It is the dead of night, and in a deep, dark forest six miles from the Duke of Cumberland’s camp at Nairn, a squad of fearsome ‘Jacobites’, dressed in plaids and carrying muskets, gather around an officer.
Out of the darkness ‘Captain’ Ian Deveney’s voice rings out: “Help yourselves lads. My sporran’s full of Maltesers”. A huge, bearded man looms up in the darkness. “Why not? They’ll keep the blood sugar up,” say Callum Mitchell, in a cheerful, sing-song voice, and dips in his hand.
It may not seem completely authentic, but this ragged band of 20 men has set out to recreate one of the most fateful events in British history, an abortive night-time attack by 4,000 Jacobites, led by Lord George Murray, on the eve of the Battle of Culloden. Murray’s aim was to fall upon Cumberland’s men, who had been celebrating their leader’s birthday, and slaughter them when they were either asleep or blind drunk or both.
But over 12 miles of rough terrain, groping through the dark, and in the teeth of terrible storm, Murray’s half-starved army began to break up, and before they had closed in on their enemy, the attack was aborted. As dawn broke on 16 April, bedraggled and broken they returned to Culloden field, where within one hour the following day, they were put to the sword, by ‘Butcher’ Cumberland’s Hanoverian army.
No such fate awaits their 21st century followers. By day Mr Mitchell works shifts at the Michelin tyre factory in Dundee. Mr Deveney runs his own business in Inverness, a specialist in creating living history for schools. Others on the march include Willie Whyte, a lifeguard from Wester Hailes, Edinburgh, Ian Shields, an orderly at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, and Bill Logan, who trains guide dogs and lives in Nairn.
There is a serious purpose to this exercise, says Tony Pollard, the battlefield archaeologist who led out the group from the Culloden House Hotel, in “real-time”, at 7:10pm on Wednesday evening, precisely 263 years after Lord Murray began his epic march.
Using a route recreated from 18th century maps and accounts, the notion is that the march will increase understanding of the condition and morale of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army as they readied for their final, fatal battle.
Dr Pollard’s accomplices have largely been recruited from re-enactment societies. For many of them, the event is both a challenge and bit of a craic – the chance to wallow in a little bit of history, and to meet with old friends as they march a round trip which is almost equivalent to a marathon in length.
There is a sense of cheeriness – leavened by Mr Deveney’s Maltesers – and when a helicopter flies overhead, there is a gale of laughter when someone shouts “It’s OK lads – it’s one of ours.” Some of the men discuss “the joys of kilt”, which, over long distances, run to chilly knee caps and an unpleasant chafing sensation around the groin.
Culloden, though, remains a sombre place, believes Dr Pollard, who has studied this wild stretch of moor land for the last ten years. Visitors become “hugely emotional” when they step on to the field which marked the end of Stuart claim on the throne, in the last battle fought on British soil.
“I’ve visited battlefields all over the world, but there is something special here,” says Dr Pollard, who is based at Glasgow University. “There is a growing trend for people to have their ashes scattered at Culloden. You can see the white ashes blowing around the graves. The battle was the end of an era, there’s no going back. People can come here and say ‘That is where it all happened – the destruction of the clan system’. There is a lot of romantic nonsense spoken about it, but it is a powerful story,” says Dr Pollard.
Murray’s men finally gave up their attack two miles from Nairn. At 1am, after a 12 mile trek, the 21st century foot soldiers, exhausted by a sudden and unexpected yomp across a ploughed field, likewise turn back for Culloden.
Over the next hour, Dave Robertson, a former marine from Bewley, sprains his ankle and his carted off to hospital. Eight more of the “army” drop out with fatigue; another man is hospitalised with leg pains; and Dr Pollard himself has had to take two painkillers to ease the “chafage” under his kilt.
By the time they stagger back to Culloden battlefield at 5:30, only half of the troop have survived the night. “I was exhausted at one o’clock, and I completely understand why the Jacobites threw in the towel,” says Dr Pollard, still hobbling through the pain. “That ploughed field sapped morale, and the group began to break up. On the way back, the road just kept getting longer. I stopped giving a damn about anyone – I just wanted to get back.”
High casualties, low morale, exhaustion: no wonder Prince Charlie’s army was so terribly defeated. But at least Dr Pollard has proved that each and every one of those original Jacobite marchers had an iron constitution.
Read the story online and in the past tense in today's Times: Culloden in the past tense.