How Did the Battle of Culloden Change British and American History

Figure 1. The site of the Battle of Culloden.

The Battle of Culloden occurred on April 16, 1746, and was the last pitched battle in Britain. Effectively, it defeated and put an end to a series of Jacobite uprisings that had been ongoing since 1688 following the Glorious Revolution. It also put an end to the male-line succession of the House of Stuart on the British throne. The Jacobites' primary goal was to restore the Stuart line. The Jacobites were predominately Scots who were Catholics from the highland regions of Scotland.

Background to the Battle

The House of Stuart had ruled Scotland from 1371 until 1603; from 1603 until the death of Queen Anne in 1714, they ruled the united crowns of England and Scotland and what became Great Britain after the act of Union that formalized the integration of Scotland and England. However, in 1688, the removal of James II in the Glorious Revolution effectively meant that the Stuart male-line succession would die out. While the revolution has often been seen as "bloodless," the reality was many people were not happy with the overthrow of the Stuarts and bloody repressions occurred, as the Stuarts were seen as the legitimate heirs by their supporters in Scotland and England.[1] Massie, A. (2013) The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family that Shaped Britain. New York, St. Martin’s Griffin.

This situation led to a series of revolts by supporters of the Stuarts, many of whom came from Scotland. While upheaval occurred as early as 1688, the major rebellions were 1715 and 1745. The last rebellion was effectively ended in the battle of Culloden, which occurred near Inverness. The battle pitted the British forces led by the Duke of Cumberland, or Prince William Augustus, who was the son of George II, and the Jacobites led by Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), the Stuart heir. George II was the second Hanoverian king who ruled after the Stuart dynasty in Great Britain. While many Protestants wanted a Protestant monarch at all costs, others saw that the Hanovarian claim on the throne was not legitimate, as they were very distantly related to the Stuarts or any royal British family. On the other hand, the Hanovarian supporters realized they had to get a monarch who not likely tries to weaken Parliament's increasing role in British affairs.[2]

The Duke of Cumberland saw the battle as an opportunity to prove himself. The Duke's military was checkered and going into the battle he was seen as a weak leader particularly after his failures in the War of Austrian Succession. He had been a leading general that fought against the French and Dutch, but he suffered major defeats while fighting in Europe. Culloden gave him another chance to prove himself. Charles Stuart, on the other hand, had a privileged upbringing in Rome, but he had relatively little battlefield experience. The Highland clans were the bulk of Stuart's support, while the British had a mix of English, Scottish, and German troops. The British troops were generally more professional, although the Jacobites also did have regular French and Irish troops, they made only a minority of the forces. The government forces were composed of nearly 8000, with many well-trained officers as well, while the Jacobites had about 7000.[3]

Stuart was advised by his military councilors to fight a guerrilla war, given his military disadvantages, but he ultimately did not feel this was a way a legitimate king should fight. In effect, he wanted to replicate what Henry VII did in claiming the throne for the Tutors over the last Plantagenet king. Thus, a formal, pitched battle commenced and within an hour the battle was over and the Jacobites suffered a crushing defeat, with nearly 2000 killed or wounded (Figure 1). The aftermath also saw bloody repressions in the highlands by the British units, as they moved to put down further potential uprisings. The Stuart heir was then chased around Scotland and the Hebrides before ultimately reaching France for permanent exile. The House of Stuart never again was able to seriously threaten to retake the crown of Britain.[4]

Effect of the Battle on Great Britain

The effect of the battle on Great Britain is it made the British government realize the needed to find a way to integrate the highlands of Scotland and other areas where potential uprisings could occur more closely into the country. This was also a time when the British Empire was expanding through their colonial settlements in North America and elsewhere. The British government began to send prisoners and others associated with the uprisings to the distant colonies as a way to banish potential threats from the homeland. Some of those who had ties to the battle at Culloden did ultimately become supporters of the American Revolution, and even participated in the battles, but this was not universally true, as others supported the British government. In effect, the uprisings in Scotland and the battle specifically created a pattern that lasted through the 19th century, where the British government began to use its overseas territories as a way to remove elements it did not consider desirable or as threats to the government.[5]

In addition to people being physically moved from Britain, Parliament passed laws, such as the Heritable Jurisdictions Act, which began to curtail the power of the clan chiefs in Scotland. While reprisals drove people from their homes, including arguably a concerted ethnic cleansing of clans in the highlands, the laws passed helped to begin the process of weakening the traditional clan chiefs and their power, including such families as the MacDonalds. Ultimately, this weakening of the clans allowed the government to step into the highland regions and make them more formally part of Great Britain through appointed government officials, sometimes coming from London, rather than local clan members. This also brought the highland regions into the economy of Great Britain. For others in Scotland, the downfall of the clan system in the Scottish highlands allowed new families to arise, in particular those with connections to the mercantile and trade towns that began to benefit from increased and expanding British trade in the 18th century. This included the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, where people from these towns began to have greater economic and political power in the highlands.[6]

Effect on North America

Figure 2. Replica of the Hector, which brought Scottish migrants to Nova Scotia.

The effect on North America in relation to this battle are complex. Initially, many Scottish settlers arrived in the American Colonies as refugees or as those forced to move there. Perhaps though the greatest effects were felt in Nova Scotia. Initially, Nova Scotia was actually settled by more non-Scottish British, despite the region's name, as a series of wars led to British expansion there. During the American Revolution, there were attempts for Nova Scotia to join the rebellion. Battles were fought there in revolt against the British and often the region was called the "14th Colony," but from 1773 and on, initially with the ship Hector arriving, the character of the province began to change as Scottish immigrants, many of whom who had direct ties to those who participated in Culloden, came as refugees or economic migrants forced out due to the aftermaths of poverty and political ostracism (Figure 2).[7]

Initially, many Scottish migrants did support the American colonists, but American raids on Nova Scotia, where looting and destruction was carried out by the Americans, led to many in Nova Scotia affirming their loyalties to the British rather than the Americans, who were often seen as raiders or even pirates. Nova Scotia then increasingly became a major destination for Scottish migration, as the formally fleeing highlanders and other clan members encouraged other migration to the region. As migration increased, and benefits to migrants developed through the acquisition of land, many of them increased their loyalties to the British government. Eventually, Scots become a major part of the migrant population throughout Nova Scotia and then expanding into other parts of Canada. More migrants arrived after the American Revolution, as many Scots fled the American Colonies after they gained their independence because now many were seen as a potential "5th column" within the United States. In effect, what Culloden had done is hasten the rate of migration to North America and Nova Scotia in particular that also helped to lead to subsequent migration, including into other parts of Canada.[8]

For the natives of the region of Nova Scotia, such as the Mi'kmaq, they increasingly became marginalized and pushed deeper into the wilderness regions of Nova Scotia. This, over time, created a subjugation of not only the native population but also discrimination, often similar to what the fleeing highlanders' ancestors had faced back in Britain. The British government was also seen as the power to protect the migrants from native populations and later the United States. For the native population, the effects of Culloden were very negative, as it led to migration to their lands and their subjugation. Nova Scotia continued to be seen as a friendly place towards Scots into the 19th century, which hastened the pace of migration to Canada in that time from regions of Scotland.[9]


The Jacobite uprising of 1745 proved to have a lasting impact, although probably quite different from what the British government and Jacobites had expected. For the British, they achieved immediate benefits in that they were able to integrate the Scottish highlands and effectively begin the process of destroying the clan system. However, policies also created the seeds for rebellion, in places such as the American colonies, but it also opened up areas such as Nova Scotia to become a major destination for Scottish and, by extension, Jacobite supporters.

This shaped the history of Canada, in that Scottish migration picked up significantly after the rebellion and later American Revolution. Scottish highlander sympathy for the American Colonists soon changed due to raids in Canada, which provoked animosity that lasted into the War of 1812, as there was little support by then for any revolt against the British government, since they were seen by then as the better protectors of the Scottish migrants. In effect, the long-term impact became complex, with initial support for the rebellion against the British government by the Jacobite supporters lingering for some time but then eventually changing as the realities of migration began to be more important than the event that led to those migrations.


  1. For more on the Stuarts and the Glorious Revolution, see:
  2. For more on the Jacobite rebellions, see: Barthorp, M. & Embleton, G. (1982) The Jacobitic rebellions 1689-1745. London, Osprey.
  3. For more on the lead up to the battle, see: Pittock, M. (2016) Culloden (Cùil Lodair): Great battles. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  4. For more on Charles Stuart, see: McLynn, F. (2003) Bonnie Prince Charlie: Charles Edward Stuart. London, Pimlico.
  5. For more on British policy on how it dealt with rebellions in the 18th century, see: Jones, A.J. (1998) Culloden to the colonies: the collected reminiscences of a McDonald family whose ancestor fought at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Brisbane, L.H. McDonald.
  6. For more on the downfall of the clan system in Scotland, see: Murphy, A. (2011) Scotland Highlands & Islands handbook. Bath, Footprint, pg. 424.
  7. For more on Scottish migration to North America in the 18th century, see: Warren R. Hofstra (ed.) (2011) Ulster to America: the Scots-Irish migration experience, 1680-1830. 1st ed. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press.
  8. For more on Nova Scotia and Scottish migrants, see: Campey, L.H. (2004) After the Hector: the Scottish pioneers of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, 1773-1852. Toronto, Natural Heritage Books.
  9. For more on the later history of migration into Canada and Nova Scotia, see: Owram, D. (1994) Canadian history:: a reader’s guide. 1: Beginnings to Confederation. Toronto, Univ. of Toronto Press.