Eyewitness to History

Kimberley Reeman researching Coronach in the northwest Highlands in Scotland.

Kimberley Reeman researching Coronach in the northwest Highlands in Scotland.

“When I came into this Country, it was my only view to do all in my power for your good and safety. This I will always do as long as life is in me. But alas! I see with grief, I can at present do little for you on this side the water, for the only thing that now can be done, is to defend your selves.”

– Charles Edward Stuart,
April 1746, after Culloden

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 16, 1746, 11 a.m.: a raw morning, with a bitter north wind scything up from the Moray Firth, bringing heavy showers of rain and sleet. Two armies, some fourteen thousand men, although perhaps only three thousand will engage, are manoeuvring two and a half miles apart on this sloping, boggy ground six miles from Inverness, which adjoins Drummossie Moor and climbs from the elegant parks of Culloden House, owned by Duncan Forbes, the Lord President of the Court of Session.

The Jacobite army, under the command of the Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, who even in these final, fateful hours radiates the charisma and optimism of his great, great, great grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, stumbles into some order of battle with a confusion and disorganization that reflects the rifts, quarrels and indecision of its generals. The British army, under the command of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, the charmless, corpulent younger son of George II, deploys with a silent purpose that moves a French officer to remark to Charles that “he feared the day already lost, for he had never seen men advance in so calm and regular a manner.”

The onslaught of sleet assaults them all: princes and peasants, the volunteers, the conscripts, the criminals and the idealists, the men of noble blood and the butchers, gardeners, apprentices, and the veterans recalled from Flanders and the War of the Austrian Succession, professional killers whose service is for life, and whose ages range from seventeen to fifty-five.

Men stand ankle-deep in water, with empty bellies, the sleet beating on their backs: volatile, exhausted, ill-fed. Many have deserted from the Jacobite army because there is little food and less pay; because their fields are lying unsown; because they fear for their families; because they sense the animosity and dissension among their leaders, who cannot agree on anything from the ground on which to fight what they know will be their final battle to the order of precedence to be accorded to the clans; because some prescience has warned them that their cause is lost, and they have foreseen their deaths.

They are not all Highlanders, although there are many Gaelic-speaking clansmen, conscripted and threatened into service by chieftains or landlords. There are also Lowland Scots, many conscripted; volunteers; deserters from the Scottish militia regiments of the British army or enlisted from among those prisoners taken after Charles’s victory at Prestonpans. Two infantry battalions and a squadron of cavalry are French, as well as artillerymen, engineers and volunteers: these are the “Wild Geese”, the Irish Brigade of the French army, whose red coats among the coarse homespun of the clansmen are clearly visible across the moor, as are the blue coats of the Royal Ecossais, a Scottish unit of the French army raised in 1744.

The wind is now northeasterly. Five hundred yards away, across ground laced with streams and springs, drystone walls and scattered cottages, the standards and colours of the British regiments snap and billow, blowing forward: the wind is at this army’s back, and the smoke of battle will blind the enemy. Many of these officers are Scots, many Anglo-Irish: the 1st, 21st and 25th Foot are Scots regiments, as are the Gaelic-speaking Argyllshire Militia, the Duke of Kingston’s Light Horse, and the regulars of Loudon’s 64th Highlanders. There are many here who wear Highland dress, many for whom the ranting slogans and skirling pipes of the clans are echoes of a culture shared.

The sleet stops abruptly: the sky is torn with blue. A little after one, the Pretender’s artillery opens with irregular fire. The royal artillery, carefully sited, responds with a devastating, sustained barrage aimed at the massed ranks of the Jacobite army. Mud spatters the mounted Charles’s face: behind him, a groom is decapitated. The roundshot is followed by canister, sweeping the field with a hailstorm of grape and reaping a terrible harvest. Blinded by the smoke and by unbearable rage and anguish, eight clan regiments break into the charge. At a range of fifty yards, the hardened veterans of the British front-line regiments, Barrell’s, Monro’s, and the Scots Fusiliers, open fire with muskets, inflicting carnage. The shock of the charge splits Barrell’s and engulfs it: of four hundred and thirty-eight officers and men, both English and Scots, seventeen are killed and one hundred and eight wounded, many grievously: the colonel falls with a severed hand and serious head wounds, others are dismembered. The naked courage of the Highlanders imprints itself so forcibly upon the mind of a young aide de camp to Cumberland that on September 13, 1759, Major-General James Wolfe will unleash that fury himself against the forces of the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham.

Of Wednesday, April 16, 1746, no man could know, as he shivered in the prelude to battle, that no British regiment would ever bear Culloden among its honours, or that its very name would become synonymous with infamy. No man, neither prince nor apprentice, could perceive that he was ‘only a mote of dust, and of as much consequence’ in the affairs of nations, and that Culloden was only a footnote, albeit scrawled in blood, across the vast canvas of the eighteenth century, a microcosm in which the hereditary enemies, Britain and France, grappled for supremacy. A turbulent century, which sees America’s bloody and protracted struggle for independence, the insurrection and revolution which convulse France, and the tragic repercussions, for a people and a culture, which haunt Scotland still.

With unflinching honesty, Coronach bears witness to this, our history, and to the human cost of war.