The Battle of Culloden – The Truth Behind Netflix’s Outlander

Beyond the skilled pen of Diana Gabaldon, who wrote the dystopian saga “Outlander” (in case you haven’t seen the series on Netflix, it tells the story of Claire Randall, a 20th-century nurse who time-travels to 18th-century Scotland and experiences a love and adventure story with James Fraser), one of the decisive battles in history took place in Scotland: the Battle of Culloden.

The Run-up to the Battle of Culloden (as in Football)

Typically, there would be significant turmoil before a battle on the scale of the Battle of Culloden. And boy, was there!

The Army of King James IV

In 1513, the army of King James IV was defeated by the English at the Battle of Flodden. The English saw this as an opportunity to annex Scotland. A few years later, a religious crisis emerged. John Knox established the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, opposing Queen Mary Stuart and the Catholic Church due to allegations of corruption. Thus, it all began with a religious conflict—a fascinating motif indeed.

Before Getting into the Subject, a Quick Overview

Things became complicated when the Edinburgh Parliament declared Presbyterianism as the official religion. Queen Mary Stuart sought refuge in the court of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. However, Elizabeth betrayed Mary, who was accused of treason and eventually executed. Subsequently, a bloody persecution of Catholics and religious disputes lasting over a century ensued. Scotland fell under England’s influence.

The Succession to the Throne – The Uprising of the Hanoverians

Mary Stuart was succeeded by her son James I, who became the Scottish, English, and Irish monarch. Clashes between Catholics and Protestants escalated, and James’s supporters were known as Jacobites. Eventually, an uprising occurred, placing a Hanoverian on the throne.

Let’s Clearly Explain the Opposing Sides in the Battle of Culloden

On one side: Bonnie Prince Charlie, a Quirky Jacobite

Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the grandson of the deposed King James II. He was born in Rome, raised in exile, and brought up as a Catholic. When he reached adulthood, he returned to claim what he believed was rightfully his. Upon arriving in English lands, he incited a rebellion among the Highlanders (yes, the ones in kilts). The Highlanders, tired of English governance attempting to suppress their traditions and clan system, followed Bonnie Prince without hesitation.

And on the other side: The Hanoverians

George II of Hanover, a Protestant, led the Hanoverian side. Commanding his army was the Duke of Cumberland, whom history dubbed “the Butcher” due to his brutal tactics during the war and the severe repression that followed.

Once We Know the Key Players, Let’s Discuss the Fascinating Details

The Scots were a unique people, organized into clans—a system inherited from Celtic and Norman traditions that deeply rooted itself in the Scottish Highlands. The word “clan” in Gaelic, the Scottish language, means “family.” Not all members of the same clan were necessarily related by blood, but they shared a way of life centered around agriculture, livestock, and a clan chief who ensured justice, order, and protection.

The clans, mostly Catholics, supported King James as the Stuart family treated them well and respected their traditions. Consequently, the Highlanders rallied behind Bonnie Prince.

And So We Come to the Battle of Culloden

April 16, 1746

The chosen location was Culloden, a swampy area filled with marshes near the Scottish city of Inverness, the capital of the Highlanders. George’s army arrived at Culloden on April 11. The Jacobite troops were disorganized, poorly equipped, and exhausted from days of marching on foot. Although the swampy terrain favored Cumberland’s army, Bonnie Prince ordered his men to traverse the swamps.

A Surprise Attack on the Duke of Cumberland’s Birthday

The Jacobites learned that the English were celebrating the Duke of Cumberland’s birthday with a grand party. The clan chiefs proposed a night attack on the British camp. The plan was for a small group to launch a surprise assault, inflict as much damage as possible, and then vanish. However, hunger, exhaustion, poor communication, and darkness prevented the plan from being executed.

A Bloody Dawn

In addition to scarce supplies and exhausted soldiers, the Jacobite army faced tensions between clans. When Bonnie Prince Charlie summoned the troops, many had left their regiments in search of food or rest. Moreover, he delayed the order to attack. When the Duke of Cumberland’s forces arrived at the battlefield around 11 a.m., the weather was rainy and freezing cold. The English artillery positioned itself between the front line regiments, directly opposite the Jacobites.

The Battle of Culloden Lasted Just an Hour!

During the first half-hour, the British artillery bombarded the Jacobite ranks. Despite the cannon fire, the Jacobites hesitated to attack. Several furious clan chiefs pressured Bonnie Prince to give the order to charge. The swampy terrain led the assault to focus on the left flank of the British ranks, where they were heavily equipped with artillery and supported by cavalry. Nevertheless, many Highlanders, aware of their impending defeat, bravely charged the English—an act akin to the final charge in Braveheart or the Battle of the Bastards in Game of Thrones.

Culloden – A True Massacre

The Jacobite ranks suffered over 2,000 deaths and hundreds of wounded, while the English had only 50 casualties. However, the horror extended beyond the battle itself. Cumberland sought to deliver a powerful message to prevent future uprisings. He ordered the execution of the wounded, the slaughter of prisoners, and the pursuit of fleeing Jacobites. The violence inflicted upon the Jacobites earned Cumberland the nickname “the Butcher.”

Merciless Actions

Following the victory, Cumberland rode into Inverness, emptied the jails of British prisoners to make room for Jacobite sympathizers, dispatched patrols throughout the Highlands, requisitioned livestock, and burned farms. Many Jacobites were tried for high treason, resulting in numerous executions. More than 3,000 Jacobites were arrested, executed, or deported as slaves to the colonies. Bonnie Prince Charlie managed to escape the battlefield, finding refuge on the Isle of Skye before eventually fleeing to France disguised as a servant.

The Act of Proscription – The Battle of Culloden’s Profound Impact

The Outlaw Act of 1746 was the English government’s final blow to the clan system. This law eradicated the Scottish feudal system and prohibited clan chiefs from administering justice. Speaking or writing Gaelic, wearing kilts, playing bagpipes, or carrying swords were deemed illegal. The battle of Culloden brought about significant changes. Improved communication led thousands of Scottish farmers to abandon the Highlands in search of a better life.

Outlander, or the Tale of the Foreigner

Those who fought on the Jacobite side during the Battle of Culloden were buried in common graves, grouped by clans, without any recognition. In 1881, the landowners at the site of the battle decided to erect cairns (burial stones) as a tribute to their sacrifice.

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