The Battle of Culloden

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2021), Volume 29

The Irish connection

By Stephen McGarry

“Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of the deposed King James II, believed that his time had come to restore the deposed Catholic dynasty to the throne that they had lost in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.”

On 16 April 1746, a cold, tired and hungry Scottish Jacobite army stood on Culloden Moor’s windswept boggy ground. They faced a professional British army nearly twice their size. Within an hour over a thousand Jacobites lay dead on the field, dooming Bonnie Prince Charlie’s campaign to reclaim the British crown for the Stuarts.

Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of the deposed King James II, had believed that his time had come to restore the deposed Catholic dynasty to the throne that they had lost in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. In early 1744 France was again at war with Britain and planned to invade, but when the French fleet had put to sea it had been wrecked by heavy storms. Charles pleaded with the French to launch another expedition, but they had now lost all interest in the plan.

Irish Jacobites in France

The following year, 1745, Charles turned to the Irish community in France for help to fund a campaign in Scotland. He was introduced to a number of Irish merchants by Charles O’Brien, the sixth Lord Clare, commander of the Irish Brigade of France. Charles obtained the frigate La Doutelle (eighteen guns) from the shipping magnate Antoine Walsh, while Dominic O’Heguerty and the Paris-based banker George Waters provided money and arms. An old man-o’-war, L’Elisabeth (64 guns), heavily laden with weapons and men, was fitted out by Walter Rutledge from Dunkirk. An expeditionary force made up of volunteer piquet companies drawn from the Irish regiments of France was to provide a bridgehead for the main French invasion, which was expected to follow.

Charles and Walsh set sail for Scotland on board La Doutelle on 7 July 1745, escorted by L’Elisabeth. Two days later they were intercepted by the 58-gun HMS Lion. In the action that followed, L’Elisabeth was badly damaged and had to return to France, along with the arms and men that were to sustain the rebellion. Charles sailed on and came ashore at Moidart on the west coast of Scotland with several companions. Known as the ‘Seven Men of Moidart’, they included four Irishmen: Thomas Sheridan, Revd George Kelly, Lt. Col. John MacDonald of Fitzjames’s Horse and Col. John O’Sullivan.

A number of Highland chiefs were reluctant to ‘come out’ for Charles without French troops. Charles argued that he needed them to begin the war, with the promise that the French would land in the south of England. In the end, the charismatic 24-year-old prince convinced many to rally to his cause. Three weeks later, the clans gathered at Glenfinnan. King James’s standard was raised amid exultant shouts of ‘Long live King James! Prosperity to Scotland and no union!’ Charles quickly raised a 2,500-strong Highland army. John O’Sullivan was appointed its quartermaster general and proceeded to organise and drill it along French lines. The rebellion had begun.

The Jacobites swiftly captured Perth and then took Edinburgh in a bloodless coup de main; Charles held court there for several weeks before defeating a largely untested British army under Lt. Gen. John Cope at Prestonpans. The kilted Highlanders rushed the enemy, using their ferocious battle tactic known as the ‘Highland charge’: roaring their blood-curdling Gaelic oaths, they fired their muskets, discarded them and smashed through Cope’s terrified line of infantry with brandished swords. The enemy broke and ran.

Detail from ‘The BATTLE of CULLODEN April 16th 1746’, a coloured line-engraving by Luke Sullivan after a drawing by Augustin Heckel, showing the duke of Cumberland (centre) addressing his officers at the battle’s height.

Regular troops arrive from France

In late 1745, blockade-runners landed a detachment of the red-coated troops of the Irish Brigade under Brigadier Walter Stapleton on the Scottish east coast. Another ship brought Captain James Grant of the Régiment de Lally, who would serve as the Jacobites’ artillery commander, along with heavy guns and a dozen or so Irish and French artillery officers. The privateer Le Renommé landed a small siege train and a battalion of Lord John Drummond’s blue-coated Régiment Royal Écossais (Royal Scots), made up of Scottish exiles. They brought news that a large invasion force, including the remaining troops of the Irish Brigade, was ready in Dunkirk. Another French ship, L’Espérance, however, carrying 100 officers and men of Dillon’s, Buckeley’s and Lally’s, was captured by the Royal Navy. The Louis XV was also seized, with its supplies and 176 officers and men of Clare’s, Buckeley’s and Berwick’s. Spanish-based Jacobites sent the sixteen-gun Corunno laden with arms and ammunition, which arrived safely, but the San Zirioco was captured. A third ship was wrecked by heavy storms; the fourth, the San Pedro, carrying supplies and gold, was captured and brought into Cork as a prize amidst much excitement.

The Jacobites march for England

Meanwhile, the Jacobite army, which had now swelled to 6,000, marched for England to take London. Carlisle and Manchester fell along the way and they continued south. They halted at Derby, just four days’ march from London, when they learned that 30,000 troops were blocking their advance.

A council of war was convened at which the Jacobite high command split. Lord George Murray and other chiefs argued that, since the English Jacobites had not risen as expected, they should return to Scotland and join up with the recently landed troops from France, despite Charles’s and his Irish advisors’ wishes to press on towards London. Charles was devastated, knowing that, once news of the retreat reached France, the French troops assembled at Dunkirk would be stood down. The Jacobite army withdrew to Scotland in December, rested in Glasgow, and finally joined forces with Stapleton’s Irish piquets and the Royal Scots from France.

Battle of Falkirk

In January 1746 the Jacobites marched out with an artillery train to lay siege to Stirling Castle. The experienced Irish piquets operated the siege—a dirty, dangerous, laborious duty—which cost heavy casualties. A British army of some 8,000 under Gen. Henry Hawley was rushed to Stirling’s relief. The Jacobite army, now augmented by the regular Irish and Scottish troops from France, marched out confidently to confront it in Falkirk Muir. A critical point in the battle was reached after a devastating Highland charge by the MacDonald clan, when Hawley’s troops rallied and the Lowlanders wavered. The composite ‘French’ battalion under Stapleton advanced on the enemy dragoons, resulting in Hawley’s retreat.

The Highland chiefs, much to Charles’s disgust, now chose to return home for the winter when they learned that an army under William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, King George II’s son, was pushing north. Charles now received confirmation that the planned invasion from France had been abandoned.

The Jacobites successfully laid siege to Inverness and the army rested there. Stapleton’s Irish piquets, accompanied by a number of clan regiments, marched out to take Fort Augustus, the men drawing their heavy field artillery by hand over difficult mountainous terrain, which took several days. Fort Augustus soon fell, but they were unable to take Fort William, as it was too well defended. Stapleton, ordered back to rejoin the army at Inverness, spiked his guns.

Fitzjames’s Irish Horse arrive

Towards the spring of 1746, ships carrying four cavalry squadrons of Fitzjames’s Horse broke through the naval blockade. The brig Sophie landed in Aberdeen, carrying arms, money, packloads of equipment, horse furniture and a squadron of 130 men under Captain Robert O’Shea, but the regiment’s remaining three squadrons, along with its full complement of cavalry chargers, were captured at sea. The loss of these battle-hardened Irish troops was a severe blow to the Jacobite campaign.

A five-ship flotilla carrying 650 men from Clare’s and Berwick’s ran the Channel blockade and moored off Aberdeen but steered for France upon learning that the Jacobites had withdrawn from the port just days before. Only one ship, L’Aventurier, carrying a piquet of Berwick’s, made landfall at Peterhead; another was chased back to Dunkirk. The sloop Le Prince Charles, carrying £12,000 in gold and troops of Berwick’s, was intercepted by the Royal Navy. She was run aground after an intense sea flight off the north coast of Scotland, with over 40 dead. If Charles’s campaign failed, the historian J.C. O’Callaghan noted, it was not for want of trying by the Irish military in France.

Battle of Culloden

Cumberland’s army finally closed in on the Jacobites around Inverness, where the Jacobite cavalry and the Irish and Scottish regulars fought a desperate rearguard action and prevented Cumberland’s pursuit. Fitzjames’s acquitted themselves well, even though the horses and troopers had received little rest for days and were unfit even for reconnaissance duties.

On the night of 15 April, a twelve-mile night march to surprise Cumberland’s army at Nairn while they slept ended in failure, with the exhausted Jacobites returning to Culloden Moor early the following morning. Troopers from Fitzjames’s were sent to nearby Inverness in search of food. Lord George Murray wanted to retreat and fight elsewhere, but O’Sullivan, supported by Charles, decided to make a stand a little further away from the actual final battle site of Culloden, but there wasn’t time. On the morning of 16 April 1746, Highland scouts spied Cumberland’s army close by. The Jacobite army now barely numbered 5,000, as many had gone foraging for food. O’Sullivan desperately recalled the cavalry from Inverness and hastily drew up the order of battle on the unfavourable flat, exposed ground of Drumossie (Culloden) Moor.

The clans were drawn up in front, with Stapleton’s 300 Irish piquets on the left and 400 Royal Scots on the right wing of the second line. The 160 mounts of the Jacobite cavalry (of whom c. 75 were Fitzjames’s) under Lt. Col. John McDonald stood behind. The artillery was positioned in front—crucially, without the presence of commander James Grant, as he was wounded at Stirling—with barely a dozen light guns arrayed in three batteries.

Cumberland formed up his army in three lines with cavalry on the wings. The Royal Artillery was posted in front and mercilessly opened up. The Jacobite right wing, goaded into attacking by the devastating enemy cannonade, launched their ferocious ‘Highland charge’. They were cut down by muskets and grapeshot, but still managed to crash through Cumberland’s left line of infantry. The second line of redcoats poured into them—the first line kneeling, the second stooping and the third standing—and unleashed their deadly salvos. Hundreds fell. Others beat a hasty retreat. An attack by the Jacobite left wing, slowed by the boggy ground and taking heavy fire, also failed.

Cumberland’s dragoons then began a sweeping flanking manoeuvre on the Jacobite right. The battle was lost, and the rout had begun. The Royal Scots, supported by Fitzjames’s Horse, were nearly encircled by enemy horsemen and began their fighting retreat. O’Sullivan spied dragoons advancing to their rear; he ordered Captain O’Shea of Fitzjames’s to seize the bridle of the prince’s horse and Charles was led in tears from the battlefield.

Irish last stand

The Irish piquets stood their ground as the Highlanders fled, courageously holding off the dragoons with steady volley fire. They bravely covered the retreat from the battlefield and prevented a complete massacre. They were probably the last Jacobite unit to leave the field and lost around 100 men killed or injured, including Brigadier Stapleton, who was mortally wounded.

The Irish regulars fell back to Inverness and surrendered. They, along with the Royal Scots, were treated as prisoners of war and exchanged. Cumberland’s infantry gave no quarter to the fleeing rebels, who were brutally pursued into the Highlands and mercilessly put to the sword. It was here that the duke of Cumberland earned his sobriquet the ‘Butcher of Culloden’.

Charles remained on the run for months, wandering ‘in the heather’. The man behind the ’45 campaign, Antoine Walsh, now organised several Irish-led missions to locate Charles and bring him to safety. In September, privateers under Col. Richard Warren from Dillon’s finally conveyed the ‘Bonnie Prince’ to France.

The failure of the 1745 Jacobite rising marked the end of the Highlanders’ Gaelic culture. They were prohibited from carrying arms and from wearing Highland dress and their lands were forfeited. It also ended any prospects of a restoration of the Stuarts, who the Irish had dreamed would finally return to them their Catholic rights and confiscated ancestral estates.

Ireland, ‘the dog that didn’t bark’

It was only when the Jacobites turned back at Derby that news of the rising reached Ireland, where people wore tartan plaid to show their support. The authorities were alarmed when officers from Dillon’s were seen in Galway and feared that the Jacobites planned to open a second front in Connacht. Ireland, however, failed to rise in the ’45. The country was literally living under the gun, as the Crown maintained a 12,000-strong standing army, supported by 65,000 well-armed Irish Protestant militiamen. There were Catholic gentry families who could have provided leadership, but they were not prepared to rise without adequate French support. ‘If the Irish behaved like faithful subjects, they would be treated as such,’ the viceroy of Ireland, Lord Chesterfield, warned chillingly. ‘If they act in a different manner, I will be worse than Cromwell.’


Stephen McGarry is the author of Irish Brigades abroad: from Wild Geese to the Napoleonic Wars (The History Press, 2013).


A. Bamford, The lilies and the thistle: French troops in the Jacobite ’45 (Warwick, 2018).

C. Duffy, The ’45: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the untold story of the Jacobite rising (London, 2007).

M. Pittock, Great battles: Culloden: Cùil Lodair (Oxford, 2016).

S. Reid, Culloden Moor 1746: the death of the Jacobite cause (Oxford, 2002).


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