Today is the 275th anniversary of the battle of Culloden.
The events of that day, and, probably more importantly, the events leading up to it since at least the preceding summer, and those which followed it, have proved to have an enduring fascination. This has proved irresistible to continuing or wishful Jacobites, to romantics, to those concerned with Gaelic culture and, indeed, to tourism.
For historians there have been several interpretations, which to a greater or lesser extent reflect the prevailing mood of the times they were written and the sympathies of the writer.
One, Anglocentric view would see it as little more than a side show, a last, doomed and pathetic protest against the inevitable creation of Great Britain and of greater Britain overseas. For this view the ending of Gaelic society was inevitable, and doubtless for the best. I suspect that in Scotland surviving “North Britons” still subscribe to a version of this, whilst south of the border there is an English view - how widespread I am not sure - that Scotland, like Wales and Ireland, are vaguely picturesque and possibly endearing dependencies to be tolerated but not overly indulged.
A second view would be that this really was a decisive event in Scottish history - the end of the Gaelic and Clan world that had endured for centuries. As a consequence it also has a wider significance for British history and development with the emigration that followed on. For some they see this as a direct consequence of the Prince’s use of Highlanders loyal to his cause, and blame him for what followed. That does not seem to have been the reaction of those who did rally to the Stuart cause, be they Highlander or Lowlander, but it resonates with some today of a more radical persuasion. Others, by contrast, see that the Gaelic way of life was already declining and the effects of the ‘45 and of repression thereafter only hastened the way to the Clearances and the disruption of a centuries-old way of life. These views became more popular as an interpretation in the mid-twentieth century and can be linked to John Prebble’s 1961 book on the battle
A third view is more recent. This would see Culloden, and the campaign leading to it, as indeed one of the decisive battles of the western world. Not for the scale of the events on Culloden Moor on April 16th 1746, but because the Stuarts did not replace the Hanoverians they did not shift their restored monarchy into alliance with France. That would have meant that in the Sevrn Years War the two would not have clashed in North America, New France would have survived and the tensions that resulted between London anc the Thirteen Colonies over the formerly French territories would not have led to rebellion in 1776, to France not virtually bankrupting itself in vain in the resulting war, and so not having to call the Estates General in 1789....
This argument which I have heard set out by the distinguished Scots historian Murray Pittock is an idea more worth reflecting upon than most counterfactuals. It is also part of a significant trend in scholarship which sees the Jacobite rising in 1745-6 as a much more serious challenge to the whole polity than do the other arguments I have cited above.
Reinforcing that last point is the evidence that Prince Charles Edward definitely hoped to return with men, arms and money, and that Jacobitism was not vanquished on this day in 1746. Much of it did slip into wishful thinking and romantic nostalgia, and in England largely untested. After 1760 when King George III offered a new generation of a British-born Hanoverian monarch did Stuart loyalism become a thing of the heart rather than of the mind. Even so it was one of King George III’s daughters who commented in later life that it was only with the death of Cardinal York - King Henry IX - in 1807 that she felt her family was secure. Within twenty years her kilted eldest brother was feted in Edinburgh and met a surviving Highlander who had fought for Prince Charles Edward in the ‘45, who was introduced to him as “Your Majesty’s oldest rebel”, and Queen Victoria was to show a sizeable dose of romantic Jacobitism in her emotional response to Scotland and its history. In 1873 she wrote in her Journal about the placed Prince Charles Edward had hidden in the aftermath of Culloden and that that she had Stuart blood in her veins.
That romantic engaged with the Riding remains, ebbing and flowing a bit, but still coursing, and not just in the Highlands. For a cause said to have been finished two and three quarter centuries ago, for all its current contradictions and ambiguities, Jacobite emotion is still potent.
Jacobite and neo-Jacobite action lies in the area of commemoration and preservation both of tradition and of places. Yesterday evening the 1745 Association annual commemorative lecture was delivered via Zoom by Andrew Grant McKenzie. This was entitled “Tourism, Research and Conservation at Culloden Battlefield, 1746-2021“ and looked at the expansion at Culloden of interest, commemoration and of tourism, but also at the threat to site posed by possible development. The hope is that the National Trust for Scotland can expand their landholding and acquire the whole site of the battlefield. The latter part of his talk can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbmzV5VYM80
Culloden has a potential future as a place for tourists, for researchers, for commemoration and for remembrance. Culloden is a place I have not so far visited. Those who have been speak of its essential and palpable sadness. That it was a terrible place of death and destruction 275 years ago is clear, and its aftermath no better. All the more case for respecting and remembering what happened there, and howsoever you interpret the battle and its significance. Whichever side you might have been on had you been there, if nothing else, pray for the dead.