Culloden Battlefield, with Children?

I remember visiting Culloden as a child, about eight years old, and whilst I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ it, because who does enjoy visiting a gruesome battlefield, I remember it made a positive, strong impression on me. It was the first time I’d visited somewhere where ‘bad’ history had happened, really bad, where lots of people had died horribly and, as a child, that upset and captivated me in equal measure. I can understand why it’s a popular school trip destination today.

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The modern NTS visitor centre at Culloden

For anyone who doesn’t know, Culloden is where the Jacobite Rising came to a brutal conclusion in 1746, when around 1,500 men were slain in the first hour: Jacobites pitted against the Duke of Cumberland’s government troops. As a kid I did see this battle as simply the ‘English’ versus the ‘Scots’, but history is always far more complex than that. With English, Irish and German blood, combined with a Scottish upbringing, ‘history’ has always been complex for me!

Returning in 2017 to this National Trust for Scotland site, things have changed for modern tourists. A proper visitor centre, and this time I had a three year old and a two year old in tow. Clearly, a site where slaughter occurred, and British history was changed irrevocably and brutally, the priority isn’t entertaining tiny tots. But we got on OK.

20170409_103023_resizedThe visitor centre comprises primarily of artefacts and information boards. This style of presentation doesn’t always work for me but firstly you don’t want gimmicks, you don’t want to ‘jazz up’ what happened here. Secondly, whilst reading and simultaneously chasing pre-schoolers doesn’t go hand in hand, I did find the information boards particularly well written. They were straightforward allowing you to understand, and also add your own emotions to events. There’s no sensationalism or graphic depictions so the content is appropriate for school children.

One side of the room told the Jacobite side, the other side put things from the Government perspective. I don’t think I always fully appreciated how successful the Jacobites were and what a strong threat they were to the throne – I mean, they marched into Manchester to cheering crowds. I’m also always amazed at what a key role the weather plays in pivotal moments in global history – the storm that hampered the French Jacobite support is a particular example. At key moments, from what I read, the Jacobites were unlucky with the weather, and the leaders made some disastrous decisions considering the weather they faced. Lastly I didn’t expect, despite being distracted by corralling the children, to feel so overwhelmingly sad. Jacobite troops were led, on an overnight surprise march, to overwhelm the enemy – this would have been vicious if it had succeeded. They walked through rain, expending energy and morale. This attempt was aborted as they didn’t make the progress expected and wouldn’t reach the enemy base by daybreak. The army retraced their steps; soaked, exhausted and hungry. The decision was then reached to fight that morning on Culloden, when apparently they could have retreated and given the lads a chance to recover. Those soldiers, some barely out of boyhood, would have been wrecked, and potentially feeling their leadership had lost an element of control. As a parent of two sons, I honestly don’t know how mothers, from Culloden to war torn states today, wait for their boys to come home. To hear of questionable military decisions must make their loss even tougher.

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Venturing out onto the moor.

We then entered a film recon of the battle. A sign states it may not be appropriate for children, but it’s up to parents to decide whether to enter. As you have no idea what to expect there were a lot of children in there. Turns out this isn’t a naff reconstruction, it’s pretty powerful stuff. Screens fully surround you, each presenting a different perspective, so you feel you’re truly in the middle of things. The surround sound is terrifyingly loud. The minute the battle started, gunfire and shouting filled the room, and my eldest asked to leave. We left and he was totally fine. What struck me was that a child’s natural instinct is to shy away from negative, loud noises – he knew these were ‘bad’ noises, and it made me strongly question at what point children lost this instinct and transform into the adults who wage war? I have no idea. Most children remained in the screening and probably found the film version engaging but several left too. I don’t know how graphic the film gets as I didn’t see it.

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The Memorial Cairn

Then we were outdoors, on the battleground itself. Respect is due to all the fallen, but as Culloden is a bleak, windswept moor our boys were able to to run and chat. Any noise they made the wind whipped out of their mouths, and they followed the paths from landmark to landmark, oblivious to the history, and they were no bother to anyone else. The site is vast, we had the buggy and that was no problem. Flags mark the lines of each side. Visitors pass the Memorial Cairn, the clan markers (headstones commemorating the dead on the Jacobite side), a marker highlighting ‘Field of the English’ (though it’s worth remembering that many Scots fought against the Jacobites) and Leanach Cottage (a reconstructed cottage on the site of a building that survived the battle). I remember so much of this as a child, and it’s incredible how a desolate moor can create such strong memories.

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Marker where the Government fighters were buried

After returning indoors we ducked inside to the cafe to warm up the boys and eat. There’s a little play area for children which was an unexpected bonus: they were delighted. If I’d critique one thing about the centre it’s the cafe staff – I dealt with three of them to attempt to resolve a simple problem, which ultimately never interested them enough to fix. Always so disappointing when something like this happens.

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Play space within the Visitor Centre cafe.

As we left we read about the immediate suppression of the Jacobites. Victors the world over seek reprisals, it’s human nature. Kilts and tartan were banned, over 3000 Jacobites were hunted down, around 900 were transported, 120 prisoners were executed with their remains displayed. I genuinely can’t imagine what it would have been like to live in Scotland in the immediate aftermath of Culloden – divided and terrifying perhaps doesn’t come close. My tots are so innocent right now and I just want to keep them that way.

THE LOWDOWN – Find prices and info to visit Culloden here. We drove from Aberdeen to Inverness, staying at the riverside Highland Apartments by Mansley which I’d recommend for family travel. Inverness has its own airport and is on regular bus and rail routes. En route home for us, Culloden is just east of Inverness. There’s ample parking and facilities on site.

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