Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Eyewitness to History

By Kimberley Jordan Reeman

When I came into this Country, it was my only view to do all in my power for your good and safety. This I will always do as long as life is in me. But alas! I see with grief, I can at present do little for you this side the water, for the only thing that now can be done, is to defend your selves.
Charles Edward Stuart, April 1746, after Culloden

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 16, 1746, 11 a.m. A raw morning, with a bitter north wind scything up from the Moray Firth, bringing heavy showers of rain and sleet. Two armies, some fourteen thousand men, although perhaps only three thousand will engage, are manoeuvring two and a half miles apart on this sloping, boggy ground six miles from Inverness, which adjoins Drummossie Moor and climbs from the elegant parks of Culloden House, owned by Duncan Forbes, the Lord President of the Court of Session.

The Jacobite army, under the command of the Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, who even in these final, fateful hours radiates the charisma and optimism of his ancestor Mary, Queen of Scots, stumbles into some order of battle with a confusion and disorganization that reflects the rifts, quarrels and indecision of its generals. The British army, under the command of William Augustus, H.R.H the Duke of Cumberland, the charmless, corpulent third son of George II, deploys with a silent purpose that moves a French officer to remark to Charles that ‘he feared the day already lost, for he had never seen men advance in so calm and regular a manner’.

Charles Edward Stuart - Public Domain Image

The onslaught of sleet assaults them all: princes and peasants, volunteers and conscripts, the criminals and the idealists, the men of noble blood and the butchers, gardeners, apprentices; and the veterans recalled from Flanders and the War of the Austrian Succession, professional killers whose service is for life, and whose ages range from seventeen to fifty-four.

The Jacobites stand ankle-deep in water, with empty bellies, sleet beating on their backs: volatile, exhausted, ill-fed. Many have deserted because there is little food and less pay: because their fields are lying unsown; because they fear for their families; because they sense the animosity and dissension among their leaders, who cannot agree on anything from the ground on which to fight what they know will be their final battle to the order of precedence to be accorded to the clans. Some have deserted because prescience has warned them that their cause is lost, and they have foreseen their deaths.

They are not all Highlanders, although there are many Gaelic-speaking clansmen, conscripted and threatened into service by chieftains or landlords. There are also Lowland Scots, many conscripted; volunteers; deserters from the Scottish militia regiments of the British army or enlisted from among those prisoners taken after Charles’s victory at Prestonpans. Two infantry battalions and a squadron of cavalry are French, as well as artillerymen, engineers and volunteers: these are the ‘Wild Geese’, the Irish Brigade of the French army, whose red coats among the coarse homespun of the clansmen are clearly visible across the moor, as are the blue coats of the Royal Écossais, a Scottish unit of the French army raised in 1744.

The wind is now northeasterly. Five hundred yards away, across ground laced with streams and springs, drystone walls and scattered cottages, the standards and colours of the British regiments snap and billow, blowing forward: the wind is at this army’s back, and the smoke of battle will blind the enemy. Many of these officers are Scots, many Anglo-Irish: the 1st, 21st and 25th Foot are Scots regiments, as are the Gaelic-speaking Argyllshire Militia, the Duke of Kingston’s Light Horse, and the regulars of Loudon’s 64th Highlanders. There are many here who wear Highland dress, many for whom the ranting slogans and skirling pipes of the rebel clans are echoes of a culture shared.

The Battle of Culloden, oil on canvas, David Morier, 1746

The sleet stops abruptly: the sky is torn with blue. A little after one o’clock, the Pretender’s artillery opens with irregular fire. The royal artillery, carefully sited, responds with a devastating, sustained barrage aimed at the massed ranks of the Jacobite army. Mud spatters the mounted Charles’s face: behind him a groom is decapitated. The roundshot is followed by canister, sweeping the field with a hailstorm of grape and reaping a terrible harvest. Blinded by the smoke and by unbearable rage and anguish, eight clan regiments break into the charge. At a range of fifty yards, the hardened veterans of the British front-line regiments, Barrell’s, Munro’s, and the Scots Fusiliers, open fire with muskets, inflicting carnage. The shock of the Jacobite charge splits Barrell’s and engulfs it: of four hundred and thirty-eight officers and men, both English and Scots, seventeen are killed and one hundred and eight wounded, many grievously: the colonel of Barrell’s, Robert Rich, falls with a severed hand and serious head wounds; others are dismembered. The naked courage of the Highlanders imprints itself so forcibly upon the mind of a young aide de camp to Cumberland that in Quebec on September 13, 1759, that man, now Major-General James Wolfe, will unleash its fury himself against the forces of the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham.

Of Wednesday, April 16, 1746, no man could know, as he shivered in the prelude to battle, that no British regiment would ever bear Culloden among its honours, or that its very name would become synonymous with infamy. No man, neither prince nor apprentice, could perceive that he was ‘only a mote of dust, and of as much consequence’ in the affairs of nations, and that Culloden was only a footnote, albeit scrawled in blood, across the vast canvas of the eighteenth century, a microcosm in which the hereditary enemies, Britain and France, grappled for supremacy. A turbulent century, which sees America’s bloody and protracted struggle for independence, the insurrection and revolution which will convulse France, and the tragic repercussions, for a people and a culture, which haunt Scotland still.


About Kimberley:
Kimberley Jordan Reeman was born in Toronto, graduating from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts (hons.) in English literature in 1976. She worked in Canadian radio and publishing before marrying the author Douglas Reeman in 1985, and until his death in 2017 was his editor, muse and literary partner, while pursuing her own career as a novelist.

About Douglas (Alexander Kent)
Douglas Reeman was born in Thames Ditton, Surrey, England in 1924. With the outbreak of war, and despite belonging to an army family, he joined the Royal Navy without hesitation at the age of sixteen. In June of 1968 To Glory We Steer was published under the pen name Alexander Kent. Douglas Reeman died in January of 2017. Today, the exploits of Richard and Adam Bolitho feature in twenty-eight Alexander Kent novels.

Buy Coronach on Amazon (Universal Link) :

Douglas’s Website


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very many thanks, Annie, for this opportunity to make a guest appearance here, and for this elegant presentation of "Eyewitness to History". My best wishes to you all. Kimberley Reeman

  3. A very moving account Kimberley. Another of those battles in our past that reverberate through history with great feelings of emotion, a draw for novelists but alas, for most, shown through 'romantic' or blinkered eyes. Culloden and its horrific aftermath is rarely told with the truth of the consequential brutality and suffering delivered by the English and endured by the Scots. Another period of our history that should carry shame not rose-tinted glory.

    1. It should be remembered that some of the most notorious perpetrators of atrocities in the Highlands were Scots, and that more Scots fought on the side of the government than for the Pretender. History is never black and white, but many shades of grey, and it is the duty of the novelist to portray those many aspects of the truth.

  4. Fabulous account of such an infamous battle. Te truth of this atrocity and its aftermath should be better known. Thank you Kim for the writing, Annie, for the hosting and Helen for the facilitating

  5. The reverberations of the Jacobite uprisings felt throughout the century, and beyond. This Reeman cuts to the heart with her pen.

  6. What a marvellous depiction of history in all its complexity and drama. It encapsulates the tone and humane themes of "Coronach" so well, and thus is an ideal introduction to the book itself. I have read "Coronach" twice, and will surely read it again before long, as this magnificent tome has taken a venerated position in the literary section of my library, next to Hardy, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Hugo. I urge anyone with an interest in history, the truth, pathos and humanity to read "Coronach." It is a life-changing experience.


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