The Battle of Culloden, 1746

I had a chance to visit the battlefield this year. “Culloden”—just the name itself—has the kind of clout that an American might feel about “Gettysburg.” [1] It’s a big deal.

This is the piece of Culloden that has stuck in my mind. This is a photo I took on the battlefield itself. I don’t think of myself as sensitive to poetry, but every now and then, some way of drawing pictures with words just reaches out and grabs me. This was one of those. [2]IMG_0242.jpeg

Aoghas MacNeacail wrote that, as you see, in 2012, but it is written from the perspective of a soldier who fought on the side of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746.

Here are a few things I noticed at the time and that have stayed with me. The first is the lower case p- in “prince.” That is considerably less than “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” It is less that he was used to receiving, as the head of the Stuart attempt to regain the throne but it is only what he deserves, according to MacNeacail. It goes in the direction of putting the title in quotation marks, as if the claim itself were spurious or shameful.

The second is “we followed you.” That’s personal. You can hear the disappointment in later words like “ocean” and “desert.” In point of fact, these soldiers did follow Bonnie Prince Charlie rather than his military advisors. [3] The standard highland battle tactic depended on speed of attack. Hundreds of clansmen yelling and running down the hill at you functioned as a kind of blitzkrieg. Culloden was flat. It was also marshy. [4] There were solid military reasons not to fight there that day, but Bonnie Prince Charlie insisted on it and I think MacNeacail has that in mind in “we followed you.”

I also think he means to refer to the personal following. Prince Charlie was a charmer. He left a lot of meetings with consent in his pocket that had not looked at all likely at the beginning of the meeting. He was charismatic. That attracts followers. But when the failure comes, it is the person and the relationship that bears the brunt. “You failed us” is implicit in the personalization of the charge.

The third is “this ocean.” Admittedly, the pointing finger represented by “this” requires that the poem be read on the battlefield itself. I think “to an ocean” would have been OK, and what can you do, really, when the sign is elsewhere. But “this” makes you want to stop reading and look around to see what “this” means and I did that.

Third, what you see when you look around is not a “desert” in every sense of the word. There are tourists everywhere, so it is not “deserted.” Does MacNeacail mean that the soldiers were deserted by some Gaelic equivalent of Lady Luck? Were they deserted by good military sense? Were they deserted Prince Charlie himself, who was taken away from the battlefield unharmed, unlike the 1500—2000 of his army killed or wounded?

It doesn’t take sand and palm trees to make a place a desert. It takes no one living there. It is a place made for despair and grief and calling this flat boggy land a desert catches some of that.

Finally, I was struck by the pairing of “flatness and bullets.” Those don’t really belong together and I suspect that is why it struck me so forcibly. It was a “desert of flatness,” as I pointed out above, and also a “desert of bullets.” The forces under Cumberland had much better firepower. They had cannons firing grapeshot. They cut the charging highlanders to bits.

I hear the pairing of “flatness and bullets” as a way of picturing that desolation. The fact that those two unrelated words are paired makes them both more powerful to me. This is a lament I think I will never forget. [5]

[1] And those are not the only similarities.
[2] I had a feeling much like this one when, in high school, I first “saw” this picture in McBeth. “Sleep, which knits up the raveled sleeve of care.” I felt that all at one time and I just put my book down on my desk for a little while so the moment wouldn’t go away.
[3] In another Gettysburg similarity, the choice of that battlefield was a risk and it is a risk Robert E. Lee himself decided on. General Stonewall Jackson made himself notorious afterwards by continuing to campaign against that decision, maintaining that he had warned Lee to withdraw and fight elsewhere but Lee had refused.
[4] Some of the Scottish leaders calculated that the soft ground would be an impediment for the cavalry that the Duke of Cumberland had available, but it was not.
[5] I did read that passage from MacBeth in 1952 and it still affects me, so I have confidence that Culloden will stay with me as well.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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