After Culloden: from rebels to Redcoats

3 mins read

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.

The Battle of Culloden, 1746: the last stand of the clan system and its warrior tradition. Image: WIPL.

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.

Simon Fraser

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.

What did Highland warriors do after the defeat of the clans at Culloden? As this Italian print of a Highland soldier who served in the British Army during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) makes clear: one way of preserving the warrior tradition was to join the victorious army. Image: WIPL.

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.


  1. Culloden was not the disaster we have been led to believe. In fact, according to my ancestor, who was there, it was a damned close run thing. He was Keppoch’s bodyguard, but his praise was reserved for others when he said “Nobody fought like the Chisholms, If only they had been a bigger clan, we would have carried the day.” The real disaster was Charlie’s decision to give up the fight. The troops who rallied at Ruthven a few days later were in high spirits and brimming with confidence in anticipation of a re-match. They had got rid of the French whose treachery at Culloden (and before) had bedevilled them. Clan chiefs were later quick to claim credit for the huge numbers of Highlanders joining the British Army when the real reason was to get the chance of revenge on the French. This was exemplified in 1815 at Waterloo, when, late in the day, a massive column of French guards launched a surprise attack, The Gordon Highlanders (raised in Brae Lochaber, Keppoch’s country) were exhausted, but as grandsons of the men of Keppoch’s regiment at Culloden, they rose to the occasion to have another go at the French. According to a French officer, interviewed later, infantry was essential to break into one of these columns, but once they did so, if cavalry followed, then the column was lost. Basically, the Gordons kicked in the door and the Scots Greys thundered past to complete the rout, the guys in each regiment shouting to each other “Scotland for ever!”

    • I appear to have an ancestor – an Alexander Duffus – from Fochabers arrested after Culloden for “lurking” and I’m looking for resources to research what might have happened to him after that time. Tried? Transported? Released? Even executed? As well-versed in the details of Culloden as your post indicates, if you have any advice for me, I’d be most appreciative.

      • I remember writing this piece but forgot about it until stumbling on it just now. As it happens, I just came across the term “lurking” a few hours ago. Check out Glasgow University’s School of Critical Studies and you may find the answer.

    • I have Fraser ancestor who came over to America under the name John Frazier. I can’t find anything about him other than presumed DOB 1695 and DOD 1745. Wife listed as Penelope, and their son Thomas born 1704/8.
      I thought he might be son of Lt Colin Frizzle/Frazier and his wife Ann Woven, but can find no supporting documents for that link.

    • I have Fraser ancestor who came over to America under the name John Frazier. I can’t find anything about him other than presumed DOB 1695 and DOD 1745. Wife listed as Penelope, and their son Thomas born 1704/8.
      I thought he might be son of Lt Colin Frizzle/Frazier and his wife Ann Wicom, but can find no supporting documents for that link.

  2. Having visited Tilbury fort in Essex, about 250 prisoner’s from the battle were held there,a list of all inmates and what happened to them is on the wall as you enter,I hope this is of interest.

  3. I hope you don’t mind my questioning your statement that Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat was the last man in Britain to be beheaded. This ignominious fate is reserved for Andrew Hardie and John Baird in 1820 who were part of the Radical Rising in Scotland, which, like the ’45 Rebellion, was brutally put down with extreme violence. They were both executed in Stirling on the 8th September, hung first and their heads then struck off, John Baird’s being the last. The large crowd booed and jeered the executioner and troops had to present arms to maintain order.

  4. I still find people, who call themselves historians, ignoring some of the key elements of Culloden. I can understand that the story of Highlanders rushing out before the battle to fire pistols and wave swords in an effort to induce an attack, is regarded as nonsense (which it is). But nobody has bothered to check what really happened and what this fairy tale was invented to cover. What really happened was the most important event of the day, and one of the most important events of the entire ’45.

  5. I’m curious to know what sort of weapons were actually recovered at Culloden. I’ve read the Jacobite army left behind almost 2,000 firelock muskets of various calibres. The image of the highlander with his targe and baskethilt broadsword may be misleading as many of the highland men may have been poorly armed with whatever weapons they could find when called up to the Jacobite standard. I’ve often wondered how they would have fared against the English if they had had a few hundred Welsh longbowmen. Of course a big part of their defeat was the fault of Sullivan and Charles choosing an open moor instead of a river crossing with plenty of cover.

  6. Its hard to believe that James Wolfe refused orders from Cumberland, I’m sure Wolfe lead his men into the Highlands, to kill women and children of the Jacobite family’s . a few years later he would be dead at the hands of the French !

    • Stunningly poor English and punctuation and especially history. His integrity was what the Highlanders, under his command in Canada, admired most and he is famous for dying in the arms of a Fraser Highlander. In that regiment was my umpteenth great grandfather, the descendants of whose first wife (I’m descended from his second) inherited his Cape Breton land grant and are still there.

  7. I find this all very sad. The aftermath of Culloden was horrifying, and I feel for the Highlanders who fought so bravely – not to mention the poor devils who were cut down afterwards. No wonder the Scots are so fiercely nationalist and want to preserve their customs. I adore Scotland, a truly magical place.

    • Highland regiments and clans fought on both sides of this war with both sides seeking to rule the UK and Ireland, the romantic notion this was a Scottish war of independence is historical fallacy. This was a political fight not a nationalist one.

    • I like what you say. The story of Culloden is 90% false, as Cumberland admits in a letter to the Secretary of State a few days later. He nearly lost it, which is what made him turn so nasty. I’ve never heard of anyone in history turning nasty after a huge victory. We’ve all been conned.

  8. I am interested in what happened to Gaelic names after Culloden. For over 150 years my ancestors could not trace our family name (Brown) past the mid-18th century. We recently learned that prior to Culloden my family name was McGilMichal, but was changed to Brown. I have heard that in order to avoid the English crackdown after the battle, many men with “Gaelic-sounding” names changed them, often to Brown, Green or White. Can anyone direct me to historical sources about this phenomenon?

  9. I am a descendant of MacBean clan. My ancestors were shipped to Canada, then made their way to Ohio, then yrs later some migrated to Utah. After leaving Scotland, they dropped the Mac, and went by Bean. Descendant of a John MacBean (Baine). My mothers side was scottish as well and they migrated to Wales after Culloden.

  10. I’m of clan MacLachlan. We were staunch Jacobites. My family goes back to the 1600s, but alas I have found nobody I am related to that fought in this historic battle.
    I like you mention that the highland way of life was already declining before Culloden. That’s an interesting historical nugget.

  11. I am a descendant of Angus MacDonnel, who, at 18 years of age, fought and survived the battle of Culloden. He escaped to America, and settled in VA.

    I am only now learning of this ancestor.
    We will be visiting Scotland soon and will go to the Culloden Battle museum.
    Interesting history…!

    • I’m a descendant of Alexander MackIntosh who fought at Culloden. Did he survive? Some records say he died in Virginia, America around 1750, but I am unable to find anything. I’m not sure if he survived and escaped to America, or died in Scotland.

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