GUEST POST: The Aftermath of Culloden

I'm pleased to present the third and final installment of David McNicoll's series of guest posts about the Jacobite Rising of 1745.  This final piece deals with the aftermath of Culloden. 

Thanks again to David for sharing these very interesting articles with us!  I'm always fascinated to learn more about the historical background of the OUTLANDER books.  If you find this article interesting, be sure to check out the previous posts in this series, The Road to the '45 and The Failure of the '45.

David McNicoll was born and bred in the Scottish Highlands, but now lives in New York where he runs Highland Experience USA, a travel company specializing in Scottish vacation packages, including an Outlander-based tour.

The Aftermath of Culloden
by David McNicoll

The mist rises fast from the calm waters of the Moray Firth below and is soon swirling amongst the clan stones of Culloden Moor, casting an eerie scene over the site of the last battle ever fought on British soil. Here among the gravestones and memorials you can almost hear the ghosts of the past – the last charge of the Highlanders, the last roll-call of the Celtic world. The Battle of Culloden in April 1746 was a line in the sand: it ushered in a period of unparalleled change to the Highlands, but also had some remarkable consequences, which are still being felt across the world today.

New Horizons

In 1759 General James Wolfe led an army of British soldiers up the St Lawrence River to the heart of French North America; and, on the morning of the 13th September his forces routed the garrison of Quebec at a famous battle on the Plains of Abraham. It was the end of the Seven Years War and it was the end for the French in Canada. Wolfe was a new kind of officer – a professional soldier with but one agenda: to bring greatness to Britain and extend British authority around the world, complimenting her growing economic might. Indeed, Wolfe’s fleet of soldiers had been navigated up the St Lawrence by a young Captain Cook, and Quebec took place a mere two years after Robert Clive had defeated the native rulers of Bengal to start Britain on the road to Indian rule. Within a generation, Britain’s martial focus had shifted from her internal dynastic struggles to the business of world domination; and as Wolfe led his men that misty morning he must have reflected on another bleak morning 13 years earlier.

Among the regiments at Quebec were the Fraser Highlanders: men drawn from the very stock that had fought at Culloden a generation earlier. Here, instead of claymores and blue bonnets, these Highlanders wore redcoats, took the King’s Shilling and fought with an unflinching loyalty for their colonel. As a nineteen year old captain, Wolfe had stood in the government ranks at Culloden and was impressed by the martial ability, loyalty and determination of the Jacobite soldiers racing towards him, and being mown down in their hundreds. A new dawn he realised would one day use these assets to the advantage of the British army. “There is no great mischief should they fall – there’s plenty more where they came from,” he once said, and incorporating these men and their warrior traditions into the army was a major part of the rehabilitation and reorganising of the Highlands in the years following Culloden. Understanding the massive cultural shift that took place, is key to understanding the Highlands today and why Culloden is so important.

Wolfe's Death at Quebec
In the immediate aftermath of the battle Lord George Murray was able to gather together what was left of the Jacobite command and convened a meeting at the Ruthven Barracks. Here, they pondered the question of continuing the fight and executing a guerrilla campaign. However, having convinced himself that he was betrayed, Charles caved in and abandoned the cause. He would spend the rest of the summer hiding in the hills trying to avoid the Redcoat forces sent to find him. The Government placed a bounty of £30,000 on his head to flush him out of the heather and from those who remained loyal. Many however had come to despise the Prince, especially now that Cumberland’s forces were dragging notable Jacobites to the Tower of London and burning men, women and children out of hearth and home in a draconian act of retribution. Ironically, Highland honour prevented someone being handed over to the authorities for monetary gain – had the government placed no price on his head, he would have been given up for sure.

Finally, on the 20th of September 1746 the French ship L’Heureax sailed into Loch an Uamh on the Lochaber coast, picked up the prince and took him back to France and a sad, gin-fuelled life of inglorious exile. The Highlands he left behind had known centuries of warfare, but now the darkest of hours was approaching.

From Chiefs to Landlords

Contrary to common belief, the Battle of Culloden did not spark the mass-migrations and forced evictions of the Highland Clearances, but the decisive nature of the victory, the crushing retribution meted out throughout the glens and the determination of a London based government to bring the Highlands to heel once and for all certainly laid the foundations. The violence served up to the ordinary peasant folk of the Highlands was compounded by the punitive legislation that followed. Clan Chiefs, especially in the north and west were all but kings in their own domain, and the government saw this social set-up as the breeding ground for the warlike traditions that came to close to toppling the crown. Breaking this system was the principal objective in the wake of the Rebellion.

The Clan System was developed by warlords and robber barons during the 14th and 15th centuries as a way bringing swords to a battle at a time when opportunists were scrapping away for every square inch of land. There were great lords like Argyll, Atholl and Gordon and they combined the dual role of feudal master and father of the clan; but, most chiefs had carved out a space of their own and held on to it with an iron grip amid almost constant fighting. The government’s plan was to make the system untenable for the chiefs, and have them abandon their own people of their own accord.

Laws were brought in that removed the right to bear arms, and for the high chiefs to exercise arbitrary justice in their own territory. Many estates were forfeited to the crown as punishment for Jacobite support, and sons and heirs were taken south to be educated in the English, civilised way. The idea was to break the bond between chief and clan; and it was hugely effective. Moreover, laws were brought in forbidding the wearing of tartan plaid and kilts, unless in an army regiment; the Gaelic language was outlawed and bagpipe playing was banned. Old traditions, the sense of collective loyalty and unity was at a stroke dealt a hammer blow it never recovered from. Many chiefs fled into exile as government agents moved in, leaving their kinsfolk to be cared for by the Tacksmen – a literate strata of clan society that acted as lawyer, arbitrator and rent collector. These families, with a bit of silver tucked away, could see the writing was on the wall; and their bags would soon be packed.

Breadalbane: a land hit hard by the Highland Clearances
The Scottish Highlands had never truly become a cash economy – a clan chief measured his wealth in the number of men he brought to a fight, and rent was more often than not paid in kind. This would be the next government innovation: the carrot of wealth was dangled in front of the remaining chiefs and the young protégées being brought up in private English schools. As they returned to claim their ancestral piles, they came back not as father of their people, but as their landlords. The dynamic had now changed; and the new world order had reached the Highlands. There weren’t too many options open to those about to feel the full brunt of this new order – those that could afford began leaving for pastures new: some to Glasgow or London, but a great many to America, Canada or Australia. Others, with fire in their bellies joined the army, with plenty swapping Jacobite bonnets for regimental kilts and redcoats. Hundreds traded in chiefly loyalty for regimental loyalty and crossed the oceans to fight for king, country and the British Empire.

As chiefs morphed into mercantile focused landlords, and the middle class of the clan hopped onto ships and sailed for the new world, a huge vacuum opened up between the laird and his tenants. The population of the Highlands by the 1780s was already too high, and the initial emigrations were entirely voluntary, but the diaspora wasn’t fast enough for some. Now measuring their wealth in gold rather than claymores, the landlord-chiefs saw their tenantry as surplus to requirement and began to forcibly evict their people off the land of their fathers. Between 1790 and 1830 over 40,000 men, women and children would be removed, most heading to the burgeoning British colonies. Ironically, the fruits of the Clearances would help build the Empire as much as the new Highland recruits swelling the ranks of the army, either by filling emigration ships or providing the manpower of the Industrial Revolution.

The Atholl Highlanders Regiment

The Battle of Culloden may have killed the Jacobite cause, but it saved the notion of constitutional monarchy – a very safe form of government, and it guaranteed British political stability. This was a foundation upon which investment could be made, investment begat scientific advancement and supported both the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. While Britain’s mercantile might eclipsed the globe, the grim realities of the Clearances provided the population required to build overseas colonies. Culloden may have lasted less than an hour, but the consequences would affect the whole world, and continue to do so to this day.

(Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are David McNicoll's, not mine.  I don't know enough about this period of Scottish history to be able to comment.  If you want to learn more about General Wolfe and the Plains of Abraham, I would highly recommend Diana Gabaldon's Lord John novella, "The Custom of the Army", which will be available in paperback in the WARRIORS 3 anthology in August, 2011.)


Deniz Bevan said...

Thank you David and thanks Karen for sharing these essays! If only Lord John had been around when we studied the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at school...

Karen Henry said...


Here's a comment from one of my Facebook friends:

"He missed a _HUGE_ part of the story of the Clearences... The locals were shipped off because it was more profitable to raise sheep on what had been -for centuries- land that people lived and farmed on. As for comments like "sons and heirs ...were taken south to be educated in the English, civilised way".... and "incorporating these men and their warrior traditions into the army was a major part of the rehabilitation and reorganising of the Highlands in the years following Culloden.", it's just my opinion, but Scottish society _was _ civilized. IF the English army hadn't praticed what today would be seen as the ethnic cleansing of Scottish Highlands in the aftermath of Culloden there would have been no need for "rehabilitation and reorganising."

I think she has a good point about the Clearances. And I don't know if your use of the word "civilised" was meant seriously or not, but I can certainly see how people might take it the wrong way.

Just wondering if you'd care to respond to this?


David said...

Hi Karen,

I do understand what they mean by missing out a huge part of the story - but to chronicle the Clearances would be a book not a blog. I was really trying to look at the consequences of the aftermath, how the emphatic Government/Mercantile victory at Culloden laid the foundations for the changes that followed - which in due course led to the Clearances. To me the shift from Chief to Landlord and the shift in the monetary dynamic sowed the seeds of the forced evictions that came later.

1792 is the Year of the Sheep, this is when the Clearances really started in the north - in Ross-shire, Assynt, Sutherland, Skye and so on (although clearing had began in Atholl and Breadalbane as early as the 1770s) - this is a generation and more after Culloden. The first emigrations were voluntary, and thanks to advances in medicine (particularly smallpox vaccinations) the Highland population was too high to support everyone. The forced removals came later.

I see how the term 'civilized' can be misread. I did mean it seriously, because it was a serious part of the process: this was how it was viewed from the south (not just the English, but more importantly by the Lowland Scots), and this viewpoint is crucial (so, it wasn't a personal opinion by me, but a contemporary one from say Edinburgh or London). The term "Improvement" was used a lot.

It is important to remember that the aftermath was initially vicious, but it was the alteration to the chief-clansman relationship that changed the Highlands, and allowed the Clearances to happen in the 19th century. Those Clearances it also needs to be said were carried out by native chiefs and incoming landlords/managers mainly from Lowland Scotland and not England.

It was once said that the Highlanders preferred the English to the Lowlanders. The English didn't care about the Highlands, the Lowlanders did and it wasn't pretty - mi run mor nan gaidheal (the Lowlanders great hatred of the Highlanders)

I hope that clarifies a few points, but more than happy to discuss at length.


Karen Henry said...


Thanks for the additional explanation!


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Gerald said...

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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