As the beginnings of large-scale travel and tourism through Scotland began within fifteen or twenty years of the battle of Culloden, it might have been expected that the conflict would become an early site of memory. Culloden would surely begin to appear as a place in which the confirmatory victory of Great Britain and British values could be implanted. This must have seemed even more likely in the context of the rise in Jacobite relics as Romantic artefacts: garters, flags, and other relics were regularly preserved, In the Highlands, Jacobite landscapes were over-dramatized: for example, British Army draughtsmen rendered Strathtay ‘more dramatic, with loftier peaks and crags’ than was in fact the case. The very geography of Scotland was rendered more alien and forbidding in order to show the importance of what had happened at Culloden, and the challenge it had represented.
Yet for all this, the battle site itself was considered too awkward to commemorate explicitly. Eighteenth century tourists tended to avoid it, even if they visited Culloden House or Clava Cairns nearby. Thomas Pennant in 1769 simply saw Culloden as a place to which ‘North Britain owes its present prosperity’. Sir Walter Scott in Waverley (1814) referred to it only in passing in a novel devoted to the last Jacobite Rising. The carried only one reference to it at all prior to 1822 and only four between 1825 and 1841, though bones began to be carried away by souvenir hunters in the 1830s.
The centenary of the battle in 1846, which-despite poor transport links attracted 3,000 people-seems to have been the start of commemoration and the development of the battlefield as a site to be visited. A memorial was discussed at the centenary dinner, although the initial design of a weeping woman and her child was not pursued. Eventually of course, a simpler and more masculine cairn and ‘clan’ gravestones (always fictional, but treated as genuine memorials even today) were erected at the beginning of the 1880s. By this time, a narrative which saw Culloden as a Scotland-England conflict had developed, and accordingly the cairn (erected by Duncan Forbes of Culloden in 1881) bears the dedication to ‘the gallant Highlanders who fought for Scotland and Prince Charlie’. This process was matched by a final withdrawal of establishment approval of the nature of the British victory. Cumberland’s statue in Cavendish Square was removed from public view in 1868, while Queen Victoria probably had ‘Culloden’ obliterated from his memorial obelisk in Windsor Great Park. Cumberland’s brutality became more and more seen as an obstacle to the premiss of modernization and British unity growing out of a Scotland/England conflict which his victory at Culloden had come to symbolize. If the battlefield was to be remembered, the brutality of the British commander could not be forgotten. As Balmoral itself was redecorated in the 1850s, with a strong royal commitment to Scottish culture and Highland Games, and even as Queen Victoria professed herself a Jacobite, it became progressively easier to incorporate Culloden more inclusively into the cultural memory Meanwhile early Scottish nationalists such as Theodore Napier focused on ‘Culloden Day’ celebrations as a means of commemorating the defeat of the Scottish nation and its way of life.
From 1937 onwards, the National Trust for Scotland gradually acquired the southern part of the battlefield, and over the following decades supported the burying of telephone lines, the removal of a bungalow and teashop, the rerouting of the Inverness-Nairn road, and the removal of Forestry Commission plantations. The Trust thus recreated a kind of prosthetic version of Highland wilderness on the battlefield. Leanach Cottage, probably dating from the nineteenth century, was part of this. More of the battlefield was acquired, but the fact that the Trust did not possess the areas over which the British cavalry advanced helped to downplay the (critical) importance of cavalry to the outcome of the battle in its interpretations. Instead, the conflict was largely presented as an infantry fight between muskets and artillery on the one hand, and swordsmen on the other: a battle between modernity and the primitive, the old and the new.
By the time of the second generation Centre (1984-2007) there was a strong emphasis on the battle as ‘a civil war’ fired by the reckless dream of Charles Edward Stuart, and the battle ‘the graveyard of the dream for which men died’. This approach continues to dominate: when the 2007 Centre opened in the year of the first Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh, the civil war version of events was stressed strongly to the media. In an era of British unity, the Scottish national dimension of the Forty-five could be stressed with impunity; in the age of Scottish nationalism, it is seen as necessary to remember Culloden as a civil war in order to neutralize its force.
Despite the increasingly evident desire to frame the battle as the culmination of a civil war in order to undermine its potential utility as a shibboleth of political nationalism, the commemoration of Culloden continues to arouse strong feelings. An innocent battlefield re-enactor from Carlisle who came to the 250th anniversary and dressed as a redcoat was spat on on the battlefield, while a proposed soap statue of the Duke of Cumberland in Cavendish Square in 2012, as part of a City of Sculpture art project in London, roused tempers. The deputy leader of Westminster city council probably did not help matters by suggesting that Scots would not find it offensive as English people were not provoked ‘by statues of William Wallace or Robert the Bruce.’ These two figures had not, however, been nominated as one of the ten ‘worst villains’ of British history, as Cumberland had in 2005.
That the memory of Culloden is so highly politicized should tell us something about its continuing importance. Culloden as it happened is in fact much more interesting than Culloden as it is remembered. It was neither a sacrificial hecatomb of Highland history nor a catalyst for the triumph of British modernity. It was the last battle fought on British soil and ended the last armed conflict in which the nature of Britain-and indeed its existence-were at stake. But it was fought between eighteenth-century armies in a more or less conventional way: a simple fact we still find it hard to admit.
Featured image credit: The Battle of Culloden, oil on canvas by David Morier 1746. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.