dead and wounded, shot and bayoneted. As one of Cumberland’s officers wrote at the time: ‘The front-runners were splited with bayonets, those on the flanks tore in pieces by musketry and grapeshot. There was not a bayonet that was not bloody or bent, not a soldier who did not kill one or two men.’

As the remaining Highlanders fled, they were hunted down remorselessly by the dragoons.

But this was not just the fearless Scots confronting the hated English, as some myths would have it. Far more Scots supported the government side than they did the Catholic rebels. It was a civil war as much as anything: and the Scots are not averse to a civil war — again, look at the headlines.

With the rout of the rebels, the nation exploded with relief and O’Keeffe’s vivid account takes us right to the heart of 18th-century London. A friend wrote to the victorious Cumberland on April 25, when celebrations were at their height: ‘Return as soon as you please. No lady who prides in the name of an Englishwoman will refuse you . . . glory touches them as well as pleasure.’

The fight (pictured) was between the English under the Duke of Cumberland and the Jacobite rebels commanded by Charles Edward Stuart 

Amid the riotous jollities, Scottish accents were a hazard in the taverns and coffee houses, and anything resembling a Catholic chapel was incinerated.

The National Anthem became the traditional conclusion of any theatrical performance. Handel wrote an oratorio celebrating Cumberland. ‘See the conquering hero comes, pursuing enemies through hills of carnage and a sea of blood.’ (It was to be some time before Cumberland came to be known as ‘The Butcher’.)

Back in Scotland, Cumberland set about making sure that the 1745 uprising would never happen again.

He had been advised by a senior judge, Lord Fraser, that clemency and mercy ‘to those who escaped’ would be preferable, but Cumberland dismissed him as ‘an old woman’ and set about ‘the pacification’ of the Highlands with eye-watering brutality.

His aide-de-camp, Colonel Yorke, relished the prospect of slaughtering the Highlanders, anticipating their dismay ‘when our Red Coats appear in the heart of their country [and] our bayonets glitter in their eyes or are buried in their bodies’.

He adds: ‘This country begins to feel a little the consequences of entering into an unprovoked rebellion . . . The King can march his troops into the remotest parts of the mountains and punish ’em as he sees fit.’ Houses were razed, everything inside smashed to pieces and cattle — up to 2,000 at a time — driven off. ‘These people must perish by sword or famine,’ wrote Colonel Yorke. ‘[It is] a just reward for traitors.’

Scottish women tried to protect the wounded from British musket fire during the battle (pictured)

Across the Highlands, farmers were ordered to hand in their weapons. If they were too late — and often if they weren’t — they would be shot, their bodies left hanging by the feet from the gallows. Women were stripped and raped.

The Scots have always been famously good fighting men, and many were drafted into the British Army to engage in theatres of war in France and Spain.

Scottish regiments, such as the Black Watch and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, were to become the most feared and ferocious in the Army.

Those who didn’t join up were deported to the Americas and the West Indies as indentured servants to work the land. On the good side, the need to map the hitherto uncharted Highlands led to the creation of the Ordnance Survey, as O’Keeffe chronicles.

Those suspected of Jacobite sympathies were rounded up and treated with unspeakable brutality. Tried for treason, they were dragged on makeshift sledges through the streets.

CULLODEN: BATTLE & AFTERMATH by Paul O’Keeffe (Bodley Head £25, 432 pp)

The lucky ones had a merciful executioner and were hanged until they died. The others were pulled down and stripped, then disembowelled and their guts burnt before their faces. Then their heads were severed and displayed.

It was not all periwigs, fans and flirtation in 18th-century Britain.

In the years after Culloden, European capitals echoed to the sounds of rulers trying to offload Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was proving a terrible nuisance. He treated his women, of whom there were many, appallingly, and eventually died in Rome in 1788, a bloated alcoholic fuelled by disappointment and unable to walk unaided.

His arch foe, ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, also became gluttonous, corpulent and bloated, so much so that there was no room for his lungs to work, and he died of a stroke in 1765. A statue honouring him in Central London fell apart and was melted down. In Ireland all that remains of a monument to his martial exploits is one arm.

But the moment of history in which Cumberland and Charles Stuart faced each other will always be part of Britain’s story.

And without being there, those times could not be more vividly brought to life than in this tremendous book.

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