After 250 years, the last battle fought on the British mainland still overshadows Scotland's psyche. But what did Culloden really mean?
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SOME BATTLES last for days. Those are battles between enormous and highly organised armies, in which exhausted men can be pulled back and rested while they are replaced in the line by others. But Culloden was over in less than an hour, not counting the murder of the wounded afterwards.

It does deserve its name of "the last battle" in some respects. This was fought in the old way, charging or shooting at point-blank range or struggling with sword and bayonet. At Culloden, they all went at each other at once, and at the end of that hour those who were still alive and on their feet scarcely had the energy left to run away.

It remains a silent place, near the top of an upland landscape which is a whole corner of Scotland, tilting down from the glitter of distant mountains to the sea. The scale is very big. But I do not think that those who fought there felt dwarfed by the landscape, or bothered their heads about human insignificance. When they began to fight, the earth stopped and the hills and sea gathered round them to watch. For that hour, they were the centre.

Nobody goes to Culloden, which is just a few stones and mounds and shelters half-way up an immensity, without inhaling its gloom. But its significance holds. It was the end of the last Jacobite rebellion, which began when Prince Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") landed in the Outer Hebrides on 23 July 1745 and ended here less than nine months later. In those months, the Jacobite army won spectacular victories and marched south into England as far as Derby before the Prince was persuaded to turn back. On 16 April 1746, outside Inverness, the Highland army of 6,000 faced a Hanoverian force of 9,000 led by the Duke of Cumberland. The Highlanders were outnumbered and badly placed, so that they had to charge uphill into a north-easterly gale. Unlike their enemy, they were rainsoaked and hungry. A thousand of them were killed at Culloden. The Jacobite generals assumed that the campaign could go on with a good chance of beating Cumberland next time. But the Prince ran away, and a lost battle became a final rout.

GEORGE Mackay Brown wrote about three young men of the Prince's army whom he imagined there that day, after they had charged the "old iron- mouth" cannon and the "red men" of the Hanoverian regular army: "Three piercing shapes/ Drifted about me in the drifting smoke./ We crossed like dreams./ This was the last battle./ We had not turned before." He is talking about the end of a world, the last attack of the Gaelic peoples against a modernity and a way of life which was about cash and calculation. Culloden was that, but many other things too. The Highlands and Islands were changing fast already, and the clans which turned out to fight for the Prince were not always the most traditional. The muster lists of the Prince's army include the followers of sophisticated chiefs who were perfectly at home in 18th-century Edinburgh or in the cities of Holland and England. Those who died were not just peasants who did not know how to read and write but shopkeepers, students, young men starting careers in the law.

For a long time, the accepted view of the Forty-Five was that it was a form of Scottish civil war between Highland and Lowland, between romantic supporters of a Catholic dynasty and hard-headed Presbyterians who had made their peace with the Hanoverian dynasty because it was a Protestant succession. The English and German soldiers on the Hanoverian side decided the outcome at Culloden, but - according to that version - Culloden was not a struggle between Scotland and England.

Again, this interpretation is beginning to dissolve. Many in the Jacobite army came from north-eastern Scotland and were Episcopalian Protestants, with no particular sympathy for the Pope or the Highlands. Some of the Gaelic districts where the Catholic religion was strong refused to come out for the Prince. This was a war about Scotland's relationship to "Britain", fought only 38 years after the end of Scottish independence. There was a widespread feeling that Scotland would be better off under its old Stuart dynasty - whatever the folly or religious errors of its kings and princes. And that feeling affected even apparently sober burghers in Lowland cities who would not have dreamt of showing such feeling in public, let alone taking up arms.

THE ROAR of the Highland army as it charged would have carried a mile down-wind, like the roar of the Ibrox crowd when Rangers break out towards a goal. Those who heard it would also have been reached by the distant outburst of musketry, the rattling of many sticks along an iron railing. But none of that would have reached people further away, downhill where now Inverness airport lies or along the Moray Firth. The wind that April day was cold and moist, and sound was muffled. It was the concussion of the Hanoverian guns that would have carried over greater distance.

Inverness is only five miles away. That "pum, pum" of cannon, black powder ringing out in iron barrels with a resonance which modern high-performance artillery has lost, woke the town that morning. They knew what had started, but what we do not know is how they hoped it would end. After the battle, the Duke of Cumberland's dragoons tumbled into Inverness and killed indiscriminately, so that the townspeople's horror and hatred over that and the killing of the wounded at Culloden ("Let's have some of the sweets of victory", said Cumberland) overlaid their feelings about the Rising itself.

Since then, the site has changed considerably. First it was drained, and then a road was built across it in the 1830s. The big memorial cairn was put up in 1881 by Lord Forbes of Culloden and the mass graves were marked out clan by clan - it is hard to know how accurately. When I first went there, a Forestry plantation of Sitka spruce lay right across the place, making it hard to imagine the past, but that has been cleared now and the usual Visitor Centre and tourist-board clobber do not intrude much.

Culloden feels more like the killing-ground of mass murder than a battlefield. The victors would have disagreed; for them it was a battle with more atrocities than most, but still a fight which either side might have lost. It seems revolting to us that the two Princes commanding either side, Charles Edward and Cumberland, were only 25 years old, but that too was normal in times when kings' sons led armies into battle. All the same, it is not yet possible to escape the mournful mist of sentiment which closed over this moor in the Victorian period, when its causes seemed as safely dead as its warriors. Something was cut down here, which never grew again. !