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IT was irredeemably dull but had a limitless capacity to fascinate. Its former trait lay entirely in its lacklustre bronze appearance. The latter resided in the story it told.
It was a medal designed to celebrate a triumph in the 18th century. It also served in the 20th century and beyond as a remembrance of a lost cause, as a reminder of brutality and violent retribution and a nudge to consider what might have been both for my forbearers and for Scotland, indeed Great Britain.
It was called the Cumberland medal in my house. It emerged from its humble abode in a cigar box when ceilidhs broke out spontaneously or when someone inquired about the ’45 or when my father deemed it appropriate to discuss the impossibly romantic but irrefutably gory story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.
The medal was struck to commemorate the Duke of Cumberland’s victory over Jacobite forces on Drummossie Moor on April 16, 1746. The battle became known as Culloden. It marked the end of Jacobite hopes of overturning the Hanoverian regime. It signalled the start of a bloody, relentless campaign by the victors to inflict punishment on Highlanders and their way of life.
It brought about the end of one culture and introduced another, that of tartan kitsch, the shortbread tin view of Scotland, particularly the Highlands. It was the end of the fight for succession, certainly in military terms. It was the start of a bloodletting that echoes down the ages. It was the turning point for a way of life and a prelude to the Highland Clearances.
Charles Edward Stuart
The medal thus had a significance to my father who had turned an informal study of an era into a genuine obsession. The MacDonalds were largely stalwart supporters of the Jacobite cause in the 18th century. This loyalty was in the very DNA of my father.
The medal was tangible proof of the existence of the Butcher Cumberland, as he came to be known. This was no invented bogey man. This was William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, (born April 15, 1721, died October 31, 1765) whose suppression of a rebellion strayed from the moor to clachans and villages, where women were raped, people summarily killed in cold blood and in hot blood, where homes were razed, where combatants and non-combatants were put to sword or flight.
His determination to extinguish all traces of the rebellion and his contempt for those he viewed as traitors found an awful expression in the execution of some of his opponents by hanging, drawing and quartering. This involved hanging the prisoner until he was not quite dead, laying him down and removing his inner organs, cutting off his head and limbs. It was the fate reserved for those the victors viewed as traitors.
It served as a motif for the brutality of the period. It showed that the bloodshed, the violence of Culloden did not end on one April afternoon. It testified to the fear held by the regime. This had been a rebellion that had come close to success. Any repeat was to be discouraged by any means.
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Yet Culloden survives. The Jacobite cause still holds a romanticism and offers lesson, not just in my childhood home. But how and why?
THE images flickered on the wall of a museum. It brought back a childhood remembrance for Paul O’Keeffe. “I remember watching Peter Watkins’ film on Culloden in 1964 when I was a boy. I always hold it to be the best film about the battle as it made an impact on me then. Fifty years later, I was in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, the great treasure house of weaponry research, and was transfixed by the silent images of the film that were being shown on one of the walls. I was digging into Waterloo but Culloden then struck me as an interesting subject.”
O’Keeffe duly completed his book on Waterloo and Culloden beckoned. But why? The battle has been fully and expertly explored. Three books have been particularly lauded and influential: John Prebble’s Culloden, Trevor Royle’s Culloden: Scotland’s Last Battle and the Forging of the British Empire, and James Hunter’s Culloden and The Last Clansman.
British troops at Culloden
“I wanted to tell the story in a different way,” he says. “It made perfect sense to write about Culloden after doing Waterloo, I rely on primary sources so I couldn’t go too far back in time, before printing for instance. I want to look at the newspapers of the time. There is a treasure trove of newspapers around the 45 rising.’
His book – Culloden: Battle and Aftermath (Bodley Head, £25) – thus resurrects the conflict through largely contemporaneous accounts. Some aspects continue to surprise. The battle was contested by, at most, 9000 Hanoverian troops and 5000 Jacobite warriors. This is a small number to decide the fate of nations and the future of an empire. For example, more than 15,000 National Guardsmen were deployed in Washington in the aftermath of the insurrection at the Capitol building this month.
The battle on Drummossie Moor that was to shape history was also shorter in duration than a half of football, perhaps 40 minutes in total. O’Keeffe points out: “The two previous [Jacobite] victories at Prestonpans and Falkirk depended on element of surprise and shock. The Highland tactic was to charge screaming down towards the enemy. Regular troops had panicked in the past. The battle of Prestonpans could have lasted just 10 minutes. What happened at Culloden was that Cumberland’s troops were better prepared psychologically. They didn’t run.”
The Jacobite troops, too, were exhausted, hungry and ill-equipped. They had marched to Derby, within 120 miles of London, and then retreated homewards as French support did not materialise and the army was threatened with being surrounded and destroyed in an alien land.
O’Keeffe weaves intriguing detail into his account and is most fascinating on the role of George Frediric Handel in composing oratorios to celebrate the Hanoverian victory and the pantomime culture that exulted in the extinguishing of the threat posed by the Stuart insurgency.
This mixture of high and low culture was infused with relief. At Derby, Bonnie Prince Charlie may have stood on the brink of ultimate triumph. At Culloden, he raced away to exile that was marked by despair and alcoholism.
Yet his ghost endures in book, song and sometime gaudy Hollywood film. Why? “I suppose a lost cause is always going to have an enduring, romantic fascination,” says O’Keeffe. ‘There is also the legacy of Walter Scott and what is considered the first historical novel, Waverley or ‘Tis 60 Years Since.”
This is the story of Edward Waverley, a Hanoverian officer who goes over to the Stuart cause. O’Keeffe says: “This became a world-wide best seller, re-igniting the fascination with the Jacobite cause when it was published (1814). There was also the effect of the Hanoverian dynasty, particularly under George 1V, and its adoption of tartan, spawning a generation of shortbread biscuit tins.’
But what of its resonance now in 21st century Scotland? “Would we be having the independence debate now if the Jacobite cause had won? A more realistic scenario might have been had Charles been content with Scotland he could have retreated into the Highlands after Derby and recouped. Could they have built a sufficient power in Scotland for the Stuarts and left England to its devices? That would have been a damn good thing to many in Scotland now.”
Bonnie Prince Charlie
However, O’Keeffe believes there was an inevitability to a Hanoverian victory, whether at Culloden or a subsequent battlefield, because of resources. “The Jacobite army was in a terrible state,” he says. Drummossie Moor was its deathbed.
THE bleak expanse of the moor holds a personal memory for Jim Hunter, emeritus professor of history at the University of the Highlands and Islands and a compelling chronicler of a culture and its trials. “I was brought up in North Argyll and as a child we went on holiday to a caravan in Inverness,” he recalls.
“My sister and I prevailed on my mother and father to go on a bus tour to Culloden. It was obvious my father thought this was a bad idea but we went. He had been a soldier in the Second World War in places like Cassino. The bus driver was showing us around. He was making a bit of story, making jokes, people were laughing. My father was getting angrier and angrier.
“Eventually he said: ‘People should remember that a lot of good men died here’. That was not out of any feeling for the Jacobites, but he had been in a place where people were dying around him and he was in danger of dying. He would not consider it a scared place but one where reverence should be observed.”
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This is now under siege with a rack of planning permissions to build on or near the site. “This all seems extraordinary to me and I am not a sentimentalist,” says Hunter.
Scottish ministers have stepped in to block a recent application to build a house on the battlefield and Highland Council has rejected proposals for a holiday village. There is growing opposition to any development with a campaign launched to block automatically any plans to build on the battlefield.
Hunter says “People want it preserved as a piece of open ground and that’s the way it should be. Surely it still counts for something.”
“In Highland tradition the rising was seen as a last throw of the dice for the old society,” says Hunter. “After Culloden it was to fall apart. It was probably falling apart anyway but for that reason – more than romantic Jacobitism or any overwhelming affection for Bonnie Prince Charlie – this was Gaeldom fighting for survival. That was fairly explicit in some of the poetry of the time. So it’s not just the significance of the rising but what it ushered in.”
Hunter, whose seminal books on the history and culture of the Highlands include his examination of Culloden and its aftermath, says: “Clanship, for all its faults, was a means of holding people together. After Culloden, under the increasingly active encouragement of the British state, the clan chiefs were being transformed into commercially-minded landlords. Out of that came the Clearances.”
Culloden was thus a place of bloodshed and a definitive watershed. “It is not the case that Culloden caused the Clearances but it is certainly the case that the break up of the old society was accelerated and that brought about the Clearances.”
Hunter adds: “I believe Culloden in the popular memory is associated with the disaster that followed. It wasn’t just a battle and one lost for the Jacobite but it was what followed. This was all particularly calamitous in the way of raids, military occupation of the Highlands.
“It was extraordinarily brutal. There is no doubt from the perspective of the government in the south that Highlanders were seen as savages and treated as such. In the Highlands, people were just butchered. They were described as rebels, savages, barbarians. Extraordinary language.”
The bloody focus was a result of Hanoverian fear over any possible subsequent rebellion. “There was complete panic in the government when the Jacobites reached Derby,” says Hunter. “That goes a long way to explaining why the repression afterwards was so savage. They were terrified and determined to ensure that nothing like this could or would happen again.”
The battle, too, was a roaring, gory example of the schism not just in Britain but in Scotland. “There were Highlanders on both sides,” points out Hunter.
“It has been portrayed as an England v Scotland conflict. It was much more complicated than that. Most of the Highland Jacobites were Catholic or Episcopalian and they would not have been regarded with favour in the Presbyterian Lowlands.”
But could Charles Edward Stuart have saved the Highlands from the catastrophe to come if only he had prevailed at Culloden?
“Nobody knows what might have happened. But I am not sure Highland history would have unfolded all that differently. What was done to people afterwards is seen as the last nail in the coffin of what had been before and a certain society was no more. Culloden was a real milestone. And by no means a happy one.”
He talks of the continued resonance of the era that echoes down to modern times. Much of this is focused on the Clearances. “There is still an awareness of them in the Highlands and, too, a sense to this day that people don’t understand the Highlands,” he says.
There is also a significant, substantial reminder for Hunter. “We live on the Beauly Firth and I can look down at Fort George,” he says of the garrison built after the ‘45 to protect the road to Inverness.
“The sheer size of it, its feeling of dominance reflects the immense effort to make sure people knew who was now in charge.
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“Within a few years, the British army was actively recruiting Highlanders as soldiers and by the mid-1750s they were fighting the French in America. This was a recurrent theme. You conquered somebody and then drafted them into the British armed forces.”
This legacy continued into the 20th century. “In the First World War, it was 1916 before conscription was introduced so for two years of war the army relied on volunteers,” says Hunter. “The proportional rate of volunteers from the Highlands was very high.”
This is dramatically shown when one stops in a Highland clachan and surveys with a quiet horror the stone crosses that commemorate the extraordinary number of men lost from such a sparsely populated area.
That Cumberland medal is another link to the 18th century. It was passed on to my brother by my father. Curiously, this brother now works for Mediascape, who supply the audio-visuals for the visitor centre at Culloden.
And the medal? It hangs in my brother’s living room. It was framed by my late father in a particular way. The side showing the head of Cumberland faces the wall.