Scotland’s Shame: The Aftermath of Culloden

On Monday afternoon I visited the National Museum of Scotland here in Edinburgh to view the Jacobite exhibit – Which I would highly recommend.

There were numerous fascinating trinkets, weapons, garments and art pieces, as well as a letter written by a young Bonnie Prince Charlie which I found particularly captivating.

The exhibition overall was fantastic and one couldn't help sympathising with the Jacobite cause. They are romanticised in modern culture; The deposed monarchy striving to reclaim their birthright, supported by noble highland clans.

The old order versus the new.

The political upheaval of the time and the Jacobite Wars themselves are a broad subject and one I would recommend looking into. However I could not help but think about the aftermath of the '45 uprising – And the social and cultural impact of this event in British history.

The Jacobite defeat at Culloden was nothing short of a massacre. In the space of a few hours, thousands of Jacobite rebels were killed by the ruthless efficient machine that was the British Army. A force that was led by the equally ruthless Duke of Cumberland.

In the weeks, months and years following this disastrous event the British administration – aided by Scottish loyalists – carried out the systematic deconstruction of Scotland's cultural and social traditions.

Of course, highland culture had differed from lowland for quite some time, and there is no denying that the near continuous rebellion from a portion of Scotlands clans had a highly disruptive effect on progress in the British Isles.

The 1745 uprising however provided an opportunity to completely dissolve social structures that had existed for centuries and replace them with a modern system that was cold, alien and cared little for the previous cultural norms.

The Highland Clearances were nothing short of ethnic cleansing, and it is a period in British history that is largely swept under the rug.

A Whirlwind of Change

The initial response to the Jacobite defeat was a brutal series of reprisals across the north of Scotland. Those who had managed to flee the bloodbath outside Inverness were chased to all four corners of Scotland. Thousands of men, young and old, were interned and untold numbers were simply murdered.

For time immemorial, those who bear the brunt of war are the innocent and defenceless, and in this instance we see the burning of farms, homesteads and villages. Women and children driven from their homes based on the suspicion that they were involved in seditious activities – In many cases they simply were not.

Tartan, which had for centuries stood as a defining cultural garment in Scotland, was banned. In addition to this the owning of weapons and the use of bagpipes was prohibited – They were deemed 'symbols' of war.

Even in these early days we see a clear signal that Highland culture was being systematically disintegrated by the southern monarchy.

Accounts of the time detail troops entering villages and separating the children from their families. Upon being interrogated, if the children spoke Gaelic, the consequences were dire. To the British regime this was a signal that highlanders were – illegally – maintaining their traditions.

Focusing on the legality of these actions, it seems unthinkable that such barbaric sanctions against Highland culture were legally authorised, yet they were.

The Act of Proscription (1746) gave the British military legal authority to begin these series of actions against highland clans. And although this act was repealed some years later, by then the damage was done.

From the perspective of the regime, it was a necessary evil to prevent future disruption. After all, despite the Jacobite cause garnering support across the British Isles, the lions share of fighting men came from highland clans still loyal to the exiled Stewart's.

The Scottish clan system had long been a thorn in the side of the British regime and to pacify this threat would allow them to focus on larger issues across the globe and prevent foreign meddling in Britain. The French and the Papacy had long supported the Jacobites, and with this threat neutralised the British aristocracy could sleep easier.

A Mass Migration

A broader plan was at work in the immediate aftermath of Culloden.

Although these actions appear to be an attempt to pacify dissent among Scottish clans and prevent future disruption, the reality is that many coveted lands within Scotland.

It was, to an extent, an untapped land of resources that had long stagnated under archaic systems of landownership. The wealth that could be generated through agriculture in the Scottish Highlands was the 18th century equivalent of Scotland's gas and oil reserves – Many wanted a piece of the pie.

In the decades to come the complete destruction of Scotlands clan systems would be complete. And with land previously held by pro-Jacobite clans now granted to loyalists, there was but one more thorn in their side; The people inhabiting these lands.

Scotlands aristocracy were beginning to see the benefits of increased commercialisation in the highlands. Why bother with people when livestock provide larger profits?

Tenants were on many occasions simply told they had to leave. No compensation was provided and no mercy was granted. They would leave by their own accord or be removed forcefully.

Sadly, many experienced the latter of these two options. You can see the legacy of this policy across the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Entire villages emptied and left to ruin – A harrowing image of a society that essentially disappeared.

Local accounts from the time detail entire villages, with up to 200+ homes burning at one time. These brutal practices displaced hundreds at a time, and yet when legal challenges were presented, the verdicts were often favourable to the landowners.

Scotland's Role In The Empire

The decades following Culloden had seen an increase in highlanders joining the British military.

These men were welcomed with open arms, as naturally they were viewed as an expendable labour force with an appetite for conflict. The role that Scottish troops would go on to play in British Empire cannot be understated however.

In the Revolutionary Wars in the decades following the '45 Rebellion, Scottish troops were the staple infantrymen in the Americas. Scots would go on to fight across the globe and earn a reputation as one of the worlds elite fighting forces, matched only by a select few.

This poses an interesting question however: Given the number of Scots who fought against the Jacobites in '45, one must wonder how many Scottish regiments came up against the descendants of other pro-Jacobite Scots in the following decades?

A Legacy of Ashes

Sadly for Scotland, this period in its history – one that spanned over a century – is often overlooked. Thousands of Scots forced from their ancestral homes and into abject poverty or to the new world.

Culloden was not the sole reason behind this period, it merely presented an opportunity that many could pounce upon.

An agricultural revolution was dawning in the Scottish highlands and sheep, along with other livestock and farming practices were viewed as more profitable that the outdated subsistence farming that existed there for centuries.

The people were viewed cheaply and with enormous contempt by many across Britain, but most heartbreakingly by their compatriots in the highlands.

Modern commentators agree that this period in Scottish history is undeniably categorised as ethnic cleansing, and it is a black mark that should not be forgotten.


4 thoughts on “Scotland’s Shame: The Aftermath of Culloden

Add yours

  1. Thanks for reading! I’ll definitely look into your piece as well my friend. Indeed it is, and sadly a period in my nations’ history that many refuse to even acknowledge or address.

    It’s legacy can still be seen all over the highlands in ruined villages, once teaming with life.


  2. Ethnic cleansing. Too true. People made homeless, livlihoods destroyed, starved to death or shot or burned. People killed for speaking the only language they knew, or for wearing the only clothes they owned. Scotland’s population is one tenth that of England’s, this is why.
    This was Britain’s Holocaust.


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