Remembering Culloden

On 16 April 1746, the battle of Culloden brought to a close the last serious attempt to restore the exiled Stuart dynasty to the British throne. Here, Dr Robin Eagles discusses the parliamentarians on both sides of this decisive contest…

The final chapter of the Jacobite rising of 1745-46 was fought near Inverness between government forces under the command of George II’s younger son, the duke of Cumberland, and a largely Highland Scots army led by Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). It has always been an emotional subject. The disparity of the two sides (around 9,000 professional government troops drawn up against no more than 5,000 mostly amateur levies supplemented by small detachments from the French army), and the undoubtedly brutal aftermath has helped make it a particularly poignant moment in British history. It was also the last pitched battle on British soil. This was, however one looks at it, a moving culmination of a divisive civil war that pitched family against family and involved people from across the United Kingdom.

Its significance as an event of importance in Parliament, aside from the obvious political implications of responding to the rebellion and subsequent pacification, though, is not necessarily so well appreciated. While it is not surprising that most of those with an interest in Parliament at the time of the rebellion were to be found ranged on the government side (the Parliament of 1741-7 contained 65 serving officers of the army and 19 in the Navy in the Commons alone), parliamentarians and their kin were involved with both armies, a fact that perhaps helps to illuminate the complexities of the event.
It is easy to forget, given the ease with which Charles Edward’s followers were crushed at Culloden, that the government troops had experienced a number of devastating reverses in the course of the rebellion. The first had been the embarrassing rout of the loyalist army at Prestonpans under the command of General Sir John Cope (formerly MP for Queenborough, Liskeard and Orford), whose flight became the inspiration for various satirical ballads and poems. Further victories for the rebels culminated with their arrival at their most southerly point during an abortive invasion of England: Derby. Even when the decision had been made to retreat back north, the Jacobite army continued to fight successful rear-guard actions, notably at Falkirk in January 1746.

Given that this was a civil war, it is unsurprising that among those who remained loyal to Hanover were a number with close Jacobite connections. It is a fallacy that clan loyalties were homogeneous. Clan Campbell, often thought of as whole-hearted supporters of the Hanoverians, is a good example of the heterogeneous nature of Scots society. One of their chiefs, John Campbell, Lord Glenorchy (MP for Orford), though loyal to George II himself, was forced to admit to the government that far from being in a position to bolster the ranks of their forces, it was all that he could do to prevent his clansmen from joining Charles Edward (though he was ultimately able to provide a battalion’s worth of men to reinforce the loyalist army). Sir John Gordon of Invergordon (MP for Cromartyshire) was a prominent politician in the circle of Frederick, Prince of Wales, holding the post of the prince’s secretary of state for Scotland. He had tried desperately to persuade both his brother-in-law, the earl of Cromarty, and nephew, Lord MacLeod, not to take part in the rising. Both ignored him but Gordon continued to work on their behalf and was successful in securing Prince Frederick’s intercession on behalf of Cromarty, who had been due to be executed along with Lords Balmerino and Kilmarnock following the collapse of the rebellion. MacLeod was spared being made subject to an act of attainder. Other parliamentarians took a clear stance in favour of the rebels. Sir John Douglas (MP for Dumfriesshire) served as an intermediary between the English and Scots Jacobites. Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, MP for Denbighshire and head of the Welsh Jacobites, narrowly avoided active involvement. He sent an oral message to Charles Edward at Derby professing the readiness of the English and Welsh Jacobites to rise, but by the time the message arrived the Jacobite army had begun its trek back north.

If the early stages of the rebellion had proved unexpectedly successful for the Jacobites, by the spring of 1746 their army was dispirited, riven with internal feuding and extremely low in supplies. Besides, the government army that now faced them across the moor on the morning of 16 April had learned from its earlier errors and been drilled carefully by Cumberland in preparation for the Highlanders’ potentially devastating mass charge. Several MPs took an active part in the battle. George Keppel, Viscount Bury (MP for Chichester and heir to the earldom of Albemarle) served as the duke’s aide-de-camp. William Henry Kerr, earl of Ancram (later marquess of Lothian – MP for Richmond) took command of the government forces’ cavalry on the left flank and was personally responsible for the capture of his kinsman, Lord Kilmarnock (his brother, Lord Robert Kerr was killed serving with the Grenadier Guards). Sir Robert Rich, formerly MP for three constituencies, lost a hand in the fighting while James Campbell (later elected MP for Stirlingshire) was one of the principal commanders who led the pursuit of the rebel leaders in the aftermath of the battle.

Evidence of MPs serving in the Jacobite army is harder to come by, but at least one former MP may well have been ‘out’. James Erskine, who had represented Aberdeen Boroughs in 1715, and was by the time of ‘the 45’ around 74 years old, seems to have been commissioned a captain in Lord Ogilvy’s regiment. His fate is uncertain but it is possible that he was one of the 1,100 or so men of both sides to meet their end on Culloden Moor.


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One Response to Remembering Culloden

  1. Gerald says:

    War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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