Letter from the past makes history live

Katey Boal
Katey Boal
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I am looking forward to 2017; the Year of History Heritage and Archaeology is a fantastic reason to celebrate our unrivalled inheritance from the past.

One of the cornerstones of the programme is a partnership between the National Trust for Scotland, National Museums Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland and the Royal Collection Trust to tell the story of the Jacobites. This will lead to a summer blockbuster exhibition with links to historic sites throughout Scotland.

The Culloden Battlefield. Photo Robert Perry Scotland on Sunday.

The Culloden Battlefield. Photo Robert Perry Scotland on Sunday.

As learning manager for The National Trust for Scotland’s Culloden Battlefield, I am very excited about the programme of events. It is a fantastic opportunity to highlight historic sites around our country. The Highlands, where I am based, is a treasure trove of history. There are community museums, magnificent landscapes and, of course, Culloden. For those who have never visited the site, there is plenty to see and do that explores what happened on 16 April 1746, why the battle was fought and the effect it had.

Big events aside, it is the personal stories that make history real for me.

One of those stories, the tale of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, has often been told. It seems that familiarity has bred, not contempt, but perhaps indifference. Many people who think of him beyond the shortbread tin image often have perceptions coloured by accounts that have been repeated so often they barely register.

That may change: Culloden is lucky enough to have benefited from a “mystery purchase” made by the NTS at an auction in May 2014 that restores the prince to the status of a real person. Bought using charitable funds, a letter written by the Prince to his cousin, the King of France, 270 years ago reveals Charles’ all too human ambition and desperation. This letter, and a covering note to France’s Minister of War, the Marquis d’Argenson, is now held in trust for the nation at Culloden and is accessible to the public for the first time.

Addressed to King Louis XV, the letter was written in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. Charles relates his own version of the battle and tries to persuade his kinsman that it is still possible for him to win back the crown for the deposed Stuarts.

Charles was writing on 15 November 1746, barely six weeks after his escape to France from Loch nan Uamh in Lochaber, having been in flight and then sheltered on Skye.

History has not always been kind to Charles, if he is not overly romanticised he is often portrayed as fey and incompetent. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. We cannot forget he inspired an army and the faith of the Highland clans. His words provide a wonderful insight into his mental state and give us some idea of the force of his personality.

Addressing “Monsieur Mon Frere et Cousin”, Charles offers to come incognito to a secret rendezvous of the King’s choosing to explain himself. He says that if he had had only 3,000 regular French troops, he could have invaded England immediately after victory at the Battle of Prestonpans and nothing would have stopped his march on London. Further, if he had been better provisioned by Louis in first place, he would have been able to pursue General Hawley at the Battle of Falkirk and destroy his entire army. If even half the money sent to him by Louis had come earlier, Charles asserted that he could have fought the Duke of Cumberland with equal numbers and won at Culloden.

There may some truth in what he says, but it is clear he is making an argument for “one more push” – asserting that the “setback” of Culloden can be reversed if 20,000 soldiers accompany him back to Scotland. Despite his eloquence, Charles’ pleas failed to register with Louis. The French king had already beaten the British Army in Flanders and decided that his strategy had been achieved without the need for another Jacobite uprising.

Ironically, events had been set in train that would see combatants from both sides at Culloden involved in ejecting French power from North America and in turn setting course towards the birth of the United States and modern Canada.

If you come to see Charles’ letter at the Culloden Battlefield visitor centre, you will have the opportunity to see his handwriting, sense his urgency and experience an immediate connection to a past that deserves to be better understood.

Katey Boal is the National Trust for Scotland’s Learning Manager at 
Culloden Battlefield.