‘Butcher Cumberland’ and the smashing of the Highland clans

Perhaps the most calamitous chapter in all Scottish history was opened when Charles Edward Stuart, more commonly referred to as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, decided to invade Scotland in 1745 in hopes of regaining the British crown. Charles Stuart was either the ‘Young Pretender’ or the legitimate heir to the British throne, depending on whether one’s sympathies lay with the Hanoverian dynasty or the Stuarts, the latter having lost the throne to George I in 1714. Supporters of the Stuart claim to the throne were known as Jacobites. They could be found all over Europe – the Pope, for one, wished to see a Catholic British monarch – but Jacobitism was especially strong in Scotland, from where the Stuart dynasty originated. The Highlands and Islands, in particular, were full of Jacobites. It was consequently to the Highland clans that Charles first turned to for support, upon landing on the Scottish coast with just a few thousand soldiers. Perhaps out of their ancient sense of feudal loyalty, Highland chieftains sent men in their hundreds to swell the ranks of the Jacobite army, although a number of canny chieftains hedged their bets by sending men to fight both for Charles and George.

Charles Edward Stuart, painted in Edinburgh in late autumn 1745
Bonnie Prince Charlie, painted in Edinburgh in late autumn 1745

Initially, the Rising of 1745 seemed to be going very well for the Jacobites, with a decisive victory against British forces at the Battle of Prestonpans, and the unopposed takeover of Edinburgh. However, Charles, flushed with his first taste of victory, made the great mistake of pressing on into English territory instead of consolidating power in Scotland. Much of his Highland army was made up of farmers, not fighters, and as the months dragged on, the army experienced desertions as men slunk away to look after their farms and families. Charles Stuart and his army got as far south as Derby, but then began an ignominious retreat back to Scotland. Charles Stuart lay low in Edinburgh over the winter of 1745/46, gathering strength and waiting for his relation, the French king Louis XV, to send him desperately needed funds.

By this time, George II had put his youngest son, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, in charge of the British troops who were deployed to crush the Jacobite rebels. Cumberland was of an age with Charles, but unlike Charles, he was an experienced soldier, having fought campaigns in Flanders and Germany. He recognised that one of the problems which beset British forces was the fear that set in at the sight of the infamous Highland Charge, in which thousands of wild-looking kilted Highlanders ran shrieking towards British lines. Cumberland therefore trained his soldiers to hold their ground until the Highlanders got close enough that they could be mown down by cannon and gunfire. This tactic worked to devastating effect when Cumberland’s army met the Jacobites on the field of Culloden, near Inverness, in April 1746. The British obtained a resounding victory, and Charles fled to France, never again to return to Scotland.

1746 depiction of the Battle of Culloden
A very orderly 1746 depiction of the Battle of Culloden

After Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland was hailed in much of England, and even in parts of lowland Scotland, as a patriotic hero. The University of Glasgow awarded Cumberland an honorary doctorate, and Parliament granted him a staggering income of £25,000 per annum. A thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral that included the first performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, composed especially for Cumberland, which contains the anthem ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’ (incidentally, the tune of the hymn ‘Thine be the Glory’). By contrast, Cumberland was seen by Jacobites and his English Tory opponents as a cruel and vindictive man, and awarded the nickname ‘Butcher Cumberland’. His terrible reputation sprang, however, not so much from the events at Culloden as from his violent reprisals in the Highlands following Culloden.

Cumberland stayed in Scotland for several months, establishing himself at Fort Augustus (which was in fact named after him). He sent out troops all over the Highlands, with orders to kill anyone suspected of having been in the Jacobite army. In practice, many Scots who had taken no active part in the Rising were targeted; even women and children were driven out of their homes and murdered. The Highland economy was ravaged, as farms were razed to the ground and thousands of cattle rounded up and stolen. Even after Cumberland left for London in triumph, Highlanders were left to suffer the ongoing depredations of British soldiers. The resultant devastation almost certainly precipitated the economic and social crises which eventually led thousands of Highlanders to emigrate to America.

'The Highlanders Medley, or the Duke Triumphant'. 1746
‘The Highlanders Medley, or the Duke Triumphant’. English pamphlet, 1746

In an age when long-distance communications took weeks or months, the actions of Cumberland’s army were presumably not individually sanctioned by King George, but the purpose behind them was nevertheless supported by the full force of British law. Legislation was passed to ensure that a Jacobite rising never happened again, by forcibly integrating the Highlands into the mainstream of British society. To this end, land was taken away from Jacobite rebels and given to those who had remained loyal to the Crown. The 1746 Act of Proscription outlawed the wearing of traditional Highland dress such as kilts and tartans. Repeat offenders were liable to be transported to the colonies as indentured servants. The Act also forbade the carrying of weapons; Samuel Johnson remarked of this that ‘the last law by which the Highlanders are deprived of their arms, has operated with efficacy beyond expectations…the arms were collected with such rigour, that every house was despoiled of its defence’. To a traditionally warlike society which still revered the warrior hero, depriving men of their weapons must have been a terrible psychological blow.

The Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act of 1746 had more far-reaching effect in that it abolished the traditional judicial rights afforded to a Scottish clan chief. Universal royal jurisdiction was thereby extended throughout Scotland, in an attempt to encourage closer union with England. It was argued in Parliament that to abolish the rights of clan chiefs to judge civil and criminal cases among their dependants would increase the allegiance of ordinary Scots to the British throne, as they would both depend on the Crown to obtain justice, and fear the retribution of the Crown. Clan chiefs were also stripped of their ancient feudal right to call men to arms. The cumulative result of these military depredations and punitive laws was, as Professor Rab Houston has argued, the destruction of ‘the social nexus of the clan that was at the heart of Highland society’.

"After Culloden - Rebel Hunting" - John Seymour Lucas (1884)
“After Culloden – Rebel Hunting” – John Seymour Lucas (1884)

‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ is commonly remembered as a patriotic hero who fought valiantly against the Hanoverian usurpers in order to preserve Scottish independence and culture, only to have his campaign meet a tragic end at the brutal hands of the British. Brutal the British forces may have been, but the fact remains that Charles’ reckless attempt to reclaim his throne actually plunged Scotland into even deeper chaos and precipitated the death of the Highland clan system which many loyal Highlanders believed he had come to protect. This sentiment is perhaps best expressed by the Jacobite commander Lord Elcho, who, on seeing Charles fleeing the field at Culloden, leaving his troops to be massacred, apparently cursed him as ‘an Italian coward and a scoundrel’.

Related Posts