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Mr Levett's Scottish Tour: Part Four: Culloden

Jeremy Levett and family continue their perambulations through bonny Scotland, arriving this week at the field of Culloden where, on the 16th April 1746 the Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart was defeated by Government forces.  (All images in this post are taken from the visitor centre website. )

The visitor centre at Culloden had clearly had a lot of effort put into it; Paul later told us it cost the National Trust for Scotland a cool twenty million quid. I wonder how much of that went on the building (solid, grey wood), how much on the artefacts (muskets and edges, medals and pottery, woodcuts and handbills, cavalry boots and field guns) and how much on people proofreading every last line of information to keep it as neutral as possible. My dad tells a story from when he was working for Scots government, in which a senior Scot asked a junior Scot, only half joking, “Campbell, eh? Whose side were you on in the Forty-Five?” Getting on for two hundred and seventy years, and it's still an issue.

All the signs in the visitor centre were bilingual – English and Gaelic – a strange sort of sop to a set of ultranationalist Gaels I wasn’t even aware existed. Unlike the Welsh, the Highlanders seem less tiresomely attached to their old tongue; but I suppose the Welsh had no Clearing, no Culloden. The exhibition was a fairly well set out maze of corridors, with a peculiar design; on the right hand was the red wall, which told the story of the Government, and on the left the blue wall, following the Jacobites. While for the first few metres it seemed to be “pick your bias”, each wall describing its faction in glowing terms, you would then have to switch sides, as both proceeded to thoroughly deconstruct their cause and talk at length about the various defeats, setbacks and foolish mistakes they suffered in the run up to April 16. The last corridor was somewhat dodgy, using unseen speakers to play you audio clips ostensibly from soldiers on the eve of the battle; I preferred Peter Watkins' version. Then there was a reconstruction of the battle in a room whose walls were all screens, which was stylish, expensive, and in every sense visceral.

After this, the corridors panned out into a huge room full of militaria centred around a big floor screen displaying a top-down RTS style account of the battle, all Time Commanders-style (I wonder if they actually used the Total War engine...)., and then a door to The Place. The field itself isn’t much to look at. Well, it’s a field, what do you expect? There are rows of red and blue flags showing the original line of battle, GPS-linked audioguides that play you a clip when they detect you’re on a certain piece of ground, a great big stone memorial to the Romantic Lost Highland Cause, and a great many small monuments celebrating where individual tartans were gunned down. There was only one memorial to the Government's troops (who were, in case you didn't know, as much Scots lowlanders as Englishmen): “FIELD OF THE ENGLISH; THEY WERE BURIED HERE.” Mum got the impression that was biased towards the Government, in emphasising the Highlanders' failures and making little of the Government's losses; I felt it was entirely the other way round, with a soulless and inaccurate monument to Cumberland's troops but a trashy Victorian headstone for where every chieftain and famous clan was heroically escorted from this vale of tears by Brown Bess.

It was a tricky one; the Gaelic, the romanticism and the serious wait before the museum got around to mentioning the actual outcome had me rather annoyed at a perceived pro-Jacobite slant, but by the end I wasn’t so sure. The disgusting Victorian Bonnie-Prince-Charlie-on-a-bottle-of-Drambuie ahistorical romanticised kitsch that no true Scotsman on either side actually believes has left its mark, perhaps indelibly, and even in this most truthful of exhibits there still seemed to be a hint of That Noble Lost Cause; but maybe this is a knee-jerk response I have that objects to any recognition of the Jacobites as anything but doomed, misguided idiots on the wrong side of history.

In modern parlance, you can call the Forty-Five a heroic act of defiant independence against economic tyranny (under Union rule the lowlanders and city folk were prospering, the Highland crofters and smallholders not so much) and religious persecution, betrayed by incompetent leadership. But in that same modern parlance, the Jacobites were a foreign-backed insurgency of a small minority attempting to violently overthrow a legally elected, popularly accepted government, and replace it with an absolutist monarchy. Still sound romantic to you?

The displays were informative, the artefacts plentiful and well-chosen, and the audiovisual stuff of extremely high quality; it’s a serious, no-nonsense account of Culloden in all its brutal detail and desperate futility, and you really could see where the £20m went.

By the by, Bonnie Prince Charlie was a prick.

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