Culloden Pipers Tales 


I have come across a fascinating description of Culloden as it appeared to a traveller ninety years after the battle. It is in William Howitt's Visit to Remarkable Places. Howitt walked the moor from Inverness asking the way, but could find no one who could speak English! This was in 1836. He found the remains of the hut which belonged to the smith who, legend says, performed such valours at Culloden armed with the shaft of a cart. Howitt tells us that:

The country people yet tell the spot where the sturdy blacksmith dropped. His smithy stood from year to year on the fatal field, deserted and gradually falling into decay. It remained a heap of mouldering ruin till within these few years, when several fresh huts springing up on the Moor not far off, the people gradually conveyed away the stones of the walls to construct their own habitations.

It is said that the forge, the tools, and heaps of rusty iron, were found beneath the ruins of the roof, which had fallen in. Such had been the horror connected with the fatal field, that none had cared to carry them away. When we saw the place every stone was grubbed up to the bottom of the foundations, and a pool of water nearly filled the hollow; but you had only to turn up any part of the floor which was bare, and you found it to consist of the cinders and smithy-slack of the brave old blacksmith's forge."

Near this ruin was a hut occupied, much to Howitt's delight, by an English speaking family. The son, Willie Mackenzie, gladly took Howitt over the battle-field and explained the Clan graves.

"As we sat on the greeensward of one of these battle graves, we observed that in many places the turf had been broken up by digging; and our young guide told us that scarcely a party came there but was desirous of carrying away the fragment of a bone as a relic.

"What ,said we," are the bones so soon come at?"

"Yes," he replied,"in some places they lie within a foot of the surface."

These graves have been dug into in hundreds of places, yet you can scarcely turn a turf but you come upon them. He dug out a sod with his knife, and throwing out a little earth , presently came to fragments of the crumbling bones of 1746. He told us that in one instance, a quantity of bones that had been carried off by a traveller, had been sent back at great expense, and buried again; the person who conveyed them away being continually tormented by his conscience, and his dreams, till that was done; "and the next visitor", added Willy Mackenzie, "would most probably carry them off once more."

Balls and portions of military accoutrements are still not unfrequently found about the heath. We picked up, as we walked across it, a leaden bullet, flattened by having struck against some hard body, and rendered quite white with age."

After rambling about the field the lad Mackenzie invited the strangers into the hut and offered to play a tune on the pipes for them. Howitt then describes the scene with that curious air of describing a foreign country common to all writers on the Highlands less than a century ago.

"There is something very delightful", he writes,"to sit in the simple cabin of these mountaineers, and see them converse with an easy and unembarrassed air, and with a mixture of intelligence and local superstition nowhere else to be found. We observed that the beds, and various parts of the roof, were canopied with birch boughs, which had dried with all their leaves on. These, they assured us, were a certain protection from the plague of flies, for not a fly would go near the birch. This we suppose, is a fact which long experience has taught them, and if so, is a valuable one.

We had a long talk with these good people about the battle field and its traditions. They told us that the name Drumossie was not now used for that moor - Culloden had superseded it; but was retained for a wild track at its extremity in the direction of Badenoch. They assured us with the utmost gravity that a battle would some day be fought there. We inquired how they knew that. They replied, because it had been repeatedly seen. On a summers evening, people going across that moor had suddenly on various occasions found themselves in the midst of the smoke and noise of battle. They could see the various clans engaged, and clearly recognise their proper tartans; and on all these occasions the laird of Culduthel, a neighbouring gentleman, was conspicuous on his white horse. One woman was so frightened and bewildered by this strange spectacle that she fainted away and on coming to herself, found all trace of the battle gone, and made the best of her way home again without proceeding on her original object.

We told them that these must be strong impressions made on the imaginations of the people by the memory of the old battle, but they only shook their heads. they were perfectly satisfied that a battle was to be fought on Drumossie, and the Laird of Culduthel would be in it - though with whom the clans would fight, and for what, they could not pretend to tell."

Willie Mackenzie, having tuned his pipes, played to them. "Our gallant piper," says Howitt, "never seemed weary of playing; and as it was a treat to sit in a Highland hut, and hear such a musician, we got him to play all the interesting airs we could recollect. There scarcely was one that he was not master of; and on no occasion did we ever listen to music that so powerfully and variously affected us. He played pibrochs and marches, and spite of our better judgements; we could not help kindling into the admiration of clan warfare; but the celebrated dirge, of which he related the origin, with which Highlanders march to the shore when they are about to embark as emigrants to some distant clime.

"Cha till, cha till, cha till, mi tuille - We return, we return, we return no more"

β€œIt was impossible to listen to it without tears!” said Howitt, "Let no-one despise the droning of the bagpipe that has not heard it as we heard it that day."