Prince Charles left the battlefield of Culloden, but there are differing reports as to how he exited. William Home (positioned nearby) states he was made to leave ‘with the utmost reluctance, the bridle of his horse having been seized and forcibly turned about’. Colonel O’Sullivan recalled seeing a regiment of British army cavalry appear to move across the field to cut off the prince’s retreat ‘and tels him [that] he has no time to loose, [that] he’l be surrounded imediatly if he does not retir. “Well,” says the Prince, “they wont take me alive.”’ However, as all immediate hope had gone, he was eventually persuaded to leave for his own safety and the future of the cause. Others say he refused to lead a last heroic charge, and instead galloped away with a bitter jibe from Lord Elcho ringing in his ears: ‘There you go for a damned cowardly Italian!’
Charles certainly left accompanied by a guard, about sixty men from Fitz-James’ Horse. According to Edward Burke, a local man who knew the countryside well, the prince turned to him and said, ‘If you be a true friend, pray, endeavor to lead us safe off’, which he duly did, accompanied by Colonel O’Sullivan, Sir Thomas Sheridan, Alexander MacLeod (one of Charles’ aides-de-camp), Peter MacDermit (footman), Captain Felix O’Neil (an Irish officer who had recently arrived from France) and James Gib. A document in the prince’s own hand recalls (in the third person) that ‘their hero (so wee Shall call Charles) was forced off the fild, by the People about him, as their was then nothing more remaining for him but to consult his safety. Charles exchanged his horce, which had been shot through the sho[u]lder by a Musket Ball and retre[a]ted with a few chosen friends.’ Colonel Ker observed that the ‘Prince retired in good order, with some few of his men, and crossed the water of Nairn at the ford, on the highway between Inverness and Corribreigh, without being pursued by the enemy, where he parted with them, taking only a few of Fitzjames’s horse and some gentlemen along with him up that river’.
John Hay either accompanied the prince off the field or joined him soon after, while a badly wounded Lochiel, in the company of some of his men, rode the sixty miles south-west to his house at Achnacarry. Lord Elcho left the field with Lord Balmerino who was determined to surrender to the Duke of Cumberland if the prince’s army did not regroup. William Home, who followed Balmerino to a mill some twelve miles from the field where they remained that night, recalled his lordship was resolved ‘not to outlive the misfortunes of that day, his duty [protecting Charles] had prevented him from doing it where he wished, on the field’. Meanwhile, Lord Elcho describes how ‘the Prince made a halt four miles from the field of battle and I found him in a deplorable state’. Lord Elcho does not mention the ‘cowardly Italian’ taunt in either of his accounts – as bitter and anti-Charles as they undoubtedly are – which suggests that this is a later elaboration. According to Captain Johnstone, Lord Elcho found Charles ‘surrounded by Irish, and without a single Scotsman near him, in a state of complete dejection’. Charles ‘having given himself altogether up to the pernicious counsels of Sheridan and the other Irish, who governed him as they pleased’ had now ‘abandoned every other project, but that of escaping to France, as soon as possible’. Lord Elcho encouraged Charles to consider the battle as a setback, to rally the army ‘putting himself at its head, and trying, once more, the fortune of war, as the disaster might be easily repaired’. But Charles ‘was insensible to all that his Lordship could suggest, and utterly disregarded his advice’. This is almost identical to Lord Elcho’s own recollection, confirming he must be Johnstone’s source and, as will become clear, there is evidence to suggest that here, at least, he is a particularly unreliable witness.
The Irishmen mentioned would inevitably show concern for Charles’ personal safety to the exclusion of anything else, while the Scots, with family, property and lands now in even greater jeopardy than ever before, would want Charles to continue the fight. Johnstone, via Lord Elcho, does not explain Charles’ desire to escape to France as soon as possible, beyond implying it was at the insistence of the Irish for the prince’s preservation, with the additional inference that Charles was now so completely in their power that he was capable of abandoning to its fate (apparently with little or no regard) what was left of the Jacobite army. And what was left, despite the carnage inflicted on them during and after the battle, was a sizable body of men, some of whom had not even been present at the fateful hour.
However, Charles and his companions continued on, stopping briefly on entering the strath or valley of Stratherrick which lies midway along the eastern side of Loch Ness (south-west from Culloden) where other officers and men joined them. Lord Elcho states that here the prince ‘neither Spoke to any of the Scots officers present, or inquired after any of the Absent’; in fact, ‘He appeared very Uneasy as long as the Scots were about him, and in a Short time order’d them all to go to Ruthven of Badenoch, where he would Send them orders’. But, according to Lord Elcho, ‘before they had rode a mile, he Sent Mr. Sheridan after them, to tell them that they might disperse and every body Shift for himself the best way he Could’. This account is repeated by James Maxwell. That Charles suspected that there was a traitor within the Jacobite army (which was, excluding the Irish and French troops, predominantly Scottish) is evident from his correspondence and the recollections (in his hand) previously quoted: ‘Varios Causes, (not to say tre[a]chery) paved the way for the rout of the Hi[gh]landers at Culloden.’ But what Lord Elcho is suggesting is that Charles was keen to remove all Scots from his entourage, fearing that any one of them might now be tempted to act the Judas: partly to save their own hides and partly for those 30,000 pieces of silver which remained unclaimed.
Given the prince and his officers were still reeling from the failed night march when the news arrived of the British army’s approach, it is unsurprising that there is confusion over the place of rendezvous in the event of a defeat. It is also possible that no such location had been officially defined, given Charles’ antipathy to any consideration of what he saw as failure. James Gib recalled that after travelling about four miles from the battlefield, John Hay ‘desired him to go off and shift for himself in the best manner he could’. Gib protested, saying that he did not know the country and did not wish to leave his master. John Hay replied that he too would be leaving the prince, ‘therefore your best is to go to Ruthven, the place of rendezvous, where you shall either see me or hear from me’. So under duress James Gib left for Ruthven. Yet according to Lord Elcho’s memoir already quoted, Charles had, within hours of the battle, effectively told his army to disperse, which again (as we shall see) runs counter to other information. It is easy to see how, in the tumult of emotion after such a terrible event, potentially a catastrophic and definitive defeat – from confusion and anger, to despair and terror – a man might act illogically or rashly, or misremember dates and the precise sequence of events. It is also understandable why there are such differing perceptions as to what happened, particularly as the hours and days passed by, and the personal as well as collective ramifications of the defeat at Culloden hit home.
Having now entered Fraser country, Charles dismissed his horse guard and, with Lord Elcho still in attendance along with Sheridan, O’Sullivan, Burke, Alexander MacLeod, Peter MacDermit and Captain O’Neil, the prince immediately made for the house of Thomas Fraser at the small hamlet of Gorthleck (Gortleg or Gorthlic) some twenty miles south-west of Inverness. Here they remained for supper in the company of Lord Lovat himself. This was the first time that the two had met. According to Lord Elcho, along with Lovat, here Charles found himself among ‘a great many other Scots Gentlemen, who advised him not to quit the Country, but Stay and gather together again his Scatter’d forces’. But as Lord Elcho continues, Charles apparently refused. However, the prince himself records that he had made for the house at Gorthleck ‘as it was near the place he intended for to assemble the scattard Hilanders’. As the prince and his party were moving in a south-westerly direction, he cannot have meant Ruthven (mentioned as the rendezvous by both Lord Elcho and John Hay via James Gib), which is located due south of Culloden. The prince left Gorthleck soon after, with only O’Sullivan, O’Neil, Burke, Alexander MacLeod and Allan MacDonald (a priest) in attendance. Sheridan, too weak to maintain the pace, was left behind.
This smaller party advanced to Fort Augustus, as Captain O’Neil recalled, where the prince remained some time ‘in expectation his troops would have join’d him’. No troops arriving, Charles continued to Castle Invergarry, which he had been advised ‘was the surest and safest place . . . and a great conveniency for concealment’. He arrived at Invergarry early on the morning of the 17th and probably rested here until 3 p.m. There was no food, so Edward or Ned Burke was sent to catch some salmon ‘which the guide made ready in the best manner he could; and the meat was reckoned very savoury and acceptable’. After his meal, Charles was keen ‘to be quit of the clothing he had on, and Ned gave him his own coat’. Having refreshed himself ‘he took a resolution to proceed still further, fearing to stay long in one place’. In one of the accounts of the flight from Culloden (in the Stuart Papers) it states that at Invergarry ‘he remain’d for some time, but hearing none of his troops assembled at fort augustus where the rendezvous was given, and being assur’d the enemy was approaching, he sett forward into the Mountains’. So according to both Captain O’Neil and Charles himself, the ruined Fort Augustus (not Ruthven) was the place of rendezvous. Certainly he and those with him in these first hours and days after the battle all testify that he maintained an interest in knowing if his troops had gathered and where. Whether he intended joining them and continuing the fight, perhaps waging some sort of guerrilla-style war from the Highlands (as Lord George had favoured), or simply wanted to inform them en bloc what his intentions were, will become clear.
Charles moved on with O’Sullivan, Allan MacDonald and Ned Burke along Loch Arkaig, arriving at 2 a.m. on the 18th at Glenpean. O’Neil had been left behind at Invergarry to direct those of the army that passed by to follow the prince. Charles and his companions stayed at the house of Donald Cameron and here he reportedly slept for the first time in five days and nights. At five o’clock in the afternoon – two days after the battle – he continued on foot to the Glens of Morar ‘over almost inaccessible mountains’ and arrived at the braes of Morar at four o’clock on the morning of the 19th. Here he was entertained at ‘a small sheal house’ of Angus MacEachine, Borrodale’s son-in-law, although apparently Charles ‘was so much fatigued that night, that he could neither eat nor drink, and required the help of a man to support him to his bed’. The following day the prince ‘ventured to pass the whole day in a wood near the house, in order to recruit more strength for a night walk’. Thus rested, Charles then walked by night to Borrodale via Glenbeasdale and arrived at Angus MacDonald’s house on Lochnanaugh – the very same house he had occupied eight months earlier – at four o’clock in the afternoon:
At his arrival here, he found a great many Mack Donalds assembled together, who had lately escaped out of the battle of Colloden . . . During the eight days he stayed in that country, he had daily conferences with young Clanranald, Colonel MacDonald of Barisdale, and several others of both families, treating which was the safest place, and the surest method for his concealment. After they had satisfied him as to that, they protested, and assured him he should have nothing to fear, that they would stand by him if he only would stay among them to the last man.
That the MacDonalds ‘protested’ that Charles would be safe in their country and in their midst, does suggest that at this moment the prince appeared fearful of being betrayed. However, here the prince ‘got a sute of new Highland cloaths’ from Angus MacDonald’s wife, Catriona, ‘the better to disguise him and to make him pass for one of the country’. While at this house, Charles met Donald MacLeod, tenant of Gualtergill (on Loch Dunvegan in Skye) who had been sent to him to act as a guide by Aeneas MacDonald. Captain O’Neil also arrived from Invergarry, ‘and gave him an account of the little or no appearance there was of assembling his troops’.
In his recollections, Charles writes that he
toke the resolution to go to ye Western Isles, where he might find more easily a Chip [ship] to carry him over to France as he expected that his presence there wou’d precipitat[e] that Government to Give him the succors he so much wanted and that had been so often promised without execution, for that Effect he chose to Carry with him on[e?] Onel [O’Neil] & O sulivan t[w]o Irish officers.
So we can now suppose that Charles had indeed refused to stay and fight in Scotland, as the gathering at Gorthleck had begged him to do, not through cowardice or lack of any interest in the fate of his army, but thinking instead that he could better serve the cause, that is the Stuart cause in general, rather than the immediate issue of the defeated army in Scotland, by a quick dash to France to plead in person for the long-promised battalions from King Louis. The sooner he could leave, the sooner these troops would arrive, the sooner the campaign could be resurrected and the more likely, this time, it would succeed. By insisting on fighting at Culloden, Charles had forced this episode of his campaign to a swift resolution, rather than having to endure it staggering on from crisis to crisis through lack of both money and troops. Now another chapter could begin.
Between 22 and 25 April, while Donald made the necessary arrangements to get the prince off the mainland, Charles remained in the vicinity of Borrodale, still awaiting news of his army and reports of the wider effects of the battle. O’Neil states that the prince’s decision to leave the mainland arose from what appeared (from the isolation of Borrodale) to be his abandonment by the remnants of his army: a situation that had left him vulnerable to attack and capture. Charles was certainly vulnerable, but his main aim in travelling to the islands was to find a ship to take him to France. If the prince was beginning to fear that he had indeed been abandoned, then O’Neil was hardly discouraging the idea. It is likely that at this time Charles received a letter written by Lord George Murray dated from Ruthven (Thursday) 17 April.
At Culloden, Lord George is described as having ‘behaved with great Gallantry, lost his Horse, his Per[i]wig & Bonnet; was amongst the last that left the Field; had several Cuts with Broadswords in his Coat & covered over with Blood & Dust’. He then, along with almost two thousand members of the Jacobite army (including some of those who had been absent, such as Cluny MacPherson and his men), had made his way to the village near the recently burnt-out Ruthven barracks, lying thirty miles due south of the battlefield and thirty miles to the east of Invergarry (where Charles was on the 17th). The letter he penned to the prince the day after the battle is by turns angry, pompous, bitter, accusatory and despairing. Lord George opens with the following:
As no person in these kingdomes ventured more franckly in the cause than myself and as I had more at stake than almost all the others put together, so to be sure I cannot but be very deeply affected with our late loss and present situation, but I declare that were your R. H. person in safety, the loss of the cause and the misfortunate and unhappy situation of my countrymen is the only thing that grieves me, for I thank God, I have resolution to bear my own and family’s ruine without a grudge.
Lord George continues by setting out some ‘truths which all the Gentlemen of our army seem convinced of’. Firstly, that the royal standard should never have been raised without the certainty that the King of France would provide his full support and assistance; secondly, that Charles’ absolute faith and trust in Colonel O’Sullivan in ‘the most essential things with regard to your operations’ was undeserved, he being ‘exceedingly unfit for it, and committed gross blunders on every occasion of moment’. Lord George is particularly scathing of O’Sullivan’s inexperience on the battlefield (as Lord George sees it), declaring, ‘I never saw him in time of action neither at Gladsmuir, Falkirk nor in the last, and his orders were vastly confused.’ O’Sullivan ‘did not so much as visit the ground where we were to be drawn up in line of battle’ and further, which was ‘the fatal error yesterday’, he should not have allowed ‘the enemy those walls upon their left which made it impossible for us to break them, and they with their front fire and flanking us when we went upon the attack destroyed us without any possibility of our breaking them’. He wished that O’Sullivan had been left to look after the baggage which, by all accounts, was what ‘he had been brought up to and understood’. Lord George then moves on to a third issue: provisions, or lack of them, ‘which had the most fatal consequence’, blaming John Hay for neglecting his duty and by whose incompetence during ‘the three last days which were so critical our army was starved’. In fact, he blames the mismanagement of provisions as ‘the reason our night march was rendered abortive when we possibly might have surprized and defeat the enemy at Nairn, but for want of provisions a third of the army scattered to Inverness and the others who marched had not spirits to make it so quick as was necessary being really faint for want of provisions’. Then, referring to the day of the battle, he believed with well-organised provisions ‘we might have crossed the water of Nairn and drawn up so advantageously that we would have obliged the enemy to come to us, for they were resolved to fight at all hazards, at prodigious disadvantage, and probably we would in that case have done by them as they unhappily have done by us’. He concludes by reiterating that, ‘In short Mr O’Sulivan & Mr. Hay had rendered themselves odious to all our army and had disgusted them to such a degree that they had bred mutiny in all ranks that had not the battle come on they were to have represented their grievance to Y[our]. R[oyal]. H[ighness]. for a remedy.’ Finally, he resigns his commission – which he says he would have done earlier, on returning from the siege of Blair Castle, but was persuaded to continue – while still swearing loyalty to the cause.
On first reading, Lord George’s letter appears to be the thoughts of a man who either has no expectation of seeing the prince again – suggesting that Charles had indeed sent orders to disband his army within hours of the battle – or, at this emotionally heightened time, was simply well beyond caring what the prince now thought of him, whether he saw him again or not. However, the letter does not read as one written in the knowledge that the prince had definitely abandoned the current campaign. Lord George does state that were the prince safe, then his main concern was for the army etc. Rather, it is Lord George’s opinion as to why the night march failed and then why they lost the battle. According to the account in Charles’ own hand, the prince had no idea where the army was gathering. And Captain Johnstone states that Ruthven ‘happened, by chance, to become the rallying point of our army, without having been previously fixed upon’.
Among these men gathering at Ruthven was Captain John Daniel. He had fled the battlefield on horseback with Lord John Drummond and six others, riding nonstop until one o’clock the next morning. After a fitful rest, they marched on ‘we knew not whither, through places it would be in vain to describe; for we saw neither house, barn, tree, or beast nor any beaten road, being commonly mid-leg deep in snow, till five o’Clock that afternoon; when we found ourselves near a village called Privanna a Badanich’. Fortunately for Captain Daniel and his companions, none of whom knew where the place of rendezvous was, this was the village currently occupied by a sizable contingent of the Jacobite army, the chief of whom were Lord George Murray and the Duke of Perth. The relief of finding so large a group of their fellows was tinged with concern for their leader, ‘but we heard no news where the poor Prince was’. Captain Johnstone says he arrived at Ruthven the following day (Friday the 18th) where he found ‘the Duke of Athol, Lord George Murray, the Duke of Perth, Lord John Drummond, Lord Ogilvie, and many other chiefs of clans’ plus several thousand troops ‘all in the best possible dispositions for renewing hostilities and taking their revenge’. Johnstone believed the village was easily defendable, something he recalled Lord George was also convinced of, as the latter had set up guards to defend the passes. Lord George then ordered his aide-de-camp, ‘Mr MacLeod’, to go out and find the prince (no easy matter at this juncture) to inform him that ‘a great part of his army was assembled at Ruthven’ including those who had been absent at the time of the battle. If this is true, then it was surely the aide-de-camp who also delivered Lord George’s letter to the prince. It was Johnstone’s belief that clans which had remained neutral during the campaign so far were now ready to declare for the cause. Johnstone’s assessment was overly optimistic, but he was not the only Jacobite officer to report willingness among the command to rally and continue the campaign: Lord Elcho for one.
According to Johnstone, Saturday the 19th passed without any word from Prince Charles, during which the men remained ‘cheerful, and full of spirits’. But on the 20th, again according to Johnstone, MacLeod returned with the ‘laconic answer’ from their prince, ‘Let every man seek his safety in the best way he can.’ Captain Daniel supports, in part, Johnstone’s account, saying that ‘at first we had great hopes of rallying again; but they soon vanished, order coming for every one to make the best of his way he could’. William Home had reluctantly left Lord Balmerino, after his lordship had bid him ‘an eternal adieu’, and made his way to Ruthven. He recollects, albeit several decades later, that Lord George arrived at Ruthven on the Saturday, and ‘drew us all out, made a short speech, which he concluded by telling us to shift for ourselves as there was no more occasion for our services’. James Gib arrived at Ruthven the day after the battle, and was persuaded to remain there until Saturday the 19th by Colonel John Roy Stuart, who assured him ‘that against next morning they would certainly receive some account from or about the Prince’. However, ‘they received no accounts whatsomever about the Prince, and then Colonel Roy Stewart said it was high time for every one of them to do the best he could for himself’.
Captain Johnstone recalls, ‘Our separation at Ruthven was truly affecting. We bade one another an eternal adieu. No one could tell whether the scaffold would not be his fate. The Highlanders gave vent to their grief in wild howlings and lamentations.’ Johnstone decided to risk making his way to Edinburgh, rather than head further into the Highlands. John Daniel records that ‘some went one way, some another: those who had French Commissions surrendered; and their example was followed by my Colonel, Lord Balmerino, tho’ he had none. Many went for the mountains, all being uncertain what to do or whither to go.’
Apparently still unaware of what exactly was happening to the east (although by now he may have read Lord George’s letter), Charles wrote a formal farewell to the clan chiefs from Borrodale, in which he sets out what they should do for now and what his own plans were. It was left with John Hay, who was to take it to Sir Thomas Sheridan (with whom the prince had been in recent correspondence) for delivery to the chiefs. The covering letter addressed to Sheridan and dated 23 April (a full week after the battle) states that the prince is ‘still of the same opinion that we have traitors among us’ and that as a result, he has taken himself off ‘for the good of the cause altho [risking?] in itself’. Charles advises Sheridan to delay announcing his departure for as long as possible, and signs off ‘Follow me as soon as you think it convenient – Adieu Charles P.R.’ Here is the prince’s letter to the chiefs in its entirety:
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 allways do as long as life is in me, But alas! I see with grief I can at present do little for you on this side [of] the water, for the only thing that can now be done, is to defend your selves, ’till the French assist you. If not, to be able to make better terms;- To effectuate this, the only way is to assemble in a body as soon as possible, and then take measures for the best, which you that know the Country are only judges of: This makes me be of little use here, whereas by my going into France instantly, however dangerous it be, I will certainly engage the French Court either to assist us effectually and powerfully, or at least to procure you such terms as you would not obtain otherways :- My presence there, I flatter my self, will have more effect to bring this sooner to a determination than any body else, For several reasons, one of which I will mention here, vizt., It is thought to be a Politick, ’tho a false one, of the French Court, not to restore our Master, but to keep a continual civil war in this Country, which renders the English government less powerful and, of consequence, themselves more; This is absolutely destroyed by my leaving this Country, which nothing else but this will persuade them, that this Play cannot last, and, if not remedied, the Elector will soon be as despotick as the French King, which I should think will oblige them to strike the great stroke, which is always in their power, how ever averse they may have been to it for the time past. Before leaving off, I must recommend to you, That all things should be decided, by a Councill of all you Chiefs, or, in any of your absence, the next Commander of your several corps, with the assistance of the Duke of Perth and Lord George Murray, who, I am persuaded, will stick by you to the very last. My departure should be kept as long private and concealed as possible, on one pretext or other, which you will fall upon. May the Almighty bless and direct you.
This letter confirms that Charles did not consider that he was abandoning the clans and, by extension, his army or his supporters. Rather, he wished them to maintain themselves as best they could, while he travelled to France to get the money and troops he needed to resurrect the campaign. He also acknowledges the true, self-serving motivation behind French support so far and, while seeking more from Louis, believes that his swift removal from Britain now, with the immediate effect of terminating the current ‘civil war’, will convince France that they can no longer use Jacobitism to make the British state (to reprise the marquis d’Argenson’s phrase) ‘a little tottering’: they must resolve for nothing short of a Stuart restoration.
Lord George, meanwhile, in the prince’s absence, could have attempted (despite resigning his commission) to keep the army massing at Ruthven together for days, or even weeks. In that time, as Johnstone argues, it might even have expanded, making it a more formidable force than that which had gathered, exhausted and hungry, on Drummossie Muir. But this reinvigorated army would still need to be fed, and no supplies had been dispersed from Inverness in the event of such a scenario. This army would also have needed Charles at its head sooner not later and, in the meantime, Lord George evidently did not have the energy, or the will, to fill the void.