I recently did the 14km Culloden Battlefield’s Circuit which included the Culloden Moors, the Culloden Visitors’ Centre, and the Clava Cairns. It’s an easy walk, physically. Flat (for the most part) with made paths that are either gravel, forestry trails or footpaths next to the road. In that respect, it’s easy. No physical challenge. There is, however, some emotional challenge.
Like most of the world, I knew nothing about Culloden or the history of the Scottish people until I watched the first series of Outlander. While it may not be an accurate historical representation, it has certainly piqued the interest of millions, including myself.
On top of that, both sides of my family hale from Scotland. Some of my blood started here. I was drawn to Scotland, by my own history and partly by Outlander. (And to be honest, partly by Neil Oliver, the simmering historian!)
On the 16th of April 1746, the Battle of Culloden happened in this place. Lasting less than an hour, it led to the deaths of 1500 Jacobite men and 50 Red Coats. It was not a battle of Scottish against English. It was not a battle of Protestants against Catholics. It was a battle for Scottish independence and for the personal vanity of a would-be King.
For me, the emotional challenge started at St Mary’s Well, where the Jacobite Troops got their water and where they retreated to after the short-lived battle. The trees around the enclosed well are covered in bits of material. These strips are “wish rags”.
Rags tied with a prayer for healing and good luck.
There are ghosts here. You can feel them. I cursed my crunching boots and squeaking backpack buckles, I needed to be quieter.
“I am sorry,” I thought “Sorry to disturb your rest.”
I don’t know who I was speaking to, but I felt it. Like you sometimes feel the change in air pressure before a storm.
You feel it when you stop to listen. You feel it when you stop to take notice.
People had died here. Badly.
A few kilometres on, I passed onto the “official” battlefield. I expected more ghosts, but none appeared to me. There were too many living people here. The air was disturbed with the conversations of the now. It was too noisy. The ghosts were hiding, looking for peace. Perhaps if you came back at night, they would be here. If you came back after the buses had gone, after the Visitors’ Centre had closed, perhaps they would be here then.
Even so, without the ghosts, it was a sad, bleak and windy place. No trees, just low shrubs. The wildflowers should have packed up and gone home because even their bright colours failed to cheer things up.
There may be no ghosts, but my rational self imagined what it must have been like. I thought “Are there bones under my feet? Am I stepping on someone’s corpse?”
The ground would have been covered in bodies, blood and flies. By the 19th of April, it would have been a stinking quagmire of gore, with human scavengers picking the pockets of the fallen.
The loud laughter of a group of women on a private Outlander tour disturb my imaginings.
Go slowly. People died here.
The Visitors’ Centre was excellent, a very good balance between entertainment and sorrow. The walk continued for another 8 kilometres, or so after the battlefields, well signposted and level, it remained an easy walk. Along the way, the Clava Cairns take us back to an even more ancient past. Perhaps 4000 years old, these rocks, arranged in slotted rings, take us back much, much further than the battlefields.
There are no ghosts here. The ancients made sure their dead were at rest, unlike those who died on Culloden Moor.
The Cairns are peaceful.
They are just another brown signposted ‘place of interest’ on the road.
This video shows what you can expect from the circuit trail.
This walk is well worth the time. It took me around 5 hours, but that included a good stop at the Visitors’ Centre. I used a map from Viewranger which you can access from the Walking Highlands website (https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/lochness/culloden-clava.shtml), but it was very well sign-posted, and it would have been possible to do it without the map. I would recommend the Culloden Visitor Centre, although you can walk right on by it if you chose to.
Walk quietly, listen for the ghosts.