Culloden Battlefield: memorialisation and re-memorialisation

On St Andrew’s Day Remember Me Researcher, Dr Yvonne Inall reports on a recent visit to Culloden Battlefield and layered memorialisation processes at the site.

On the 16th of April 1746 Jacobite and Government forces met in battle on Culloden Moor near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. The fighting was brutal and intense – the Jacobites deploying the famed highland charge under heavy fire. Against superior numbers and more advanced artillery the Bonnie Prince’s supporters were outflanked and routed. The bloody conflict, over in less than an hour, was the decisive moment that signalled the demise of the Jacobite Rising. The wounded were left on the field to die, and the dead, numbering over 1,200, were buried on the battlefield in mass graves.

Woodcut painting from Oct 1746 depicting the Battle of Culloden which took place in April 1746. David Morier (died 1770). Public Domain.

In the following decades Culloden became a site of pilgrimage, yet no formal memorial was erected there until 1881, 135 years after the battle. This began a process of layered memorialisation practices at Culloden which has now been ongoing for over a century, longer than the interval between the battle and the first monument’s placement on site.

Culloden Battlefield as it appears today. Photograph copyright Yvonne Inall.

The last Laird resident at Culloden House, Duncan Forbes, erected a cairn in remembrance of the dead along with a series of stones marking locations where he posited the mass graves might have been. While the markers are inscribed with the names of various clans which were represented on the field in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie, he had no way of knowing precisely where the dead were buried. Some of the markers are inscribed with the words “Mixed Clans”. In truth, this epitaph could readily apply to each of the mass graves as they were not organised by clan. The dead were stripped in the aftermath of battle which meant there would have been no way of identifying which clan any individual belonged to. Nevertheless, the clan markers have taken on genuine significance for visitors to the site, and floral and stone offerings are regularly left as visible tributes to the clans whose dead remain buried somewhere in the locality.

The cairn erected on Culloden Battlefield in 1881 by Duncan Forbes. Photograph copyright Yvonne Inall

I had an opportunity to visit Culloden Battlefield recently. Today the site is managed by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), who have worked progressively since the 1930s to conserve as much of the site as possible, although their ambitions to conserve the entire battlefield site are yet to be fully realised. The Trust has conducted extensive archaeological research, allowing for a reconstruction of the battle (showcased on the programme Two Men in a Trench). They also constructed a new Visitors’ Centre which offers archaeological, historical and cultural tours, interpretations, interactive and immersive experiences of the site for an ever-increasing number of visitors. The cairn erected by Duncan Forbes stands out on the low lying terrain of the moor and can be seen prominently from the viewing platform of the Visitors’ Centre. Paths which allow visitors to explore the battlefield wend their way across the marshy ground towards the cairn, past the clan markers and onwards towards a line of blue flags which mark the position archaeological investigations have revealed to be the line where the Jacobite forces formed up in advance of the battle.

The cairn which Duncan Forbes built has become a focal point for re-memorialising activities. A plaque on the cairn commemorates the year 1944, when Hector Forbes handed care of the cairn over to the National Trust of Scotland. The cairn has thus become a memorial not only to those who died in the Battle of Culloden, but also to the two Forbes men who played an active role in its commemoration. A wooden bench behind the cairn commemorates the contribution of the 102 (Clyde) Field Squadron Royal Engineers, who in 1983 refurbished the cairn and the battlefield lines in what could be interpreted as an act of pilgrimage.

Pilgrimages are made to Culloden Battlefield site on a daily basis. In 2016 the Battlefield the received 139,691 visitors, up 21% on 2015. A sense of quiet reverence prevails across the site. The single raised voice to be heard across the site was that of the NTS guide as she strained to reach those on the periphery of the large tour group, hanging on her every word as she recounted the history of the battle. Visitors moved respectfully about the site. I caught snippets of hushed conversation, mostly about the horror and tragedy of the battle that took place where they were standing more than two centuries ago.

An NTS guide sharing the history and importance of Culloden Battlefield site with a group of visitors. Photograph copyright Yvonne Inall.
A group of visitors follow an NTS guide around the site. Photograph copyright Yvonne Inall
Visitors to the site walk amongst the stones commemorating highland clans. Photograph copyright Yvonne Inall

The layering of memorial processes also continues. The Visitors’ Centre was funded as part of the Culloden Battlefield Memorial Project, and one of their fund-raising initiatives was the Culloden Walk, through which donors could have their name engraved on Caithness stone slabs embedded in the walkway outside the Centre, prospectively associating the donor in perpetuity with the Battlefield site. On the Battlefield site itself I observed two new memorial benches, installed in remembrance of the recently departed, for whom, either they or their loved ones wished to cement a lasting association with the site. This processes of layering memorials is something the Remember Me project has observed as part of the Deep Time study, in which we are finding that — across time periods and cultures — there is a tendency for new memorials to link to, or draw upon past memorials, creating strong links to ancestors or ancestral places of significance. For those who continue to engage with Culloden it has become a memorial to a Highland culture which went into decline during the latter half of the eighteenth century.

A recently constructed memorial bench, with Gaelic inscription on Culloden Battlefield. Photograph copyright Yvonne Inall.

Dr Yvonne Inall holds a PhD in History from the University of Hull. She is  assisting Dr Malcolm Lillie with the long durée component of the Remember Me Project: ‘Deep in Time: Meaning and Mnemonic in Archaeological and Diaspora Studies of Death’.


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