I stood on the grassy, wind-swept field and closed my eyes trying to hear the sounds of that day in April of 1746 when the patch of earth on which I was standing became a torrent of chaos, fear and killing. Blowing viciously in the wind and stretching out to my left and right stood a long line of large red flags marking the battle-line of the loyalists; across the field, and much more distant than I would have ever imagined, was a line of waving blue flags indicating the position of the Jacobite forces. I closed my eyes again, my hair blowing in the windy morning. I imagined standing nervously with the highlanders in the Jacobite line, finally receiving the order to charge, and then attempting to dash across that vast and open space while cannon and shot tore apart all of those around me in our desperate run through wind and rain. The distance was too far and all that waited on the other side of the boggy chasm was muskets and bayonets. It seemed an impossible task. This was Culloden and I wept as I stood in the Scottish wind.
Getting to the Culloden Battlefield is a short and simple drive from Inverness through neighborhoods and sheep pastures. The first thing one notices on the approach is a giant red flag planted not far off the road, and then others, and then finally the visitors center itself. The new visitors center that was built in 2007 is remarkable. The entry fee is £10.50 plus another £5.00 for a very nice guide book of the exhibits on display and the battlefield itself. If you are planning on visiting, I recommend arriving early in the morning as Holly and I did to avoid the crowds and to enjoy the scene with some quiet. It did become quite busy (but not uncomfortably so) later in the day. The exhibits inside the center are laid out in a linear fashion with the very nice design touch of having the loyalists story always presented on the walls to the left and the Jacobite story presented on the walls on the right. It was very enjoyable crossing back and forth across the halls to "see the other side" as the events unfolded leading up to the battle of Culloden.
Two exhibits are stamped in my memory as something that I will never forget. The first was a stark, white room. This was the immersion theater. The walls were empty and we waited anxiously for something to happen. The lights dimmed and we head noises - men talking, flags waving, the clanging of weapons. Video images of a reenactment began to show on the walls - on one wall the battle-line of the Jacobites and on the opposite wall the loyalists. You could see individual men, their dress, their beards and the expressions on their faces. Soon all four walls were filled with images of battle preparation and we stood there in that room surrounded on all sides by the movement and sounds of battle. The cannons began to fire and we watched as men standing in line were suddenly gone, blown away by the cannon balls. The highlanders charged and died as they ran through the muck. This was a very personal and very powerful experience that was very moving.
The second exhibit that I thoroughly enjoyed, especially as a wargamer, was a gigantic video table that animated the entire battle using icons on the map of the battlefield. You could walk around the table and watch as units tore down stone walls to allow the cavalry to gain a flank. On the charge you could see sections of the battle-line slowed dramatically by the wet ground. You could watch as the highlanders finally reach the loyalist line, their numbers staggeringly low, but still nearly break through until the loyalist reserves were brought up. It was a brilliant birds-eye view of the battle and I watched it several times.
Out on the battlefield, I closed my eyes again. This was the true exhibit and I breathed it all in, overwhelmed by what happened that day. It became very clear and very real to me as I stood there that morning that the battle at Culloden, the final of the Jacobite uprising, was fought at a transitional time of warfare between the very personal combat of men fighting face-to-face when one could look the enemy in the eye and smell his body-odor and the very distant and very impersonal nature of killing from a distance. My modern mind has extreme difficulty in making sense of the act of running through a wet, grassy field toward cannons and muskets armed with a sword and targe. And yet, it was done and at a terrible price.
I highly recommend a visit to this historic site if you get the chance. I know I will never forget it.