It’s a place in the northeastern part of Scotland, about eight miles from Inverness. Unless you have connections to Scotland, until rather recently you may not have heard of it, or perhaps it became just one of those names mentioned briefly in a schoolbook. Culloden is more than that.
It was a cold day, that April 16 in 1746. Cold weather in the north of Scotland is not unusual in April, and neither was the sleet that began pelting down that day. Pelting down, that was, on men who were fighting a battle that would have consequences that would reach, in years and centuries to come, across the globe. The forces of the English crown, led by the Duke of Cumberland, faced the men who fought in support of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who was battling to restore the crown to his family.
Culloden is more well known outside Scotland and outside school books these days. That is because of the Outlander effect.
American Diana Gabaldon is the author of a series of books, the first of which is named Oultander, hence the name of the series. English nurse Claire Randall, out for a walk in the Highlands of Scotland in the 1940s, goes into a stone circle which unexpectedly transports her through time, back to Scotland in the 1740s.
If you were transported back through time, what would you do? How would you use your knowledge of history, however general or detailed? Would you try to change events? Would you succeed? These are just a few of the questions which come up in Claire’s story.
Listen as Karen Matheson, lead singer with the group Caprcaillie, sings a song arising from the battle of Culloden, in which a woman grieves the loss of her young love to the cause of Prince Charlie. It is recorded on Capercaillie’s album The Blood Is Strong
The Outlander series is being translated into television drama as well. At this writing, season two has concluded, and season three is on the horizon for broadcast beginning in September. The battle of Culloden is a pivot point in both seasons.
The actual battle, in 1746, proved to be a pivot point also, in relations between Scotland and England, in the history of Scotland, and in the future of emigration.
The forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated, for a number of reasons. They were badly outnumbered, hungry, and exhausted, to mention a few factors. As with most acts of war, this battle was not all neat and tidy. Highlanders and lowland Scots fought on both sides, and for many reasons. Whole books have been written about the events of Culloden, the forces on both sides, and the aftermath.
Part of that aftermath included prohibitions of most things that defined clan structure, family identity, and community in the Highlands. In the following years many in the Highlands and Islands were displaced from their homes and many emigrated, taking their stories, history, and music with them to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada among other places.
That’s a very short way of describing a very long and complicated bit of history. To visit Culloden, though, is to be immersed in history.
There is a visitors center with artifacts, displays, and media which will help you understand what went on. Season two of the Outlander television series dramatizes some aspects of Culloden, especially the lead up to it. Word has it that the beginning of season three of Outlander will involve something of the battle at Culloden, too.
The best way to understand Culloden, though, is to visit and let the silence and sense of place sink in.
“We had planned to spend an hour there,” writes Doctor Jessica Voigts of Wandering Educators about her family’s visit to Culloden. “We were surprised to find that we were the last visitors to leave, having spent over five hours there. It indelibly marked us, and our [then] 8-year old daughter said that it was the most important thing she saw in Scotland.”
The thing about Culloden that most stays with me has to do with sound and language. The story is told that before the battle the Highlanders in the Jacobite forces repeated their clan genealogies over in Gaelic, to give them strength, to honor their ancestors, to send up a prayer on the wind in case they did not survive. After Culloden, the speaking of Gaelic was forbidden, as was the playing of bagpipes, the wearing of the plaid, and the whole system of clan justice and community.
Perhaps, in the silence, among the stones placed to mark where members of certain clans fell in the battle of Culloden, you’ll hear a whisper of Gaelic on the wind.
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