An Irishman's Diary
As the Scottish independence debate gathers momentum, it seemed an appropriate time to visit Culloden. The defeat of the Jacobite rising sealed the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland in blood. Furthermore, it is 50 years since the Military History Society of Ireland erected a monument on Culloden Battlefield commemorating the Wild Geese of the Irish Brigade, who fought and died beside the valiant Highlanders on April 16th, 1746.
Fontenoy marked the road to Culloden. The Irish Brigade played a pivotal role in securing this French victory against forces commanded by the duke of Cumberland, second son of Britain’s king George II, in Flanders on May 11th, 1745. It prompted Charles Edward Stuart (known as the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie) to reclaim the English, Scottish and Irish thrones lost by his grandfather, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne. The exiled Stuarts were a potent symbol of the dispossessed Irish.
But no-one of consequence gave Prince Charles any encouragement until Ranald MacDonald vowed to draw his sword (a traditional metaphor of heroic endeavour in Gaelic culture, dating back to the Fianna) even if he was to do so alone. On August 19th the royal standard was raised at the head of Loch Shiel in Glenfinnan, being blessed by the Catholic bishop of Moray to cries of “King James VIII . . . prosperity to Scotland and no union”.
The prince’s charm and the adventurous spirit of the Highlands brought initial success. He entered Edinburgh on September 17th and in the following month issued two declarations against the “pretended union”. He marched south to Derby, but retreated with three government armies threatening to converge on his men (Cumberland had been withdrawn from the Continent). Charles, with Irish help, defeated a relieving force at Falkirk in January 1746. Then his good fortune deserted him.
Culloden was a disaster for the Jacobite cause, and the last hand-to-hand battle fought in Britain. The two armies faced each other on Culloden Moor in a howling, freezing gale. The prince’s 5,000 men, half-starved and exhausted, were routed by nearly double that number of well-fed, well-equipped government forces. A conservative figure for Jacobites killed in action, or murdered later on the battlefield, is 1,000.
The battle was over in less than an hour; government casualties were given as 50 dead and 259 wounded. The prince abandoned his followers to the brutalities of Cumberland – who earned the sobriquet “Butcher” – while he wandered through the Highlands and Islands for five months (pursued by government supporters and under threat from local lairds tempted to betray him for the £30,000 upon his head).
Cumberland’s dragoons slaughtered not only the fleeing clansmen, but innocent bystanders, including women and children. While surgeons cared for wounded redcoats on the battlefield, others, watched by their officers, bayoneted or clubbed to death wounded rebels. Irish soldiers in the French service were accorded prisoner-of-war status.
The military occupation of the Highlands in the months following Culloden was designed to crush the Jacobite cause irretrievably; 120 prisoners were executed (four peers of the realm by the axe, the rest by the rope); about 1,150 were banished or transported, and the fate of almost 700 is unknown. Estates were forfeited to the crown; the Disarming Act banned the kilt and the bagpipes.
The prince’s escapades included accompanying Flora MacDonald “over the sea to Skye”, disguised as Betty Burke, her Irish maidservant. Finally, in September 1746 his party boarded two ships which ferried him to France and a life of obscurity.
Christina Chisholm was one of the many widows left behind. Her lament, Mo rùn geal òg, speaks in a classical bardic style for the grieving women of Gaelic-speaking Scotland. The first verse reads (in translation): “Alas, young Charles Stuart/ It is your cause that has left me desolate/ You took from me everything/ That I had in a war in your cause/ It is not cattle or friends/ That have pained me, but my spouse/ Since the day that you left me alone/ With nothing in the world but my shift/ My fair young love.”
The retribution extended to Ireland, where an insecure Protestant ascendancy feared that a Jacobite victory would overturn the Williamite land settlement. According to family legend, a collateral ancestor of this diarist died at the battle of Falkirk. After Culloden the widow and children of Col John Patrick O’Kelly were forced to hide in caves in the north Clare-south Galway region. Emily Lawless’s paean to the Wild Geese, Fontenoy, evokes the pathos of exile: “. . . The whole night long we dream of you, and waking think we’re there/ Vain dream, and foolish waking, we never shall see Clare.”