A low mist rolled slowly over the bodies of the slain, the air thick with the smoke of cannon fire and gunpowder. I braced myself yet again as I saw the line of five thousand government soldiers on the other side of Culloden Moor, red coats shining through the smog as they raise their muskets to unleash yet another volley upon us. I had used the last of the ammunition for my own musket long ago, as had most of my clansmen, Clan Stewart of Appin, who stood resolutely around me, prepared for the oncoming slaughter. Three thousand tartan-clad warriors were arrayed against His Majesty’s men in all, and we were falling to their artillery in droves.
The Redcoats had been pursuing us for weeks, all the way from Derbyshire in England. I joined the Jacobite army as it was moving through southern Scotland, on the warpath to invade London. As a subtenant of Clan Stewart, I had no choice but to join the fight when the tacksmen mobilised the Clan Host to march by the side of Charles Edward Stuart, the self-declared Prince Regent of Scotland. I soon forgot that I had not chosen this war as we won victory after victory, the famed Highland Charge decimating the government forces in every encounter. At Derbyshire, though, we were told to turn back. The false Protestant king, William III, had supposedly amassed a force nine thousand men strong on the road to London, in anticipation of our arrival. The Prince did not believe it, but the clan chieftains refused to progress any further under such a threat. And now we are here, the Redcoats have finally caught up with us in the marshy fields of Culloden Moor. Prince Charles has had enough of running. We have been ordered to fight. MacDonald, MacLachlan, Stewart, Cameron, and fifteen other clans form the line that faced the enemy.
“Why have we not been given the order?” The leader of our regiment, Lord Charles Stuart of Ardsheal, wondered aloud angrily. “We’re naught but target practice for them here.”
The sentiment was met with many grumbled murmurs of agreement around me, and the truth of it was undeniable. Culloden was a rough yet level field, allowing us no convenient cover from the Redcoat’s inarguably superior artillery. At first we had returned fire, but quickly our reserves of ammunition ran dry, and our own cannons were rendered all but useless when we discovered that our 3-pounders had nothing but 4-pounder calibre shot. And so we stood, absorbing the Redcoat assault with no way to return fire. The distance between the two lines was enough that most of the incoming barrage fell short, but several dozen unfortunate souls had already fallen from those luckier shots.
“Calum, attend me,” Lord Stuart commanded, breaking away from the rest of the regiment. I hastened to follow.
We wove our way through the rows of highland men-at-arms, my own grim, hopeless expression reflected on their faces. We pushed by the elite warriors of Clan Cameron’s regiment and the regiment of Atholl until we finally broke through the sea of tartan-clad soldiers. General George Murray stood with his men a few feet behind the front line, surveying the battlefield with an unreadable expression.
“Lord Murray, what is the meaning of this?” Lord Stuart announced as we approached. “Where is the command to charge? My men are losing morale!”
Murray looked at us, and his expression changed to one of frustration bordering on rage. “It is not come,” he replied solemnly. “Our Prince has decided that we are to wait for the enemy to advance first.”
I could not believe it. My gaze turned toward the second line, scanning the banners fluttering at the end of long wooden poles until I located the Prince’s standard. There he was, Bonnie Prince Charlie, as the lads called him, the leader for whom I now fought. He sat astride his light grey horse, tall and handsome like a hero from the songs. He surveyed the field, squinting to see through the mist and smoke. He seemed confused, turning frequently to his aides with questions or demands, but I was too far away to hear anything that was said. This was our fearless leader, meant to liberate us from the tyranny of the false German King in London. After so many victories and not a single defeat, the whole Jacobite army looked up to him as the salvation of our cause. How could he sit there, now, and allow us to die?
“Return to your company, Charles, and await the order,” General Murray commanded. As Lord Stuart and I walked away, I looked back to see General Murray whisper something urgently to one of his men, who in turn broke away from the regiment and ran toward the Prince’s escort.
For almost an hour we stood in the front line, facing the Redcoat cannons and musket fire, unmoving though our friends, brothers, and clansmen fell to the steady rain of fire from across the field. I looked at the faces around me, and saw hope seep away from every expression, to be replaced by grim resignation or, in some faces, fear. Our Bonnie Prince Charlie was letting us die. Murmurs of dissent broke out around me, talk of deserting the fight before it was too late. I expected Lord Stuart to silence these treasonous musings, but instead he simply stood, staring ahead at the massive line of the government forces, his face expressionless.
“A’ Mhòr-fhaiche!” Suddenly, a battle cry rose from down the line on my left, started by a lone warrior but soon echoed by the three hundred highland warriors of Clan Fraser. Then, as one, they charged forward, broadswords flashing in the streams of sunlight pouring down through the haze. I gaped at them, struck by their bravery and stupidity. Now the Redcoats had a legitimate target to focus their fire on.
The front ranks of Clan Fraser fell rapidly under the focused fire of musket and cannon from the government forces, but they pressed on regardless, leaping over the bodies of the fallen as they continued their deadly highlander’s charge, shields held forward and broadswords raised high above their heads. Other regiments of clansmen began to follow suit. On our right, Clan Cameron and the Atholl brigade began to move forward, gradually shifting from a steady stride to a full charge, joining their voices Clan Fraser’s with their own battle cries.
I looked around, to my fellow clansmen and to our Lord Stuart. Many looked on forlornly, watching their foolhardy brethren rush to their death. Others seemed anxious to join the fray, swords unsheathed and shields raised. Lord Stuart looked on, unmoving. Upon his face I saw the conflict in his mind play out, loyalty to his Prince fighting a losing battle against the urge to join his kin.
Unfortunately, the decision was made for him. “The Prince has ordered a charge!” Came the cry from a messenger sent from General Murray. “Charge! Charge!”
And so we charged. We charged like the hounds of hell were at our heels, into the jaws of inevitable death. I had not time to heed the feeling of dread that had set my heart beating like a snare drum, or the cold sweat that covered my skin. In chorus with my clan, I screamed our war cry, releasing every emotion I could muster in a yell that emptied my lungs of air and burned through my vocal chords: “Creag an Sgairbh!”
Along our back line, the bagpipes of a dozen clans began to bellow in a chaotic frenzy, the frantic music motivating our charge. The bodies of Frasers and Cameron riddle the wet, uneven ground ahead, causing me to stumble on and fall behind the front line. I did not dare to look down, lest my gaze was met with the sightless eyes of the dead or dying who dared charge ahead of me.
Suddenly, the cannon fire began anew from the Redcoat line, but this time something was different. As the shells explode on the ground, thousands of small pieces of lethal metal flew in every direction, felling several highlanders at once with each volley. They had begun to fire grapeshot at us. We needed to close the distance, otherwise the cannon fire would tear us to shreds.
Ahead, I saw the front line of Clan Fraser finally reach the enemy line, smashing into the Redcoats’ bayonets with overpowering force. For a few precious moments, the line faltered, and with Clan Cameron’s elite fighters close behind, the Redcoat line soon broke completely, and the Highland Charge continued through. With renewed vigour, Clan Stewart unleashed another battle cry and charged all the faster, but I did not join them.
I looked instead down the row of charging Scots, noticing the uneven line charging forward at an angle. Many of the clan regiments were joining our charge near the southern end of the Redcoat line, breaking away from those regiments to the north and creating a wide opening in the middle of the charging Jacobite force. Through the newly-made gap in the southern line of Redcoats I saw their second line, led by the all-too-familiar figure of the Duke of Cumberland, betrayed by his girth upon his dark brown steed. In my mind I could see what was to come: The Redcoat second line would encircle the Jacobites that had broken through the first line, while the front line would close in, completely encircling the bunched-up charge of the clans, while the group of clansmen from the northern line, slowed by the thick mud at their end of the field, would be completely decimated by the continuing rain of cannon and musket fire. In that moment, I knew that we had lost. It was going to be a massacre.
“Turn back!” I screamed as loud as I could to the warriors charging ahead of me, but my cries fell on deaf ears. I tried feebly to grab the clansmen that ran past me, but I was ignored or pushed away. Finally, though, the charging highlanders began to realise their folly. As the front line clashed with the second line of Redcoat soldiers, dozens were slain by the thrust of bayonets. The Redcoats were employing a new tactic, it seemed. As the highlanders charged in, shields ready to deflect the bayonet of the soldier immediately ahead of him, the Redcoat soldier to his right or left would lunge instead, scoring a lethal strike in the highlander’s undefended side. The charge soon lost momentum, as they were unable to break through the second line. More and more Scotsmen fell to Redcoat bayonets.
I suppose that I should feel shame for my cowardice. But when I saw my kinfolk dying by the hundreds without seeming to have any impact on the line of government soldiers, I did not think twice. I turned and fled. The day was lost. As I turned, I saw my fears confirmed by Lord George Murray’s company riding after the charge, calling for a retreat. In the distance, I saw other retreating clansmen; deserters, running for their lives.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart, our Bonnie Prince Charlie, was dismounted, begging each passing man to turn back and fight. As I ran past, he grabbed me firmly by the arm to stop my retreat. “Do not go!” He begged in his odd European accent. “The day is not lost yet. By the grace of God we shall pull through!” I looked into his eyes: young eyes, some decades younger than my own. Eyes filled with youthful naivety, diluted with disappointment. Eyes that begged me to stay and fight.
I wrenched my arm away, and Bonnie Prince Charlie considered me with a regretful glance, before turning away to address other retreaters from the battlefield. I looked back at the carnage, and saw the bodies piling as the Redcoats finally advanced toward the Jacobite back line. The battlefield was littered with our dead; for every red coat that I saw among the slain, there was at least six bloodied tartans. As the Redcoat line moved forward, I saw them drive their bayonets into the chest of any wounded highlander that they happened across. I had seen enough.
My heart heavy with anger and sorrow, I joined the crowd of retreating Jacobites, running away from the death and destruction wrought that day upon the field at Culloden Moor. I learned later that fifteen hundred Scottish clansmen fell that day, taking only three hundred Redcoats with them. In the aftermath, the Duke of Cumberland earned the nickname “Butcher” as he ordered his men to give no quarter. Hundreds were slain and hundreds more imprisoned, pending deportation or execution. I fled deep into the lowlands, seeking shelter with kinfolk who had not sided with the Jacobite cause, where I remain to this day, for if I am ever found to have had any connection to the Jacobites or to Charles Stuart’s rebellion, I will be executed without trial. Of our Bonnie Prince Charlie, I have heard nothing. There is a rumour that he fled to Benbecula, or that he has already found passage back to the mainland. Would that I had gone with him. Clan Stewart of Appin is all but destroyed, all of my kin either dead at Culloden or rotting in an English jail. The Scotland we dreamed of, it seems, is never to be. And that Scotland I once knew will never be the same again. I, Calum Stewart of Appin, am now a stranger in my own land.