““Culloden,” he said, the whispered word an evocation of tragedy.”
Outlander: Voyager, Diana Gabaldon
We had turned off the main road to Inverness, and were heading down the ‘B’ roads in search of an ancient site we wanted to visit. As we drove, a young stag leaped out into the road in front of us, his emerging antlers still rounded and covered with velvet. I was glad that I was not driving at speed as we followed the brown signs that said ‘Culloden’; there have been more than enough deaths there without adding to their number. But that was one place we were not going. The battlefield of Culloden has too many tales of horror and too many uneasy ghosts still haunt moor and memory. I had no desire to feel them again… and, as a sassenach myself, there is a lingering sense of shame for the actions of the Duke of Cumberland.
As it was, our road led us too close for comfort to the place where so many were slaughtered in battle and with cruel and merciless abandon in the aftermath. All unsuspecting, we pulled into a parking spot beside a huge boulder, over five feet high and over fifty-three feet in circumference… and just a few hundred yards from the battlefield of Culloden.
On the 16th of April, 1746, ten thousand English troops, met the Highlanders who fought for Charles Stuart… Bonnie Prince Charlie… at Culloden. The English foot soldiers and cavalry, under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, were heavily armed with artillery. The Jacobite Highlanders were weary, weakened by sickness and hunger and numbered less than half the English force. The level ground at Culloden was unsuited to the Highlanders’ fighting style and their army was decimated.
Charles Stuart, his cause lost, managed to escape the field with a small band of followers. Few Highlanders escaped… on Cumberland’s orders, the wounded and those not slain in battle were shot in a sickening episode of brutality. Cumberland would follow the battle with the harrowing of the Glens, laying the Highlands bare and earning for himself the name of the ‘Butcher’.
The stone we had accidentally found is known as the Cumberland Stone. It is an erratic, a boulder deposited many miles from its place of origin by a melting glacier during the last Ice Age, sixteen thousand years ago. It stands close to the battlefield and legend has it that the Butcher Duke not only used the stone as a table upon which to break his fast, but also climbed upon it to watch the slaughter of the Highlanders.
It has another story, though, less dark than the one it is most famed for. A local youth, Duncan Forbes, was renowned for his wild, carousing ways. He and his friends are recorded as being so drunk at his mother’s funeral that they forgot to take her body with then to the burial ground. He fell in love with Mary Rose, the daughter of the baron, and she with him. Her father disapproved of the profligate young man and the lovers would meet by a great stone by the roadside, right on the edge of her father’s land.
Determined to win her father’s approval, Forbes became a changed man and trained in law. The couple married and Forbes dedicated himself to his wife for the ten years until her death. By the time of the Jacobite Rising, he had risen to the position of Lord President and, although he supported the government forces, did his best to convince some of the clan chiefs that the Rising was folly and could only bring ruin. The story goes that Forbes was so horrified at what happened at and after Culloden that he died the next year of a broken heart.
Over a hundred years later, in 1881, another Duncan Forbes would erect the landmark memorial cairn on the battlefield of Culloden and raise the stones to mark the mass graves of the clans.
We had no intention of visiting Culloden, but it seemed the land itself would not let us pass without at least acknowledging the massacre. Perhaps that is as it should be. Time and ever-changing political landscapes may heal many things, but the land remembers those things which should not be forgotten, and which our human minds can all too conveniently forget. We can achieve so much when we work together, both for good and for ill. We can create or encourage division or unity, we can cast blame on our leaders, or shift it to wherever seems politically appropriate, using as our defence that we were ‘only following orders’. In the end, though, it comes down to us, individuals with a conscience and a choice in how we face the world…. and whether we can each find the courage to stand up for what we believe to be right.