Culloden marks another milestone in myth

James Cusick reports on the war of words 250 years after the bloodiest battle
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The Independent Online
The last sanctioned attempt at "ethnic cleansing" on British soil will be remembered today.

The 250th anniversary of the battle of Culloden, where Charles Edward Stuart's Jacobite army were slaughtered by government forces under the command of George II's younger son, has prompted a re-evaluation of the battle's importance. The Scots trounced by the English? A tragic civil war?

In a new exhibition at the National Trust's visitor centre at Culloden, near Inverness, the Dukes of Argyll and Atholl, whose ancestors fought on opposing sides, have offered evaluations of the battle. Their views indicate the debate may have another 250 years to run.

Culloden, or more accurately Drummossie Moor, was the end of the 1745 Rising. Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, had landed at Moidart on Scotland's west coast in July 1745. His aim was to reclaim the British Crown for his father.

If the background was that simple, there would be far less poetry and myth written about Culloden. "Something was cut down here, which never grew again," wrote Neal Ascherson in the Independent on Sunday.

Like the revisionist Jacobite music which is still played, and wept to, in Scottish folk clubs throughout the tartan diaspora, Culloden is the last time Scotland tried, and heroically failed, to regain nationhood. But separating myth and martyrdom from reality is not easy.

The historian Professor Christopher Smout, now retired from St Andrews University, believes Culloden should stand for the tragedies of all civil wars and the 250th anniversary could have been used to build an international monument to those, like the people of Yugoslavia or Rwanda, who have suffered in such conflict.

The 1707 Union of Scotland and England, the death of the last of the Stuarts, Anne, in 1714, and the Hanoverian accession, are all part of the Culloden legend. With the Stuarts exiled, Scotland was divided between Roman Catholic and Episcopal and the "established" Presbyterian church, divided between the Highlands and the mercantile classes of Glasgow and Edinburgh. And crucially, even divided by clan into pro-government and pro-Jacobite.

Charles Stuart, if history is trying to be kind, found himself in the right place at the right time. Scotland was caught neatly in the middle of Europe's turning power struggle. He believed that if won brave hearts in Scotland the French would assist him in England. Just over 6,000 Scots formed the Jacobite army that went as far as Derby. Culloden was the bloody end as the Bonnie Prince retreated north. If he had gone on would the French have helped him take London? That is another myth in the tragedy of Culloden.

However, Professor Smout believes "Culloden means a little bit more than the last fling of Gaeldom. There were Gaels in both armies. And throughout Scotland there were many who were cynical of the high politics of the time".

The slaughter at the end of the 40 minute battle is another unsubstantiated aspect of the conflict. But Professor Smout believes Cumberland's hatred of the Scots meant "more than just a nod and wink to his officers" to carry out the slaughter of around 1,500 out of 4,500 who faced Cumberland's 9,000 troops and heavy artillery.

The Duke of Atholl believes the new Culloden exhibition is remembering a civil war. The 1707 Union, he says, "rankled with many Scots, who felt they had lost control of their own affairs", and the Jacobite risings tried to effect a cure for the loss.

While going along with the notion of civil war, the Duke of Argyll, the head of the Clan Campbell, disagrees on everything else. "The vast majority of the Clan Campbell fought staunchly for the Hanoverian Succession and the Protestant faith ... I am profoundly thankful that he [the Bonnie Prince] never got to the British throne."

As they omit to say in the history books, this one is set to run and run.

Andrew Marr, page 15