Heritage case studies: Scotland
Heritage case studies: Scotland

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2.6 Culloden visitor survey

In the light of recent reinterpretation of the site, which includes more and different voices to the portrayal of the battlefield, Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) undertook a preliminary visitor survey in April 2006 in order to begin to understand how the site figured in the construction of identity for Scots and other visitors (McLean et al., 2007).

When questioned about their motives for visiting the site, many cited educational reasons; however, a large number also came as part of a ‘pilgrimage’. Interestingly, this response came, almost without exception, from international visitors.

Well it was this good reputation about its great history, about the Highlands. We … wanted to see the battle, the battlefield. We've been told it's a very important place for the Scottish people.

(Greek male, 30)

We have decided we have read very much about this battle and so we said, ok, if we visit Scotland and we don't visit Culloden it won't go together.

(German female, 35–59)

For Scots, the site held a different role. Respondents to the GCU survey did not seem to be using the site to ‘experience a deep sense of nationhood and experience an increased level of patriotism’ (Timothy, 1997, cited in McLean et al., 2007, p. 229). Instead, it appeared that home visitors were coming for personal or family reasons: one couple even transferring traits seen in a current generation to their ancestors.

A: It was good, interesting weren't it? Cause it told about your mother's clan didn't it … [we] learnt a bit about the battle that you were late.

B: It's a family trait … I wanted to know if the McPherson clan was involved in it but they weren't, they were a day late. That's my mother's name, McPherson.

(English couple, 35–59)

There is also a very strong sense of place at Culloden. Although this is not unique to Culloden, we see that the NTS recognises this as a distinguishing feature. The description found on the Culloden pages of the NTS ‘Places to Visit’ website urges visitors to ‘walk the battlefield’ and to move among the cairns and graves; with an implied emphasis on the experiential quality of the place. This is not found in the description of Bannockburn, since the site is more difficult to see, being partially covered by modern houses. Culloden is widely perceived, at least by its visitors, to be an ‘authentic’ site, largely unchanged since 1746, and its ‘haunting’ and ‘poignant’ qualities have long been acknowledged.

Cairn, Culloden battlefield
(Photo: © Mary-Catherine Garden) ©
Photo: © Mary-Catherine Garden
Figure 3: Cairn, Culloden battlefield, 2005

Although the moorland landscape is reminiscent of that existing at the time of the battle, the site has been considerably altered by the managed plantings of the Forestry Commission. The National Trust for Scotland embarked on a process of restoring the battlefield to its eighteenth-century appearance. This involves removing many of the trees (including those that surround the cairn). John and Margaret Gold (2003), who for a long time have chronicled the site in its progression from battle site to war graves to place of pilgrimage to heritage site, have noted this trend. Again, the GCU survey identified visitors, both foreign and domestic, noting an ‘eeriness’ or a ‘sadness’.

There was an atmosphere like you feel as though you are actually there … Yes, I feel sadness really. You asked us, had we Scottish relatives, I wished I had, 'cos I would have fought for the Jacobites.

(English couple, 45)

It just gave you goosebumps.

(Scottish female, 18–34)

I'll tell you, it's very eerie, you can just about visualise what it must have been like when it happened … you do get a sense of realism … there's a sadness about it, you know.

(British male, 35–59)

Indeed, in one of the many appearances of Culloden in popular fiction, Swedish author Henning Mankell locates the denouement of one of his detective novels at Culloden.

My Mother's not at home … She's at Culloden today … [she] likes to wander around the battlefield. She goes there three or four times a year. She goes to the museum first, they sometimes show films. She says she likes to listen to the voices of the dead coming from under the ground. She says it prepares her for her own death.

(Mankell, 2004, p. 509)

However, this phenomenon – a strong sense of place and mood – has also been noted at other iconic battlefields. For example, the site of Gettysburg has been accorded sacred qualities. Is there anything at Culloden that distinguishes it from other battlefields?

Although Culloden is largely empty space, the physical landscape is a key agent in creating a sense of place and a sense of the past. Culloden exists today as a visitor centre (with interpretative area), a reconstructed cottage and a substantial part of the main battlefield. The battlefield itself consists of moorland through which gravel paths wind, guiding visitors. Along the way, wooden signs mark the positions of the clans, regiments and munitions on the field. More obviously red and yellow flags denote the locations of the battle lines. Also prominent on the landscape is the memorial cairn erected in 1881, at a time when both the Scottish Romantic movement and memorialisation of Culloden were at their height.

Mixed clans gravestone, Culloden battlefield
(Photo: © Mary-Catherine Garden) ©
Photo: © Mary-Catherine Garden
Figure 4 Mixed clans gravestone, Culloden battlefield, 2005

A series of large rounded boulders, the first of which were erected in the 1850s, are clan gravestones, marking the places where members of the various clans are said to have fallen during the battle. While most denote specific clans (e.g. McLean or McPherson), some simply read ‘mixed clans’; these were erected when the identities of the dead were very uncertain. A very few, such as the memorial to Alexander McGillivray at the ‘Well of the Dead’, remember an individual. Unlike Gettysburg, where the markers link the dead to their home state, Culloden markers link to family and to a name. This is a highly personalised encounter with the past. Even if a descendant can't find their ancestor on one of the memorial stones, they can look to a more recent set of signs that mark the battle positions of the clans and the government forces. That all of these markers and stones continue to hold meaning for individuals may be seen in the comments offered by visitors, who often tied them to their own heritage – some even seeing Culloden as a kind of family history.

When you're going through the site, people are being very respectful of that it's a graveyard, so there's been that feel about it, and the Clan McPherson and the Clan McDonald you sort of orientate towards there because they've got that bit more significance because of my clan background.

(Scottish couple)

It is not just the named memorial markers that figure in identity construction; the mixed clans also are remembered with flowers, wreaths or other small items – they too capture the imagination of the visitors.

It's interesting for fans who leave wreaths and flowers because they're all so involved with it and I was just thinking back, ooh, if my Granddad was here, which one would it have been, em, my great-great-great-great Granddad.

(English couple, 45)

This power of the markers also extends outside Scotland. Each year a large number of letters arrive at Culloden petitioning the NTS for a tangible representation of their clan, suggesting that, for many individuals in Scotland and around the world, Culloden still has an active role in their individual past. A recent fundraising campaign capitalises on this phenomenon, offering for sale personalised ‘memorial stones which will form a walkway – an important feature of the new visitor centre’, thus offering people who feel a personal connection with the site the chance to locate themselves tangibly within the ongoing heritage of Culloden Battlefield.

So, the meanings generated at Culloden are tied to the very ground itself; and yet, at the same time, they reach out beyond the physical confines of the site to the rest of the Highlands, the rest of Scotland and around the world. There is an intensity and immediacy of the experience of this site as a place, and the landscape and the stones are key agents in the creation of memory, identity and myth. Within the ‘empty’ space of Culloden Battlefield there is a perceived authenticity that stands in high contrast to the landscape of the equally iconic Bannockburn. As such, Culloden has a quality of naturalness. It is a space in which meanings are constantly evolving and are continually being negotiated, giving a sense of the space as a ‘real place’ that changes and evolves rather than being a static isolated site.

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