The Battle of ​Culloden: the beginning of the end for Scotland’s clans

The Battle of Culloden, which took place on 16 April 1746, was the last pitched battle fought in the UK. It saw Charles Edward Stuart, famously known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, lead his Jacobite supporters in a final stand against the British Government forces. 

But a decisive victory for the Crown meant this was the last major attempt by supporters of the House of Stuart to retake the British throne, and it also marked the beginning of the end of the powerful clan system in the Scotland. 

Charles Stuart's arrival in Scotland in July 1745 signalled the start of a rapid-fire campaign that saw him take Edinburgh, be crowned King of Scotland, lead an army to victory over Government forces in Prestonpans, and then march as far as Derby in an effort to rally English support. 

His call for reinforcements south of the border was largely ignored and, facing the threat of two armies in the Midlands, the Jacobite leaders decided to retreat back to Scotland. 

Finally recognising the danger posed by this new rebellion, the Government called back troops from abroad and organised a powerful force to take on the Stuart supporters. 

Leading their army was the Duke of Cumberland, George II, who was the son of the king, George I. He was a Hanoverian who had succeeded to the throne on the death of Queen Anne, the final Stuart monarch.

Stuart supporters wanted Anne's half-brother, James, to take her place, but he was excluded by the Act of Succession because of his Catholic faith. 

The heirs to the House of Stuart and the British throne would now face each other in the field.  

The Jacobites had been buoyed by their raid into England and morale was high, but through the winter season the Royal Navy blocked supplies that were coming from France, and the Stuart army became low on food and money. 

As the weather improved in April, Cumberland restarted his advance through Scotland, heading towards the Jacobite's base at Inverness. 

The Jacobite leaders couldn't agree on whether to fight or flee, but the fact that most of their remaining provisions were stored at Inverness seems to have made their decision to stay. 

The two sides were positioned not far away, with Bonnie Prince Charlie headquartered at Culloden. 

The Jacobite's first strategy was to repeat the overnight march and early morning attack that had led them to victory at Prestonpans. This time the journey could not be completed on time. Lines of communication became confused in the dark with some regiments abandoning their mission and heading back, while others continued without realising the change of plan. 

As the Jacobite army recovered from the night's misadventure, the Government force had been rested and set out early, reaching Culloden at 10 in the morning. 

The Jacobite army was tired, disorganised and its squabbling leaders could not decide on where best to position their forces. 

The battle was a mismatch. Some chroniclers say that around a third of the Jacobite army missed the fight after their night-time sortie. 

Cumberland’s forces used artillery to pound away at the Jacobite lines, and when the Highlanders were allowed to charge, the Government soldiers used a new tactic of bayoneting the unprotected side of the man to their right, stopping the clansmen in their tracks.

Many of the Jacobite leaders were killed in battle or hunted down afterwards. Charles Stuart escaped but was forced to spend months criss-crossing the islands of the Outer Hebrides to avoid capture, before finally making his escape to France, never to return to Scotland. 

The few remaining military leaders tried to continue the campaign, but they couldn’t muster enough men to produce a credible force. Captured prisoners were sent to trial and sentenced to death, although many had their sentences commuted to transport to a penal colony.  

To suppress the power of the clans, the British Government created new laws to integrate the Scottish Highlands with the rest of Britain, forcing the clergy to give an oath of allegiance to the Hanoverian king, ending the judicial and military rights of landowners, and stripping Jacobite lords and clansmen of their lands. 

This tactic of law, not war, was the end of the Jacobite Rebellions.  

Find out more: Join expert Barry Hilton on a tour of the Highlands to explore many of the key sites from the Jacobite Risings, including Culloden, Killiecrankie and Glencoe.