Whispers in the Mist: Otherworldly Tales from Culloden Moor

The Battle of Culloden was the final battle of the Scottish Jacobite rising of 1745, more often called the Forty Five Rebellion. In the Highlands, it was also known as the Bliadhna Theàrlaich, which in Gaelic stands for ‘The Year of Charles’, named after the Bonnie Prince Charlie; Charles Edward Stuart – the ‘Young Pretender’, who served as the leader of the Jacobites. Behind all these names, as complicated as they may sound, lies a profoundly poignant story of bravery and sacrifice, interwoven with political intrigues and agendas that resulted in a battlefield so steeped in woe that it is haunted to this day.

The Battle and its Echoes – Historical Facts

The Battle of Culloden took place on the 16th of April 1746 on Drumossie Moor, overlooking the city of Inverness, a large settlement on Scotland’s northeast coast that to this day holds much of the nation’s cultural history. It is here that a twenty-six years old Bonnie Prince Charlie and 6000 of his men would meet the well-supplied government army of the Duke of Northumberland, son to the King of Britain at the time, George II. What followed was a quick and bloody clash of these forces that earned the British crown a decisive victory and ended the Jacobite rebellion.

For the duration of the hour that the Battle lasted, almost 1500 Jacobites were slain, while the British government officially lost only 50 men. Though 200-400 of the British were wounded and some more likely than not succumbed to their injuries in the following days, the rebels were still the ones left mercilessly defeated. This, in all probability, is the cause behind the intense energy and curious occurrences that now reign over the cold, desolate moor.

In the Words of Those That Were There – Historical Accounts

To bring you, dear reader, if only for a moment, out of whatever place you currently find yourself reading this article, and onto the green plains of Drummossie ‘Culloden’ Moor, scourged by a chilling wind, I would like to introduce you to Donald Mackay of Ackmonie, Glen Urquhart. Or rather his spirit, I should say, which has carried on in the words that he wrote.

’’Friends, I am now an old man and it is a long, long time since the year of Charles. But if you want a
story, I shall tell you about the battle of Culloden.’’

With those words begins the account of what had happened at the Battle that fateful, spring day. As Mr. Mackay says in his account, he was a young and strong man then, and had not yet left home, instead working the croft with his elder brother and father. When the family got word of the redcoats (the British) approaching Inverness, and Bonnie Prince Charles with the Highlanders preparing to take a stand and fight against them, they departed from their home to join the fight with little certainty of its outcome. The following are just a few fragments of Mr. Mackay’s chronicle:

“The morning was cold and stormy as we stood on the battlefield – snow and rain blowing against
us…The battle began and the pellets came at us like hail-stones. The big guns were thundering and
causing frightful break up among us, but we ran forward and – oh dear!, oh dear! – what cutting and
slicing there was and many the brave deeds performed by the Gaels…But the English were numerous and
we were few and a large number of our friends fell. The dead lay on all sides and the cries of pain of the
wounded rang in our ears. You could see a riderless horse running and jumping as if mad.’’
(Donald Mackay of Acmonie, Glen Urquhart – Jacobite volunteer soldier, latter half of the 18th century)

Hearing those words, it is of little wonder why the fields of Culloden are as fabled as they are. Besides the pain and fright of the Battle itself, therewas also a great deal of grief permeating the following days, as the Duke of Northumberland gave orders that nowounded man on the battlefield be shown any mercy. Searching the moor, the redcoats killed any survivors they came across, even arresting many of the bystanders who had come from Inverness to watch the battle unfold. The Duke’s brutality was so great that it earned him the nickname ‘Butcher of Northumberland’.

Wandering Spirits and Ghosts of the Past

In present time, the Battle of Culloden is often given the title of the last battle fought on British soil. There are however folk who would tell you that that is not quite the case. That even now, as we speak, the fighting upon the moor continues.

Every year on April 16th – the anniversary of the Battle, it is said that one can hear the clashing of weapons, steel ringing against steel, and the cries that follow. The fallen soldiers rise from the ground upon which they laid down their lives. Time and time again, a strained, tall man dressed in Highlander garments is reported in the area, wandering the moor and muttering the word’’defeated.’’ Not unlike this occurrence, around the year 1936 a woman visiting the area is said to have lifted a plaid, tartan cloth off of one of the burial mounds, and met eyes with the apparition of a badly wounded Highlander leaning against it. Another sight which is also said to carry the spirits of passed Highlanders is the Well of the Dead, St. Mary’s Well. It is a memory and honour given to Alexander MacGillivray of Dunmaglass, the leader of Clan Chattan, and his men, who fought so fiercely that they broke through the redcoat lines. They were among the very few to achieve this during the Battle. Despite suffering severe injuries in the attack, MacGillivray himself was able to retreat a short distance from the battlefield. A local tale describes MacGillivray in his last moments as he lies dying, when out of the fields a small drummer child appears, wailing for water, and MacGillivray leads him to a spring on the moor, before succumbing to his injuries. The water of this spring is said to possess magical properties till this day. Knowing what we now know followed the defeat of the Jacobites; a harsh retaliation enacted across the Highlands – innocents murdered, arrested, executed, stripped of property and banned from their traditional way of life, which would ultimately come to an end, one can understand why these spirits come back time and time again, unwilling to give up the fight.

Wandering spirits are however not the only paranormal aspect of Culloden’s story. A great deal of the metaphysical can be found when travelling back in time to before the Battle. Because even then, a promise of its infamy could be heard, if only one listened closely enough.

The Portents of Doom – Brahan Seer, Bean Nighe and the Skree of Culloden

Whether it be spoken about as the gift of foresight, or fortune-telling, or perhaps prophesying, most of us are not strangers to the notion of predicting the future. It has been in the collective field of knowing, as it were, as far back as one looks for it. Ancient times, medieval, modern, all over the world, and Scotland is no exception. Hence, you may not be surprised to hear that there were those who foresaw the Battle of Culloden, and among them, as possibly the most notable example, the Brahan Seer.

A very mysterious and elusive character, the Brahan Seer went by many names. To some, he was the Brahan Seer, in his native Scottish Gaelic Coinneach Odhar, to others Sallow Kenneth – ’’the one who knows’’, and then there were those who simply knew him as Kenneth MacKenzie, a man blessed, or cursed, with the second sight. In Scotland, the second sight is the folklore word encompassing prophetic visions, as well as in some cases the ability to see spirits and access hidden knowledge. In this case, it was knowledge of a Battle that would decide the fate of Scotland and her people for centuries to come.

Most of what we know of Kenneth MacKenzie comes from the writings of Alexander MacKenzie, a historian born in 1838, two-hundred years after Sallow Kenneth wandered the Scottish Highlands. Much of this is fortunately supported by word of mouth folklore – something that Scotland is extraordinarily abundant in. According to said sources, the Brahan Seer was born sometime at the beginning of the 17th century in the Outer Hebrides, at a civil parish community in the Western region of the Isle of Lewis known as Uig, or Sgír Úig. The lands he was born to were owned by the Seaforths, or bearers of the title Earl of Seaforth, at the time this was the family clan MacKenzie. Sallow Kenneth was eventually invited to Brahan Castle, where the Earl resided, to serve as diviner. This position would end up costing him his life, and in a particularly awful manner no less. After he ‘saw’ that the then-absent Earl was having an affair in Paris, Lady Seaforth did not take well to the accusation, as plausible as it may have been, and ordered him to be burned in a spiked tar barrel.

Throughout his life, before it’s unfortunate end, the Seer seems to have received various visions about quite a few of Scotland’s crucial historical events that would take place in the following centuries, and among them, the Battle of Culloden.

As inscribed in ’’The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer (Coinneach Odhar Fiosaiche)’’ by Alexander MacKenzie:

“The Seer was at one time in the Culloden district on some important business. While passing over what
is now well known as the Battlefield of Culloden, he exclaimed, ‘Oh! Drummossie, thy bleak moor shall,
ere many generations have passed away, be stained with the best blood of the Highlands. Glad am I that I
will not see that day, for it will be a fearful period, heads will be lopped of by the score, and no mercy
will be shown or quarter given on either side.’“
(MacKenzie, Alexander, The Aberdeen University Press, 1888)

Interestingly enough, this was not the first fragment of the future the Seer glimpsed about Culloden. In the time prior, he had prophesied a solemn shadow looming over Culloden Moor, and at yet another instance, he spoke that: ’

’’the day will come when the wheel at Millburn will be turned for three successive days with water red
with human blood, for on the lade’s bank a fierce battle shall be fought in which much blood will be spilled’’

Now, believe it or not, Sallow Kenneth was not the only supernatural harbinger of Culloden. Shortly before the dawn of the Battle, another entity of Scottish folklore made itself known.

On his way to the Moor, Donald Cameron of Lochiel – head of Clan Cameron, saw a washwoman scrubbing blood-stained white cloth in a stream. In the Highlands, this washerwoman is known as the Bean Nighe. Not entirely unlike the Banshee – Bean Sídhe, who would wail when death was around the corner, the Bean Nighe appears by water, washing blood from the garments of those who are about to die. She is presumably not a pleasant sight either, small and hunched over, with a hooked nose and webbed teeth. At Culloden, Clan Cameron suffered heavy losses, and Donald Cameron of Lochiel himself was badly wounded, just as the sight of the Bean Nighe foretold.

As peculiar and unsettling as these instances of the mystical manifesting itself are, I have yet to tell you
off perhaps the most spine-chilling one; The Skree of Culloden.

The Skree is described as a creature resembling a harpy, with harsh, towering wings, claws sharp as daggers and a human head, adorned by two glowing, red eyes. Such a creature is said to have been seen drifting over the Jacobites on the eve of the Battle of Culloden, even by some of the more pragmatic, senior soldiers, and it would not make an appearance again, at least not on record, until the 1990s, when it supposedly showed itself to a group of visitors on an evening tour. Though not much is known of the Skree by virtue of its scarce emergence, it does seem to be followed by a grim and foreboding aura, one that only added to the series of ominous portents which preceded the Battle of Culloden.

Suffice to say, dear reader, if you ever found yourself in the Scottish Highlands, and in the business of searching out a wee ghostly adventure, Drumossie Moor certainly ought to peak your interest. You would be hard-pressed to find a place with a more potent presence of the sorrowful echoes of our past.