Cutting through Muddled Memory: Murray Pittock’s Culloden

A few months ago, I delved into the history of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 through Jacqueline Rider’s Jacobites (reviewed here). My quest for greater knowledge was more than sated, though it came with a deluge of minute detail. Curious whether I could find a more engaging narrative of the ‘45, I recently turned to Murray Pittock’s installment on Culloden in Oxford University Press’s Great Battles series. A short work of barely more than one hundred and fifty pages, Culloden unfortunately flew wide of my mark, yet surprised me in the best of ways.

None of those ways included Pittock’s treatment of  the campaign of the Rising or the Battle of Culloden itself. Both of these are fairly standard regimental military history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; I couldn’t escape minute details in Jacobites, and I couldn’t escape them here either. The progress of the battle in particular is a litany of commanders, regiments, battalions, companies, and numbers. This may be fine or even positive for a reader already acquainted with the battle or generally interested in this kind of military history, but for those who are not, it can be a bit of a nonsensical slog. Conversely, very few details are provided concerning the course of the ‘45 and the campaign that led to Culloden. Readers must come with a functioning knowledge of the Rising to even make sense of Pittock’s narrative and analysis.

Where Culloden fails as a general history of its eponymous battle, it succeeds brilliantly as an interpretation of historical memory and historiographical revision. Pittock claims that Culloden is the most mis-remembered battle outside of living memory, and it is hard to disagree. The significance and symbolism assigned to the battle have far-reaching and resonating consequences even today. The needs of a unified, modernizing British state and empire and, later, a neutered romantic Scottish nationalism have resulted in Culloden being portrayed as a clash between doomed, valiant Highlanders, armed only with broadswords and their own masculine courage, and the modern, professional, British (rather than English) army (a sentiment repeated mostly verbatim by many modern historians). The battlefield itself has since become a hallowed grave site and pilgrimage, though it took more than a century before Jacobitism was no longer considered too dangerous to profess openly. Pittock’s re-analysis of primary sources and examination of recent archaeology goes far in dispelling these notions, showing Prince Charles’ army to be a modern, professionally-drilled force almost universally equipped with firearms and not remotely a “Highland army” (if indeed the idea of ‘Highlanders’ as a separate culture is even valid). It is a pity that his other claims and refutations could not receive the same in-depth treatment rather than offhand dismissal.

Despite its brevity, Culloden is not for the faint of heart. If armed with prior knowledge, however, Pittock provides the reader a fascinating analysis of how this one relatively minor engagement has echoed and been used so powerfully throughout nearly three centuries.

3 thoughts on “Cutting through Muddled Memory: Murray Pittock’s Culloden

  1. Nice review! Yet another fascinating example of sympathy for the ‘underdogs’ creating historical bias. Out of curiosity, are you using the word “Highlander” to encompass the romanticized vision of Scottish men “armed only with broadswords and their own masculine courage” or to mean literally people from the highlands of Scotland? Because I was under the impression that a large majority of Prince Charles’ fighting force was indeed made up of “Highlanders”, or people who were clansmen originating in the highlands, thus making it a “Highland army” in the most literal sense.

    1. So was I! I got the impression that he’s written more about it elsewhere, but Pittock’s reappraisal of the sources and archaeology has led him to conclude that Charles’ army actually wasn’t a majority-Highlander army. Lowland Scots, Irish, French, and Scottish Expat French were all in its ranks in large numbers.

      1. How interesting! I wonder if that misconception was started by the English attempting to accent the “barbarity” of the Scots or the Scots attempting to romanticize their fallen way of life?

Leave a Reply