Amazing discoveries, 250 years after Culloden

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WEARING a bonnet and dressed in a tartan coat, Bonnie Prince Charlie, astride his grey gelding, rode toward the flat but soggy battlefield known as Culloden Moor. Ahead of him on the right flank were the Atholl Brigade, the Camerons, the Stewarts of Appin and the Frasers – all under the leadership of Lord George Murray.

Murray, recognised as the most skilled of the Jacobite commanders, was strongly opposed to the prince's wishes to engage government rivals on this exposed site. These concerns were quickly demonstrated on 15 April 1746, when Murray's horse was shot beneath him and his wig tossed into the air. Clouds of smoke from firearms languished above the frey, punctuated by the sounds of guns thundering and men screaming in agony.

Even now, more than 250 years later, the site of the last pitched conflict on British soil and where thousands died in an hour of fighting, continues to shed more secrets for experts to examine. Some 600 musket and artillery balls, the lid of a canister of shot, pieces of firearms – even a Celtic cross – have recently been uncovered by a team directed by Dr Tony Pollard, an internationally recognised expert in battlefield archaeology.

"We are now starting to peel back the pages of history and we're giving it a unique insight," says Pollard, project manager for Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division. "Culloden has proved itself as a really valuable laboratory."

Pollard's regular visits to Culloden, near Inverness, started in 2001 when, researching for his BBC programme Two Men in a Trench, he discovered the battlefield to be much larger than originally believed. His return in 2005 followed plans by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) to develop a new visitor centre and subsequent need to investigate the site before building started. And so began a rare opportunity to rewrite history based on what is known as forensics archaeology.

"That to my mind," Pollard says, "is certainly unique in Britain and possibly in the world. Very few sites have ever been reinterpreted on the basis of archaeological field work." His discoveries have been eye-opening.

"The Jacobites and the British army were using different sizes of ammunition. We can actually tell who was firing what," he says, explaining that the British used 0.75-calibre lead musket balls, slightly larger than the French-supplied ammunition used by the Jacobites. "For a period prior to rifle bullets … it's a really quite rare and special thing to be able to recognise one side from another just using musket balls."

Pollard's team found that what was long thought to have been a quick and lopsided conflict was actually hard-fought and more intense. The Jacobites put up a greater fight, but were they closer to victory?

"It's not without a grain of truth," Pollard says. "From the archaeological evidence that we've found, we for one think that the Jacobite musketry was a lot heavier than all of the accounts say. They were using their muskets a lot more effectively and for a lot longer than the traditional accounts would have us believe.

"The British army fired the mortars in; these are explosive shells, where you've got explosive shells and fragments of hot iron floating through the air," he says.

"What we found – and one of the biggest surprises that we had – were huge fragments of mortar shell actually right in the thick of the hand-to-hand fighting. So these obviously had been fired at very close range – probably over the heads of the British troops – and to my mind that is indicative of a last-ditch effort to break up the Jacobite charge with the full realisation that this is potentially a breakthrough. And that – if nothing else – indicates the seriousness with which the Jacobite assault was being made. At least at one point, it looked as though it was going the Jacobite way."

Another aspect of the conflict that Pollard and his team would like to investigate further is the cavalry-on-cavalry exchange in the rear of the Jacobite line - but this took place on what is now private land. The battlefield is bigger than the present Culloden site owned and operated by NTS.

Now that Pollard and his team have made these exciting discoveries, there is little doubt that an insignificant obstacle such as boundries will hold them back from getting to the bottom of this historic turning point.

"It's a very complicated issue – how you actually protect something as large and as abstract as a battlefield. Culloden has proved itself as a really valuable laboratory … [and] a figurehead of battlefield research."

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