Thursday, December 2, 2010

One April Day on a Scottish Moor

Picture this.  You’re a soldier with the government’s forces, lined up in your comrades in ranks across a bleak northern moor.  It’s a cold, grey April day in 1746, and the ground underfoot is treacherous and soggy bogland.  You’re about to face an enemy notorious for their ferocious and terrifying charge, as they race across the ground wielding broadswords and battleaxes, screaming like banshees in Gaelic.  Every time your army has faced this enemy since the Rising began in 1745, you’ve been defeated.

You might be a hired mercenary, brought in from foreign shores, or English or Irish or even a Scot.  You might even be facing your blood relatives across the moor.  You might be terrified.  You might wish, as has happened in battles with this enemy before, to turn tail and run instead of holding your ground to meet the onslaught of the Highlander charge.   You might die that day.

As it happens, if you’d been that government soldier on that battlefield at Culloden Moor long ago, you probably wouldn’t have had much to worry about in the end.  There were only 50 casualties on the government`s side, so your odds would`ve been good that you weren`t one of them.

On the Jacobite side?  1500 men died, there on the moor — 700 of those within the first 2 or 3 minutes of hand-to-hand combat.  Severe reprisals followed across the country, as the government sought to stamp out any last remaining flicker of rebellion.  The young prince the Jacobites had followed into battle fled west to the islands, a journey that would live on in the words of the Skye Boat Song.  You know the one:  Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing / Onward, the sailors cry. / Carry the lad who’s born to be king / Over the sea to Skye.

I went to Culloden Moor (just outside Inverness on the Scottish east coast) one November day in 2010.  It’s bleak and windswept and boggy, and the atmosphere still and silent.  Signs remind you to approach the site respectfully:  as they note, it is a war grave.  Those 1500 Jacobites — and 50 Government soldiers — are buried there, on the moor.

It’s a thought-provoking place.  The National Trust of Scotland has done an excellent and thorough job of laying out the background, leading up to the battle itself and ultimately the aftermath of the massacre.  (Not intended to be a provocative word — what else can it be called, when the death toll was so lopsided?)  A video display in the Visitor Centre lets you stand in the midst of the battlefield as a recreation of the fighting unfolds on the screens around you.  You can walk through the real-life battlefield with an audio guide and hear its history unfold.  Flags mark the ground where the respective lines of fighters stood, before the battle; stone slabs and a memorial cairn mark the places where they died.

There’s a lot I didn’t know about Culloden.  I knew that it had something to do with Bonnie Prince Charlie, and that hundreds had died.  But there’s a lot else I’d have gotten wrong, had anyone quizzed me on the place before I visited.  I’d have said, for example, that the lines of battle were much simpler than they actually were:  English against Scottish.  The reality was more complicated.   

The Jacobites’ King James was descended from the Royal House of Stuart, and his ancestors had held the thrones of both Scotland and England; the governing King George (of the German House of Hanover) was descended from those same ancestors, making him a 3rd or 4th cousin to James.  The Jacobite side (supporters of the Bonnie Prince and his father James as the “rightful” heirs to the Scottish throne) had Irish and French soldiers as well as Scots, while the Government side (or Hanoverian, supporters of the current German occupant of the English throne as the rightful king of Scotland as well) included Highlanders as well.  In some Highland families, sons were sent to fight for both sides; hedging their bets, I suppose, to safeguard the family no matter what the outcome of the Rising.

The Rising began in 1745 (and you’ll still hear it referred to simply as “the ‘45”), as Prince Charlie’s forces won one decisive victory after another on their march south towards London.  They made it as far as Derby before going back north, and hadn`t lost a single fight.   The Government`s forces couldn`t seem to hold their ground when confronted with the reality of the infamous “charge of the Highlanders”.

Until Culloden, that is.

Mass grave on Culloden field -- where 700 Jacobites fell
Then it became a bloodbath.  Government forces, better trained and disciplined this time around, stood their ground and returned musket fire in orderly fashion.  Their cannons cut down the opposing line with merciless precision.  The Jacobites, on the other hand, found their fearsome charge slowed to a difficult slog over the wet, uneven ground and through thick vegetation; their cannons missed their marks more often than they hit.   When the two sides met, 700 Jacobites were cut down in a few minutes; more than twice that number died in all, Irish and French as well as Scots.  The rest fled for their lives, along with their Bonnie Prince.

The Visitor Centre presents a balanced picture of the Rising’s history, but I find it hard not to pick a side; perhaps it’s because I’ve always had a thing for supporting the underdogs.  The outcome was so terribly one-sided it’s hard not to be affected (at least, it is for me), and the stone markers on the field —delineating where each Clan’s fighters died —are very moving.

I have no idea if my MacLellan ancestors were involved, and, if so, on what side they fought.  But it’s likely they were —it would’ve been hard to stay neutral in Scotland then, and they hadn’t yet migrated to Canada —and I think that’s also why I found Culloden so interesting, and so very poignant.  As the sign at the entrance to Culloden Moor says, “Our blood is still our fathers, and ours the valour of their hearts.”

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