Robbie MacNiven explores the fate of the Scots who survived Culloden.
On a bitterly cold April afternoon in 1746, on moorland just east of the town of Inverness, the power of Scotland’s Highland clans was forever broken. The Battle of Culloden Moor marked not just the final defeat of Charles Edward Stuart and his Jacobite followers, but also the destruction of the deeply ingrained martial aspect of Gaelic Highland life.
Whilst Jacobitism was a pan-British cause, the final rebellion of 1745 would not have been possible without the efforts of thousands of Highland clansmen. The British government, long exasperated by what it saw as the lawless north, used its new-found military supremacy in the wake of Culloden to pass the Acts of Proscription.
These represented nothing less than an attempt to dismantle the ancient clan structure. Highlanders were forbidden to carry weapons such as muskets, dirks, or the famous broadsword. Highland dress was outlawed. The playing of the bagpipes was banned. Prayers for the Hanoverian monarch and his family were imposed before school lessons every day. Fines, imprisonment, and exile awaited those clansmen who dared defy the new laws.
It is here that the popular histories often end, the romantic image of the Highlander – the noble savage – thereby pickled for posterity.
In reality the warlike customs of the Gael for long persisted, only now they were channelled overseas in the service of the British Empire. Highland regiments became integral components of the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the post-Culloden careers of a number of prominent former Jacobites. Such men were at the forefront of Britain’s 18th-century imperial expansion, fighting hard for the Establishment they had defied for the last time in April 1746. To end their stories at Culloden does them a grave disservice.
Of all the Jacobites who survived Culloden, perhaps the most famous is Simon Fraser of Lovat. Born in 1726 the son of one of Scotland’s most infamous Jacobite nobles, he led his clansmen at Culloden in support of Charles Stuart.
Legend claims that, as the Jacobite army disintegrated, a British officer (some say the infamous General Hawley, others the Duke of Cumberland himself) ordered a subordinate, Major James Wolfe, to shoot Fraser. Wolfe refused, and Fraser escaped. His father was not so lucky, and became the last man in Britain to suffer execution by public beheading.
After such traumatic exertions for the Jacobite cause, it might be imagined that Fraser would remain an eternal, embittered enemy of the House of Hanover. Such a view, however, would overlook the reality of Highland life following 1746.
The clan system was in decline long before the death-blow of Culloden. Crop failure, disease, economic downturn, and a lack of decent employment prospects all combined to ensure that throughout the 1740s and 50s thousands of Highlanders, many of them young and active men like Fraser, were seeking escape.
The Act of Proscription provided a way out, for it was a deliberately double-edged sword – whilst it banned the traditional form of the martial culture so central to Highland life, it permitted a new form of it to flourish in the service of the British Army.
Highlanders who took the King’s shilling and donned the red coat could again carry their swords and muskets and wear the plaid and bonnet, recapturing the essence of their warlike traditions.
Fighting Indians and the French
These incentives combined with their dire economic situation overcame much of the animosity felt by Highland Scots towards the British Establishment. All that was needed was a conflict through which to channel the restless Gael’s energies. When war with France again broke out in 1755, the perfect theatre presented itself: North America.
The French and Indian aspect of the Seven Years War proved to be a sharp learning curve for the British Army, plunging it into an alien wilderness inhabited by a fearsome, unconventional foe. British officers like James Wolfe, who had served in the suppression of the Jacobite risings in Scotland, recognised the potential value of the Highlanders in America, accustomed as they were to rugged terrain and hard living.
When the British government authorised a recruitment drive amongst the clans that had once defied it, Simon Fraser was the first to answer the call. Disaffected, destitute Highlander youths rallied to their clansman’s banner – 800 in all. These men were quickly organised into the 78th Highland Regiment, also known as Fraser’s Highlanders.
Simon Fraser and his regiment, along with its twin, the 77th or Montgomery’s Highlanders, served at the forefront of the war in America, and were present at James Wolfe’s defining victory on the Plains of Abraham in 1759.
Nor did their service end with Britain’s triumph. When war again flared in the colonies in 1775, the regiment was reinstated, and went on to serve again with distinction. By this point, Fraser had gone full circle, from rebel to government soldier serving to suppress rebels.
This is an extract from an article that appeared in issue 52 of Military History Monthly.
Robbie MacNiven is a University of Edinburgh history graduate currently enrolled in the School of War Studies at Glasgow University. In his spare time he volunteers as a re-enactor at the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre.