It has been almost twenty-one years since I last stepped foot on Drumossie Moor, but the impact it left on me has not dulled. I’m just a normal person, not a psychic or a particularly religious person, but the magnitude of what happened on that heather-filled field is incredibly tangible and haunting. Not many places can do that to you. In fact, it is only one of two places I’ve visited that just felt real – like you could sense the power of the place.
It was 1996 and I was twenty-six years old. I’d come to Scotland alone – my first trip abroad. I had ridden a bus with a group of people I didn’t know out to Culloden from Inverness. It was a pilgrimage of sorts for me…best taken alone. You see, from the best I can tell, my ninth great uncle fought and died on this field. The aftermath of the battle forced my family to flee Scotland and never return. Me coming back here, exactly 250 years after what happened on this moor was very powerful. I was the first in my line to travel back to Scotland. Back home. And even though I had never set foot in Scotland before, it did feel like home.
Walking across Culloden Moor was an indescribable experience for me. But I’ll try to put it into words. The weather was nice on the day I first stepped onto the battlefield. Unlike when my ancestors had made their last stand in this very same spot. On that day, April 16, 1746, it was bitterly cold, with sleet and snow spitting from the sky. As the Jacobites stood on the field awaiting battle, their adrenaline must have helped somewhat with the cold, but the long months of travel and fighting that had precedent this moment had taken their toll as the men were exhausted. One has to wonder if they weren’t all but sleepwalking to their battle position on the field where I now stood.
This wasn’t the first time Jacobites had pushed back against the Hanoverian sitting on the British throne. They had done so several times over the preceding decades leading up to Culloden. In the 1715 Rising, my ninth great-grandfather and at least two of his sons had fought and died. Many others had been exiled to the Americas or Australia as punishment. But now their sons and grandsons were at it again despite the great cost of the last rebellion. My clan, the MacBean, were part of the “clan of cats” – Clan Chattan. Chattan was really a federation of small clans who essentially followed under the banner of the Mackintosh. Surprisingly it wasn’t a man that had gotten them to where they now stood on Drumossie Moor. It was a woman.
Her name was Lady Anne Farquharson-Mackintosh. She was wife to the clan chieftain, but it was her and not him who rallied up to 400 clansmen to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Colonel Anne or La Belle Rebelle as the prince referred to her, was a lifelong Jacobite who had dressed like a man and rode over the countryside rallying her clansmen. Her husband early on aligned himself to the Black Watch, who fought on the opposite side during the ’45 Rebellion. Anne herself couldn’t lead her men into battle, but she was their spiritual heart. After the failure at Culloden, Anne was arrested, but was eventually released to her husband. Years afterwards, she met Butcher Cumberland at a social event and he asked her to dance to a pro-Government song. She politely responded to his request with a question of her own. She asked him to dance to a Jacobite tune instead. An amazing lady.
I found myself suddenly standing amidst the clan markers – giant stones carved with various clan names that supposedly mark the mass graves of those Jacobites that fell on this field. So the story is told that the heather that is found all over the battlefield, just will not grow here. I’m not sure I believed that, but such is the romance that hangs over the ’45 Rebellion. Despite this story, standing in this area of the battlefield is very moving. At the time of my visit, no one had exactly proven that these are truly graves, I felt they are…you could feel it as you stood there. The loss and sadness surrounding this spot is tangible. Years after my visit, a team did a laser scan of the cairn/burial area and it seems to show burial trenches.
Walking on, I wanted to find where Clan Chattan had stood in 1746. It wasn’t long before I found it. Not surprisingly they were front row center of the Jacobite forces. Standing there, staring out over the rough terrain, I could see the flags marking where the Government forces would have stood that morning long ago. I can tell you, it wasn’t far away. When the highland charge began, it must have happened very quickly. I know from history that part of the clans broke through the left of the Government line briefly and my ancestors were amongst them. It made me very proud to know that. Despite overwhelming odds, hunger, cold, and exhaustion – they still charged towards their destiny like a boss.
The strangest thing happened as I stood there….a young couple approached me with a look of shock on their faces. They called out to me with a name I’d never heard. When I responded that I wasn’t that person, my American accent automatically provided proof. They were from Australia and swore that I looked exactly like someone they knew at home. They seemed genuinely shocked that I wasn’t that person. As they walked away and I turned back to my view it struck me as ironic. They were from Australia and I was from America – both recipients of Jacobite prisoners. Here we were, both standing back where those prisoners had fought and for a brief moment there was a spark of recognition. Just a second of connection. Time comes full circle and I was privileged enough to experience it. Just for a moment.
When I left Culloden that day, a piece of me remained. Leaving was bittersweet – I was incredibly sad to leave, but at the same time content that I would have the memory for the rest of my life. I can only equate it to loosing a loved one – you are devastated at the loss, but the memory of that person is comforting. One day I will return to Culloden and stand again where my ancestors stood . There is a great power in that experience. A great knowing of who you are and what you came from.
Cover photo courtesy of Flickr and Pinterest – original photographer not known.
All unmarked photos are by the author.