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Eve of the Battle of Culloden

October 2022

Two hundred and seventy years ago, the last battle to be fought on British soil took place far in the north, on a remote moor near the highland town of Inverness. Much like the final conflict between the Romans and Bouddicca’s Britons, a governing army, uniformed and disciplined, faced an ill-equipped and poorly led army of ragged rebels. There could only be one outcome.

On April 16th, 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army consisting of Irish, French, and even some English soldiers along with the main host of Highland Chiefs and their clansmen, arrayed themselves on a patch of unsuitable, boggy ground east of Inverness. They endured a direct cannon bombardment for some twenty-five minutes, before eventually, charging at the government redcoats. In this final act of Britain’s theatre of war, the Bonnie Prince condemned the Scottish clansmen and their way of life to death. In less than an hour, the rebels were scattered and the feudal clan system was broken forever, although it has inspired a tartan culture and myth which has endured to this day. The Duke of Cumberland, who had celebrated his 25th birthday the previous day, dispatched his adversary without much difficulty; carnage and revenge followed in victory’s wake. On that day, divided by religious doctrine, clansman fought clansman and family fought family. Much lamenting and anger has been vented over this small patch of bog and heather, and these emotions still run high to this day.

Such an emotive place must surely have paranormal scars attached to it. I have read of ghostly whispers, the marching sounds of invisible armies, and tales of regression to the battle itself. I have heard of “cold spots” and divining rods locating the mass graves which litter this field of sorrow. So, I visited the battlefield on the duke’s birthday, to take photographs on the anniversary of the eve of battle. It was early evening, and the dog walkers (no doubt disappointed by the empty car park) were retiring to the comfort of their homes. The sun had set over the distant mountains, and a low cloud, flamed blood-red by the street lights of Inverness five miles away, hung over the moor. It felt like the fire and blood from the battle all those years ago were being reflected in the sky. Under this scarlet canopy, I trod the modern gravelled pathways which now dissect the field.

A chilly breeze rippled two pairs of poled flags which marked the lines of both armies on either side of the field, as they once would have stood. In between these flanking banners, interpretive stones marked the various regiments’ positions before the cannon exchanges began. The previous day being a Sunday, the annual ceremony of commemoration had taken place. Flowers and wreaths adorned every monument and gravestone pertaining to Prince Charles’s regiments and clans, but the government memorials stood bare. The deaths of the victors seemingly count for little this far north. Walking back from the government lines to the rebel positions, I was suddenly startled by a flash of red away to my left. A re-enactor, a ghostly redcoat, or a tartan-clad warrior? The colour was so at odds with the surrounding hues of brown and green on the ground, it gave an impression of what the spectacle of battle must have looked like all those years ago. The mystery figure closed on me, and the colour solidified into nothing more than the padded red jacket of a late-evening stroller. As I reached the rebel lines, another flash of red caught my eye; this time it was a jogger who flanked me on the right, quietly pacing the nearby road which cuts through the moor.

At length, I found a location to take my photograph, and whilst lying prostrate in a muddy bog, I heard a voice.

‘I’ll not ask what you are doing!’

I got up, smiling dumbly, to explain my prone posture. An elderly gentleman stood before me. I learned that his name was Jimmy; he turned out to be the groundsman for the battlefield, and had been so for twenty-five years. After a brief conversation, he invited me back to his caravan to view some genuine basket-hilted broadswords which, he said, may just have been used at Culloden. Once there, he introduced me to his friend Sussana who lived close by; she was the local postlady of ten years’ service, and of German origin. It was she who had the collection of circa 18th-century swords and a collection of ‘targets’ (small clansmen’s shields) which she had made herself. In the confines of Jimmy’s caravan, a selection of weapons were duly produced and brought alarmingly back to animation. Swords, targets, and dirks were displayed and demonstrated, before the crowning piece of the collection was almost drum-rolled out: a genuine flintlock musket, which Sussana claimed was certainly in use at the battle. Having demonstrated its use, she handed over the magnificent weapon and invited me to pull the trigger. I assumed a kneeling position and aimed well away from anyone present; being assured there was no lead ball in the barrel I squeezed the trigger. Flying sparks erupted from the flint hammer; disappointingly no musket ball issued forth, but still, it was impressive.

A keen re-enactor, Sussana told me she often frequented the battlefield alone. In her early days living by the moor, she was a confirmed unbeliever in anything supernatural. But now, having heard so many stories and having felt so much atmosphere on the field, she was no longer a stranger to the paranormal (although she refused to elaborate). Jimmy the groundsman backed up this view with tales of having his hat knocked off whilst walking his terrified dog one night! So there I was on the eve of the battle, in a caravan on the edge of the battlefield, re-enacting with authentic weapons! I thanked my hosts and returned for one last walk around the stones and cairns of Culloden Moor.

It was dark now and I needed my torch to navigate. All was quiet, peaceful; the wind had dropped to a dead calm. I walked past the cottage within which wounded rebels were supposedly burned alive, but as this was behind government lines this seems unlikely, unless they were prisoners? There were ice-cold spots around it though, as had been described in one paranormal investigation report I’d read. I tried to backtrack through them, but they had disappeared. I continued walking down the centre of the battlefield, past the ‘well of the dead’ where many clansmen in awful pain breathed their last in this world, and on past clan memorial cairns marking the mass graves of these same men. Again there were distinct patches of icy air, very localised and inconsistent. Modern sounds occasionally cried out over the moor: the distant hum of an airplane’s propellers, the chug of a faraway train, and the growl of a car with its headlights slicing the night on the nearby road. But loudest of all were the sounds of my own footsteps on the gravelled path. I cleared my throat as if trying to reassure myself, but it sounded too deafening I was nervous of disturbing those who sleep here. Down on the rebels’ flank, I gasped in fright as I startled a bird from the heather, and decided I had strayed far enough. I made my way to the rebels’ right flank and then followed their line of charge toward the redcoats. It was definitely warmer here than amongst the graves and it felt awe-inspiring to tread over ground where so many had died so painfully and often slowly.

I reached the government lines where most of the carnage took place. Unlike the rest of the battlefield, this area was laid to grass, as though something had been covered up, erased, or smoothed over. Here archaeologists have found fragments of splintered pistols, musket balls, and torn-off buttons: all evidence of a desperate hand-to-hand struggle. Walking back to the well of the dead, less than half a stone’s throw from the redcoat line, I picked up two flowers which had been laid there the day before. Taking them back to the redcoat line, I placed them on the positions of those government regiments who suffered the worst casualties. It seemed the right thing to do.

I stood by an interpretive sign at a crossroads of paths on the government line which stated it was believed (although not certain) that the mass grave of redcoats was somewhere near this spot. I sat on a bench and thought a while. Immediately I was surrounded by an insistent smell of pipe tobacco smoke. It was now completely dark; there was not a breath of wind and the nearest habitation was about a mile away, yet here was this incredibly strong smell! I stayed sitting on the bench and made notes by torchlight; the smell persisted. It was heavy and definite, yet I felt not in the least afraid: now if anything, I felt welcome. I fancied it was the spirit of a redcoat close by me; maybe it was because I had laid some flowers where others would not.

Sussana and Jimmy had told me earlier that several years previously, on a similar commemoration event to yesterday when tartan abounded, someone turned up dressed as a redcoat. He was promptly booed off the field – how sad. There were as many clansmen as Englishmen on the government side that day, yet the wreaths laid suggested a different story. Blazoned across them were placards proclaiming ‘The Auld Alliance’ and ‘France and Ecosse’. This was not the final act of a war against the English; it was not even a war against them. This was a war of vanity; an aristocratic power struggle conducted under the evasive cloak of religion. Though many who had a grudge against the English turned up, notably the French, Irish, and some Catholic crusaders, it was the poor foot soldiers on both sides that paid the price. And the highlander in defeat, (although he may not have realised it at the time, it seems to me), won the first step towards today’s freedom from the tyranny of his chiefs and masters.

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