I have to be honest. I didn’t think I would go. I know, for a Scotia-phile on her first trip to Scotland that sounds like sacrilege. Madness. How could I not visit the site of the final battle that sent my Highlander ancestors from Scotland to North Carolina? How can an Outlander fan not go to Culloden? But the thing is, I’ve seen so many battlefields.
I grew up at the nexus of the Civil War. My childhood home was just a few miles from the Chancellorsville battlefield where my own three times great grandfather was killed. My first apartment was on Hanover Street in Fredericksburg just blocks away from Marye's Heights and the Sunken Road. My family's favorite vacation spot when I was young was within sight of Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Even today, I can't go to town without driving past the Stonewall Jackson Shrine (not memorial, SHRINE). After about the hundredth time visiting flat empty fields marked by plaques declaring which general did what and how many senseless deaths happened right where you're standing, a person can become inured to that kind of thing.
So, when I was planning my one week trip to Scotland and all the research that I needed to get done, Culloden didn't really factor in to that. I am writing contemporary fiction after all. But then Eric mentioned something about it, and we passed right by Culloden on our way to pick up our rental car in Inverness. So, proximity and opportunity won out and we spent a cold April morning visiting yet another battlefield. I'm so glad that we did.
There aren't many battlefields in the States with Visitors Centers as elaborate and well put together as the one at Culloden. First you walk through a thorough exhibit of the lead up to the Rising of '45, that carefully exhibits both the Jacobite and Hanover sides of the story. This culminates in a powerful, 360 degree battle reenactment video that is unflinching in its depiction of the carnage that must have taken place there. There are costumed interpreters giving hands on demonstrations of everything from daily life in the 18th century to the weapons that were used.
All of this sets the stage for the most affecting part of the tour, the moor itself. At the end of the indoor exhibit, you pick up an audio guide of the battlefield. Unlike those you may have used in museums, where you type in a number that corresponds with the spot where you are standing and it plays a numbered narration, the guides at Culloden work by GPS. The narrations begin automatically when you reach designated spots on the field. This makes to tour easy to follow and also lets you focus on what you are seeing and hearing rather than worrying about what number is next or where you are on the map. You can just explore and the narrators tell you the story.
The tour takes you first through the positions of the armies and the details of the battle itself by selecting particular characters on each side to follow. It gives voice to the people who fought and makes a powerful and personal experience for the listener. In our case it was helped by an unrelenting, frigid wind that blew across the moor freezing our cheeks and hands. You can begin to imagine the half-starved Highlanders shivering in the damp April morning 269 years ago.
The first memorial is the Well of the Dead. This is a small unassuming spring between the two army lines. It's bounded on three sides by stones and a low wall on the fourth side. There is a stone marking it at the site where the "Chief of the MacGillivrays Fell". It's the only stone commemorating a individual person on the battlefield, and after walking the battlefield and listening to the tale you can almost picture the MacGillivray covered in gore spending his last moments in the shelter of the wall longing for a drink of cool, clear water.
Next you come to the memorial cairn that stands sentinel over the field. It is a tall stone monument topped with a shock of bright yellow gorse, that you can see from anywhere on the moor. Inside and in the narration there is an effort to provide an even handed view of the battle and the Rising, giving both sides. But the cairn predates that effort, and it shows in the inscription.
THE BATTLE OF CULLODEN WAS FOUGHT ON THIS MOOR 16TH APRIL 1746.
THE GRAVES OF THE GALLANT HIGHLANDERS WHO FOUGHT FOR SCOTLAND & PRINCE CHARLIE ARE MARKED BY THE NAMES OF THEIR CLANS.
On the day that we visited there was a wilting bouquet of white roses, thistles and fir greens left at the base of the inscription that gave me a lump in my throat.
Then I turned around. Almost directly behind me on a patch of grass just across the path was the Clan Fraser stone. Being from North Carolina, we have so many family connections with Scotland. There are Minges (Menzies) on my mother's side, and Bell's and MacGregors to name a few on my father's side. But I have always somehow felt a connection with my ancestor, Joanna Simpson whose son, my son is named for. Simpson, literally "Simon's son" (Yes, that Simon) is a sept of Clan Fraser.
The clan stones were installed in the 19th century to memorialize the many lives lost that day. But I can't help also seeing it as a symbol of rebirth. Yes, many died horribly, but their death and the subsequent transportation of their families however tragic and painful, also started many on the journey that shaped America, and North Carolina.
I dropped to my knees in front of the stone to take a picture, and as I knelt there with the damp soaking through my jeans I could feel a well of grief bubbling up inside me that sent hot tears streaking down my cold cheeks. But with it, there was also strength, the strength that sent my Clan Fraser ancestors to Carolina, and helped them build a new life. From Highlanders to Tarheels, soldiers to farmers, to mill workers, to me.
Yeah, I've been to plenty of battlefields, some that I had personal connections to, some that were just as bloody as this one. But none have hit me the way Culloden did. I knelt there, rooted to that grassy patch in front of the stone crying silently until Eric came near. He had been taking pictures of the cairn. I stood up and he smiled at me his green eyes searching mine, "Ready?"
I nodded. 'Yeah,' I thought. 'I am ready.'