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Culloden (1964)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

On Wednesday 16 April 1746, a battalion of soldiers under the command of the Duke of Cumberland routs a rebel Jacobite army under the leadership of 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' at Culloden Moor near Inverness. There follows a systematic repression of the Highland Scots.

Gathering before the battle, the combatants are contrasted. The battalion loyal to Charles II numbers around 9,000 men, who are well-prepared and equipped, determined to destroy the Jacobite rebellion. The Jacobite forces number less than 5,000 men, many of them Highlanders forced into battle by their dependence upon landowners within the clan system. The Jacobite forces are disorganised, poorly-equipped, under-fed and exhausted by lack of sleep after a night spent marching. Their leadership includes aged men who have not seen action for half a century, overseen by the controversial figures of John William O'Sullivan (stubborn and vain) and Prince Charles Edward Stuart (whose only previous military experience consisted of spending 10 days at a siege as a child).

Lord George Murray, the General largely responsible for the Jacobites' earlier successes against overwhelming odds, describes their situation at Culloden as a shambles, and criticises several tactical decisions by the leadership, particularly the suicidal choice of battlefield. Although not prepared to inspect it, O' Sullivan insists upon the battlefield in spite of its suitability for the weaponry of the English, and refuses to knock down walls despite the risks of crossfire and enemy flanking manoeuvres. Charles, confident in the support of God, goes along with this and refuses to develop plans for retreat. An observing Whig historian notes tactical errors amongst the disorganised rebels, including a failure to allow for one clan's assertion of their privilege to line up on the right-hand side.

As the battle begins, the rebels experience heavy losses, with guns and cannons inflicting severed limbs and disembowelling on troops who are instructed neither to attack nor to retreat, despite Lord George Murray's demands for new orders. Charles is in a poor position to observe the situation, and is paralysed by indecision. After half an hour of carnage, featuring the kind of tactics which O' Sullivan refused to believe would happen, the order finally comes to advance, although this order is poorly disseminated. Many are bayoneted in close combat.

The massacre is as swift as it is brutal. For every one casualty of the Royal Army, it is estimated that 24 die on the Jacobite side. Afterwards, the troops walk the battlefields killing injured Highlanders while the Duke of Cumberland enjoys his lunch; other Highlanders are left unattended in agony for days. The troops are freed to enact revenge for previous Jacobite campaigns, resulting in widespread murders, rapes and looting which constitute the worst atrocities in the history of the British Army. Following this bloodshed, the Army's hierarchy is richly rewarded and honoured. On the Jacobite side, Charles condemns the poor loyalty of the Scots and flees with their finances, never looking back. O'Sullivan is later knighted, while Murray is blamed for a defeat due to tactics over which he had no control.

The ensuing rout has far-reaching implications. It marks the failure of the last land battle to be fought in Britain, and the last attempt to overthrow the establishment. Following the Battle of Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland - later known to Scots as 'Cumberland the Butcher' - oversees the 'pacification' of the Highlands, a brutal campaign of terror against the surviving Highlanders. According to Watkins, this forms the start of the systematic and genocidal destruction of an indigenous race, as Highlanders are massacred or forced to relocate, as part of the English Protestant ruling class's concerted attempt to assert its right to rule, killing and terrorising in the name of preserving peace.